McFerron’s Authors of Revolution: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky is widely regarded as one of the best novelists to ever write, and the best Russian novelist of all time. All in all, Dostoevsky wrote 15 novels before his death in 1881. His first novel: Poor Folk immediately found critical acclaim in Russia and was deemed Russia’s first “social” novel as well as a major socialist work. Poor Folk was written in an entirely epistolary form, told through the letters of an impoverished clerk who wrote to a woman he was wildly in love with, but knew he could never be with. The story attacked classist systems in Russia and the rest of the world and urgently spurred Russia’s socialist movements which at the time sought the eradication of the feudal system. Unfortunately, Dostoevsky’s later works wouldn’t find critical acclaim for nearly 15 years after the release of his first novel. Finding such striking success pretty much right off the bat and immediately returning to obscurity surely tormented Dostoevsky, but this is only one instance of suffering that made him one of the greatest psychological and philosophical novelists of all time.

Dostoevsky came from a wealthy and religious household. He was homeschooled until the age of thirteen and was eventually sent to private school. When he was 15 years old, his mother died of tuberculosis, which led his father into a life of rage and debauchery. It’s said that his rage was often directed toward his serfs. His father was murdered while Dostoevsky was in school, and it’s often thought that his serfs had murdered him in an act of revenge, but with no evidence, Dostoevsky was left orphaned by peculiarly sinister circumstances. It is said that upon hearing of his father’s death, Dostoevsky had his first seizure in what would be a lifelong battle with epilepsy. After these events, he delved into his love for literature and began writing, this brings us to his first novel Poor Folk, no doubt inspired by the revolt that very likely ended in his father’s death. After the initial success of this novel, Dostoevsky started to live a life of gambling and glamor, but was eventually destitute, finding no other success in writing.

He eventually joined a literary group of revolutionaries in Russia called the Petrashevsky Circle, organized by Mikhail Petrashevsky, another revolutionary and utopian theorist. The group worked to oppose the feudal system in Russia and hoped to overthrow it through the organization of the servant classes. Eventually, the group was infiltrated by the secret police, and every member, including Dostoevsky, was arrested and sentenced to death. He was thrown into solitary confinement for eight months, a period of time that no doubt sparked his inner life and a fascination with crime, punishment, and the psychological makeup of the two. After being tied to a post along with other members of the Petrashevsky Circle, after the rifleman had taken aim and just before they pulled the trigger, a messenger appeared and told the men to hold their fire. You can’t make this up. Everything since their arrest had been meticulously orchestrated by the Russian government to be the single worst case of psychological torment to befall a criminal, many argue the true intent of this was to damage the writers mentally to a point where they wouldn’t have room for original thought, much less be able to profess it. Well if you know Dostoevsky’s name, you know that this had the exact opposite effect on him, one could even argue that if there is a silver lining to Dostoevsky’s torture, it’s the novels that came from it.

After the fake execution, he was sent to a Siberian labor camp for four years and sentenced to serve in the military for another six. All in all, he spent nearly 11 years in torment for having revolutionary thoughts. While serving in the military, Dostoevsky’s hopes had come to fruition with the end of Russian serfdom. The feudal system seemed no more, and he was allowed to return home to St. Petersburg. Seemingly as soon as he touched the ground, he published his memoir Notes from the House of the Dead, in which he relayed his own experiences as well as other prisoners he’d met in Siberia. A few years later in 1864, he wrote what is considered the first work of existentialist literature; Notes from Underground, in which he explored the freedom of individuals, and how freedom comes with the human conditions of pain, sacrifice, and for lack of a better word, jealousy. This work pointed to the idea that mankind’s greatest achievement is misery, and how each and every person has a talent for inflicting this upon themselves and others. The success he found with these two books opened his name to a more public domain and he only found more praise with the release of Crime and Punishment in 1866. This book is a murder mystery in which you know the murderer from the very beginning. In the interest of spoilers, I don’t want to go into this work beyond this setup, but know that it deals with heavy existential, psychological, political, and social issues. This novel remains as the single most popular Russian novel to ever exist and is certainly his most well-read work abroad.

Following Crime and Punishment were The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. All of these are incredible reads that I cannot recommend enough. Though his life consisted of torture and torment, Dostoevsky sparked social progress and ultimately the freedom of those living in serfdom in Russia. His works threw out everything the world knew about social change and “progressive” ideologies, and he helped completely redefine what we consider the human condition. A few arguments I see often in regards to Dostoevsky is that people won’t read him simply because they don’t agree with him. I would detest this, I don’t think he would particularly care if you agreed with him or even liked his novels, the fact remains that they continue to shape our world in standing the test of time. There are few more important people to read if you have any interest at all in literature, philosophy, or psychology. Few people can claim to have changed the world or to have left it in a better state than they found it. Dostoevsky, I would say, is one of these people.

-Samuel McFerron, Blog Editor.

Sam McFerron – Blog Editor, Asst. Prose & Asst. Poetry Editor: ​Sam is a Sophomore at Lewis University. They are an English Major with a concentration in literature and hopes to procure a minor in Philosophy. They aspire to become a professor of literature and spend most of their free time reading and writing music. They hope to improve upon their writing skills as well as their literary analysis skills during their time here at Lewis and are seeking publication within this time frame. Some authors they recommend are David Foster Wallace, MIlan Kundera, William S. Burroughs, and Kate Chopin.

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