Fyodor M. Dostoevsky

Fyodor M. Dostoevsky

Fyodor M. Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was a Russian novelist and short story author whose writings often focus on the psychological aspects of deep human emo­tion and suffering. His work is widely regarded as highly original and profound and has earned him a worldwide reputation as a literary artist. Dostoevsky’s works profess extreme philosophi­cal and psychological insights, including theories and practices in psychoanalysis. His writings are often categorized as existentialist. His characters face moral dilemmas and endure challenges as if their moral actions have no significance in terms of an afterlife. In the nihilist tradition, Dostoevsky’s characters also struggle against all forms of tyr­anny and hypocrisy, negate all moral principle, and struggle to support personal and individual freedom. In this existential and nihilistic genre, the characters feel the only time they have is the time in which they are alive on Earth.

Dostoevsky was born to a middle-class family. His mother died before he was 16, and, allegedly, the household servants murdered his father while Dostoevsky was away at school. As a young man, Dostoevsky was arrested and convicted of political subversion because of his involvement with a politi­cal and intellectual discussion group. Although he was sentenced to death, his punishment was later commuted to 4 years hard labor and imprisonment in Siberia, followed by 4 years in military service. While imprisoned, Dostoevsky studied the New Testament, which led to his belief that redemption is achieved through extreme faith, suffering, and pain, a theme that occurs throughout his literary work.

His first major novel, Crime and Punishment, was published in 1866. This story is a psychologi­cal thriller in which its central character, Raskolnikov, a young, poor, and monomaniac student heinously murders an elderly pawnbroker and moneylender, whom he deeply despised as being a threat to the great moral and economic good.

The novel begins in medias res, 2 1/2 days before the murder, and it continues in time for approxi­mately 2 weeks after the event. The story is told through a juxtaposition of events that occur at dif­ferent times, thus creating connections between these events without intrusive explanations or detailed narrations. Time in the novel is felt through Raskolnikov’s consciousness; it is a flow of time that exists through his personal experience or per­ception of time, rather than time measured on a clock. This narrative technique became widespread later in the century, as a result of Dostoevsky’s influ­ence. His influence also extended to philosophy, as a precursor to Henri Bergson’s theory of the fluidity of time. He also profoundly affected philosopher­writers Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka.

Dostoevsky also uses an objective chronology of time, or fabula, a Russian formalist term used to describe time sequences as they are recreated for the novel. This motif helped compound and later illuminate or clarify Raskolnikov’s motive for murder. Using a double time, Dostoevsky allows the actions occurring in present time to clarify the events that happened at a time in the past. For instance, in examining the novel, during present time, we begin to see that Raskolnikov had radical notions on crime and accountability as much as 6 months prior to the novel’s beginning, when he wrote the significant article “On Crime.” In this article, he tells of the ordinary and extraordinary personalities who are capable of either accepting the established order or those capable of mass destruction in the name of creating something bet­ter. These great men, such as Napoleon and Muhammad, Raskolnikov writes, possess a capac­ity to do moral atrocities for the sake of duty. Another example of a time-lapse technique in the novel includes the 3-day time period in which Raskolnikov falls into a semiconscious and fever­ish delirium, awakening in terror to wonder if he may have given away clues to his murderous act while suffering from his illness.

Debra Lucas

See also Henri Bergson; Existentialism; James Joyce; Franz Kafka; Thomas Mann;  Friedrich Nietzsche; Time in Novels; Marcel Proust; Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy

Further Readings

Dostoevsky, F. (2004). Crime and punishment (R. Pevear & L. Volokhonsky, Trans.). London: Vintage. (Original work published 1866)

Frank, J. (1995). Dostoevsky. The miraculous years, 1856-1871. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Murav, H. (2001). Fyodor Dostoevsky. In J. A. Ogden & J. E. Kalb (Eds.), Dictionary of literary biography: Vol. 238. Russian novelists in the age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Detroit, MI: Gale Group.

Arthur Conan Doyle John Donne
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