Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Isabel Florence Hapgood (1850–1928)
IN certain respects Dostoyevsky is the most characteristically national of Russian writers. Precisely for that reason, his work does not appeal to so wide a circle outside of his own country as does the work of Turgenev and Count L. N. Tolstoy. This result flows not only from the natural bent of his mind and temperament, but also from the peculiar vicissitudes of his life as compared with the comparatively even tenor of their existence, and the circumstances of the time in which he lived. These circumstances, it is true, were felt by the writers mentioned; but practically they affected him far more deeply than they did the others, with their rather one-sided training; and his fellow-countrymen—especially the young of both sexes—were not slow to express their appreciation of the fact. His special domain was the one which Turgenev and Tolstoy did not understand, and have touched not at all, or only incidentally,—the great middle class of society, or what corresponds thereto in Russia.  1
  Through his father, Mikhail Andréevitch Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovitch belonged to the class of “nobles,”—that is to say, to the gentry; through his mother, to the respectable, well-to-do merchant class, which is still distinct from the other, and was even more so during the first half of the present century; and in personal appearance he was a typical member of the peasant class. The father was resident physician in the Marie Hospital for the Poor in Moscow, having entered the civil service at the end of the war of 1812, during which he had served as a physician in the army. In the very contracted apartment which he occupied in the hospital, Fyodor was born—one of a family of seven children, all of whom, with the exception of the eldest and the youngest, were born there—on October 30th (November 11th), 1821. The parents were very upright, well-educated, devoutly religious people; and as Fyodor expressed it many years later to his elder brother, after their father died, “Do you know, our parents were very superior people, and they would have been superior even in these days.” The children were brought up at home as long as possible, and received their instruction from tutors and their father. Even after the necessity of preparing the two elder boys for a government institution forced the parents to send them to a boarding-school during the week, they continued their strict supervision over their associates, discouraged nearly all friendships with their comrades, and never allowed them to go into the street unaccompanied, after the national custom in good families, even at the age of seventeen or more.  2
  Fyodor, according to the account of his brothers and relatives, was always a quiet, studious lad, and he with his elder brother Mikhail spent their weekly holidays chiefly in reading, Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper being among their favorite authors; though Russian writers, especially Pushkin, were not neglected. During many of these years the mother and children passed the summers on a little estate in the country which the father bought, and it was there that Fyodor Mikhailovitch first made acquaintance with the beauties of nature, to which he eloquently refers in after life, and especially with the peasants, their feelings and temper, which greatly helped him in his psychological studies and in his ability to endure certain trials which came upon him. There can be no doubt that his whole training contributed not only to the literary tastes which the famous author and his brother cherished throughout their lives, but to the formation of that friendship between them which was stronger than all others, and to the sincere belief in religion and the profound piety which permeated the spirit and the books of Fyodor Mikhailovitch.  3
  In 1837 the mother died, and the father took his two eldest sons to St. Petersburg to enter them in the government School of Engineers. But the healthy Mikhail was pronounced consumptive by the doctor, while the sickly Fyodor was given a certificate of perfect health. Consequently Mikhail was rejected, and went to the Engineers’ School in Revel, while Fyodor, always quiet and reserved, was left lonely in the St. Petersburg school. Here he remained for three years, studying well, but devoting a great deal of time to his passionately beloved literary subjects, and developing a precocious and penetrating critical judgment on such matters. It is even affirmed that he began or wrote the first draft of his famous book ‘Poor People,’ by night, during this period; though in another account he places its composition later. After graduating well as ensign in 1841, he studied for another year, and became an officer with the rank of sub-lieutenant, and entered on active service, attached to the draughting department of the Engineers’ School, in August 1843.  4
  A little more than a year later he resigned from the service, in order that he might devote himself wholly to literature. His father had died in the meantime, and had he possessed any practical talent he might have lived in comfort on the sums which his guardian sent him. But throughout his life people seemed to fleece him at will; he lost large sums at billiards with strangers, and otherwise; he was generous and careless; in short, he was to the end nearly always in debt, anxiety, and difficulties. Then came the first important crisis in his life. He wrote (or re-wrote) ‘Poor People’; and said of his state of mind, as he reckoned up the possible pecuniary results, that he could not sleep for nights together, and “If my undertaking does not succeed, perhaps I shall hang myself.” The history of that success is famous and stirring. His only acquaintance in literary circles was his old comrade D. V. Grigorovitch (also well known as a writer), and to him he committed the manuscript. His friend took it to the poet and editor Nekrásoff, in the hope that it might appear in the ‘Collection’ which the latter was intending to publish. Dostoyevsky was especially afraid of the noted critic Byelínsky’s judgment on it: “He will laugh at my ‘Poor People,’” said he; “but I wrote it with passion, almost with tears.”  5
  He spent the evening with a friend, reading with him, as was the fashion of the time, Gogol’s ‘Dead Souls,’ and returned home at four o’clock in the morning. It was one of the “white nights” of early summer, and he sat down by his window. Suddenly the door-bell rang, and in rushed Grigorovitch and Nekrásoff, who flung themselves upon his neck. They had begun to read his story in the evening, remarking that “ten pages would suffice to show its quality.” But they had gone on reading, relieving each other as their voices failed them with fatigue and emotion, until the whole was finished. At the point where Pokrovsky’s old father runs after his coffin, Nekrásoff pounded the table with the manuscript, deeply affected, and exclaimed, “Deuce take him!” Then they decide to hasten to Dostoyevsky: “No matter if he is asleep—we will wake him up. This is above sleep.”  6
  This sort of glory and success was exactly of that pure, unmixed sort which Dostoyevsky had longed for. When Nekrásoff went to Byelínsky with the manuscript of ‘Poor People,’ and announced, “A new Gogol has made his appearance!” the critic retorted with severity, “Gogols spring up like mushrooms among us.” But when he had read the story he said, “Bring him hither, bring him quickly;” and welcomed Dostoyevsky when he came, with extreme dignity and reserve, but exclaimed in a moment, “Do you understand yourself what sort of a thing this is that you have written?” From that moment the young author’s fame was assured, and he became known and popular even in advance of publication in a wide circle of literary and other people, as was the fashion of those days in Russia. When the story appeared, the public rapturously echoed the judgment of the critics.  7
  The close friendship which sprang up between Byelínsky and Dostoyevsky was destined, however, to exert an extraordinary influence upon Dostoyevsky’s career, quite apart from its critical aspect. Byelínsky was an atheist and a socialist, and Dostoyevsky was brought into relations with persons who shared those views, although he himself never wavered, apparently, in his religious faith, and was never in harmony with any other aspirations of his associates except that of freeing the serfs. Notwithstanding this, he became involved in the catastrophe which overtook many visitors, occasional or constant, of the “circles” at whose head stood Petrashevsky. The whole affair is known as the Conspiracy of Petrashevsky. During the ’40s the students at the St. Petersburg University formed small gatherings where sociological subjects were the objects of study, and read the works of Stein, Haxthausen, Louis Blanc, Fourier, Proudhon, and other similar writers. Gradually assemblies of this sort were formed outside of the University. Petrashevsky, an employee of the Department of Foreign Affairs, who had graduated from the Lyceum and the University, and who was ambitious of winning power and a reputation for eccentricity, learned of these little clubs and encouraged their growth. He did not however encourage their close association among themselves, but rather, entire dependence on himself, as the center of authority, the guide; and urged them to inaugurate a sort of propaganda. Dostoyevsky himself declared, about thirty years later, that “the socialists sprang from the followers of Petrashevsky; they sowed much seed.” He has dealt with them and their methods in his novel ‘Demons’; though perhaps not with exact accuracy. But they helped him to an elucidation of the contemporary situation, which Turgenev had treated in ‘Virgin Soil.’ The chief subject of their political discussions was the emancipation of the serfs, and many of Petrashevsky’s followers reckoned upon a rising of the serfs themselves, though it was proved that Dostoyevsky maintained the propriety and necessity of the reform proceeding from the government. This was no new topic; the Emperor Nicholas I. had already begun to plan the Emancipation, and it is probable that it would have taken place long before it did, had it not been for this very conspiracy. From the point of view of the government, the movement was naturally dangerous, especially in view of what was taking place in Europe at that epoch. Dostoyevsky bore himself critically toward the socialistic writings and doctrines, maintaining that in their own Russian system of workingmen’s guilds with reciprocal bonds there existed surer and more normal foundations than in all the dreams of Saint-Simon and all his school. He did not even visit very frequently the circle to which he particularly belonged, and was rarely at the house of Petrashevsky, whom many personally disliked.  8
  But on one occasion, as he was a good reader, he was asked to read aloud Byelínsky’s famous letter to Gogol, which was regarded as a victorious manifest of “Western” (i.e., of socialistic) views. This, technically, was propagating revolution, and was the chief charge against him when the catastrophe happened, and he, together with over thirty other “Petrashevtzi,” was arrested on April 23d (May 5th), 1849. In the Peter-Paul Fortress prison, where he was kept for eight months pending trial, Dostoyevsky wrote ‘The Little Hero,’ two or three unimportant works having appeared since ‘Poor People.’ At last he, with several others, was condemned to death and led out for execution. The history of that day, and the analysis of his sensations and emotions, are to be found in several of his books: ‘Crime and Punishment,’ ‘The Idiot,’ ‘The Karamazoff Brothers.’ At the last moment it was announced to them that the Emperor had commuted their sentence to exile in varying degrees, and they were taken to Siberia. Alexei Pleshtcheeff, then twenty-three years of age, the man who sent Byelínsky’s letter to Dostoyevsky, was banished for a short term of years to the disciplinary brigade in Orenburg; and when I saw him in St. Petersburg forty years later, I was able to form a faint idea of what Dostoyevsky’s popularity must have been, by the way in which he,—a man of much less talent, originality, and personal power,—was surrounded, even in church, by adoring throngs of young people. Dostoyevsky’s sentence was “four years at forced labor in prison; after that, to serve as a common soldier”; but he did not lose his nobility and his civil rights, being the first noble to retain them under such circumstances.  9
  The story of what he did and suffered during his imprisonment is to be found in his ‘Notes from the House of the Dead,’ where, under the disguise of a man sentenced to ten years’ labor for the murder of his wife, he gives us a startling, faithful, but in some respects a consoling picture of life in a Siberian prison. His own judgment as to his exile was, “The government only defended itself;” and when people said to him, “How unjust your exile was!” he replied, even with irritation, “No, it was just. The people themselves would have condemned us.” Moreover, he did not like to give benefit readings in later years from his ‘Notes from the House of the Dead,’ lest he might be thought to complain. Besides, this catastrophe was the making of him, by his own confession; he had become a confirmed hypochondriac, with a host of imaginary afflictions and ills, and had this affair not saved him from himself he said that he “should have gone mad.” It seems certain, from the testimony of his friend and physician, that he was already subject to the epileptic fits which he himself was wont to attribute to his imprisonment; and which certainly increased in severity as the years went on, until they occurred once a month or oftener, in consequence of overwork and excessive nervous strain. In his novel ‘The Idiot,’ whose hero is an epileptic, he has made a psychological study of his sensations before and after such fits, and elsewhere he makes allusions to them.  10
  After serving in the ranks and being promoted officer when he had finished his term of imprisonment, he returned to Russia in 1859, and lived first at Tver; afterward, when permitted, in St. Petersburg. The history of his first marriage—which took place in Siberia, to the widow of a friend—is told with tolerable accuracy in his ‘Humbled and Insulted,’ which also contains a description of his early struggles and the composition of ‘Poor People,’ the hero who narrates the tale of his love and sacrifice being himself. Like that hero, he tried to facilitate his future wife’s marriage to another man. He was married to his second wife, by whom he had four children, in 1867, and to her he owed much happiness and material comfort. It will be seen that much is to be learned concerning our author from his own novels, though it would hardly be safe to write a biography from them alone. Even in ‘Crime and Punishment,’ his greatest work in a general way, he reproduces events of his own life, meditations, wonderfully accurate descriptions of the third-rate quarter of the town in which he lived after his return from Siberia, while engaged on some of his numerous newspaper and magazine enterprises.  11
  This journalistic turn of mind, combined in nearly equal measures with the literary talent, produced several singular effects. It rendered his periodical ‘Diary of a Writer’ the most enormously popular publication of the day, and a success when previous ventures had failed, though it consisted entirely of his own views on current topics of interest, literary questions, and whatever came into his head. On his novels it had a rather disintegrating effect. Most of them are of great length, are full of digressions from the point, and there is often a lack of finish about them which extends not only to the minor characters but to the style in general. In fact, his style is neither jewel-like in its brilliancy, as is Turgenev’s, nor has it the elegance, broken by carelessness, of Tolstoy’s. But it was popular, remarkably well adapted to the class of society which it was his province to depict, and though diffuse, it is not possible to omit any of the long psychological analyses, or dreams, or series of ratiocinations, without injuring the web of the story and the moral, as chain armor is spoiled by the rupture of a link. This indeed is one of the great difficulties which the foreigner encounters in an attempt to study Dostoyevsky: the translators have been daunted by his prolixity, and have often cut his works down to a mere skeleton of the original. Moreover, he deals with a sort of Russian society which it is hard for non-Russians to grasp, and he has no skill whatever in presenting aristocratic people or society, to which foreigners have become accustomed in the works of his great contemporaries Turgenev and Tolstoy; while he never, despite all his genuine admiration for the peasants and keen sympathy with them, attempts any purely peasant tales like Turgenev’s ‘Notes of a Sportsman’ or Tolstoy’s ‘Tales for the People.’ Naturally, this is but one reason the more why he should be studied. His types of hero, and of feminine character, are peculiar to himself. Perhaps the best way to arrive at his ideal—and at his own character, plus a certain irritability and tendency to suspicion of which his friends speak—is to scrutinize the pictures of Prince Myshkin (‘The Idiot’), Ivan (‘Humbled and Insulted’), and Alyosha (‘The Karamazoff Brothers’). Pure, delicate both physically and morally, as Dostoyevsky himself is described by those who knew him best; devout, gentle, intensely sympathetic, strongly masculine yet with a large admixture of the feminine element—such are these three; such is also, in his way, Raskolnikoff (‘Crime and Punishment’). His feminine characters are the precise counterparts of these in many respects, but are often also quixotic even to boldness and wrong-headedness, like Aglaya (‘The Idiot’), or to shame, like Sonia (‘Crime and Punishment’), and the heroine of ‘Humbled and Insulted.’ But Dostoyevsky could not sympathize with and consequently could not draw an aristocrat; his frequently recurring type of the dissolute petty noble or rich merchant is frequently brutal; and his unclassed women, though possibly quite as true to life as these men, are painful in their callousness and recklessness. His earliest work, ‘Poor People,’ written in the form of letters, is worthy of all the praises which have been bestowed upon it, simple as is the story of the poverty-stricken clerk who is almost too humble to draw his breath, who pleads that one must wear a coat and boots which do not show the bare feet, during the severe Russian winter, merely because public opinion forces one thereto; and who shares his rare pence with a distant but equally needy relative who is in a difficult position. As a compact, subtle psychological study, his ‘Crime and Punishment’ cannot be overrated, repulsive as it is in parts. The poor student who kills the aged usurer with intent to rob, after prolonged argument with himself that great geniuses, like Napoleon I. and the like, are justified in committing any crime, and that he has a right to relieve his poverty; and who eventually surrenders himself to the authorities and accepts his exile as moral salvation,—is one of the strongest in Russian literature, though wrong-headed and easily swayed, like all the author’s characters.  12
  In June 1880 Dostoyevsky made a speech at the unveiling of Pushkin’s monument in Moscow, which completely overshadowed the speeches of Turgenev and Aksakov, and gave rise to what was probably the most extraordinary literary ovation ever seen in Russia. By that time he had become the object of pilgrimages, on the part of the young especially, to a degree which no other Russian author has ever experienced, and the recipient of confidences, both personal and written, which pressed heavily on his time and strength. That ovation has never been surpassed, save by the astonishing concourse at his funeral. He died of a lesion of the brain on January 28th (February 8th), 1881. Thousands followed his coffin for miles, but there was no “demonstration,” as that word is understood in Russia. Nevertheless it was a demonstration in an unexpected way, since all classes of society, even those which had not seemed closely interested or sympathetic, now joined in the tribute of respect, which amounted to loving enthusiasm.  13
  The works which I have mentioned are the most important, though he wrote also ‘The Stripling’ and numerous shorter stories. His own characterization of his work, when reproached with its occasional lack of continuity and finish, was that his aim was to make his point, and the exigencies of money and time under which he labored were to blame for the defects which, with his keen literary judgment, he perceived quite as clearly as did his critics. If that point be borne in mind, it will help the reader to appreciate his literary–journalistic style, and to pardon shortcomings for the sake of the pearls of principle and psychology which can be fished up from the profound depths of his voluminous tomes, and of his analysis. The gospel which Dostoyevsky consistently preached, from the beginning of his career to the end, was love, self-sacrifice even to self-effacement. That was and is the secret of his power, even over those who did not follow his precepts.  14

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