Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) was the undisputed master of the psychological novel. During a literary career spanning four decades, he displayed unprecedented—and arguably still unmatched—understanding or human nature, especially the torurous emotional states of guilt, despair, and preoccupation with death.
The hardship and tragedy that Dostoyevsky faced in his life probably only enriched his fiction. Born in Moscow to a rigidly Russian Orthodox family, he was stunned by the sudden death of his father in 1839. Although Dostoyevsky followed his father’s urgings and was educated as an engineer, he disliked the work and decided to become a writer. His first novel, Poor Folk (1846) won him great praise with critics, but his career was derailed when he was arrested in 1849 for taking part in a radically leftist publication operation. After being subjected to a mock execution with a last-minute “reprieve,” he spent four years at a labor camp in Siberia. This traumatic experience left an indelible mark on the tone and content of Dostoyevsky’s works.
In the 1860s, Dostoyevsky hit his literary stride, penning the novella Notes from Underground (1864), about a bitter, neurotic recluse who is unable to function socially in the outside world, and his early masterpiece Crime and Punishment (1866), which dissects the guilt and misery of a young man who has killed an elderly woman. The latter work is particularly notable for its psychological depth and its conclusion that a criminal’s internal self-recrimination after a crime is far worse than any punishment society can levy.
As Dostoyevsky grew older, he rejected the atheist politics of his youth and returned to the Russian Orthodoxy of his ancestral roots. His novel The Idiot (1868-1869) depicts a tragic Christ figure, and the great masterpiece of his later career, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), has been called the most signification Christian novel ever written, infused as it is with Russian Orthodoxy morality. In this giant novel, three songs of a murdered father tackle problems of good and evil and Christian faith in very different ways.
Though detractors criticized Dostoyevsky’s dense and often humorless style, the penetrating detail of his character studies is unquestioned—especially in his exploration of the minds of criminals, the mentally unstable, and others on the margins of society. Beyond their literary legacy, these characterizations influenced the nihilistic and existential philosophers of the twentieth century, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Albert Camus.
Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale