Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born on October 30, 1821, and grew up in a middle-class family in Moscow. His father, a doctor, was a tyrant toward his family, and his mother was a mild, pious woman who died before Dostoyevsky was sixteen. Partly to escape the oppressive atmosphere of his father’s household, the boy acquired a love of reading, especially the works of Nikolai Gogol, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Honore de Balzac. At his father’s insistence, Dostoyevsky trained as an engineer in St. Petersburg. While the youth was at school, his father was murdered by his own serfs at the family’s small country estate. Dostoyevsky rarely mentioned his father’s murder, but Oedipal themes are recurrent in his work, and Sigmund Freud suggested that the novelist’s epilepsy was a manifestation of guilt over his repressed wish for his father’s death.
Dostoyevsky graduated from engineering school but chose a literary career. His first published work, a translation of Balzac’s novel Eugenie Grandet, appeared in a St. Petersburg journal in 1844. Two years later, he published his first novel, Bednye lyudi (1846; Poor Folk), a naturalistic tale with a clear social message as well as a delicate description of life’s tragic aspects as manifested in everyday existence. The twenty-four-year-old author became an overnight celebrity when Vissarion Belinsky, the most influential critic of the day, praised Dostoyevsky for his social awareness and declared him the literary successor of Gogol. Dostoyevsky joined Belinsky’s literary circle but later broke with it when the critic reacted coldly to his subsequent works. Belinsky judged the novel Dvoynik (1846; The Double) and the short stories Gospodin Prokharchin(1846; Mr. Prokharchin) and Khozyayka (1847; The Landlady) as devoid of a social message.
In 1848 Dostoyevsky joined a group of young intellectuals, led by Mikhail Petrashevsky, which met to discuss literary and political issues. In the reactionary political climate of mid-nineteenth-century Russia, such groups were illegal, and in 1849 the members of the so-called Petrashevsky Circle were arrested and charged with subversion. Dostoyevsky and several of his associates were imprisoned and sentenced to death. As they were facing the firing squad, an imperial messenger arrived with the announcement that the Czar had commuted the death sentences to hard labor in Siberia. This scene was to haunt the novelist the rest of his life. Dostoyevsky described his life as a prisoner in Zapiski iz myortvogo doma (1862; The House of the Dead), a novel demonstrating both an insight into the criminal mind and an understanding of the Russian lower classes. While in prison the writer underwent a profound spiritual and philosophical transformation. His intense study of the New Testament, the only book the prisoners were allowed to read, contributed to his rejection of his earlier liberal political views and led him to the conviction that redemption is possible only through suffering and faith, a belief which informed his later work.
Dostoyevsky was released from the prison camp in 1854; however, he was forced to serve as a soldier in a Siberian garrison for an additional five years. When Dostoyevsky was finally allowed to return to St. Petersburg in 1859, he eagerly resumed his literary career, founding two periodicals and writings articles and short fiction. The articles expressed his new-found belief in a social and political order based on the spiritual values of the Russian people. These years were marked by further personal and professional misfortunes, including the forced closing of his journals by the authorities, the deaths of his wife and his brother, and a financially devastating addiction to gambling. It was in this atmosphere that Dostoyevsky wrote Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground) and Crime and Punishment. In Notes from the Underground Dostoyevsky satirizes contemporary social and political views by presenting a narrator whose notes reveal that his purportedly progressive beliefs lead only to sterility and inaction. Dostoyevsky’s portrayal of this bitter and frustrated Underground Man is hailed as the introduction of an important new type of literary figure. Crime and Punishment brought him acclaim but scant financial compensation. Viewed by critics as one of his masterpieces, Crime and Punishment is the novel in which Dostoyevsky first develops the theme of redemption through suffering. The protagonist Raskolnikovwhose name derives from the Russian word for schism or splitis presented as the embodiment of spiritual nihilism. The novel depicts the harrowing confrontation between his philosophical beliefs, which prompt him to commit a murder in an attempt to prove his supposed superiority, and his inherent morality, which condemns his actions.
In 1867, Dostoyevsky fled to Europe with his second wife to escape creditors. Although they were distressing due to financial and personal difficulties, Dostoyevsky’s years abroad were fruitful, for he completed one important novel and began another. Idiot (1869; The Idiot), influenced by Hans Holbein’s painting Christ Taken from the Cross and by Dostoyevsky’s opposition to the growing atheistic sentiment of the times, depicts the Christ-like protagonist’s loss of innocence and his experience of sin. Dostoyevsky’s profound conservatism, which marked his political thinking following his Siberian experience, and especially his reaction against revolutionary socialism, provided the impetus for his great political novel Besy (1871-72; The Possessed). Based on a true event, in which a young revolutionary was murdered by his comrades, this novel provoked a storm of controversy for its harsh depiction of ruthless radicals. In his striking portrayal of Stavrogin, the novel’s central character, Dostoyevsky described a man dominated by the life-denying forces of nihilism.
Dostoyevsky returned to Russia in 1871 and began his final decade of prodigious literary activity. In sympathy with the conservative political party, he accepted the editorship of a reactionary weekly, Grazhdanin (The Citizen). In his Dnevnik pisatelya (1873-1877; The Diary of a Writer), initially a column in the Citizen but later an independent periodical, Dostoyevsky published a variety of prose works, including some of his outstanding short stories. Dostoyevski’s last work was Bratya Karamazovy (1880; The Brothers Karamazov), a family tragedy of epic proportions, which is viewed as one of the great novels of world literature. The novel recounts the murder of a father by one of his four sons. Initially, his son Dmitri is arrested for the crime, but as the story unfolds it is revealed that the illegitimate son Smerdyakov has killed the old man at what he believes to be the instigation of his half-brother Ivan. Ivan’s philosophical essay, The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, is a work now famous in its own right. Presented as a debate in which the Inquisitor condemns Christ for promoting the belief that mankind has the freedom of choice between good and evil, the piece explores the conflict between intellect and faith, and between the forces of evil and the redemptive power of Christianity. Dostoyevsky envisioned this novel as the first of a series of works depicting The Life of a Great Sinner, but early in 1881, a few months after completing The Brothers Karamazov, the writer died at his home in St. Petersburg.
To his contemporary readers, Dostoyevsky appeared as a writer primarily interested in the terrible aspects of human existence. However, later critics have recognized that the novelist sought to plumb the depths of the psyche, in order to reveal the full range of the human experience, from the basest desires to the most elevated spiritual yearnings. Above all, he illustrated the universal human struggle to understand God and self. Dostoyevsky was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, a being who loved, in spite of everything, adored life, even while he knew the dank, dark places.