Suffering Creates Genius

by Michael Estok,
February, 1999

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Throughout his painful years, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) faced exile, punishment, bankruptcy, tragedy, obscurity, and loveless relationships. He strengthened his beliefs in the Orthodox Church and in the philosophy of unconditional love and forgiveness, and persevered by retelling his misfortunes through literature. His popularity grew, and in 1880, after delivering an historical speech at a memorial for Russian poet Pushkin, he was proclaimed as a prophet, saint, national hero, and genius. After his death, his works were discovered and cherished through translation in Western Europe. His revolutionary writing style inspired and influenced international authors such as Kafka, Hesse, and Faulkner, and in particular it was a precursor for Jean-Paul Sartre and "existentialism." Today his works still seem fresh and modern, because so much recent philosophy has been extracted from his novels. As a result, "it can be said without exaggeration that Western civilization in the second half of the 20th century has become ‘Dostoyevskian’" (http…dostoy.html).


Many Romantic authors concoct fantastical plots and difficult characters to enrich a tale; however, Dostoyevsky was ironically "blessed" with years of misfortune out of which to pull countless literary ideas. Scholars have chronicled his early life in order to grasp new depths in his later masterpieces.

Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow and grew up materially comfortable in a feudal environment under his military doctor father. Upon growing into an adult, he caught his first glimpse of tragedy. At age 16, his mother died, and two years later, after he had departed to St. Petersburg to attend the College of Military Engineering, angry serfs on his parents’ estate murdered his father. Dostoyevsky finished school, joined the military, and then withdrew, in order to focus on his burgeoning writing skills.


At this time in 1846, he published his first two novels, Poor Folk and The Double. As these novels received warm literary criticism, Dostoyevsky continued to write more, and he involved himself in revolutionary politics. He was drawn to a group of so-called "social realists," who discussed the liberation of the serfs. Socialist ideas and writers such as Hugo helped solidify his standing. Some scholars believe his vehement antagonism to serfdom stemmed from his past guilt regarding his father’s death (http…Autobiography.shtml).

His involvement in the socialist Petrashevsky circle and Speshnev’s secret revolutionary society led to his arrest by the Tsarist police in 1849. After six months in a morbid prison, Dostoyevsky and other revolutionists were led to a square for public execution. This display was merely a trick by the government to scare and deter the young intellectuals, and at the moment before death, he was given a reprieve and an exile of four years in Omsk in Siberia, followed by four years as a soldier.


Being treated as a criminal strengthened Dostoyevsky’s faith and led him to reject the West as a model for Russia. His opinion of mankind altered dramatically, and he "became convinced that man can live only through suffering. By suffering, man could eventually find hope and love; though God’s path, man had a future" (http…Autobiography.shtml). During his soldier tenure, he met his first wife, Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, and he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859.

In the subsequent years, Dostoyevsky resumed his role as the journalist and author. He founded and ran two literary journals, Vremia and Epokha, which were moderately successful. Vremia focused on the evolving philosophy of pochvennichestvo, or the philosophy of the Russian soil, "in which he and his colleagues attempted to reconcile the warring Westernizing and Slavophile tendencies in the debates of the 1860s" (Jones (1), viii). He was no longer the active socialist, and his conservatism and open-mindedness were reflected in his several novels during this period, most notably Memoirs from the House of the Dead (1860-61), which was based on his experienced in Siberia.


Unhappy in wedlock, Dostoyevsky toured Europe. He lost the little money he had as a compulsive gambler, and he had an affair with the difficult socialist, atheist, nihilist Polina Suslova, who, as Dostoyevsky later wrote, "demands everything from people, every perfection" (Jones (1), xx). Their complex relationship gave Dostoyevsky more confusion than pleasure, and he would later use her persona to mold several femme fatale characters (most notably, Polina in The Gambler (1867)).

 Dostoyevsky scholar wrote, "If he had died in 1863 it is doubtful whether the present-day Western reader would even have heard of him" (Jones (2), 5). In 1864, Dostoyevksy’s writing style changed, and with the production of notes From the Underground, he had finally completed an important work. His style changed from focusing on people to focusing on ideas. He created in his novels "a pluralist, polyphonic world as opposed to the traditional monologic novel dominated by the authorial point of view" (Jones (2), 6). From henceforth, his novels dealt with such critical ideas as the death of God, social disintegration, anarchy, and power through a carnival-like ensemble of varied characters.


notes From the Underground focused on a alienated man living "underground," or separated from his surroundings and fellow men. The man’s first-person narrative is highly philosophical, and Dostoyevsky’s concept of the "underground" becomes a mentality of self-introspection that leads to the discovery that man is fully rational, superfluous, and a creature of free will. The main character’s musings were among the first signs of a philosophy later coined existentialism.


During the year notes From the Underground was published, Dostoyevsky’s personal tragedies continued. His close brother and his wife died, and his financial state worsened with the bankruptcy of his Vremia publication. Again, he used his suffering to grow stronger, and he resurfaced with the writing of Crime and Punishment in 1866, a novel about redemption through suffering that extended his existential dogma, and The Gambler in 1867, a novel he dictated in twenty days to a stenographer to receive needed cash payments. He eventually married the stenographer, who was named Anna Snitkina and who was over twenty years younger than him.


Ms. Snitkina was a sincere and loving wife, and her presence brought a much-needed stability and happiness into his hectic life. In 1868, Dostoyevsky completed another masterpiece, entitled The Idiot. This novel revolves around a saintly and honest Prince, who is considered a fool for his good behavior. In 1872, his next work, The Possessed or Demons, was released. This novel reflects his change in social thought. Here, Dostoyevsky attacks the radicalism that had supplanted socialism in the recent times. He "had no sympathy for the radicals’ contempt for established authority, religion, the family, and most humanistic values" (http…dostoy.html). This work would have further implications during the Bolshevik’s regime of so-called War Communism.

He continued writing in the 1870s, producing a new monthly publication called The Journal of a Writer. In 1880, Dostoyevsky completed his final and most complex novel, The Brothers Karamazov. One scholar writes, "The novel seems to encompass the breadth of the human condition and its capabilities; here, the art and vision of Dostoyevsky reached their peak" (http…dostoy.html). The characters of the four sons each represent a common tendency of humanity, and their interaction with each other, with their father, and with God impart understanding and entertainment to the reader. The novel is considered a triumph of world literature, and is taught in classes extensively in many languages.


Shortly after achieving fame and success in Russia, Dostoyevsky died in 1881, and his funeral was a national event attended by over 30,000 Russians. His popularity has continued to grow in the twentieth century and his impact on modern writing is substantial. For the intellectual of today, a study of Dostoyevsky’s nineteenth-century works provides insight to the roots of many twentieth-century models of thought.


Works Consulted:

http://members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/Philo/Dostoy/dostoy.html, 2/4/99.


Autobiography.shtml, 2/4/99.

Jones (1): Jones, Malcolm, "Introduction." From Dostoevsky, Fedor, notes From the Underground, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1991.

Jones (2): Jones and Terry, editors, New Essays on Dostoyevsky, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1983.

"The pinnacle; DOSTOEVSKY: THE MIRACULOUS YEARS 1865-1971," The Economist. April 15, 1995. (from LEXIS/NEXIS)






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