Classic Author Focus: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist who led a difficult and painful life. He became famous for exploring the darker places in the human psyche and is rated by many critics as one of the greatest novelists in world literature. Literary modernism and existentialism and schools in psychology, theology, and literary criticism have been affected by his ideas. However, he did not achieve much success until the end of his life.

Dostoevsky’s background differed from most of the other prominent writers in the Russian 19th century, because he was not born into the landed gentry. His father was a retired military surgeon who worked in hospitals for the poor. His mother was a cultured woman from a merchant family. However, his father earned the rank of nobleman in 1828 and bought an estate in the country. Dostoevsky was brought up with a solid religious background that affected his literary works.

Dostoevsky’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was 15 and his father died two years later. (Just as a side note, 40 years after Dostoevsky’s death, it was revealed that his father, who was stern and rigid, may have been murdered by one of his serfs, although most scholars consider this a myth.)

Dostoevsky was educated at a military engineering institute and for a while after graduating lived a lavish lifestyle working as an engineer and translating to earn extra money. His first novel, Poor Folk, written in the mid-1840’s, gained him instant recognition in literary circles. However, in 1849, he was arrested for belonging to a literary group that discussed books critical of the regime. He was sentenced to death and suffered through a mock execution before spending four years of hard labor in Siberia and another six years of a compulsory military service, and he was not permitted to enter either Moscow or St. Petersburg for years.

Dostoevsky was plagued most of his life by ill health, and while he was in prison, he suffered his first attack of epilepsy, which continued throughout his life. His epileptic attacks are described in his novel The Idiot.

After he was released from service, he traveled around Europe working as a journalist, where he developed a gambling addiction. Ten years after his release from prison in Siberia, he wrote House of the Dead, based on his prison camp experiences. This novel was considered by Tolstoy Dostoevsky’s masterpiece. About the degradation of the experience, his message is that individual freedom is needed for people to be human.

Dostoevsky’s first wife and brother died within the same year (1864-5), and he was burdened by debt. Within the next ten years, he published Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Possessed. In 1867, he married Anna Snitkin, his stenographer, who began to help him get his affairs in better order.

Partly because of his gambling addiction (which he eventually licked) and partly because of his extreme generosity and the failure of a magazine he founded, Dostoevsky remained in financial straits for most of his life. He also developed other health conditions, including emphysema. His most recognized work, The Brothers Karamazov, was his last. After his first success, he was slow to regain literary recognition, but by the time of his death from a pulmonary hemorrhage he was considered one of Russia’s greatest writers.

Dates: 1821-1861

Most popular works: The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, The House of the Dead

Other works: Poor Folk, The Idiot, The Gambler, Notes from Underground, and many others

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10 thoughts on “Classic Author Focus: Fyodor Dostoevsky

  1. Thank you for the portrait of this great author. Imaging all he went through in only 40 years and still managed to write all these, mostly, rather thick books. I loved Crime and Punishment and will read The Idiot and hopefully The Brothers Karamazov later this year.

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  2. Thanks for paying homage to such a generous author who had such a life! LOL. If you read the gambler one realizes that it’s a first hand account of a gambler’s life LOL. You can see a lot of him and his life in the books, in a good way, as in elevating life to literature.

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  3. A huge gap in my reading, but Crime and Punishment is on my new CC list so at least that will be a start! I had no idea he’d had such an interesting, if difficult, life.

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