F. M. Dostoevsky: The cause and effect of suffering

By A. Canon Bryan
May 27, 2004

Great literature comes from great authors. But how often, when we are touched by wonderful works of literature, do we decide to delve into the lives of their authors, in an attempt to understand how such great works came into being? How often do we even have the opportunity to learn such a thing? Not all great authors’ lives are well documented. The true identity of William Shakespeare, for example, is not even remotely without contention.

In the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky, then, we are presented with something of a gift. Despite being a man whose left-wing ideas, from the early part of his life, were seriously persecuted during his lifetime, and whose right-wing ideas from the later part of his life, were seriously persecuted after his lifetime, a miraculous quantity of archival material has come down to us. This comes mostly from the extraordinary body of extant material from his own hand. Dostoevsky composed a mountainous volume of material during his lifetime, in the form of fiction, of course, as well as diaries, notebooks, correspondence and journalism. In Dostoevsky, we have a very well, almost thoroughly, documented life, again, despite being persecuted by agents of government who were rather fond of destroying subversive documents, and did so liberally. Nevertheless, an enormous quantity has survived, and what is revealed is possibly even more extraordinary than the novels he created.

For those who are unfamiliar with the work of Dostoevsky, he wrote from 1845 to the time of his death in 1881. In that time, he wrote five long novels, three of which are relatively well known; they are: “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” “Crime and Punishment” is unquestionably his most renowned work, although many have called “The Brothers Karamazov” the greatest novel ever written. He also wrote eleven medium-length novels, five novellas and ten short stories. Besides fiction, he contributed to journals and serialized the “Diary of a Writer,” which, quite literally reflecting the title, is an account of his creative process and includes his thoughts, political commentary, vignettes and other assorted fragments. The quantity of the work is commendable. The quality of the work is unimaginable.

In the discussion of Dostoevsky, we will attempt to show how his extraordinary life has translated into the world’s most powerful fiction, and then, in the discussion of his works, we hope to convince the audience of its undeniable power to provoke deep introspective thought, uncontrollable fits of laughter, gripping feelings of intrigue, and a constant gnawing sense of you, the reader, being psychoanalyzed with diamond-cutting precision by a Russian man who died more than 120 years ago.

A life of torment

It is a fact that many great artists are known to have suffered, perhaps as a function of their own outsized and hyper-zealous capacity to feel – and to feel everything! Or perhaps it was their inadvertent sufferings that became the catalyst for their self-expression. In Dostoevsky’s case, his art seems to have been both the cause and the effect of suffering. In the earlier stanza of his life, there were tragic events, to be sure, and during this time, his work demonstrated talent, while he toyed with psychology. In the latter half of his life, challenging events graduated into chronic disaster. During this time, his work completely changed, not only addressing human sufferings but probing them to their depths; and his work became, to quote an eminent translator, “something much more than talented.”

His life is also notable for the two distinct periods into which it can be subdivided, not only for the distinctiveness from each other of the two bodies of work, but coincidentally, for the political forces that dramatically changed the face of Russia during the exact same time. The bisection can be attributed to a personal catastrophe, but even so, he was an ideal observer of a society in the grip of change. This catastrophic event also accounts for his notable improvement in literary style, his shifts in politics and in his faith, and the onset of a devastating and chronic illness that dogged him until the end of his life.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821 to a strict, regimental and, by most accounts, kindhearted physician who worked in military service at the time of his son’s birth. We say “most accounts” because there are also those who paint Mikhail Dostoevsky as an impossible tyrant, but we will return to these claims later. Two minor annotations on Fyodor Mikhailovich’s youth are wanting. Firstly, it is of interest, given his vocal activism and interconnections with politics later in his life, sympathetic to two different classes altogether during different periods, that the Dostoevsky family was unquestionably a member of the middle class but lived in lower class conditions. The father was stationed in a sanitarium for the poor, and the family was forced to live there for a substantial part of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s youth. This experience no doubt imbued in him two minds on class divisionism and entrenched from early on arguments from different points in the socio-economic spectrum. The second point worth noting regards an incident of which the writer would immortalize in many different works throughout his life, evidently never being able to distance himself from it. At the age of 9, it is reported that he witnessed the rape of his close playmate by a drunken soldier. This girl died of her injuries. In “Demons,” written forty years later, the main character commits such an act, though much of the scene was removed by censors.

His teenage years brought his first tragedies. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 15, followed two years later by the mysterious death of his father. Andrei Dostoevsky, the writer’s brother, vigorously claimed that their father was murdered by the then-landowner’s serfs, who retaliated against his tyranny. He also alleged a criminal conspiracy with the police, who abetted the murderers and deliberately botched the inquest, which ultimately reported that Mikhail Dostoevsky died of natural causes. Fyodor Mikhailovich was at the military engineering academy in Peterburg at the time, and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever really knew the cause or, so the say, the reason of his father’s death. These facts become significant when one considers Dostoevsky’s final novel, “The Brothers Karamazov,” in which a father is murdered and the eldest son is accused of parricide.

Shortly after completing his training as a military engineer and entering the service as a draftsman, Fyodor Mikhailovich resigned his commission and embarked on a literary career. From all extant sources, it is evident that he had this agendum in mind for quite some time. His schoolmates were universally astounded by his volume of reading. He began by translating works by Balzac and Goethe from French and German. Then in 1845, he completed his first work, a novel called “Poor Folk.” The work is unusual if only for its format. The novel is completely epistolary. Through a series a letters, the story is told of two desperately poor lovers. While he sinks into debauchery, she becomes drawn into an arranged marriage with a wealthy landowner. This first work possesses all the signatures of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s genius. It is written simply, in simple diction, with great feeling, with moments of uproarious comedy, his trademark carefully unfolding scandals, and with many intriguing digressions. While reading Dostoevsky, readers feel as if they are simply reading some account of ordinary lives, perhaps of their neighbors. But for all its ordinariness, these stories are magically intriguing because they seem completely real and completely possible. It is perhaps similar to reading gossip pages, but less sensational and much, much richer. So our disbelief is entirely suspended for a time, and we eavesdrop on these unsuspecting lives. This is the magic of Dostoevsky. He has dreamt up the tales of ordinary lives that ordinary people themselves never bothered to record.

“Poor Folk” was followed by “The Double” and a series of eleven short stories. He also worked on “Netochka Nezvanova,” a novel which was never completed but simply published incomplete years later. The leitmotif of these works resounded heavily of physical and psychological quicksand: fever, delirium, nightmares and madness. His influence had apparently shifted away from Gogol during this period, in terms of style. None of these works were very well-received. Indeed, they do not seem to match the style and power he achieved in “Poor Folk” and many subsequent pieces. “The Double” was ultimately re-written 15 years later – “post-cataclysm” – and it is the redaction that has survived. In short, after Fyodor Mikhailovich’s early critical success, his literary career faltered.

During this time, his involvement in literary groups evolved into a participation in an underground political movement. In monarchical times, socialism in Russia was strongly oppressed by the establishment, much stronger even than during McCarthy in America. There are contradictory claims of how active Fyodor Mikhailovich was in the subversive element of these groups. What is known with certainty is his despondency with his literary failures, his self-imposed ostracism from his literary colleagues, some of whom were sharply criticizing his work, and his accelerating eccentricity.

In April 1849, an underground group to which Dostoevsky belonged, known as the Petrashevsky Circle, was raided by police. Thirty-four members of the group, including Fyodor Mikhailovich, were arrested in their homes. After several months of investigation, Fyodor Mikhailovich and several others were found guilty of subversive activities and sentenced to death by shooting squad. This was ostensibly the writer’s cataclysm. But miraculously, though he survived the death sentence, a punishment was inflicted that would prove far worse. The tsar himself intervened and decided to commute Dostoevsky’s sentence to four years of hard labor in Siberia; however, he ordered it done in the following fashion. The condemned men were to be taken to the parade ground, they were to be administered their last rites, garbed, hooded, and only when tied to the post, with the drums sounding off and the shooters taking their aim, were the reductions in sentence to be announced. The tsar, sadistically, wished Dostoevsky to be brought to the very instant of his death and then brought back. In “Demons,” he dramatizes the intrigues of an underground movement. He writes about a police raid on an underground movement in “The Adolescent.” And in “The Idiot,” he describes the feelings of a man on the scaffold. He particularly notes the euphoria not after his stay is announced, but leading up to the execution itself.

Fyodor Mikhailovich apparently did nothing to avoid his fate, although it is doubtful that he could have realized it might lead to his extinction. These death sentences were the first of their kind in Russia and made headline news. Nevertheless, it is evident from the official record that he said not one word to the authorities in his defense, despite the evidence strongly suggesting that they were willing to be lenient with him because of his fame as a novelist. Furthermore, he must have known the risks of being involved with this element in the first place. All this, taken together with his growing disenchantment with his own failing career, leads this author to believe that he manufactured his own suffering in this case, for the sake of his art. He wished for imprisonment and persecution. If this is true, he got exactly what he wished for and much more. Immediately following his mock execution, he was straightaway deported to Omsk maximum security prison in Siberia for four years of hard labor. This was to be followed by a lifetime of exile in Siberia, in mandatory military service. Perhaps it can be said, in this case, that great art was the cause of suffering. It is a common theme in many of his later novels as well: purposeful suffering. In “Crime and Punishment,” the protagonist, Raskolnikov, convinces himself, through an internal dialectic, that it is fitting for him, a brilliant intellectual with a Napoleonic complex, to commit a brutal crime. Afterwards, guilt and paranoia drive him to madness. And in a different type of purposeful suffering, Marmeladov prefers to spend his family’s last scraps of money on a drinking binge. While his children are without food and his wife wasting from consumption, his act forces his daughter into prostitution, and he admits that all this is done only so that he himself might suffer the agony of remorse. In “The Brothers Karamazov,” Dmitri demonstrates almost constantly his penchant for deeds with obviously devastating consequences.

This next period of his life is marked by a complete intellectual void for Fyodor Mikhailovich. The man was not allowed any books in prison and was not allowed to write. Needless to say, the conditions in the prison were horrible, and were described in detail in “House of the Dead” – a loosely veiled autobiographical dramatization of his time in prison, written upon his release. There is no question that he suffered deeply there. However, the one single volume that he was allowed to have was the Holy Bible, which he not only read, but more precisely committed every character to memory. His struggle and his only companion, this bible, fiercely entrenched in him his belief in god – and in another purposeful sufferer, Jesus Christ.

In 1854, Fyodor Mikhailovich was to begin serving a lifetime of mandatory military service in a small town in Siberia. In his correspondence, he described how his stories had been fermenting in his mind for the four years that he was forbidden to hold a pen. He was ultimately released from exile and allowed to return to the literary capital, Petersburg, but not before spending six years in an intellectual wilderness. His work during these years, which was meant for publication, is punctuated by an improvement on the Gogolesque style he exhibited in “Poor Folk,” and out of need, were “innocent,” that is, without political references or commentary or anything that might upset the state. “The Village of Stepanchikovo,” “Uncle’s Dream” and “The Insulted and Injured” were published during this time, and “House of the Dead,” which was published after his return to society, seems to have mostly been written during this time as well. Although these stories are “innocent” and possess little of the allegorical or archetypal content of his later work, they do possess all the style of it, and demonstrate his ability to spin fascinating yarns about ordinary people. They achieve masterful characterizations and humor. And although they are often overlooked, these three novels alone would constitute a very exceptional literary career.

His eventual escape from exile came off chiefly for two reasons. Firstly, Tsar Nikolai I had died while he was in prison, and the new Tsar, Alexander II, who became a great engine for change in Russia, granted Fyodor Mikhailovich amnesty. This grant came as the result of the second reason: Dostoevsky had written the Tsar on more than one occasion, pleading to allow him to return to the capital, where doctors could better treat him for his worsening condition of epilepsy. There are reports of his disease being manifest in him before prison, but prison life didn’t help matters, and the severity of the disease seems to have escalated. Typical descriptions of his fits – and there are many – are horrifying. His fits were extremely violent, and he would convulse and froth for fifteen minutes, and then be rendered immobile for three days afterward. After prison, he is reported to have had as many as two fits a week to as few as one every two months. He could never be fully cured, and his work and his frenetic lifestyle ultimately made the condition worse. He writes extensively about this condition in “The Idiot.” And many other characters in his stories are epileptics as well, not the least important of which is Smerdyakov, the fourth and illegitimate brother of “The Brothers Karamazov.”

While in Siberia, he married. When he met Maria Isaeva, she was still married to the raging alcoholic Isaev, who died shortly after their meeting. Like his mother, Fyodor Mikhailovich’s wife died slowly and horribly of consumption. It is no accident that many female characters in Dostoevsky’s stories are afflicted with this disease; he was well acquainted with its ravages. Furthermore, by the time she had died, which was only seven years after they married, he was traveling throughout Europe and completely consumed by a gambling addiction, debts and womanizing. He was, in this sense, the embodiment of Marmeladov, the character he would create two years later in “Crime and Punishment.” Two months after Maria died, Fyodor Mikhailovich’s beloved brother and business partner, Mikhail, also died. Four years later, his 3-month-old daughter with his second wife would also suddenly die. And ten years after that, another child, 3-year-old son Alexei, without showing any hint of epilepsy, suddenly had a severe fit that lasted over three hours and killed him. The writer’s life was plagued with disasters beyond his control. These events fueled the pain that gave immense feeling to his work. In these instances, great art was clearly the effect of suffering.

Tormented writing

The balance of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s work was dominated by his most powerful writing. In addition to his five long novels, including two which have been cited by countless literary authorities as the greatest works of literature ever written, he wrote three shorter novels, six short stories and “The Diary of a Writer.” The balance of his life was dominated by epileptic seizures, constant financial disaster, gambling addiction and evading creditors. To this latter end, he spent several years at a time touring Europe with his family. Some of his greatest work would be written on these travels. It is not a little bizarre to observe the addiction to roulette, which would lead to financial ruin time and time again for the writer. All this despite his incredible genius, arguably the most powerful literary genius in the history of literature. He was certainly a man of contradictions, as many of his characters were. He dramatized his gambling experiences in “The Gambler” and again in “The Adolescent.”

When reading Dostoevsky’s work in the order that it was written, one notices an abrupt and explosive change when they reach “Notes From Underground.” This short novel, published in 1864, is the first one to be written entirely after his return from Siberia. And it is the first one in which Fyodor Mikhailovich really seems to express himself the way he always wanted to, without internal or external impediments. It is the raving and frighteningly honest observations of a nameless intellectual who, completely disenfranchised with societal conventions, has decided to live beneath the floorboards for the past twenty years. He sees life through a peephole, “through a knot in the floorboards.” The work is devastating. Dostoevsky first and foremost flays himself, and then he goes on to flay the rest of society as well. He seems to be more honest in this one work than it is possible for a human being to be about oneself. His painfully frank deconstruction is riveting and hilarious at the same time. We also see the emergence of various themes that will resonate throughout the rest of his work: antipathy for European materialism; sharp criticism of anarchism (prophesying the Russian Revolution); a deep respect for the Russian ideal; nihilism and existentialism (anticipating Nietzsche and Sartre); and, as mentioned above, purposeful suffering. So, for the first time, we are not only treated to the beautifully simplistic narrative style evident in his earlier works, the fascinating yarn-spinning, but we now also have very potent and thought-provoking thematic content to consider besides. Not to mention infinitely more cathartic content, which dramatizes an extraordinary life and lends a rich realism.

“Notes From Underground” is the precursor to all the later work. The psychological content would become more and more prevalent, although still ostensibly hidden in wonderfully intriguing and side-splitting yarns. All of this technique peaked with “The Brothers Karamazov,” his final novel. All the previously mentioned themes are touched on, as are many more. What is most remarkable about “Karamazov” is the sheer number of levels operating throughout the work. Every character is not only a symbol for one thing, one person or one idea; they are multiple symbols each. The action has absolute relevance within the yarn, but it has a metaphorical significance as well, and also in more ways than one. “The Brothers Karamazov” is a novel to be read and re-read over and over, with new insights gained on each reading. It is possibly the funniest book in all of literature, and the darkest. It is the culmination of a brilliant life’s work.

Here, we must make our speculation about the cathartic ramifications of the piece. The story revolves around the mysterious death of the patriarch of these four brothers Karamazov. Each of the brothers, among other things, seems to represent various elements of Dostoevsky’s own character. True, each brother is distinctly different; they are: the flagrant and temperamental Dmitri, who is accused of the murder; the brilliant and atheistic Ivan; the deeply spiritual Alexei; and finally, the underestimated epileptic bastard Smerdyakov; however, they are all still shades of one man. The father, Fyodor Karamazov, is a drunken boor and a despot. Fyodor Karamazov likely contains elements of Fyodor Dostoevsky as well, but he also likely contains some of Dostoevsky’s own father. It is evident after reading the novel that all four sons had a hand in the murder, directly or indirectly. We believe that this is a strong cathartic statement, on top of everything else it represents, and that Fyodor Mikhailovich truly believed in his own guilt over his father’s death, and perhaps with good reason. There are many signals throughout his life and work, not the least striking of which appear throughout “The Brothers Karamazov,” that point to his own involvement in his father’s death. It is beyond the scope of this article to cite them all, but what is key to the speculation is the reason why. All the clues have already been laid throughout this article. The reason why a 17-year-old boy would have his despotic father murdered: for a lifetime of purposeful suffering that would yield great art.

Fyodor Mikhailovich died three months after completing “The Brothers Karamazov.” Fifty-thousand took to the streets of Petersburg for his funeral.

A note about translations

There are many translations of Dostoevsky’s works into the English language. One must beware, if they are new to this work, that some translations are better than others, or even much better. And some are simply more relevant. For excellent, if quite Victorian, translations, one can always count on early 20th century editions by Constance Garnett and David McDuff. For more contemporary English, Richard Pevear and Andrew MacAndrew are exquisite.

A. Canon Bryan is an accounting student and an aspiring novelist with a penchant for Russian and other classical literature. Through his company, ACB Analytics, he composes prospectuses and other business and promotional literature. Please feel free to drop him a line at

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