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A Life in Books: 9 of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Defining Works

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • January 15, 2021

An Unsteady Start

This year marks the bicentenary of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's birth in 1821. Although he had a relatively stable childhood, the seminal author's life turned turbulent as a youth. Both of his parents died while he was still in his teens. His mother died in 1837 of tuberculosis and his father, two years later of a possible stroke (though there were accusations of murder). Upon learning of his father's death, Dostoevsky began to have seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. After finishing school, he worked for a time as an engineer, but when he began translating books for extra income, he decided to turn his hand to writing.

Dostoevsky's first novel, Poor Folk, came out 175 years ago today in 1846. The book was a commercial success, but his next one, The Double, fell flat. Then in 1849, he was arrested and nearly executed before being exiled to a work camp in Siberia for many years. In exile, he suffered grim conditions and his health worsened.

You may wonder how a person comes back from things like this to write some of the most important works in literature. But perhaps it was the intensity of his early life experiences that infused his writing with such enduring passion and power. Here we review some of the literary giant's best books and how they exemplify his dramatic life.

The Insulted and Injured (1861)

After his release from exile, Dostoevsky moved to St. Petersburg and began writing this novel. The central character is Vanya, a young writer who has recently published a book that is remarkably similar to Dostoevsky's own first novel. Perhaps the story imagines a parallel existence for the author, one in which he eludes arrest and continues to live his life. This novel shows the influence of the work of Charles Dickens, whom Dostoevsky is known to have read while in exile.

Notes From the Underground (1864)

Thought to be one of the first works of existentialism, this epistolary novel features an unnamed narrator, a former official, who has withdrawn into an underground existence. In full retreat from society, he scrawls a passionate, obsessive, self-contradictory narrative that serves as a devastating attack on social utopianism and an assertion of man's essentially irrational nature. In this groundbreaking book (as in others), Dostoevsky used his fiction as a mode of public discourse, challenging what he saw as problematic ideologies of his time.

Crime and Punishment (1866)

Generally considered to be Dostoevsky's most significant work, this novel focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of an impoverished man who kills an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her money. Beforehand, he justifies his crime with the belief that he will go on to perform good works with his newfound wealth, but instead, he is haunted by what he has done. At the time of the writing, Dostoevsky, himself, owed large sums of money to creditors and was trying to offer financial support to the family of his brother who had recently died.

The Gambler (1866)

Ironically, Dostoevsky wrote this novella while under intense pressure to pay off his own gambling debts. Introduced to roulette while in school, the writer struggled with an addiction to gambling for much of his adult life. His second wife Anna maintained that he stopped in 1871 after the birth of their daughter Lyubov, although there is some debate about this. The book tells the story of a young tutor in the employment of a formerly wealthy Russian general. Besotted with the general's niece, he gets drawn into gambling in his attempts to win her love.

The Idiot (1868)

This novel is often said to be the most personal of all Dostoevsky's major works espousing many of the convictions he held dear. It includes descriptions of some of his most traumatic ordeals, such as epilepsy and near execution. It is the story of a man whose goodness, open-hearted simplicity, and guilelessness lead many of the more worldly characters he encounters to mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight. He suffers as a result of their cynicism and greed.

Demons, aka Devils, aka The Possessed (1871)

This novel is described as a social and political satire depicting the potentially catastrophic consequences of the political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in Russia in the 1860s. The story presents a fictional town descending into chaos as it becomes the focal point of an attempted revolution. Joyce Carol Oates described it as "Dostoevsky's most confused and violent novel, and his most satisfactorily 'tragic' work."

The Brothers Karamazov (1879)

While writing his final book, Dostoevsky's three-year-old son Alyosha died of epilepsy and the novelist's grief is apparent throughout the book. Set in nineteenth-century Russia, the passionate philosophical novel enters deeply into questions of God, free will, and morality. Completed just a few months before his own death, the complicated plot explores challenging themes, such as freedom, religion and ethics. Some critics suggest that the three brothers in the story represent different stages in the author's life.

In a life beset by drama and tragedy worthy of, say, a Russian novel, Dostoevsky's literary achievements are indeed extraordinary. It has been said that after his exile, he never quite regained the confidence of his early success, but perhaps this uncertainty is what made his later works so rich and profound.

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