Fyodor Dostoevsky's birth-year representatively embeds him in two events that determine Russia's course for the next hundred years; Alexander Pushkin, at sixteen years old, became Russia's first national poet in 1815 and in 1825 the Decembrists' failed coup d'etat of Nicholas I, the country's one shot at democracy and exoneration from serfdom, initiated a 'Frozen Society', marked by harsh censors and absence of reform. Nikolai Gogol appropriately arrived in St. Petersburg from rural Russia in 1837 when Pushkin died following a duel in timely fashion to claim Pushkin's title.
The trinity of Russian Romantic writers not only share styles which coalesce to form the great tradition now known as Russian Literature, but would also uniquely define themselves as representatives of their people. That creating and finding identity in St. Petersburg, both Russian capital and 'Window to the West', was perplexing and difficult for its people is demonstrated by a cursory analysis of the aforementioned writers' related, while idiosyncratic, tendencies and meaningful characters. Joseph Frank, in his five volume oeuvre, explicates the natural influence of Pushkin and Gogol on Dostoevsky.
Russian literature from the 1830s was strongly influenced by Germanic Romanticism and the school's "dissonance between the ideal and real", and this is obsequious in Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman and The Queen of Spades and Gogol's Nevsky Prospect, The Overcoat, and The Diary of A Madman. The main characters in three of these five end their lives and the story in suicide, and all five are clearly insanely mad as the conclusion nears as a result of the shattering of their projected ideals on reality.
A contemporary, N. A. Polevoy, described his artistic aim, "to show that the mad dreams of the poets do not fit in with the world of material existence"; the 'dreamer' "becomes a symbol of the failure to grapple with and master the demands and challenges of life". Dostoevsky, among most important writers of the 1840s "'did emerge originally from the capacious folds of Gogol's Overcoat'; but a different Gogolian inspiration came to Dostoevsky 'as he accompanied Gogol for a stroll along the Nevsky Prospect'" (Seeds, 332).
The novel, Nevsky Prospect, described the life of a poor artist, Piskaryov, who met his end with his throat slit after a crushing rejection by a prostitute, whom he dreamt to marry, and maniacal ideas completely dissociated from society are developed in The Diary of a Madman, an exploration of what and when determines a man's insanity. Dostoevsky's predecessors' influence is manifested in different ways; but the foundations laid by them allow enough material to synthesize developed ideas and themes creatively.
Pushkin's exemplary treatment of characters appealed to Dostoevsky, Pushkin dramatizes the immense power of Petersburg to crush the lives of all those lowly and helpless folk who live in the shadow of its splendors; but, even more important, he treats the fate of poor Evgeny with sympathy and compassion rather than with the ridicule that Gogol employs for similar types... [T]his is exactly the same attitude that Dostoevsky himself will adopt toward such characters. (Seeds, 136)
Dostoevsky offers his own 'dreamer' character type and his conflicts first with Murin in Landlady which illustrates mankind's inability to endure 'freedom' and anticipates the most famous passages of the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor; moreover, the psychology of a 'dreamer' is "squarely at the center of the artistic perspective in White Nights" (Seeds, 334). Characteristic of the Russian novel, too, is its capability for valuable interpretation on many, very different levels.
Especially in this regard, Gogol's literary style is influential to Dostoevsky. Nikolay Nekrasov, then publisher of the most influential literary review Sovremennik (the Contemporary), took the manuscript of Dostoevsky's Poor Folk (1846) to Belinski and declared that "a new Gogol had been born" (Lectures, 99). Gogol's stories are easily read as urban legends, antecdotes revealing humorous aspects of ghostlike St. Petersburg tales that demanded publication, e. g. The Nose.
This story may be interpreted as an attempt and struggle to find identity, and it demonstrates that an identity is not merely a material, physical thing1; and this type of struggle is very Russian, especially during this time period when social beauracracies were initiated and beginning to mould social classes, and therefore identities for their constituents. Various commentators may describe The Overcoat (aforementioned) as a social protest of the horrors of this novel class structure.
The social situation, "excludes everything that might destroy it, so that any improvement, any struggle, moral purpose or endeavor, are as utterly impossible as changing the course of a star". Continuing, though, Nabokov demands a creative reading where every preposition, every innocent descriptive passage and word explodes in a wild display; continuing, "The real plot (as always with Gogol) lies in the style" (Gogol, 144).
Beginning in 1843, we find the first references to his intense and enthusiastic preoccupation with Gogol... A friend recalls, 'In the course of our conversations, he was the first to explain to me all the great significance of the creations of Gogol, all the depths of his humor... [H]e revealed to me all the depth of thought in the story, The Overcoat. (Seeds, 127) Dostoevsky's artistic narration is very likely his most heralded dynamic and it is demonstrated best in his first post-Siberian novel, Notes from the Underground.
The Confession MM Bakhtin labels Notes from the Underground as an Ich-Erza:hlung, an artistic confession from the first person, as extremely and acutely diagonalized, with no single monologically firm, undissociated word (Dostoevsky, 152). As such, the narrator is aware of the one to whom he confesses at the very beginning, "I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man".
The Underground Man makes it clear he desires no appeal, no sympathy, "[A]re you not imagining, gentlemen, that I am repenting... am asking your forgiveness.... I assure you it does not matter to me if you are. " He does not want to appear the hero but, "simply a nasty person, a scoundrel... " "He fears that the other might think he fears that other's opinion" (Dostoevsky, 154). This approach adds much confusion and subjectivity to interpretation, and demonstrates Dostoevsky's literary idiosyncratic forte.
Condemning himself, he wants and demands that the other person dispute this self-definition, and he leaves himself a loophole"; Bakhtin explains that "a loophole is the retention for oneself of the possibility for altering the ultimate, final meaning of one's own words" (158). This device incites immediate questioning of his polemic, chameleon-like approach, - a confession must be told for a reason, but are we not supposed to believe his words? An author always has a context with which he writes, and exploring this context is possibly the endeavor of literature to explore.
Serving Time in Siberia and Slavophilism Notes from the Underground (NfU) is the first work of recognized Dostoevsky since he served five years in a Siberian labor camp for his participation with conspiracies planning to overthrow the government. He was a idealist, socially-engaged 'left-wing radical' who was spared at the gallows with others, one of whom went mad on the spot; this experience left Dostoevsky deeply scarred, and his memoirs during the labor camps show the event's terrible impact upon him.
His once highly Western-influenced ideologies have drastically transformed into Slavophilism -- Russian brotherhood. He now sees Western rationality and Christianity, as opposed to Russian Orthodoxy, as "a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain" (100). He begins propounding the ideas of selfless love that will be found in all his later pieces. In Winter Notes, He asks, "Must one be without individuality to be happy? He renounces Western egoism and instead develops the highest individuality demonstrable, laying down "one's life willingly for others, to be crucified or burned at the stake for others"; continuing, he proclaims "all will be lost if... there exists even the slightest calculation on behalf of one's own advantage" (100). The identification between reason (which on the moral level amounted to utilitarianism) and egocentrism was deeply in rooted in the radical Russian thought of the period; and this convergence enables Dostoevsky to present all these conflicts as part of one pervasive and interweaving pattern.
The Underground Man's rejection of reason is not coincidental, Returning from Siberia his essential ideas began to ripen- ethical supremacy of suffering and submission over struggle and resistance, defence of free will not as a metaphysical but as a moral proposition, and the ultimate formula of egoism-antichrist Europe on one side and brotherhood-christ-Russia on the other. Nabokov, 103) Although Notes from the Underground attracted little attention when it was first published, Frank explores evolution of reactions it inspired since, "Its widespread notoriety has given rise to a good deal of misunderstanding" with critics and commentators proclaiming "their particular emphasis to be identical with Dostoevsky's own"2 (214).
Dostoevsky's exposure of idealist radicals' 'advanced ideas' and their implications are read as "a declaration of Dosteovsky's supposed adherence to Nietzsche's philosophy of 'amoralism' and the will to power" or "the revolt of the human personality against all attempts to limit its inexhaustible potentialities3" (Frank, 219) - but Nietzsche was only twenty years old when NfU was published, and his ideas had surely not been successfully communicated by then; most of Nietzsche's works were first published shortly before his death in 1900.
Nietzsche actually proclaimed that "Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn"4. The Underground Man: Sick and Spiteful Immediately following the aforementioned beginning of NfU, the narrator speaks of his "liver's being diseased" and his refusing to see a doctor. He continues by admitting that he really doesn't know a thing about his illness and later he describes his 'hyperconsciousness' is a disease "but so is being conscious at all.
I insist on it. But let's leave that alone for a minute (1,6)"5. His "'reason,' which would prompt him to seek a doctor out of self-interest is evidently thwarted by some other motive" (Frank, 220). He continues his address about his spite, describing that it was "begging to be let out, but I would not let them, would not let them, purposely let them"6 (4).
Frank remarks that this man is not evil and perverse 'by nature', but he is a "character innately deformed and distorted" (221), and that he "enjoys the experience of his own degradation", admitting "to being an unashamed masochist [my emphasis]" (222). He continues by proclaiming this as inevitable and begins his 'rant' on 'laws of nature' and the "inertia7 which results directly from these laws" which, consequently, one couldn't change (7). Spite is not a valid cause for any kind of action, and hence it is the only one left when the laws of nature make any justified [my emphasis] response impossible" (223).
The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's unfinished and final exegesis of a theme underlying most of his written efforts, and likely his life, expressed his embrace of Russian Orthodoxy since his near-death experience, one after which he could write because of forgiveness rather than punishment. W]e now come to the very act of revenge [my emphasis].... [L]'homme de la nature et de la verite with his innate stupidity, considers his revenge nothing more than justice, pure and simple; but the mouse, as a result of its overly acute consciousness, rejects the idea of justice. [B]ut perhaps a normal man is supposed to be stupid - how do we know? Perhaps it's even very beautiful8. (8)