In honor of his 195th birthday on November 11, I’d like to recommend a few titles from one of my favorite authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky is probably one of the best known Russian authors of the 19th century. His works often include religious, philosophical, psychological and political themes and focus on individuals on the periphery of modern society. I’ve chosen just four of the 32 stories he’s written as an introduction for those who are new to the author or to Russian literature in general. I have listed the titles in the order I recommend reading them (Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground, The Idiot and my personal favorite, The Brothers Karamazov) and given a short synopsis of each.
Crime and Punishment
“What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”
Rodion Raskolnikov is a destitute young man who concocts a scheme to kill an old pawn broker and rob her to pay his many debts. He believes he will be forgiven his crime because the money lender was unscrupulous and he intends to do good deeds with the stolen money, but guilt and remorse begin to cloud Raskolnikov’s plans and his judgment; he becomes exceedingly paranoid and even physically unwell. He begins engaging in risky behaviors, worrying his friends and family and raising suspicion about himself. Will he be able to go on with his life knowing he is a murderer or will he have to face punishment in order to go on living at all? This novel has everything: murder, mystery, romance and redemption – and it really gets under your skin. Crime and Punishment is just one of the reasons Dostoevsky is known as one of literature’s great psychologists.
Notes from Underground
“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”
Welcome to the rambling memoirs of Underground Man, a bitter and contradictory civil servant who complains about the selfishness and evil of modern society and rails against the idea of utopia. He believes personal suffering is necessary to life yet his suffering immobilizes him. He wants to participate in society, but he finds it abhorrent. He wants to be happy but cannot find a way out of his mental, emotional and physical discomfort. He wants to live in the world, yet is afraid to. When he attempts to better understand himself through interacting with others, it fails miserably and, of course, he blames everyone else. Will Underground Man realize that his animosity for modern society leaves him unable to rise above it, which makes him worse than those he despises?
“It is better to be unhappy and know the worst, than to be happy in a fool’s paradise.”
The story opens as the good and kind Prince Myshkin returns to Russia after several years in a Swiss sanitarium where he was treated for epilepsy and “idiocy”. Once back, Myshkin hopes to collect his inheritance and be among people again, but his plans take a different turn when, on the train home, he meets Rogozhin. Rogozhin is the opposite of Myshkin: aggressive, corrupt and obsessed with status. When the men finally return to Petersburg, the Prince finds himself a stranger in a strange world. Western influence has turned Russian society (including the Prince’s own family and friends) into one dominated by money and power. The Prince tries to influence others with his kindness but only finds himself embroiled in scandal. After Rogozhin tries to kill him and he is left by the girl he loves, Prince Myshkin begins to realize that the goodness in his heart is no match for the evil in the hearts of others, but will his realization come too late?
The Brothers Karamazov
“The mystery of human existence lies not in staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
Meet the Karamazovs: Dmitri, Ivan and Alexei and their not so loving father, Fyodor. Fyodor Karamazov is a cruel philanderer, a liar and a thief. He keeps his illegitimate son Pavel as a servant, he plans to steal his eldest son’s inheritance, he humiliates his youngest son Alyosha in front of his mentor, and he offers Dmitri’s girlfriend, Grushenka, money to marry him instead of his son. There is so much animosity in the family that even the philosophical Ivan cannot mediate the passionate arguments between the brothers and their father. But when Fyodor Karamazov is murdered, the brothers set out to determine who killed him and why; they soon realize that everyone had a motive, including each of them. As in most of Dostoevsky’s works, faith is a pervasive theme in this story, but will it be enough to repair the broken bonds of the Karamazovs?
A note before you begin: In 19th century Russian literature, names tend to be long; everyone has a given name, a patronymic and a surname, and people may have many nicknames as well. When you understand that Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov may be called Rodion, Rodya, Rodenka, Rodka and Raskolnikov, you’re off to a good start. When you add ten more characters with as many variations of their own names to the story, you’ll understand why Russian literature has a reputation for being difficult. Be patient with the names, these novels are well worth the effort.
I hope that Fyodor Dostoevsky will make a Russian literature lover out of you and that you will go on to read some of the other amazing authors in this genre. For more suggestions, see our book display this week at Smith Library or ask a librarian!
For more information on the life and works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, we suggest Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time.
-Blog post by Alex Frey, Technical Services