Research paper on Dostoevsky. Long, possibly boring, includes works cited.
| Endless Fascination: A Look at the Nature of Good and Evil
When a people group is subjected to the tyrannical rule of a higher power, there is bound to be dissention. History clearly reveals that where there is discontent, there is bound to be revolution, and revolution often leads to war. The masses of penniless folk in these situations of tyranny are like a pot of boiling water with a lid. Unless the heat is quickly abated, the building pressure will force the lid off in a messy explosion. Likewise, when civil liberties are not given or acknowledged, it will not be long before rebellious factions rise up and cause a bloody revolution. Yet, as often happens in war-torn areas, philosophers and would-be psychologists come out of the woodwork to express their ideas about the true nature of humanity. Though their ideas are not necessarily new, these theorists go on to write timeless works that have influenced various peoples the world over. In his novels The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky delves deep into the human psyche and sheds light on the depravity of man’s heart, showing a wickedness that is at times so overwhelming that no good can seem to combat it.
A perfect example of the disquiet of conflict, nineteenth century Russia suffered the influences of tyranny, the moral uncertainty of revolution, and an awakening understanding of human nature. In the late 1840s, Tsar Nicholas I was beginning to show signs of paranoia as the rest of Europe underwent the political revolutions of 1848. On April 22, 1849, Tsar Nicholas ordered the arrest of the Petrashevtsy group, a secret society of progressive thinkers and writers. When he first took the crown, Nicholas I took a very absolutist stand, crushing every hint of rebellion that sparked under his reign. Ideas of Nihilism, the belief that existing institutions should be destroyed to make way for a new society, and Socialism began to infiltrate the society, and by the late 1800’s these thought systems were very popular among the young Russian intellectuals (Heims). As Russia underwent many social and political changes, its people struggled to maintain their identity, a struggle that would in turn allow the reformers to delve ever deeper into the mystery that is the human psyche.
One of the more well-known Russian writers of his time, Fyodor Dostoevsky made it his personal goal to understand and bring to light the workings of the human mind. Born in Moscow, Russia on October 30, 1821, Dostoevsky was the younger of two children. His father, Mikhay Dostoevsky, was a retired army surgeon who worked in a small hospital located in the poorest part of Moscow; Fyodor Dostoevsky was born there. His mother, Maria Nechaeva, was the daughter of wealthy merchant when she married Mikhay. From 1834 to 1845, Fyodor Dostoevsky studied in several different schools, ultimately earning a degree in engineering from an academy in Petersburg. By 1845, Dostoevsky had finished his studies and was working as an engineer. This job did not last long, for Dostoevsky published his first novel, Poor Folk the very next year to much literary acclaim. Perhaps the most horrible and influential period of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life began in 1849 when he, along with thirty-nine others, was arrested for involvement in a socialist reform group called the Petrashevtsy group. Most of the group’s members were intellectuals seeking a better society than the one provided by the absolutist tsar. Forced to undergo the torture of a mock execution, Dostoevsky was then sentenced to five years hard labor in Siberia, an experience that would shape his religious and social views in ways no other could. From this time forward, Dostoevsky struggled through life, facing epilepsy, the death of his brother and first wife, an addiction to gambling, and poverty (Diamond). Although he endured far more than any one man ever should, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s difficult life taught him many lessons about the nature of men, lessons that would lay the groundwork for each of his books and pave the way for his future success.
With all that Dostoevsky suffered, his novels The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot are products of that suffering whose timeless themes continue to resound. In The Brothers Karamazov, a revolving theme “is the fate of the Russian family, whose breakdown and disintegration represent in the writer’s mind symptoms of a general cultural collapse” (Burt). This view clearly goes against the Russian society that was in place at the time this novel was written because of its reformist attitude. The overall tone of The Brothers Karamazov is one of disquiet, as if the characters and reader are forever searching for an unreachable harmony. As Dmitri states, “It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many riddles weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water” (Dostoevsky Brothers 107). This idea of the collapse of the Russian family goes hand in hand with the idea that there is very little lasting good in the world (Burt).
In his novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky sets forth the central idea that good cannot last long in the presence of evil, and that “humility is a great force” while “beauty will save the world” (Dostoevsky Idiot 351, 379). The sad theme presented here lends a very clear tone of morbid uneasiness to the entire novel, leaving the reader feeling as if more could have been done to save the disastrous situation. These ideas seem to reflect the feelings of the Russian people during Dostoevsky’s time, especially when the government decided to get involved. “Dostoevskii’s vision of a messianic saviour, a Russian Christ to revive the Russian Christian ideal, proved impossible to realize in the face of the dark fanaticism, Nihilism, and capitalism…” (McMillin “The Idiot”). As the themes of the two novels are laid side by side, it is clear that Dostoevsky struggled with the idea that beauty and goodness must exist in the same world as depravity and filth, and these ideas continue to be prevalent in his writings. In the face of so much unease, both personally and in Russia as a whole, it would seem that Dostoevsky’s insight into the human psyche is both remarkable and indisputable, and is not seen in many places besides.
In many of his novels, Dostoevsky makes great use of symbolism, but it is in his masterworks The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot that this tool is seen in abundance. Perhaps the most obvious symbolism of The Brothers Karamazov involves the three main characters, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. Dmitri can be viewed as the physical body, the sensualist, or Dostoevsky’s own “youthful Romantic period” (McMillin “The Brothers”). Ivan represents the mind, the intellectual, or the author’s “attachment to atheistic socialist circles” (McMillin “The Brothers”). Alyosha epitomizes the soul, the spiritualist, or Dostoevsky’s “spiritually reborn post-Siberian period” (McMillin “The Brothers”). This symbolism, along with the never-ending search for a truly good man plays into the theme of the disintegration of a culture by revealing the level of intricacy involved. The doctrines that each man should adopt are laid forth by Father Zossima: “Hate not the atheists, the teachers of evil, the materialists – and I mean not only the good ones – …hate not even the wicked ones. Remember them in your prayers” (Dostoevsky Brothers 156). As the characters of the novel try to find the truth, the goodness in them is challenged by both the internal and external forces that evil that plague all men.
Again in his novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky uses the symbolic split of one person into two to carry his point that love and humility, though necessary, are not strong enough to stand against evil alone. The protagonist, Prince Myshkin represents all that is good in mankind, a Christ-like figure, and Dostoevsky’s most blatant attempt at creating the “positively good man” (McMillin “The Idiot”). Myshkin, as symbolic of purity and goodness, finds himself haunted by “a vision of strange glowing eyes fixed upon him” (Dostoevsky Idiot 175). In his lifelong effort to create the perfect person, Dostoevsky hit on some of the most influential facts of human nature to date. The main antagonist, Rogozhin, is a caricature of the basest parts of human nature, the passionate, lusty side of every man who here seems to have no conscience to curb him except the influence of Myshkin, whom he proceeds to destroy (Guerard). Although the symbolism of his novels primarily occurs within his characters, Dostoevsky manages to provide more than enough support for his assertions on the human situation, all while keeping his principle message clear.
When reading Dostoevsky’s novels, it quickly becomes clear that the characters are all-important, and the various trials they endure are meant to teach valuable life lessons. In The Brothers Karamazov, there are three main characters and a plethora of supporting roles. The first is the eldest brother, Dmitri Fyodorovitch Karamazov, – also called Mitya or Mityenka – whose self-discovery and complete repentance make a very round, dynamic character. Dmitri serves as antagonist to himself as he struggles to prove that he is innocent of parricide. He is even “prepared to destroy himself for the sake of a higher harmony, for he feels that his own existence is an intolerable slight upon that divine order” (Leatherbarrow Ch.7).
The second major character is Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov. Ivan begins the story as a self-righteous intellectual, but by the time the novel has ended he has suffered an identity crisis, seen apparitions, and very nearly lost his mind – all combining to show that he is a round and very dynamic character. This is most evident when “Ivan… experiences moments of release and self-sublimation, moments when his chronic self-awareness dissolves in a sense of the harmonious fusion of all God’s creation…” (Leatherbarrow Ch.7). As the intellectual of the family, Ivan, like Dmitri, becomes his own antagonist when his father’s murderer justifies the act by using Ivan’s own philosophy.
Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov, the youngest brother – also called Alyosha – is the protagonist of the novel. Alyosha is a round and highly dynamic character, as he struggles to maintain his faith despite his capacity for sensuality and intellectualism. Alyosha is Dostoevsky’s last attempt at creating that perfectly good man, and Alyosha’s “experience of mystical ecstasy” is highly similar to the one experienced by Myshkin (Leatherbarrow Ch.7). In a way, both of the elder brothers serve as antagonists to Alyosha in that they both inadvertently try to pull him away from his innocent spirituality and into the worlds they know. The Karamazov family, overall, is seen as a very distasteful bunch by their neighbors, who place “a brazen face, and the conscience of a Karamazov” together in their minds (Dostoevsky Brothers 77).
The Idiot is quite a parallel to The Brothers Karamazov, especially in regard to characterization and experiences. The protagonist, Prince Lev Myshkin, is a static character who, despite every effort of his new friends, ends up in exactly the same place he started. As Myshkin, who suffers from epilepsy, is introduced back into society after many years of isolated treatment, he displays “a naïve faith in the possibility of introducing a golden age, a heaven on earth, a possibility that is ironically contradicted by the behavior of people around [him]” (Leatherbarrow Ch.5). These characteristics all make Myshkin a very round character. While speaking with the Epanchin girls, Myshkin realizes what his mission really is: “I am really a philosopher perhaps, and – who knows? –perhaps I really have a notion of instructing” (Dostoevsky Idiot 54).
Just as Myshkin is the beautiful, nearly perfect protagonist, Parfyon Rogozhin serves as the novel’s evil and nearly inhuman antagonist. Rogozhin is a round, though also static character who never seems to be able to control his ultra passionate nature. In fact, “the qualities of darkness, physical robustness, passion, and lack of form become leitmotifs consistently associated with Rogozhin” (Leatherbarrow Ch.5). It is clear that Dostoevsky’s two famous novels carry similar ideas as characters, symbolism, and theme flow seamlessly together to create a wonderfully harmonious look into the workings of the human psychology.
Through these two novels, Fyodor Dostoevsky serves as a representative of the many downtrodden nineteenth century Russians, giving voice to many insights and views on human nature and the eternal struggle between good and evil that might not otherwise be known. From here, the question then becomes this: what do the struggles of a culture long dead have to do with the twenty-first century? It is the ever-relevant struggle of man to find true beauty and goodness that makes classic literature worth one’s time. People are slow to change. Human nature never changes, and because this is true, there is much to be gained from the men who took the time to try and understand the intricate, endless depths of the human psyche. Man is forever searching for answers, yet "it's hard to have to answer for what it is not given to man to understand” (Dostoevsky Idiot 380). It is always wise to search for that deeper understanding, for when one realizes the truth of man’s immutability, the answers to life’s questions seem just a little easier to decipher.
If you've read this far, I thank you very much. I know that it must have been a difficult endeavour, and I applaude you for it!
Again, thanks for giving me your time.
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Diamond, Marie Josephine, ed. “Dostoevsky, Fyodor.” Encyclopedia of World Writers, 19th and 20th Centuries. New York: Facts on File, 2003. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. <http://www.fofweb.com>.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004.
---. The Idiot. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2005.
Guerard, Albert J. “On the Composition of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature Literature Resource Center. <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.
Heims, Neil. “Dostoevsky, Fyodor.” Ed. Harold Bloom. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bloom’s BioCritiques. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 2004. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. <http://www.fofweb.com/>.
Leatherbarrow, William J. “Fedor Dostoevsky.” Ch. 5.”The Failure of an Ideal: The Idiot.” Twayne’s World Authors. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999. Literature Resource Center. <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.
---. “Fedor Dostoevsky.” Ch. 7. “Harmony and Redemption: The Brothers Karamazov.” Twayne’s World Authors. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999. Literature Resource Center. <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.
McMillin, Arnold. “The Brothers Karamazov.” Reference Guide to World Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Lesley Henderson. St. James Press, 1995. Novels for Students. Vol. 8. Literature Resource Center. <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.
---. “The Idiot: Overview.” Reference Guide to World Literature. 2nd ed.
Ed. Lesley Henderson. St. James Press, 1995. Literature Resource Center. <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.