Dostoyevsky wrote so much! Here are my views after reading a selection of his works…
Russia and poverty ‘Poor Folk’ is an immensely powerful evocation of genteel poverty. It was explicitly inspired by Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ and looks at what happens when those at the bottom of the pile try to dream of happiness. Although Dostoyevsky tends to present a sort of heightened reality in his novels (think Emily Bronte, but with a social conscience) the physical situation of his characters is always an integral part of their identity. When people are starving, they suffer; when dealing with crushing indigence they are humiliated and lose their self-respect. ‘Poor Folk’ certainly is Dostoyevsky at his best, subtle, perceptive and sensitive in his portrayal of how people try to live and love when even money for tea must be carefully hoarded.
Russia and religion Dostoyevsky’s religious views can be a bit of a barrier to accessing his works. From the little that I’ve researched though, it seems this isn’t so much as a lost-in-translation issue as Dostoyevsky’s own idiosyncratic mystical beliefs. He became increasingly certain that the Orthodox church was the answer to all of Russia’s problems (see Gogol’s ‘Dead Souls’). His vision for a perfected Russian society was a return to traditional Orthodox values, including an absolute monarch in the Tzar, the removal of all ‘Western’ modernising theories (e.g. the existence of a middle-class) and an utterly dedicated peasantry, hopefully including a good number of holy fools or simpletons. This does not mean that all of his characters are religious; several of his books can be read as polemics against the Atheism which was an increasingly powerful societal force in the nineteenth century. Open Atheists however, do commit suicide fairly frequently at the end of his novels and two major themes are the idea of redemption through suffering and the character of a truly religious man (see Prince Myshkin in ‘The Idiot’ and Alyosha in ‘The Karamazov Brothers’).
Russians in Love I don’t think Dostoyevsky is generally known as a romantic writer. His engagement with the living reality of urban poverty means that his books are as likely to feature women forced into legal prostitution as beautiful maidens. On the other hand, if you want some good old-fashioned thwarted love I’d recommend ‘Poor Folk’, for just being a beautiful evocation of humble, unpretentious love and ‘White Nights’ for its wonderful balance of love and loss. Love is powerful in Dostoyevsky, but it does not conquer all; one of the best things about ‘The Gambler’ is seeing how passion for a woman is unable to change an addict. For more extreme passionate romantic love, of which there is plenty, especially in the more famous novels, please see ‘The Idiot’, ‘The Devils’, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and ‘Russia and everyone being mad’ below.
Russia and crime No one needs to read beyond the blurbs and titles of his works to know that Dostoyevsky was pretty obsessed with the idea of crime, criminals and contemporary justice. ‘The Devils’ was inspired by the true story of a politically motivated murder, the ‘Underground Man’ is obsessed with himself as a criminal against society, ‘The Karamazov Brothers’ hinges on a case of patricide and ‘Crime and Punishment’ speaks for itself. The range of these books means it is hard to draw neat conclusions about either the reality of the situation in Russia at the time, or Dostoyevsky’s clear view about it. Problems are highlighted; a lack of religious conviction to teach what is right and too much ‘Western education’ (incompatible with the Russian mentality) are definite causes of crime. Punishments are arbitrary and only truly effective when self-inflicted. I dislike overly biographical readings of texts, but it seems a fitting preoccupation for a man who was sentenced to death by firing squad for belonging to a intellectual discussion group. As a twist to the punishment, just before the execution was due to occur a courier arrived with a pre-written letter commuting the sentence to a term of hard labour in Siberia. As shown in so many of his novels, for Dostoyevsky guilt and punishment exist in a moral sphere outside of the law. Characters feel guilty and suffer appallingly, it’s the Russian way. Guilt in the eyes of the law is frequently shown to be based on temporary Westernised fads and holds little of the terror of existential angst that comes with inner guilt and self-loathing.
Russia and everyone being mad As I travel through Russian literature I’m sure there will be lots of books I would not like to inhabit, but I’m really grateful I don’t live in a Dostoyevskian reality. Even when characters aren’t starving or freezing to death, the mental torments they suffer are hideous. I wouldn’t want to fall into the kind of hysterical paranoid jealously which seems to be a bi-product of most characters falling in love. I don’t want to compulsively repeat self-destructive patterns of guilt because I’m so convinced I’m a sinner I feel the need to alternate between flirting with any man I lay eyes on and obsessive kissing of hands and icons. I may be exaggerating, but the people in many of these novels make Cathy and Heathcliff look restrained and discreet. I could make sweeping statements about the vastness of the Russian state (being opened up by the dreaded railways as Dostoyevsky was writing) being echoed by the uninhibited displays of emotions in so many of his books. I could balance that conclusion by remembering the, equally hysterical, introversion of the Underground man. Overall, despite or because of the fact that his characters appear to inhabit a different planet, Dostoyevsky was a genius and no country would have been big enough to constrain his writing. The Russians are lucky to be able to claim him as their own.