“I could not possibly have loved anyone because, I repeat, to me love meant to tyrannise and to be morally superior.” Image: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The lifelong obsessions of Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Two hundred years after his birth, Dostoyevsky’s powerful dramas of good contending with evil still reverberate in our own turbulent times
December 9, 2021

Of all writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the great artist of obsession. It is not surprising, therefore, that his monumental works—Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov—are seeded in his shorter works of fiction, as if in embryo. From the wildly romantic and effusive “White Nights” (1848) to the parable-like “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (1877), these tales explore themes taken up in minute detail in the novels, in which Dostoyevsky’s sense of the tragic predicament of humankind is given its fullest expression: that human beings recognise the good, but succumb to evil; that, though knowing that love is the highest value, they rejoice in their own wickedness, like the “ridiculous man,” a perverse saviour who corrupts the innocent:

“The dream encompassed thousands of years and left in me only a vague sensation… I only know that the cause of the Fall was I. Like a horrible trichina, like the germ of the plague infecting whole kingdoms, so did I infect with myself all that happy earth that knew no sin before me.”

Dostoyevsky is a fierce Christian visionary for whom “social realism” holds little interest, except as a backdrop for powerful dramas of good contending with evil. Unlike his fellow Russian Leo Tolstoy—whose prose evokes an astonishingly lifelike world of men and women of virtually every social class, who could write as vividly of a young girl’s first ball as of a young soldier’s first battle—Dostoyevsky is all foreground, his settings (cramped and febrile interiors, sweeping and anonymous cityscapes) incidental to the histrionic nature of his prose. The quintessential Dostoyevsky hero is a young male dreamer, estranged from everyone around him, usually without relatives or meaningful employment; he is likely to be intensely cerebral, given to lengthy passages of self-castigation, a wanderer in an (urban) spiritual wilderness. He may be “touched in the head”—literally, with epilepsy. This condition, combined with his search for meaning in life, may render him, in the crude imaginations of others, a saintly sort of “idiot,” like Prince Myshkin of The Idiot; he may be a 20-year-old novice in a Russian Orthodox monastery, like the tender-hearted Alyosha, youngest of the Karamazov brothers. Paradoxically, he may be trapped in his own self-consciousness—knowing what should be done but lacking the will to do it, like the Underground Man, who acknowledges on virtually every page of his confessional outpouring a fatal moral paralysis: “I was so horribly bored.”

In “White Nights,” this quixotic hero is 26 and claims to have “never really known anyone.” He is “strangely depressed”—he walks in Petersburg “for hours and hours… completely oblivious of my surroundings”—just like the young Dostoyevsky. One night he witnesses a “gentleman in evening dress” attempt to accost a terrified young girl on a deserted street; chasing away the would-be predator, he offers to walk the girl, Natasha, safely home. This initiates a romantic adventure that unfolds over several nights as he addresses the girl at length, confessing to her that he has “lost all touch with life, all understanding of what is real and actual,” and finally declaring his love. Dostoyevsky makes no effort to infuse the story with verisimilitude; the long passages resemble monologues, or operatic arias, of “poetic” expression. Then, on the fourth night, after the young lovers have decided precipitously to live together, by chance the man with whom Natasha is truly in love appears on the street. Natasha unhesitatingly joins him, breaking off her relationship with the romantic young hero with startling abruptness, leaving him as alone as ever, though rejoicing in his mere “moment of bliss.”

The spectacle of a young girl threatened by a predator, or forced by poverty to become a prostitute, is an obsessive theme of Dostoyevsky’s—closely allied with fantasies of salvation, self-sacrifice and redemption. A dream-haunted, lonely young man, educated yet poor, unemployed and friendless, encounters a vulnerable girl who wakes him from the cocoon of his isolation: so Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) encounters the saintly 18-year-old Sonia, one of the “insulted and injured,” who has become a prostitute to support her loathsome alcoholic father; so the embittered 40-year-old retired civil servant, the unnamed narrator of “Notes from the Underground,” who both exults in “the pleasure of despair” and yearns to be delivered from it by his compassion for the prostitute Lisa, whom he might “save” or cast away humiliated—as he ends up doing. In “The Christmas Tree and a Wedding,” we observe through the eyes of an indignant narrator the low, prurient, predatory desire of a middle-aged careerist named Julian Mastakovich for a “little girl” whom he tries to kiss surreptitiously; this villain, a precursor of the vile sybarite Svidrigaylov (Crime and Punishment), is presented as the very embodiment of shameless sensuality:

“It should be recorded here that Julian Mastakovich was somewhat corpulent. He was a sleek, ruddy-cheeked, solidly built, paunchy man, with fat thighs… He was perspiring, panting, and getting terribly red in the face. At last he got almost mad with rage, so great was his indignation and perhaps—who knows?—jealousy.”

Through his skilful manipulation of her parents, this contemptible person ends up marrying the girl when she’s 16. As elsewhere, the child-victim is indistinctly imagined, a kind of phantasm; Dostoyevsky makes no attempt to characterise her or even to describe her apart from blurry generics: “The beautiful girl was sad and pale.”

Again, in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” written later in Dostoyevsky’s life, the “ridiculous man” is a nocturnal wanderer who has fallen into despondency, convinced that “it made no difference to me whether the world existed or whether nothing existed anywhere at all.” He has made up his mind to kill himself when, out of nowhere, an eight-year-old girl grasps him by the elbow, crying desperately “Mummy! Mummy!” Instead of rescuing the girl, he rudely shakes her off, abandoning her to a male predator, a heartless act that suffuses him with pain and guilt and precipitates a conversion from disgust with humankind and with himself to the rapturous embrace of an ideal of Christian charity.

A sceptical 21st-century reader might interpret the ridiculous man’s ecstatic outburst as an eruption of mania following a period of suicidal depression; but clearly Dostoyevsky is serious about the conversion, which replicates a similar conversion of Raskolnikov at the conclusion of Crime and Punishment, and the ecstatic conclusion of The Brothers Karamazovov: “Hurrah for Karamazov!” We recall too how Dostoyevsky was himself converted from youthful political liberalism to something like reactionary support of the tsarist Russian state following his cruel mock execution in 1849, followed by four years’ imprisonment in Siberia, for the “crime” of attending a political gathering. Unmediated by artifice, or art, this is Dostoyevsky in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” speaking in his rawest and most sincere personal voice:

“Oh, how I longed for life, life! I lifted up my hands and called upon eternal Truth… Rapture, infinite and boundless rapture intoxicated me. Yes, life and—preaching! I made up my mind to preach from that very moment and, of course, to go on preaching all my life…For I have beheld truth, I have beheld it with mine own eyes, I have beheld it in all its glory!… The main thing is to love your neighbour as yourself—that is the main thing, and that is everything, for nothing else matters.”

In a coda to this outburst the narrator informs us: “I did find that little girl… And I shall go on! I shall go on!”

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Illustration by Harry Brockway

One of Dostoyevsky’s more skilfully executed short stories is the relatively little-known “A Gentle Creature,” a variant on the obsessive Dostoyevskian fable of innocence imperilled. Here, a domestic tragedy is precipitated by a husband’s relentless tormenting of his much younger orphaned wife. In this telling the husband is neither a dreamer nor impoverished but a nobleman by birth, a “retired first lieutenant of a famous regiment,” unlike the lowly Underground Man whom he otherwise resembles. Initially, he is the 16-year-old’s saviour, marrying her despite the difference in their social classes; but soon, for no reason other than a sadistic wish to tyrannise a helpless person, he begins to criticise and insult her, eventually driving her to take her own life. The death of innocence precipitates his guilt, regret as well as remorse, and he turns on himself. Though “A Gentle Creature” reads, in outline, like a typical Dostoyevskian melodrama, it is more subtle, approaching the psychological realism of Chekhov in its exacting domestic detail. Chekhovian too are the husband’s final self-pitying words: “No, seriously, when they take her away tomorrow, what’s to become of me?”

In a yet more chilling variant of the fable told in the expurgated chapter from The Possessed that has come to be known as “Stavrogin’s Confession,” the depraved nobleman Stavrogin confesses not only to having raped an 11-year-old orphan, but also to having convinced her into falling in love with him; he foresees that she will take her own life, and all but witnesses the act without intervening. Stavrogin is the Underground Man past all redemption, deliberately choosing evil so that his yearning to kill himself is justified; he is Dostoyevsky’s supreme anti-hero, driven to suicide by “the disease of indifference.”

An anomaly among his stories is the gently elegiac “The Peasant Marey” which, on its surface, has nothing to do with the familiar theme of innocence threatened. Indeed, there are no melodramatic scenes, no maddeningly self-absorbed dreamers or suicides. The speaker is Dostoyevsky himself, recollecting during an Easter spent in a Siberian prison at the age of 29, the vividly realised memory of the writer as a boy of nine, living in the Russian countryside with his landowning family. He is wandering in a wooded area where he hears, or thinks he hears, someone crying “Wolf!” Terrified, the boy runs for help to a peasant ploughing a nearby field, who reassures the child that there are no wolves in the vicinity: “‘Dear, oh dear,’ he smiled at me with a slow motherly sort of smile, ‘Lord, how frightened he is, the poor lad!’”

Marey is identified as “our peasant”—one of Dostoyevsky’s father’s serfs. He promises to look after the child as he returns home, still “very much afraid of the wolf.” Twenty years later, in the Siberian prison surrounded by drunken brutes, Dostoyevsky recalls this poignant memory fondly:

“If I had been his own son, he [Marey] could not have looked at me with eyes shining with brighter love. And who compelled him to look like that? He was one of our serfs, a peasant who was our property, and after all I was the son of his master. No one would have known that he had been so good to me, and no one would have rewarded him for it. Did he really love little children as much as that?… only God perhaps saw from above with what profound and enlightened human feeling, and with what delicate, almost womanly, tenderness the heart of a coarse, savagely ignorant Russian serf was filled, a serf who at this time neither expected nor dreamt of his emancipation.”

Following this idyllic memory, which parallels similar memories of goodhearted Russian peasants evoked in Tolstoy, the young Dostoyevsky looks again at his fellow prisoners, and this time “all hatred and anger had vanished from my heart.”

Very different in tone—bold, brash, defiant, dissonant—is the most famous of Dostoyevsky’s shorter works, “Notes from the Underground.” It strikes a distinctly unsentimental chord with its opening words: “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. No, I am not a pleasant man at all.” Churlish, tedious, darkly comic, exasperating and loquacious, this buffoon-like failure of a human being has chosen to dwell underground—in his “funk-hole”—as a protest against life itself. He courts humiliation from callow friends who treat him contemptuously; he revenges himself on the vulnerable young prostitute Lisa because she has witnessed his degradation and has expressed genuine emotion for him—love, sympathy or pity.

“I could not possibly have loved anyone because, I repeat, to me love meant to tyrannise and to be morally superior. I have never in my life been able to imagine any other sort of love… I always embarked on it with hatred and ended it with moral subjugation.”

Of course, after he has sent Lisa away weeping, the Underground Man is filled with guilt and self-disgust. In the tedium and emptiness of his funk-hole he has no occupation except lacerating himself and, by extension, the (invisible, anonymous) audience he has been addressing. In a final gesture of contempt, the Underground Man breaks the fourth wall of fiction, challenging the reader directly. How effortlessly and maddeningly he glides from the confessional “I” to the accusatory “we”:

“A novel must have a hero, and here I seemed to have deliberately gathered together all the characteristics of an anti-hero, and, above all, all this is certain to produce a most unpleasant impression because we have all lost touch with life, we are all cripples, every one of us… I have merely carried to extremes in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway… So that, as a matter of fact, I seem to be much more alive than you.”

I am not certain if this is the first coinage of the term “anti-hero”—but Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is certainly the first openly boastful anti-hero, striking a note of existential defiance that reverberates through the echo chambers of the 20th century to our own equally turbulent and self-lacerating time, when irony has replaced idealism, and the prospect of an apocalyptic future of the kind envisioned in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is no longer so fantastic.

This is an edited extract from Joyce Carol Oates’s introduction to The Folio Society edition of “The Best Short Stories by Fyodor Dostoyevsky,” illustrated by Harry Brockway