Some students of literature would state,
with certainty, that Fyodor Dostoevsky (also Dostoyevsky) was one of the
first of existential writers. As students of philosophy know, this classification
is problematic, as Dostoevsky’s writings include characters with existential
natures, but the writer himself was dedicated to religious mysticism and
not radical free will.
Also, existentialism should not be interpreted
to mean mere depression or obsession with the dark aspects of human nature.
Dostoevsky’s fascination with the dark side of human will does not make
Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…
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to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result
in misunderstanding the profiled individuals.
These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations
included because within them is where you will find the experts.
Read their works!
NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing”
from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:
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This document is incomplete and, in its present state,
of minimal value. Many works on the life of Dostoevsky are drawn from
poorly sourced materials. I hope to include notes from far better biographies
in the future.
Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский) is one of the
most important figures in world literature, and closely associated with
his beloved Russia.
According to some biographers Dostoevsky was prone to
drink and a gambler who wrote about men with even more anti-social tendencies
than himself. According to these accounts, he more closely resembles the
orgy-loving father Fyodor Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s last novel than the
religious and pure son Alyosha in the same novel.
Other biographers insist Dostoevsky remained true to
his Orthodox religion — and its accompanying guilt. Not that either alternative
seems cheerful, I cannot say without doubts which view is accurate. It
is up to historians and biographers, aided by whatever records exist, to
determine what made Dostoevsky so cheerful a writer.
It is possible that his life made him what he was: bitter,
cynical, miserable…. Any number of negative adjectives can be applied to
Dostoevsky. The defining moments in Dostoevsky’s life were the murder of
his father and his own imprisonment for treason.
His father was an army doctor, who demanded order and
morality. While Dostoevsky was studying at an army school, his father was
killed by serfs on the family estate. This murder made no sense to Dostoevsky.
He never escaped a fascination with murder and crime, trying to understand
why the poor might be illogically violent. Much of Dostoevsky’s writings
deal with death as a result of his obsession to understand it.
In 1846, after serving in the army, Dostoevsky wrote Poor
Folk, a psychological novel. It was recognized as a masterpiece
by many, and secured a good income for the author. It would be nearly
two decades between this success and his next popular novel. One reason
for this dramatic gap in creativity is Dostoevsky’s involvement in the
political upheavals of Russia.
With money came access to Western European ideas and
culture. Dostoevsky, like many of the Russian middle-class, found himself
wanting Russia to adopt Western political structures. He began writing
and publishing calls for democratic reforms, an illegal and dangerous undertaking.
Because of such activities, Dostoevsky and other writers were arrested,
tried, and convicted as traitors to the tsar. On the day of his planned
execution, Dostoevsky was bound and blindfolded, waiting to die. Then,
a messenger came to deliver word of a commuted sentence from the tsar.
The writer was sent to Siberia, after a severe emotional torture the tsar
had planned all along.
While in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s political and philosophical
views changed radically. In fact, his views began to mirror those of his
father. Dostoevsky became a nationalist; he believed that Russia would
become the primary world power within his lifetime. More importantly, he
believed that Russia was a chosen nation, with a sacred future blessed
by God. Dostoevsky became a religious zealot, telling all who would listen
that suffering as the only way to purify a sinful soul. Russia’s suffering
made the country pure.
Notes from Underground, published in 1864,
reflects the pain and suffering of a man — but not Dostoevsky, as is often
assumed. The narrator is fictional, the values expressed in contrast to
the writer’s own religion. It is a study of what Dostoevsky thought the
human condition was creating, not what humanity should become.
Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment in
1866 to illustrate how suffering leads to redemption of a lost soul. The
book’s anti-hero, Raskolnikov, commits an irrational murder. Dostoevsky
did not want to trivialize the crime, but instead wanted to explore the
process of redemption. Unlike Camus’ The
Stranger, Raskolnikov’s crime is meant from the beginning to test
his beliefs. For Raskolnikov, murder is an experiment in morality.
Sometimes, Dostoevsky gave little thought to what he
wrote, especially when writing merely to settle gambling debts. Dostoevsky
could write novels at incredible speeds, when he had to pay bills. At other
times, he gave a great deal of thought to philosophy and human nature.
One very important note to students: do not confuse the
writer with his characters. The existential ideas presented in Dostoevsky’s
works are not his own, in fact they often conflict with his beliefs. Remember
this, and it changes how one approaches his works. Walter Kaufmann describes
Dostoevsky as follows:
Dostoevsky himself was a Christian, to be sure, and for that matter
also a rabid anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and anti-Western Russian nationalist.
We have no right whatsoever to attribute to him the opinions of all of
his most interesting characters.
— Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 14
1821 October 30
Born, the second of seven children.
Father purchases the village of Darovoe.
Father purchases villege of Cheremoshna. Family estate is approximately
1400 acres with 100 serfs.
Sent with brother to boarding school.
Mother develops tuberculosis.
1837 February 27
His mother dies.
Enters the Russian Engineering Academy as an army cadet.
1839 June 8
His father dies, apparently murdered by his serfs.
Has his first epileptic seizure.
1843 August 12
Graduates from the Russian Engineering Academy.
Renounces any claim to his family estate in exchange for money from
1844 October 19
Resigns army commission as an lieutenant.
Publishes Poor Folk, The Double, and A
Novel in Nine Letters.
Publishes The Landlady and An Honest Thief.
Ends friendship with literary critic Vissarion Grigorievich Bielinsky
after argument about Bielinsky’s atheism.
Begins attending political meetings. Does not agree with violence
against government, however.
Publishes A Weak Heart, White Nights, and Another
Convicted of conspiracy against the Tsar. While in front of the firing
squad, Dostoevsky and his companions are reprieved, as the Tsar intended
the firing squad as a form of emotional torture. The writer is send
to a labor camp in Siberia.
Released from prison, Dostoevsky is forced to remain exiled in Siberia.
The period from 1849 through his exile shapes the writer’s view of
Meets Maria Dmitrievna Isaev, wife of a bureaucrat.
Maria's husband dies.
1857 February 6
Resigns army commission again, this time as a second lieutenant,
and receives permission to return to European Russia. Dostoevsky returns
to St. Petersburg.
Relationship with actress Alexandra Shubert.
Publishes The Insulted and Injured and The House
of the Dead.
Visits England and France. Western Europe are both an attraction
to Dostoevsky and a threat. He fears Western Europe might influence
Russian culture — something for which he once hoped. Publishes Nasty
Relationship with feminist writer Apollinaria Suslova.
1864 April 15
His wife dies.
1864 July 10
His brother, Mikhail, dies.
Publishes Notes from Underground, now considered one
of the major works in philosophical literature.
Publishes The Crocodile.
Borrows 10,000 roubles from his aunt, Alexandra Kumanina. He loses
much of the money gambling in Wiesbaden.
Publishes Crime and Punishment, featuring an existential
anti-hero. Also publishes The Gambler.
1867 February 15
Marries Anna Snitkina, his stenographer. Lives abroad, in Germany
and France, until 1871.
Publishes The Idiot.
1868 March 5
Daughter Sonya born.
1868 May 24
Sonya dies of pneumonia.
1869 September 14
Second daughter, Lyubov, born in Dresden.
Returns to Russia after living in Western Europe. Vows to never gamble
Dostoevsky, while not an existentialist, does represent
the roots of the philosophical movement with which he is often associated.
According to Kaufmann:
I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I
do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the
best overture for existentialism ever written. With inimitable vigor
and finesse the major themes are states here that we can recognize when
reading all the other so-called existentialists from Kierkegaard to Camus.
— Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 14
As stated earlier, in my opinion The Brothers Karamazov is
Dostoevsky’s major link to existentialism. I consider this novel a more
definitive explanation of Christian / theological existentialism than any
other work in literature. The poem The Grand
Inquisitor, delivered by the intellectual Karamazov son, Ivan,
explains that faith is not easy to understand. The poem also explains that
free will is the single greatest burden placed upon any individual. Freedom,
according to Ivan’s poem, is intolerable.
Notes from Underground
Marking a departure in literary style and content, Notes
from Underground heralded the arrival a new form of literature.
The narrative is a story with neither a happy ending nor a history, as
many novels of the time had been. Notes from Underground represents
a fictionalized diary of sorts; we explore a man’s inner thoughts and
struggles, not necessarily his story.
Professor and critic Walter Kaufmann describes Notes
from Underground as “one of the most revolutionary and original
works” published. Today we are confronted with preoccupied, self-obsessed
narrators — often the authors are these narrators. One cannot blame Dostoevsky
for the tenor of modern literature, but the narrator of Notes from
Underground could easily be transported into the literature and
experimental works of the 1960s. A phrase from the time represents a
summation of the narrator’s view: “I know so much I’m miserable.” Throughout
the Notes, we experience the narrator’s moods — in particular
The following excerpts from the opening pages of Notes
from Underground present a good introduction to the narrator’s
I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive
man. I belive my liver is diseased….
I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful
official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with the
petitioners and with the officer, and in reality I never could become
It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I
did not know how to become anything: neither spiteful nor kind, neither
a rascal not an honest man, niether a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living
out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless
consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously,
and it is only the fool who becomes anything…. I am forty years old now….
To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who
does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly. I will tell
you who do: fools and worthless fellows.
As we were asked not to trust anyone over 30 by the “Flower
Children” of the 1960s, we are advised by the narrator of Notes from
Underground that men over forty lived so long by being worthless.
He makes no attempt to offer himself as an example for all; there is no
ideal. Unlike heroes and narrators featured in the literature of the time,
Dostoevsky creates a character without traditional values.
Dostoevsky’s narrator represents a break from all European
literary tradition. Foremost, the narrator does not believe in God or Christian
values; he is an individual, free to do as he wants. He, the narrator,
is an existentialist.
A real gentleman, even if he loses everything he owns,
must show no emotion. Money must be so far beneath a gentleman that it
is hardly worth troubling about. The Gambler, Chapter 2 (1866)
Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people
when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded. Notes
from Underground, Chapter 2, section 4 (1864)
The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls
himself a fool at least once a month.
Anderson, Susan Leigh; On Dostoevsky (Belmont,
Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
ISBN: 0-534-58372-5 [Amazon.com]
Kaufmann, Walter; Existentialism: From Dostoevsky
to Sartre (New York: Meridian, Penguin; 1956, 1975, 1989) ISBN:
Olson, Robert G.; An Introduction to Existentialism (New
York: Dover Publications, 1962) ISBN: 0-486-20055-8 [Amazon.com]
Solomon, Robert C. (ed.); Existentialism (New
York: Modern Library, Random House; 1974) ISBN: 0-07-553711-7 [Amazon.com]