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Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1821-1881

dostoevsky.jpg (5261 bytes)The Russian novelist and essayist, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, is considered a forerunner of existentialist thought. He was born in Moscow and attended school there and attended the School of Military Engineers in St. Petersburg. In 1849 he was arrested for membership in a secret utopian socialist organization, the Petrashevsky Circle, and sent to into exile in Siberia for eight years. The arrest and imprisonment interrupted his career for nearly a decade. After his return and for the remainder of his life he was very conservative in politics, was a rabid defender of the Romanovs and firm defender of the Russian Orthodox faith. Several trips to the West in the 1860s confirmed his biter hatred for the West that he carried throughout his life.

Much of his literary work was dedicated to the demolition of the pretensions of the scientific, rational humanitarianism of the 19th century and with justifying the necessity of faith and of God as conditions of true freedom. His most influential works are : Poor Folk (1846), The Double (1846), The House of the Dead (1860), The Insulted and the Injured (1861), Notes From the Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), The Possessed (1871-72), The Adolescent (1875), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80).

At the center of all Dostoevsky's writing is the problem of freedom. What is permitted and what is not permitted is a question that he dramatizes again and again, and one can regard the development of his work as a dramatic testing of the limits of freedom and a progressive refinement of what he meant by the concept of freedom.

Man, for Dostoevsky, is limited by society, economic conditions, laws, history, the church, and especially by God. He is classified, defined, and fixed by a hundred institutions and conditions. Man, however, does not want to be defined and limited -- he wants to be free and he wants to be totally and completely free. According to Dostoevsky he is right in wanting to be free, for freedom is the essential attribute of his identity.

Dostoevsky's free man must be a revolutionary. He must refuse what society, economics, religion, other people, and his own past have made of him. Like Golyadkin, the hero of the early tale The Double, or like the narrator in Notes From the Underground, Dostoevsky's free man is one who is in revolt not only against society, but also against himself, not only today, but tomorrow and for all eternity.

E-Texts and Resources
The Brothers Karamazov
(text file)
Crime and Punishment (text file)
Notes From the Underground (text file)
Dostoevsky and Existentialism


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