Bicentenary of Dostoevsky's birth: an insight into his works, characters and legacy

The Russian writer remains an influential author after 200 years since his birth.

Josh Smith
11th November 2021
Credit to: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr
Fyodor Dostoevsky had a rare ability to create characters capable of disgusting, captivating and mocking his entire readership simultaneously. The notorious Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky complained that they “belong in lunatic asylums, not novels”. Dostoevsky even managed to anger Vladimir Nabokov, the man behind Lolita, who called his characters “neurotics and lunatics”. So, what led Dostoevsky down this path, what can a reader expect from his books, and — most importantly — how has his legacy survived the 200 years that have passed since his birth?
The sculpture of Dostoevsky in Dresden; credit to: Wikimedia Commons

His characters are best understood alongside brief snapshots of his life. As a child, he discovered a nine-year-old girl who was raped by a drunk stranger and was the one to report the incident to her family. This event haunts many of his books, especially Demons. His mother died when he was 16, then his father was allegedly murdered two years later, with absent or dead parents permeating through his work. His classmates referred to him as ‘Monk Photius’, due to his introversion and his deep interest in religion, echoed in The Brothers Karamazov. He suffered heavily from epilepsy and a crippling gambling addiction, as do many of his protagonists. In the 1850s, he was involved with a radical political group, sentenced to a mock execution, then sent to Siberia for four years, an event which becomes the lynchpin of The Idiot.  In short, his life before he wrote his major novels was confusing, disturbing and utterly fascinating — exactly like his books.

All of his four most notable novels are based on a simple idea, then spread this germ into a whole nexus of indescribable weirdness. Crime and Punishment asks ‘is a normal man capable of killing without remorse?’. The Idiot questions ‘if Christ came to Russia, how would he be treated?’. Demons postulates how a faulty generation can raise a generation of murder, nihilism, debauchery, and suicide. Finally, The Brothers Karamazov, his magnum opus, follows three brothers as the case of their murdered father unfolds.  Beneath the farce of “neurotics and lunatics” are profound, sad and revolting ideas, ideas which seem criminal to even read. 

Dostoevsky uses his characters as tools to construct complex, intellectual plots, yet the real stars of his books are the characters themselves.

Dostoevsky uses his characters as tools to construct complex, intellectual plots, yet the real stars of his books are the characters themselves. He understood the underbelly of the human psyche more than any other writer. Some characters take pleasure in being slapped, some crack open wrinkled skulls with an axe, some desire suicide to prove their divinity, some seduce the entire town as a way of self-destruction. His characters have brains. Real brains which you can squish between your fingers. He breaks someone’s legs, laughs at them, sympathises with them then steals their shoes. There is no worse fate than to be reincarnated as a character from Dostoevsky.

However, his books aren’t just fascinating; they’re influential to a degree which begins to usurp cliché comparisons such as ‘like Shakespeare’ or ‘like Dante’. It is difficult to find a literary era after the 1880s in the West which does not recognise him as a major influence. His name was particularly on the tongue of modernists, such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, all of whom sang his praise frequently. Franz Kafka called him a ‘blood relative’ and Ayn Rand ranked him as one of the greatest novelists. He occupied the shelves of world leaders, most notably Joseph Stalin, who read The Brothers Karamazov repeatedly.

It is rare that art of such weirdness as Dostoevsky’s reaches a consensus of being genius. It is even rarer that what is weird and controversial maintains its desired impact 200 years after its conception. In the same way that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD is still remembered because it was rare and disturbing, Dostoevsky is remembered 200 years on because of his rare, uncanny ability to disturb. Regardless of whether you or Nabokov enjoy his work, he will likely remain on bookshelves for many more anniversaries, in 170 languages and growing, and will disturb new generations without fail.

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