LESSON 7 The Young Dostoevsky and the Dawn of Realism

Study Notes

The Dawn of Realism and V. G. Belinsky

By the middle of the 1840s, encouraged by the later work of Pushkin and by the achievements of Gogol and Lermontov, prose fiction had risen to the level of poetry as a medium of literary expression in Russia. At the same time, as the history of Gogol criticism shows, a spirit of social engagement was developing as the idea that literature had important social, political, and ideological functions became increasingly common. This idea was promoted from both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum.

The champion of the left (or progressive) critics was Vissarion Grigorievich Belinsky (1811-1848). Belinsky called upon Russian literature to serve the causes of justice for the disadvantaged and of progress toward a more open and democratic society. In practice, this amounted to a call to criticism of the political and social status quo and sympathy for those segments of the population (especially the peasants, who were about eighty to ninety per cent of the population) who formerly had not been thought fit for inclusion in literary works.

A group of writers, centered mainly in Petersburg, answered this call. They are called the writers of the "Natural School" and their "physiological sketches" of the plain people of Petersburg were the first stirrings of the movement that became known as Russian Realism. (It is such Realist writers as Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky who give Russian literature its justified claim to world-wide prominence in nineteenth-century literature. You may wish to consult such works as Wellek's Concepts of Criticism for further information on Realism or Victor Terras' Handbook of Russian Literature for information on Realism in Russia.)

Belinsky felt that Gogol, before Gogol had became corrupted by religious mysticism, had supplied brilliant examples of Realism, the path that Russian literature should follow. In Dead Souls, according to Belinsky, Gogol had exposed the corruption and folly of the provincial land-holding class; in The Inspector General, the corruption of officials; in "The Nose," the absurdities of the system of bureaucratic ranks. Finally, in "The Overcoat," Gogol had provided the greatest instantiation (following Pushkin's example in "The Bronze Horseman") of the theme of the disadvantaged "little man" as the victim of an uncaring, rank and power-crazy Russian official society. It was true that Gogol's portrait of reality tended to be somewhat (or even greatly) exaggerated, but this was ascribed to the artistic license permitted to a satirist.

Realism and Belinsky are both large topics. Refer to the Bibliography for further information.

The Early Life of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Another writer who responded deeply, although not always so positively, to Gogol was Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881), whose first works appeared in the middle of the 1840s. Dostoevsky was born in 1821 in Moscow, the son of a doctor in charge of a charity hospital. After a secondary education in private high schools in Moscow (1833-37), Dostoevsky enrolled in the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg; he graduated in 1843. He served in the civil service for about a year before leaving to devote himself to literary work.

Dostoevsky's first novel, Poor Folk, was published to a strongly positive reception in 1846. The powerful critic Belinsky was especially enthusiastic. Dostoevsky's subsequent works, however, were not so well received, and his career languished. In 1847 he became a member of a clandestine political discussion group headed by a certain Petrashevsky. The circle's discussions centered on the socialism of the early nineteenth century, particularly on the ideas of F. M. C. Fourier and Auguste Comte. Soviet critics make much of the young Dostoevsky's involvement in this circle. Western critics, in general, see his interest in Socialism as only one among many, with nothing of the fanatical about it. However, there is general agreement that it was a dangerous interest, and that it cost Dostoevsky dearly. In 1849 Dostoevsky and some of the other members of the Petrashevsky circle were arrested and imprisoned. Dostoevsky was tried and convicted as one of the group's leaders; he was sentenced to death. In December of 1849 Dostoevsky and a few other prisoners were already at the place of execution when a commutation of sentence arrived at the last moment.

Instead of execution, Dostoevsky's punishment was to be a four-year term in a forced-labor camp in Siberia, followed by an indefinite term in exile as a private in the Russian army. The hard life of the Siberian prison had a deleterious influence on Dostoevsky's health. Epilepsy, which had been a relatively minor problem for him, now became much more serious; moreover, Dostoevsky, the inveterate reader, was allowed only one book while in prison, a copy of the Gospels which he read over and again from cover to cover. After his release from prison in 1854, Dostoevsky served as a private in the army and later as an officer. In 1857 he married a widow, Marya Isaeva, whom he had met in exile.

In 1859, he was allowed to retire from the army and to return to Russia. He immediately returned to the literary scene with works he had written while in exile.

Dostoevsky's Early Works

This survey of Dostoevsky's life and career as a writer will continue in the next lesson. Now, however, it is time to consider his early work in greater detail. His first novel, Poor Folk, is one of the texts you will study in this lesson. It was welcomed by Belinsky and his circle because it was written in the style they favored: (1) it was in prose; (2) it was in the spirit of Realism and described the contemporary social situation; and (3) it exuded a sympathy for the common person and raised members of the lower classes to the status of literary heroes. The main characters of Poor Folk include a low-ranking official, a student, and a seamstress. There is some similarity to Gogol's manner of detailed description, but there is also an obvious polemic with Gogol's harsh, exaggerated, and grotesque portrayal of his heroes. Dostoevsky is much more warmly sympathetic and much less comic than his predecessor. Tragedy and pathos replace Gogol's biting satire.

Poor Folk (1846) is an account of the love and sacrifice of an aging civil servant for a young, impoverished girl. It is written in the form of letters exchanged between the two. In both form and content Dostoevsky goes back beyond Gogol to the sentiment of Karamzin, but he retains Gogol's predilection for middle- and lower-class characters. It was Dostoevsky's humanitarianism and sympathy that Belinsky most valued in the novel.

The enthusiasm of Belinsky and others was soon dampened by the appearance of Dostoevsky's second novel of 1846, The Double. This work portrays a civil servant who suffers from the delusion that a demonic double is persecuting him and ruining his career. This notion of the split in human nature--of good and evil, positive and negative coexisting within the human psyche--is present at the heart of Dostoevsky's mature psychological insight as revealed in his great novels of the 1860s and 1870s. The critics of the time, however, saw no general application to the human condition in this novel. They felt that Dostoevsky had provided an interesting but, for "normal" people, irrelevant account of the onset of insanity.

The rest of the works Dostoevsky wrote before his imprisonment in 1849 reflect the characteristics exemplified in Poor Folk and The Double. On the one hand there is a tone of sympathy, a commitment to realism, and an interest in characters as social types; on the other, there is dispassionate objectivity, fantasy, and interest in characters as universal psychological types. This split continues to be evident also in Dostoevsky's later novels.

Supplementary Background Reading

Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature pp. 172-176 (on Belinsky)

Required reading--Literary Text

Dostoevsky, Poor Folk

You can get additional information on the career of the young Dostoevsky from these books:

Frank, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt
Terras, Handbook of Russian Literature "Dostoevsky"
Terras, The Young Dostoevsky

For Further Thought

1. What sort of people do Barbara and Makar (in Poor Folk) seem to be at the beginning of the novel? Does your opinion of them and their motives change by the end of the novel? Why?

2. What would you say is the relationship between Gogol's "The Overcoat" (published 1842) and Dostoevsky's Poor Folk (published 1846)?

Have a question?

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