Dostoevsky Still Speaks to Us, 200 Years Later

COMMENTARY: The Russian author’s stories refuse to let the reader passively sit back and enjoy the ride. Instead, each novel probes the human heart.

Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1872.
Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1872. (photo: Vasily Perov/Public domain)

Although he was born 200 years ago, in a world that should be foreign to me, Dostoevsky formed my way of seeing the world more than almost any other person has. 

As a college student, I read Notes From Underground and found it weird and befuddling. Then, I read The Brothers Karamazov, and I was unmade. What I thought I knew about Christianity seemed to be flipped inside out. What I thought I believed about life, death, suffering and love was all held up to a new light and found wanting. 

I once heard National Book Award winner Walter Wangerin Jr. say that Dostoevsky taught him the meaning of the word “forgiveness.” I nodded my head vigorously, for Dostoevsky has taught me the meaning of so many words that I thought I had understood. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky was born on Nov. 11, 1821, in a world where a czar reigned, Napoleon had recently marched on Moscow, and serfdom was still the norm. Unlike every other notable 19th-century Russian author — as his biographer Joseph Frank points out — Dostoevsky belonged more to the peasant class than the landed gentry. He did not uplift the ideal of the poor, authentic Russian. He experienced poverty firsthand and refused to romanticize it. 

When in his 20s and caught up with the wrong crowd, the socialist utopians, Dostoevsky was arrested, and in a mock execution, he saw his life flash before his eyes. During his years in Siberian prison, Dostoevsky returned to the Orthodox faith of his childhood with a fervor. 

Although he remained in exile after his release, Dostoevsky wrote several novels as a nomad, including Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Demons. He returned to Russia in 1871 and wrote the greatest novel of all time, The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky’s life lent the stories to his great novels, but in the artist’s hands, they became more than realistic tales drawn from his biography. Dostoevsky weighted every story with spiritual urgency. He called himself a “higher realist,” prioritizing the higher plane of reality in the story than the material one. 

When one reads a Dostoevsky novel, she finds herself pounding her heart like a tortured soul asking, “What does it all mean?” The stories refuse to let the reader passively sit back and enjoy the ride. Instead, each novel probes the human heart: Are you good? Are you evil? Was God incarnated? Is there resurrection? How do you plan to confront your mortality? 

In these ways, Dostoevsky’s novels have much in common with Dante’s metaphysical epic The Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s convicting tragedies. The characters are grotesque and extreme. They gesture largely: throwing their hair back and laughing, flinging cups across the room at demons, threatening to kill each other and themselves at the turn of a page. They are angry, scared, lonely, in love, unhappy, masochistic. None of the dialogue permits small talk, but the enduring questions always surface. 

Dostoevsky’s earlier novels are mostly dark, with a hand stretched out toward what might be light, such as Raskolnikov’s determination in the epilogue of Crime and Punishment to become Christlike. 

Only by the time that Dostoevsky writes The Brothers Karamazov does he show fully the hope found in the charity of God. The novel is a mystery story, but with metaphysical import. The Brothers Karamazov challenges readers’ assumptions that we are autonomous individuals who may fashion our lives into whatever we desire them to be. Instead, you witness three brothers — Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov — who, because of their despicable and negligent father, have had to make their own way in the world. Yet each has had to come to terms with their father’s influence on who they are, have sought to choose better father figures to emulate and, ultimately, learn they must die to themselves to become who they are meant to be. 

As my first teacher on The Brothers Karamazov, Paul Contino, points out, the epigraph of the novel indicates the trajectory of each brother: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but, if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24, King James Version). 

The novel is like an 800-page gloss on this verse from John’s Gospel. Through a compelling story, we experience the reality that love means kenosis; it means we empty ourselves before another, for their sake. All other paths of “love” lead to pretending, exploitation and even violence. 

Early in the novel, the saintly figure Father Zosima speaks with a lady of little faith and, with grace, exposes her pretense to herself. He expounds upon the difference between false ideals and Christlike love: 

“Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. … Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps a whole science.” 

A love that desires an audience opposes the death to self that Jesus necessitates in the Gospels. In contrast to this fantasy love (Ivan espouses a love for all of humanity, for instance), active love is unseen. A better translation of “whole science” would be “perfect knowledge.” Active love requires daily fortitude, that you spend your life studying this discipline until it’s perfected. Father Zosima shows us what such love looks like in the novel, and Alyosha carries on his example after his elder’s death. 

Dostoevsky admitted to putting himself into each one of his characters. The buffoonish father shares his first name, Fyodor. Each brother reflects aspects of the author’s soul: the passionate Dmitri, studious and skeptical Ivan, and naïve but faithful Alyosha. As a writer, then, Dostoevsky undertakes several deaths to self in the writing of this novel. He invites readers to do the same. If you are a frenetic romantic, the hero of your own story, like Dmitri, from where does salvation come? What if, like Ivan, you have all the arguments against God? Like Ivan, you know why God cannot exist or why God cannot be good. Who pulls you out of your own detrimental logic toward a transcendent reason and practical imagination? Or, like Alyosha, do you long for the kingdom of God to come to earth? So you put too much trust in the spiritual leaders around you, and when they fail you, you doubt. Have you made an idol of the Church? 

These are the big, unsolvable conundrums that we experience when we read this novel. We wrestle them, like Jacob wrestled the angel, and we will come out with sharp pain and lifelong blessing. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky holds up mirrors to our souls, or, it might be truer to say, Dostoevsky’s fiction reads us as an icon does. In Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodox tradition, icons are portals through which the divine may gaze at your soul. 

“The heart is the battleground between God and the devil,” Dmitry Karamazov fears. The novel acts as the icon, then, revealing the war within our hearts, showing us things within that maybe we didn’t have the courage to unveil.

When I read that novel the first time, I wept at Father Zosima’s death. I wrote his wisdom about love in dreams versus active love in my commonplace journal and repeated it everywhere I went. 

I am still indicted by how much I dislike Fyodor Karamazov and do not mourn his death. And, when Ivan Karamazov performs his litany of suffering children, his grand protest against God, I struggle to keep reading. 

But the novel demands many rereadings. All of Dostoevsky’s novels continue to speak to us because they tell the truth about who we are, and human beings have not changed. In these stories, we see ourselves, we see the world in all of its ugliness and beauty. 

Dostoevsky writes in an incarnational aesthetic that brings us face-to-face with the God who is both higher than us and born in a manger among the lowest of creatures. Through higher realism, Dostoevsky digs under the surface of things to unearth the demons that plague us, while also lifting our souls toward a brighter light than we could have seen without him. By the grace of the Spirit that moves both writer and reader, Dostoevsky’s novels remind us who we are and who we are called to be. We must be willing to die and, like Dostoevsky, bear much fruit.