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Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in 1821. His father, a surgeon at the Hospital of St. Mary in Moscow, was a member of the nobility, a fact to which Dostoevsky seems to have attached importance, since he was distressed when on his condemnation his rank, such as it was, was taken away from him; and on his release from prison he pressed influential friends to have it restored. But nobility in Russia was different from what it was in other European countries; it could be acquired, for instance, by reaching a certain modest rank in the government service, and appears to have had little more significance than to set you apart from the peasant and the tradesman, and allow you to look upon yourself as a gentleman. In point of fact, Dostoevsky’s family belonged to the white-collar class of poor professional men. His father was a stern man. He deprived himself not only of luxury, but even of comfort, in order to give his seven children a good education; and from their earliest years taught them that they must accustom themselves to hardship and misfortune to prepare themselves for the duties and obligations of life. They lived crowded together in the two or three rooms at the hospital which were the doctor’s quarters. They were never allowed to go out alone, they were given no pocket money, they had no friends. The doctor had some private practice besides his hospital salary and, in course of time, acquired a small property some hundred miles from Moscow, and there, from then on, mother and children spent the summer. It was their first taste of freedom.

When Dostoevsky was sixteen, his mother died, and the doctor took his two elder sons, Michael and Fyodor, to St. Petersburg to put them to school at the Military Engineering Academy. Michael, the elder, was rejected on account of his poor physique, and Fyodor was thus parted from the only person he cared for. He was lonely and unhappy. His father either would not, or could not, send him money, and he was unable to buy such necessities as books and boots, or even to pay the regular charges of the institution. The doctor, having settled his elder sons, and parked three other children with an aunt in Moscow, gave up his practice and retired with his two youngest daughters to his property in the country. he took to drink. He had been severe with his children, he was brutal with his serfs, and one day they murdered him.

Fyodor was then eighteen. He worked well, though without enthusiasm, and, having completed his term at the Academy, was appointed to the Engineering Department of the ministry of War. What with his share of his father’s estate and his salary, he had then five thousand roubles a year. That, at the time, in English money would have been a little more than three hundred pounds. He rented an apartment, conceived an expensive passion for billiards, flung money away right and left, and when a year later he resigned his commission, because he found service in the Engineering Department ‘as dull as potatoes’, he was deeply in debt. He remained in debt till the last years of his life. He was a hopeless spendthrift, and though his thriftlessness drove him to despair, he never acquired the strength of mind to resist his caprices. It has been suggested by one of his biographers that his want of self-confidence was to an extent responsible for his habit of squandering money, since it gave him a passing sense of power and so gratified his exorbitant vanity. It will be seen later to what mortifying straits this unhappy failing reduced him.

While still at the Academy, Dostoevsky had begun a novel and now, having decided to earn his living as a writer, he finished it. It was called Poor Folk. He knew no one in the literary world; but an acquaintance, Grigorovich by name, was familiar with a man, Nekrasov, who was proposing to start a review, and offered to show him the story. One day Dostoevsky came back to his lodging late. He had spent the evening reading his novel to a friend and discussing it with him. At four in the morning he walked home. He did not go to sleep, but opened the window and sat by it. He was startled by a ring. Grigorovich and Nekrasov rushed into the room in transports and almost in tears, and embraced him again and again. They had begun to read the book, taking it in turns to read aloud, and when they had finished, late though it was, decided to seek Dostoevsky out. ‘Never mind if he is asleep,’ they said to one another, ‘let us wake him. This thing transcends sleep.’ Nekrasov took the manuscript next day to Belinsky, the most important critic of the time, and he was as enthusiastic as had been the other two. The novel was published, and Dostoevsky found himself famous.

He did not take success well. A certain Madame Panaev-Golovachev has described the impression he made when he was brought to see her: ‘At first glance one could perceive that the newcomer was a young man of an extremely nervous and impressionable temperament. Short and thin, he had fair hair, an unhealthy complexion, small grey eyes which wandered uneasily from object to object, and pale lips which maintained a restless twitching. Almost everyone present was known to him, yet he seemed bashful and took no part in the general conversation, even though successive members of the party, to banish his reserve and to make him feel that he was a member of our circle, tried to draw him out. After that evening, however, he came frequently to see us, and his restraint began to wear off: he even took to … engaging in disputes in which sheer contradictoriness seemed to impel him to give everyone the lie. The truth was that his youthfulness combined with his nervous temperament to deprive him of all self-control, and to lead him to over-parade his presumption and conceit as a writer. That is to say, dazed with his sudden and brilliant entry into the literary arena, and overwhelmed with the praises of the great ones in the world of letters, he, like most impressionable spirits, could not conceal his triumph over young writers whose entry had been of a more modest order … through his captiousness and his tone of overweening pride he showed that he considered himself to be immeasurably superior to his companions … Particularly did Dostoevsky suspect all and sundry of attempting to pooh-pooh his talent; and since he discerned in every guileless word a desire to belittle his work, and to affront him personally, it was in a mood of scathing resentment which yearned to pick a quarrel, to vent upon his fancied detractors the whole measure of spleen that was choking his breast, that he used to visit our house.’

On the strength of his success, Dostoevsky signed contracts to write a novel and a number of stories. With the advances he received, he proceeded to lead so dissipated a life that his friends, for his own good, took him to task. He quarrelled with them, even with Belinsky, who had done so much for him, because he was not convinced of ‘the purity of his admiration’; for he had persuaded himself that he was a genius, and the greatest of Russian writers. His debts increased, and he was obliged to work with haste. He had long suffered from an obscure nervous disorder, and now, falling ill, feared he was going mad, or falling into a consumption. The stories written in these circumstances were failures, and the novel proved unreadable. The people who had so extravagantly praised him now violently attacked him, and the opinion was general that he was written out.


Early one morning, on the 29th of April, 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested and taken to the fortress of Peter-Paul. He had joined a group of young men, imbued with the socialistic notions then current in Western Europe, who were bent on certain measures of reform, especially on the emancipation of the serfs and the abolition of censorship, and who met once a week to discuss their ideas. They set up a printing-press for the purpose of circulating, in secret, articles written by members of the group. The police had for some time had them under surveillance, and all were arrested on the same day. After some months in prison, they were tried, and fifteen of them, among them Dostoevsky, were condemned to death. One winter morning, they were taken to the place of execution, but as the soldiers prepared to carry out the sentence, a messenger arrived to say that the penalty was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia. Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment at Omsk, after which he was to serve as a common soldier. When he was taken back to the fortress of Peter-Paul, he wrote the following letter to his brother Michael.

‘To-day the 22nd of December, we were all taken to Semenovsky Square. There the death sentence was read to us, we were given the Cross to kiss, the dagger was broken over our heads, and our funeral toilet (white shirts) was made. Then three of us were put standing before the palisades for the execution of the death sentence. I was sixth in the row; we were called up by groups of three, and so I was in the second group, and had not more than a moment to live. I thought of you, my brother, and of yours; in that last moment you alone were in my mind; then first I learnt how much I love you, my beloved brother! I had time to embrace Plestchiev and Durov, who stood near me, and to take my leave of them. Finally, retreat was sounded, those who were bound to the palisades were brought back, and it was read to us that His Imperial Majesty granted us our lives. Then the final sentences were recited …’

In The House of the Dead Dostoevsky has described the horrors of his life in prison. One point is worthy of remark. He notes that, within two hours of arriving, a newcomer would find himself at home with the other convicts and live on familiar terms with them. ‘But with a gentleman, a nobleman, things were different. No matter how unassuming and good-tempered and intelligent he might be, he would to the end remain a person unanimously hated and despised, and never understood and, still more, never trusted. No one would ever come to look upon him as a friend or a comrade, and though, as the years went on, he might at least attain the point of ceasing to serve as a butt for insult, he would still be powerless to live his own life, or to get rid of the torturing thought that he was lonely and a stranger.’

Now, Dostoevsky was not such a great gentleman as all that; his origins were as modest as his life and, but for a brief period of glory, he had been poverty-stricken. Durov, his friend and fellow-prisoner, was loved by all. It looks very much as though Dostoevsky’s loneliness, and the suffering it caused him, were in part at least occasioned by his own defects of character, his conceit, his egoism, his suspiciousness and his irritability. But his loneliness, amid two hundred companions, drove him back on himself: ‘Through this spiritual isolation,’ he writes, ‘I gained an opportunity of reviewing my past life, of dissecting it down to the pettiest detail, of probing my heretofore existence, and of judging myself strictly and inexorably.’ The New Testament was the only book he was allowed to possess, and he read it incessantly. Its influence on him was great. From then on, he practised humility and the necessity of suppressing the human desires of normal men. ‘Before all things humble yourself,’ he wrote, ‘consider what your past life has been, consider what you may be able to effect in the future, consider how great a mass of meanness and pettiness and turpitude lies lurking at the bottom of your soul.’ Prison, for the time at least, cowed his overweening, imperious spirit. He left it a revolutionary no longer, but a firm upholder of the authority of the Crown and the established order. He left it also an epileptic.

When his term of imprisonment came to an end, he was sent to complete his sentence as a private in a small garrison town in Siberia. It was a hard life, but he accepted its pains as part of the punishment he merited for his crime, for he had come to the conclusion that his activities for reform were sinful; and he wrote to his brother: ‘I do not complain; this is my cross and I have deserved it.’ In 1856, through the intercession of an old schoolfellow, he was raised from the ranks, and his life became more tolerable. He made friends and he fell in love. The object of his affections was a certain Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, wife of a political deportee who was dying of drink and consumption, and mother of a young son; she is described as a rather pretty blonde of middle height, very thin, passionate and exaltée. Little seems to be known of her, except that she was of a nature as suspicious, as jealous and as self-tormenting as Dostoevsky himself. He became her lover. But after some time Isaev, her husband, was moved from the village in which Dostoevsky was stationed to another frontier post some four hundred miles away, and there died. Dostoevsky wrote and proposed marriage. The widow hesitated, partly because they were both destitute and partly because she had lost her heart to a ‘high-minded and sympathetic’ young teacher, called Vergunov, and had become his mistress. Dostoevsky, deeply in love, was frantic with jealousy, but with his passion for lacerating himself, and perhaps with his novelist’s proneness to see himself as a character of fiction, he did a characteristic thing. Declaring Vergunov to be dearer to him than a brother, he besought one of his friends to send him money so as to make it possible for Maria Isaeva to marry her lover.

He was able, however, to play the part of a man with a breaking heart, ready to sacrifice himself to the happiness of his well-beloved, without serious consequences, for the widow had an eye to the main chance Vergunov, though ‘high-minded and sympathetic’, was penniless, whereas Dostoevsky was now an officer, his pardon could not long be delayed, and there was no reason why he should not again write successful books. The couple were married in 1857. They had no money, and Dostoevsky had borrowed till he could borrow no more. He turned again to literature; but as an ex-convict he had to get permission to publish, and this was not easy. Nor was married life. In fact it was very unsatisfactory, which Dostoevsky ascribed to his wife’s suspicious, painfully fanciful nature. It escaped his notice that he was himself as impatient, quarrelsome, neurotic and unsure of himself as he had been in the first flush of success. He began various pieces of fiction, put them aside, began others, and in the end produced little, and that little of no importance.

In 1859, as the result of his appeals and by the influence of friends, he received permission to return to Petersburg. Professor Ernest Simmons, of the University of Columbia, in his interesting and instructive book on Dostoevsky, justly remarks that the means he employed to regain his freedom of action were abject. ‘He wrote patriotic poems, one celebrating the birthday of the Dowager Empress Alexandra, another on the coronation of Alexander II, and a threnody on the death of Nicholas I. Begging letters were addressed to people in power and to the new Tsar himself. In them he protests that he adores the young monarch, whom he describes as a sun shining on the just and the unjust alike, and he declares that he is ready to give up his life for him. The crime for which he was convicted he readily confesses to, but insists that he has repented and is suffering for opinions that he had abandoned.’

He settled down with his wife and stepson in the capital. It was ten years since he had left it as a convict. With his brother Michael, he started a literary journal. It was called Time, and for it he wrote The House of the Dead and The Insulted and Injured. It was a success, and his circumstances were easy. In 1862, leaving the magazine in charge of Michael, he visited Western Europe. He was not pleased with it. He found Paris ‘a most boring town’ and its people money-grubbing and small-minded. He was shocked by the misery of the London poor and the hypocritical respectability of the well-to-do. He went to Italy, but he was not interested in art, and he spent a week in Florence without going to the Uffizi and passed the time reading the four volumes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He returned to Russia without seeing Rome or Venice. His wife, whom he had ceased to love, had contracted tuberculosis and was now a chronic invalid.

Some months before going abroad, Dostoevsky, who was then forty, had made the acquaintance of a young woman who brought a short story for publication in his literary journal. Her name was Polina Suslova. She was twenty, a virgin and handsome, but, to show that her views were advanced, she bobbed her hair and wore dark glasses. Dostoevsky was greatly taken with her, and after his return to Petersburg seduced her. Then, owing to an unfortunate article by one of his contributors, the magazine was suppressed and he decided to go abroad again. The reason he gave was to get treatment for his epilepsy, which for some time had been growing worse, but this was only an excuse; he wanted to go to Wiesbaden to gamble, for he had invented a system to break the bank, and he had made a date with Polina Suslova in Paris. He parked his sick wife at Vladimir, a town some distance from Moscow, borrowed money from the Fund for Needy Authors, and set out.

At Wiesbaden he lost much of his money, and tore himself from the tables only because his passion for Polina Suslova was stronger than his passion for roulette. They had arranged to go to Rome together; but, while waiting for him, the emancipated young lady had had a short affair with a Spanish medical student; she was upset when he walked out on her, a proceeding women are not apt to take with equanimity, and refused to resume her relations with Dostoevsky. He accepted the situation and proposed that they should go to Italy ‘as brother and sister’, and to this, being presumably at a loose end, she consented. The arrangement, complicated by the fact that they were so short of money they had on occasion to pawn their knick-knacks, was not a success, and after some weeks of ‘lacerations’ they parted. Dostoevsky went back to Russia. He found his wife dying. Six months later she was dead. He wrote as follows to a friend:

‘My wife, the being who adored me, and whom I loved beyond measure, expired at Moscow, whither she had removed a year before her death of consumption. I followed her thither and never once throughout that winter left her bedside … My friend, she loved me beyond measure, and I returned her affection to a degree transcending all expression; yet our joint life was not a happy one. Some day, when I meet you, I will tell you the whole story. But for the present let me confine myself to saying that, apart from the fact that we lived unhappily together, we should never have lost our mutual love for one another, but have become more attached in proportion to our misery. This may seem strange to you; yet it is but the truth. She was the best, the noblest, woman I have ever known …’

Dostoevsky somewhat exaggerated his devotion. During that winter he went twice to Petersburg in connection with a new magazine he had started with his brother. It was no longer liberal in tendency, as Time had been, and failed. Michael died after a short illness, leaving heavy debts, and Dostoevsky found himself obliged to support his widow and children, his mistress and her child. He borrowed ten thousand roubles from a rich aunt, but by 1865 had to declare himself bankrupt. He owed sixteen thousand roubles on note of hand, and five thousand on the security of his word alone. His creditors were troublesome and, to escape from them, he again borrowed money from the Fund for Needy Authors and got an advance on a novel which he contracted to deliver by a certain date. Thus provided, he went to Wiesbaden to try his luck once more at the tables and to meet Polina. He made her an offer of marriage. She refused it. It is evident that, if she had ever loved him, she loved him no longer. One may surmise that she had yielded to him because he was a well-known author and, as editor of a magazine, might be of use to her. But the magazine was dead. His appearance had always been insignificant, and now he was forty-five, bald and epileptic. Nothing, I suppose, exasperates a woman more than the sexual desire for her of a man who is physically repellent to her, and when, to put it bluntly, he will not take no for an answer, she may very well come to hate him. Thus it was, I imagine, with Polina. Dostoevsky attributed her change of heart to a reason more flattering to himself. I shall come to it, and the effect it had on him, in due course. They had gambled their money away, and Dostoevsky wrote to Turgenev, with whom he had quarrelled and whom he detested and despised, for a loan. Turgenev sent him fifty thalers, and on this Polina was able to get to Paris. For a month longer Dostoevsky remained in Wiesbaden. He was ill and wretched. He had to sit quietly in his room so as not to get up an appetite which he had no money to satisfy. His straits were such that he wrote Polina for money. She was, it appears, already occupied with another affair and does not seem to have replied. He began another book, under the lash, he says, of necessity and against time. This was Crime and Punishment. At last, in answer to a begging letter he had written to an old friend of his Siberian days, he received enough money to leave Wiesbaden and, with his friend’s further help, managed to go back to Petersburg.

While still at work on Crime and Punishment, he remembered that he had contracted to deliver a book by a certain date. By the iniquitous agreement he had signed, if he did not do so the publisher had the right to issue everything he wrote for the following nine years without paying him a penny. The date was at hand. Dostoevsky was at his wits’ end. Then some bright person suggested that he should employ a stenographer; this he did, and in twenty-six days finished a novel called The Gambler. The stenographer, Anna Grigorievna by name, was twenty, but homely; she was, however, efficient, practical, patient, devoted and admiring; and early in the year 1867 he married her. His stepson, his brother’s widow and her children, foreseeing that he would not thenceforward support them as he had done before, were bitterly antagonistic to the poor girl and, indeed, behaved so badly, and made her so miserable, that she persuaded Dostoevsky to leave Russia once more. He was again heavily in debt.

This time he spent four years abroad. At first, Anna Grigorievna found life difficult with the celebrated author. His epilepsy grew worse. He was irritable, thoughtless and vain. He continued to correspond with Polina Suslova, which did not conduce to Anna’s peace of mind, but, being a young woman of uncommon sense, she kept her dissatisfaction to herself. They went to Baden-Baden and there Dostoevsky again began to gamble. As usual he lost all he had and, as usual, wrote to everyone likely to help for money and more money, and whenever it arrived slunk off to the tables to lose it. They pawned whatever they had of value, they moved into cheaper and cheaper lodgings, and sometimes they had barely enough to eat. Anna Grigorievna was pregnant. Here is an extract from one of his letters. He had just won four thousand francs:

‘Anna Grigorievna begged me to be content with the four thousand francs, and to leave at once. But there was a chance, so easy and possible to remedy everything. And the examples? Besides one’s own personal winnings, one sees every day others winning 20,000 and 30,000 francs (one does not see those who lose). Are there saints in the world? Money is more necessary to me than to them. I staked more than I lost. I began to lose my last resources, enraging myself to fever point. I lost. I pawned my clothes, Anna Grigorievna has pawned everything that she has, her last trinkets. (What an angel!) How she consoled me, how she wearied in that accursed Baden in our two little rooms above the forge where we had to take refuge! At last, no more, everything was lost. (Oh, those Germans are vile. They are all, without exception, usurers, scoundrels and rascals. The proprietor, knowing that we had nowhere to go till we received money, raised his prices.) At last we had to escape and leave Baden.’

The child was born at Geneva. Dostoevsky continued to gamble. He was bitterly repentant when he lost the money that would have provided his wife and child with the necessities they so badly needed; but hurried back to the gambling house whenever he had a few francs in his pocket. After three months, to his intense grief, the baby died. Anna Grigorievna was again pregnant. The couple were in such want that Dostoevsky had to borrow sums of five and ten francs from casual acquaintances to buy food for himself and his wife. Crime and Punishment had been a success and he set to work on another book. He called it The Idiot. His publisher agreed to send him two hundred roubles a month; but his unhappy weakness continued to leave him in straits, and he was obliged to ask for further and further advances. The Idiot failed to please, and he started on yet another novel, The Eternal Husband, and then on a long one named, in English, The Possessed. Meanwhile, according to circumstances, which I take to mean when they had exhausted their credit, Dostoevsky, his wife and child moved from place to place. But they were homesick. He had never overcome his dislike of Europe. He was untouched by the culture and distinction of Paris, the gemütlichkeit, the music of Germany, the splendour of the Alps, the smiling yet enigmatic beauty of the lakes of Switzerland, the gracious loveliness of Tuscany, and that treasury of art which is Florence. He found Western civilisation bourgeois, decadent and corrupt, and convinced himself of its approaching dissolution. ‘I am becoming dull and narrow here,’ he wrote from Milan, ‘and am losing touch with Russia. I lack the Russian air and the Russian people.’ He felt he could never finish The Possessed unless he went back to Russia. Anna was pining to go home. But they had no money, and Dostoevsky’s publisher had already advanced as much as the serial rights were worth. In desperation Dostoevsky appealed to him again. The first two numbers had already appeared in a magazine and, faced with the fear of getting no further instalments, he sent money for the fares. The Dostoevskys returned to Petersburg.

This was in 1871. Dostoevsky was fifty and had ten more years to live.

The Possessed was received with favour, and its attack on the young radicals of the day brought its author friends in reactionary circles. They thought he could be made use of in the Government’s struggle against reform and offered him the well-paid editorship of a paper called The Citizen, which was officially supported. He held it for a year, and then resigned over a disagreement with the publisher. Anna had persuaded her husband to let her publish The Possessed herself; the experiment was successful, and thenceforward she brought out editions of his works so profitably that for the rest of his life he was released from want. His remaining years can be passed over briefly. Under the title of The Journal of an Author, he wrote a number of occasional essays. They were very popular, and he came to look upon himself as a teacher and a prophet. This is a role which few authors have been disinclined to play. He had become an ardent Slavophil and he saw in the Russian masses, with their brotherly love, which he regarded as the peculiar genius of the Russian people, with their thirst for universal service for the sake of mankind, the only possibility of healing the ills, not only of Russia, but of the world. The course of events suggests that he was unduly optimistic. He wrote a novel called A Raw Youth and finally The Brothers Karamazov. His fame increased, and when he died, rather suddenly, in 1881, he was esteemed by many the greatest writer of his time. His funeral is said to have been the occasion for ‘one of the most remarkable demonstrations of public feeling ever witnessed in the Russian capital.’


I have tried to relate the main facts of Dostoevsky’s life without comment. The impression one receives is of a singularly unamiable character. Vanity is an occupational disease of artists, whether writers, painters, musicians or actors, but Dostoevsky’s was outrageous. It seems never to have occurred to him that anyone could have enough of hearing him talk about himself and his works. With this was combined, necessarily maybe, that lack of self-confidence which is now called the inferiority complex. It was, perhaps, on this account that he was so openly contemptuous of his fellow-writers. A man of any strength of character would hardly have been reduced by the experience of prison to submission so cringing; he accepted his sentence as the due punishment for his sin in resisting authority, but this did not prevent him from doing all he could to get it remitted. It does not seem logical. I have told to what depths of self-abasement he descended in his appeals to persons of power and influence. He was utterly lacking in self-control. Neither prudence nor common decency served to restrain him when he was in the grip of passion. So, when his first wife was ill and had not long to live, he abandoned her to follow Polina Suslova to Paris, and only rejoined her when that flighty young woman threw him over. But his weakness is nowhere more manifest than in his mania for gambling. It brought him time after time to destitution.

The reader will remember that, to fulfil a contract, Dostoevsky wrote a short novel called The Gambler. It is not a good one. Its chief interest is that in it he vividly described his feelings he knew so well which seize the unfortunate victim; and after you have read it, you understand how it came about that, notwithstanding the humiliations it caused him, the misery to him and those he loved, the dishonourable proceedings it occasioned (when he got money from the Fund for Needy Authors it was to enable him to write, not to gamble), the constant need to apply to others, already wearied with providing him with money, notwithstanding everything, he could not resist temptation. He was an exhibitionist, as to a greater or less extent are all those who, whatever art they practise, have the creative instinct; and he has described the way in which a run of luck may gratify this discreditable tendency. The onlookers crowd round and stare at the fortunate gambler, as though he were a superior being. They wonder and admire. He is the centre of attraction. Balm to the unhappy man cursed with a morbid diffidence! When he wins, it gives him an intoxicating sense of power; he feels himself the master of his fate, for his cleverness, his intuition, are so infallible that he can control chance.

‘I have only for once to show will-power and in an hour I can transform my destiny,’ he makes his gambler exclaim. ‘The great thing is will-power. Only remember what happened to me seven months ago at Roulettenburg just before my final failure. Oh! it was a remarkable instance of determination. I had lost everything then, everything. I was going out of the Casino, I looked, there was still one golden gulden in my waistcoat pocket: “Then I shall have something for dinner,” I thought. But after I had gone a hundred paces I changed my mind and went back. I staked that gulden … and there really is something peculiar in the feeling when, alone in a strange land, far from home and from friends, not knowing whether you will have anything to eat that day – you stake your last gulden, your very last. I won, and twenty minutes later I went out of the Casino, having a hundred and seventy gulden in my pocket. That’s a fact. That’s what the last gulden can sometimes do. And what if I had lost heart then? What if I had not dared to risk it?’

Dostoevsky’s official life was written by a certain Strakhov, an old friend of his; and, in connection with this work, he wrote a letter to Tolstoy which Aylmer Maude has printed in his biography of that author and which, with some omissions, I now give in his translation:

‘All the time I was writing I had to fight against a feeling of disgust and tried to suppress my bad feelings … I cannot regard Dostoevsky as a good or happy man. He was bad, debauched, full of envy. All his life long he was a prey to passions that would have rendered him ridiculous and miserable and he been less intelligent or less wicked. I was vividly aware of these feelings while writing his biography. In Switzerland, in my presence, he treated his servant so badly that the man revolted and said to him: “But I too am a man!” I remember how I was struck by those words which reflected the ideas current in free Switzerland about the rights of man and were addressed to one who was always preaching sentiments of humanity to the rest of mankind. Such scenes were of constant occurrence; he could not control his temper … the worst of it was that he prided himself on the fact that he never repented of his dirty actions. Dirty actions attracted him and he gloried in the fact. Viskovatov (a professor) told me how Dostoevsky had boasted of having outraged a little girl at the bath-house, who had been brought to him by her governess … With all this he was given to a sort of mawkish sentimentality and high-flown humanitarian dreams, and it is these dreams, his literary message and the tendency of his writings, which endear him to us. In a word, all these novels endeavour to exculpate their author, they show that the most hidebound villainies can exist side by side with the noblest sentiments …’

It is true that his sentimentality was mawkish and his humanitarianism bootless. He had small acquaintance with the ‘people’, to whom, as opposed to the intelligentsia, he looked for the regeneration of Russia, and he had little sympathy with their hard and bitter lot. He violently attacked the radicals who sought to alleviate it. The remedy he offered to the frightful misery of the poor was ‘to idealise their sufferings and make out of it a way of life. Instead of practical reforms, he offered them religious and mystical consolation’.

The story of the violation of the little girl has grievously disturbed Dostoevsky’s admirers and they have discredited it. Anna asserted that he had never spoken of it to her. Strakhov’s account is obviously based on hearsay; but to confirm it is a report that, overcome by remorse, Dostoevsky told it to an old friend who advised him by way of penance to confess it to the man whom he hated most in the world. This was Turgenev. He had warmly praised Dostoevsky when he entered upon the literary scene, and had helped him with money, but Dostoevsky hated him because he was a ‘Westerner’, and aristocratic, rich and successful. He made his confession to Turgenev, who heard it in silence. Dostoevsky paused. Perhaps, as André Gide has suggested, he expected Turgenev to act as one of his own (Dostoevsky’s) characters would have acted, to take him in his arms and kiss him with the tears running down his cheeks, upon which they would be reconciled. But nothing happened.

‘Mr. Turgenev, I must tell you,’ said Dostoevsky, ‘I must tell you. I despise myself profoundly.’ He waited for Turgenev to speak. The silence continued. Then Dostoevsky, losing his temper, cried: ‘But I despise you still more. That was all I had to say to you.’ He flung out of the room, slamming the door behind him. He had been robbed of one of those scenes which no one could write better than himself.

It is curious that he twice used the shocking episode in his books. Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment confesses to the same ugly action, and so does Stavrogin in a chapter in The Possessed which Dostoevsky’s publisher refused to print. It is perhaps significant that in this very book Dostoevsky wrote a malicious caricature of Turgenev. It is dull and stupid. It serves only to make a shapeless work more shapeless, and looks as if it were merely introduced to give Dostoevsky a chance to vent his malice. He is not the only author who has bit the hand that fed him. Before he married Anna Grigorievna, Dostoevsky, with an amazing lack of tact, told the ugly story to a girl he was courting; but as a fiction. And that, I think, is what it was. He had, as have the characters of his novels, a passion for self-abasement, and it seems to me not improbable that he narrated the discreditable incident to others as a personal experience. For all that, I do not believe that he actually committed the revolting crime of which he accused himself. I hazard the suggestion that it was a persistent day-dream which at once fascinated and horrified him. His characters so often have day-dreams that it is likely enough he had them too. In fact we all do. The novelist, by the nature of his gift, probably has day-dreams more precise and circumstantial than most people. Sometimes they are of such a nature that he can use them in his fiction, and then he forgets them. That is what seems to me likely to have happened with Dostoevsky. Having twice used the shameful story in his novels, he was no longer interested in it. That, perhaps, is why he never told it to Anna Grigorievna.

Dostoevsky was vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant. In short he had an odious character. But that is not the whole story. If it had been, it is unimaginable that he could have created Alyosha Karamazov, perhaps the most engaging creature in all fiction. It is unimaginable that he could have created the saintly Father Zosima. Dostoevsky was the least censorious of men. While in prison, he had learned that men may commit fearful crimes, murder, rape or banditry, and yet have qualities of courage, generosity and loving-kindness towards their fellows. He was charitable. He never refused money to a beggar or a friend. When himself destitute, he managed to scrape something together to give to his sister-in-law and his brother’s mistress, to his worthless stepson and to the drunken good-for-nothing, his younger brother Andrew. They sponged on him as he sponged on others and, far from resenting it, he seems only to have been distressed that he could not do more for them than he did. He loved, admired and respected Anna Grigorievna; he looked upon her as in every way superior to himself; and it is touching to learn that during their four years of absence from Russia he was tormented by the fear that, alone with him, she would grow bored. He could hardly bring himself to believe that he had at last found someone who, notwithstanding his defects, of which he was only too well aware, loved him devotedly.

I can think of no one in whom the dichotomy between the man and the writer has been greater than it was in Dostoevsky. It probably exists in all creative artists, but it is more conspicuous in authors than in others because their medium is words, and the contradiction between their behaviour and their communication is more shocking. It may be that the creative gift, a normal faculty of childhood and early youth, if it persists after adolescence is a disease which can only flourish at the expense of normal human attributes and, just as the melon is sweeter when grown in manure, thrives best in a soil compounded of vicious traits. It was not the good in Dostoevsky, it was the bad that was the source of the startling originality which made him one of the supreme novelists of the world.


Balzac and Dickens created an immense number of characters. They were fascinated by the diversity of human beings, and their imagination was kindled by the differences they saw in them and the peculiarities that individualised them. No matter if men were good or bad, stupid or clever, they were themselves, and so, material to be put to good use. I suspect that Dostoevsky was interested in no one but himself, and in others only as they intimately affected him. He was in a way like those people who care for beautiful objects only if they own them. He was content to make do with a very small number of characters, and they are repeated in novel after novel. Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov is the same man, less the epilepsy, as Prince Myshkin in The Idiot; Stavrogin in The Possessed is merely an elaboration of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment. The hero of that book, Raskolnikov, is a less forcible version of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. All are emanations of Dostoevsky’s tortured, warped, morbid sensibility. There is even less variety in his female characters. Polina Alexandrovna in The Gambler, Lizabeta in The Possessed, Nastasia in The Idiot, Katrina and Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov are the same woman; they are modelled directly on Polina Suslova. The suffering she caused him, the indignities she heaped upon him, were the fillip he needed to satisfy his masochism. He knew that she hated him; he felt sure that she loved him; and so the women who are modelled on her want to dominate and torture the man they love, and at the same time submit to him and suffer at his hands. They are hysterical, spiteful and malevolent because Polina was. Some years after the break, Dostoevsky met her in Petersburg and made her still another proposal of marriage. She refused it. He could not bring himself to believe that she simply did not like him, and so conceived the idea, to salve, one may suppose, his wounded vanity, that a woman attaches so great an importance to her virginity that she can only hate a man who has taken it without being married to her.

‘You cannot forgive me,’ he told Polina, ‘for the fact that you once gave yourself to me, and you are taking revenge for that.’

Dostoevsky was sufficiently convinced of the truth of this to use the notion more than once. In The Brothers Karamazov, Grushenka, some time before the story begins, has been seduced by a Pole and, though in the interval she has been kept by a rich merchant, feels she can only redeem herself by marrying her seducer. Again, in The Idiot Nastasia cannot forgive Trotsky because he seduced her. Here, I think, Dostoevsky’s psychology was at fault. The particular value attached to virginity is a fabrication of the male, due partly to superstition, partly to masculine vanity and partly, of course, to a disinclination to father someone else’s child. Women, I should say, have ascribed importance to it chiefly because of the value men place on it, and also from fear of the consequences. I think I am right in saying that a man, to satisfy a need as natural as eating his dinner when he is hungry, may have sexual intercourse without any particular feeling for the object of his appetite; whereas with a woman sexual intercourse, without something in the nature, if not of love, at least of sentiment, is merely a tiresome business which she accepts as an obligation, or from the wish to give pleasure. I cannot bring myself to believe that when a virgin ‘gives herself’ to a man to whom she is indifferent or actually averse, it is anything but an unpleasant and painful experience. That it should rankle for years and alter her whole character seems to me incredible.

Dostoevsky was deeply conscious of the duality in himself, and he ascribed it to all his self-willed characters. His meek characters, of which Prince Myshkin and Alyosha are examples, with all their sweetness are strangely ineffectual. But the very word duality suggests a simplification of human nature which does not accord with the facts. Man is an imperfect creature. The mainspring of his being is self-interest, it is folly to deny it; but it is folly to deny that he is capable of a disinterestedness which is sublime. We all know to what heights he may rise in a moment of crisis, and then show a nobility which neither he nor anyone else knew was in him. Spinoza has told us that ‘everything in so far as it is in itself endeavours to persevere in its own being’; and yet we know that it is not so rare for a man to lay down his life for his friend. Man is a jumble of vices and virtues, goodness and badness, of selfishness and unselfishness, of fears of all kinds and the courage to face them, of tendencies and predispositions which lure him this way and that. He is made up of elements so discordant that it is amazing that they can exist together in the individual, and yet so come to terms with one another as to form a plausible harmony. There is no such complication in the creatures of Dostoevsky’s invention. They are constituted of a desire to dominate and a desire to submit themselves, of love devoid of tenderness and hate charged with malice. They are strangely lacking in the normal attributes of human beings. They only have passions. They have neither self-control nor self-respect. Their evil instincts are not mitigated by education, the experience of life or that sense of decency which prevents a man from disgracing himself. That is why, to commonsense, their activities seem wildly improbable and the motives of them madly inconsequential.

We in Western Europe consider their unaccountable behaviour with astonishment and accept it, if we do accept it, as the natural behaviour of Russians. But are Russians like that? Were Russians like that in Dostoevsky’s day? Turgenev and Tolstoy were his contemporaries. Turgenev’s characters very much resemble ordinary people. We have all known young Englishmen like Tolstoy’s Nicolas Rostov, gay, careless, extravagant, brave and affectionate, good fellows; and we have known at least a few girls as pretty, charming, ingenuous and good as his sister Natasha; nor would it be hard to find in our own country a man like fat, stupid, generous and good-hearted Peter Bezukhov. Dostoevsky claimed that those strange characters of his were more real than reality. I don’t know what he meant by that. An ant is just as real as an archbishop. If he meant that they have moral qualities which raise them above the common run of men, he was mistaken. If there is any value in art, music and literature to correct the perversities of character, to assuage distress and to liberate the soul in part from human bondage, they know nothing of it. They are devoid of culture. They have atrocious manners. They take a malignant pleasure in being rude to one another merely in order to wound and humiliate. In The Idiot Varvara spits in her brother’s face because he is proposing to marry a woman she does not approve of, and in The Brothers Karamazov Dmitri, when Madame Hohlakov refuses him the loan of a large sum of money which there is no reason for her to lend him, in his anger spits on the floor of the room in which she has received him. They are an outrageous lot. But they are extraordinarily interesting. Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov are of the same breed as Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff and Melville’s Captain Ahab. They palpitate with life.


Dostoevsky had been pondering over The Brothers Karamazov for a long time, and he took more pains over it than his financial difficulties had allowed him to take with any novel since his first. On the whole it is his best constructed work. As his letters show, he implicitly believed in that mysterious entity which we call inspiration, and counted upon it to enable him to write what he vaguely saw in his mind’s eye. Now, inspiration is uncertain. It is more apt to come in isolated passages. To construct a novel, you need esprit de suite, that logical sense by means of which you may arrange your material in a coherent order, so that the various parts shall follow one another with verisimilitude and the whole shall be complete, with no loose ends hanging. Dostoevsky had no great capacity for this. That is why he is his best in scenes. He had a truly remarkable gift for creating suspense and dramatising a situation. I know no scene in fiction more terrifying than that in which Raskolnikov murders the old pawnbroker, and few more striking than that in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan meets in the form of a devil his troubled conscience. With the prolixity of which he could not correct himself, Dostoevsky indulges in conversations of immense length; but even though the persons concerned express themselves with such abandon that you can hardly believe that human beings can so conduct themselves, they are almost always enthralling. In passing, I may mention a device he often used to excite in the reader a tremulous susceptibility. His characters are agitated out of proportion to the words they utter. They tremble with emotion, they insult one another, they burst into tears, they redden, they go green in the face or fearfully pallid. A significance the reader finds it hard to account for is given to the most ordinary remarks, and presently he is so wrought up by these extravagant gestures, these hysterical outbursts, that his own nerves are set on edge and he is prepared to receive a real shock when something happens which otherwise would have left him little perturbed.

Alyosha was designed to be the central figure of The Brothers Karamazov, as is plainly indicated by the first sentence: ‘Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well-known in the district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.’ Dostoevsky was too practised a novelist to have without intention begun his book with a definite statement that marks Alyosha out. But in the novel, as we have it, he plays a subordinate role compared with those of his brothers Dmitrei and Ivan. He passes in and out of the story, and seems to have little influence on the persons who play their more important parts in it. His own activity is chiefly concerned with a group of schoolboys whose doings, beyond showing Alyosha’s charm and loving-kindness, have nothing to do with the development of the theme.

The explanation is that The Brothers Karamazov, which runs in Mrs. Garnett’s translation to 838 pages, is but a fragment of the novel Dostoevsky proposed to write. He intended in further volumes to continue the development of Alyosha, taking him through a number of vicissitudes, in which it is supposed he was to undergo the great experience of sin and finally, through suffering, achieve salvation. But death prevented Dostoevsky from carrying out his intention, and The Brothers Karamazov remains a fragment. It is, nevertheless, one of the greatest novels ever written, and stands at the head of the small, wonderful group of works of fiction which by their intensity and power hold a place apart from other novels, conspicuous as their different merits may be, and of which two thrilling examples are Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick.

Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a besotted buffoon, has four sons, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, whom I have already spoken of, and a bastard, Smerdyakov, who lives in his house as cook and valet. The two elder sons hate their disgraceful father; Alyosha, the only lovable character in the book, is incapable of hating anyone. Professor E. J. Simmons thinks Dmitri should be considered the hero of the novel. He is the sort of man whom the tolerant are apt to describe as his own worst enemy, and, as such men often are, he is attractive to women. ‘Simplicity and deep feeling are the essence of his nature,’ says Professor Simmons; and further: ‘There is poetry in his soul which is reflected in his behaviour and colourful language. His whole life is like an epic in which the turbulent action is relieved by occasional lyric flights.’ it is true that he makes high-flown protestations of his moral aspirations, but as they do not lead to any change for the better in his conduct, I think one is justified in attaching small importance to them. It is true that he is capable on occasion of great generosity, but he is also capable of shocking meanness. He is a drunken, boastful bully, recklessly extravagant, dishonest and dishonourable. Both he and his father are furiously in love with Grushenka, a kept woman who lives in the town, and he is insanely jealous of the old man.

Ivan, to my mind, is a more interesting character. He is highly intelligent, prudent, determined to make his way in the world and ambitious. At the age of twenty-four he has already made something of a name for himself by the brilliant articles he has contributed to the reviews. Dostoevsky describes him as practical, and intellectually superior to the mass of needy and unfortunate students who hang about newspaper offices. He, too, hates his father. The sensual old wretch is murdered by Smerdyakov for the three thousand roubles he had hidden away to give Grushenka if she could be induced to go to bed with him, and Dmitri, who had often threatened to kill his father, is accused of the crime, tried and convicted. It was in accordance with Dostoevsky’s plan that he should be, but in order to effect this he was obliged to make the various persons concerned behave in a manner that outrages probability. On the eve of the trial, Smerdyakov goes to Ivan and confesses that it was he who had committed the crime and returns him the money he had stolen. He makes it plain to Ivan that he had murdered the old man on his (Ivan’s) instigation, and with his connivance. Ivan goes all to pieces, just as Raskolnikov does after murdering the old pawnbroker. But Raskolnikov was wildly neurotic, half-starved and destitute. Ivan was not. His first impulse is to go at once to the public prosecutor and tell him the facts, but he decides to wait and do so at the trial. Why? So far as I can see, only because Dostoevsky saw that then the confession would come with more thrilling effect. Then comes the very curious scene, to which I have already referred, in which Ivan has an hallucination in which his double, in the form of a shabby gentleman in reduced circumstances, confronts him with his worse self, with its baseness and insincerity. There is a furious knocking at the door. It is Alyosha. He comes in and tells Ivan that Smerdyakov has hanged himself. The situation is critical. Dmitri’s fate is in the balance. It is true that Ivan was distraught, but he was not demented. From what we know of his character, we would have expected him at such a moment to have the strength to pull himself together and act with common sense. The natural thing, the obvious thing, was for the two of them to go there and then to the defending counsel, tell him of Smerdyakov’s confession and suicide and give him the three thousand roubles he had stolen. With these materials the defending counsel, who, we are told, was an uncommonly able man, would surely have thrown enough doubt in the jury’s minds to cause them to hesitate to bring in a verdict of guilty. Alyosha puts cold compresses on Ivan’s head and tucks him up in bed. I have mentioned before that, for all his goodness, the gentle creature was strangely ineffectual. He was never more so than on this occasion.

Nor is an explanation given of Smerdyakov’s suicide. He has been shown to be the most calculating, callous, clear-headed and self-confident of Karamazov’s four sons. He had made his plans beforehand. With great presence of mind, he seized the opportunity that a lucky chance presented to him, and killed the old man. He had a reputation for complete honesty and no one could have suspected him of stealing the money. The evidence pointed to Dmitri. So far as I can see, there was no reason for Smerdyakov to hang himself, except to give Dostoevsky the occasion to end a chapter with a highly dramatic announcement. Dostoevsky was a sensational, not a realistic, writer, and so felt himself justified in using methods which the latter is bound to eschew.

After Dmitri has been found guilty, he makes a statement in which he proclaims his innocence and ends it with the words: ‘I accept the torture of accusation, and my public shame. I want to suffer, and by suffering I shall purify myself.’ Dostoevsky had a deep-rooted belief in the spiritual value of suffering, and thought that by the willing acceptance of it one atoned for one’s sins, and so reached happiness. From this the surprising inference seems to emerge that, since sin gives rise to suffering and suffering leads to happiness, sin is necessary and profitable. but was Dostoevsky right in thinking that suffering cleanses and refines the character? There is no evidence in The House of the Dead that it had any such effect on his fellow convicts, and it certainly had none on him: as I have said, he emerged from prison the same man as he entered it. So far as physical suffering is concerned, my experience is that long and painful illness makes people querulous, egotistic, intolerant, petty and jealous. Far from making them better, it makes them worse. Of course I know that there are some, and I have known one or two myself, who in a long and distressing illness, from which recovery was impossible, have shown courage, unselfishness, patience and resignation; but they had those qualities before. The occasion revealed them. There is spiritual suffering too. No one can have lived long in the world of letters without having known men who had enjoyed success and then, for one reason or another, lost it. It made them sullen, bitter, spiteful and envious. I can think of only one case in which this misfortune, accompanied as it is by humiliations which only those who have witnessed them know, has been borne with courage, dignity and good humour. The man of whom I speak no doubt had those qualities before, but the mask of frivolity he wore prevented one from discerning them. Suffering is part of our human lot, but that does not make it any the less evil.

Though one may deplore Dostoevsky’s prolixity, a fault he was well aware of, but could not, or would not, correct; though one may wish he had seen fit to avoid the improbabilities – improbabilites of character, improbabilities of incident – which cannot but disconcert the attentive reader; though one may think some of his ideas erroneous, The Brothers Karamazov remains a stupendous book. It has a theme of profound significance. Many critics have said that this was the quest of God; I, for my part, should have said it was the problem of evil. It is in the section called ‘Pro and Contra’, which Dostoevsky rightly considered the culminating point of his novel, that it is dealt with. ‘Pro and Contra’ consists of a long monologue which Ivan delivers to the sweet Alyosha. To the human intelligence the existence of a God who is all-powerful and all-good seems incompatible with the existence of evil. That men should suffer for their sins seems reasonable enough, but that innocent children should suffer revolts the heart as well as the head. Ivan tells Alyosha a horrible story. A little serf boy, a child of eight, threw a stone and by accident lamed his master’s favourite dog. His master, owner of great estates, had the child stripped naked and made to run; and as he ran he set his pack of hounds on him and he is torn to pieces before his mother’s eyes. Ivan is willing to believe that God exists, but he cannot accept the cruelty of the world God created. He insists that there is no reason for the innocent to suffer for the sins of the guilty; and if they do, and they do, God either is evil or does not exist. Dostoevsky never wrote with greater power than in this piece; but having written it, he was afraid of what he had done. The argument was cogent, but the conclusion repugnant to what with all his heart he wished to believe, namely, that the world, for all its evil, is beautiful because it is the creation of God. He hastened to write a refutation. No one was better aware than he that he had not succeeded. The section is tedious and the refutation unconvincing.

The problem of evil still awaits solution, and Ivan Karamazov’s indictment has not yet been answered.

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