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Literature’s MVP, Dostoevsky

If literature is a game, then Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of literature’s most

talented and respected players. All of Dostoevsky’s works are not only highly

regarded by his readers, but also scholars of literature. Sigmund Freud stated that

Dostoevsky’s place in literature is “…not far behind Shakespeare” (Freud 972). The

novel most commonly referred to as his masterpiece is Crime and Punishment. This

novel is written with such genius that practically anyone could enjoy it (anyone who

would be willing to read a five hundred page novel, that is). Dostoevsky uses many

devices to keep his reader’s attention. He uses the timeless intrigue of a detective

story but still produces an intellectually challenging novel. Crime and Punishment

can be read and enjoyed by the average reader, but also challenges the intellectually

superior reader by the use of psychological insights. Crime and Punishment’s

characters are filled with deep psychological and spiritual questions that haunt the

reader long after the story is read.

Janko Lavrin stated that Dostoevsky tapped into “…the most hidden recesses

of man’s soul and spirit, he was the first European novelist to explore the

unconscious and to annex it wholesale to modern literature…” (973-4). Victor

Terras elucidates one of the fundamental differences in the psychological

development of Dostoevsky’s characters and other nineteenth-century novelists’


They are developed centrifugally rather than centripitally. As the novel

progresses, the reader keeps discovering new character traits in a

Dostoevskian hero, and some of these traits will come quite

unexpected. As a result the character in question keeps growing fuller,

more complex, and more intriguing…Dostoevsky himself did not

believe in psychological determinism and insisted on the double-edged

nature of all psychological analysis. (Terras 28-29)

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s remarkable insight into the psychology of man is seen in the

development of Raskolnikov’s dream of the drunken peasants beating the old horse

to death. He dreams that he is back in his childhood and as he is walking with his

father, he sees a drunken peasant trying to make an old horse pull a heavy wagon

full of people. When the old horse is unable to pull the wagon, the peasant gets

angry and beats the horse to death. The dream is significant on several planes,

perhaps the most notable is that the dream is tied to Raskolnikov’s plan to murder

the pawnbroker. When Raskolnikov awakens, he wonders if he can actually “take

an axe, split her skull open, tread in the sticky blood and hide”(qtd. in Breger 23).

In the dream Raskolnikov is both the vicious peasant who kills the horse, and the

boy who feels great compassion for the horse. This “double-edged nature” as

Terras put it, is the type of psychology Dostoevsky used to make Raskolnikov really

appeal to Crime and Punishment’s readers.

Dostoevsky once wrote a letter to A.N. Maikov focused around a question

“with which I have been tormented, consciously or unconsciously all my life– that

is, the existence of God” (qtd. in Dirschel 59). In Dostoevsky’s writings “…the

fight for belief is accompanied by the most vigorous apology for unbelief. But for

this reason they are all the more poignant both as literature and as human

documents”(Lavrin 976). Dostoevsky’s personal struggle with the question of faith,

and also his own experience as a doubting believer, are manifested in the characters

he develops. A large number of Dostoevsky’s books, (including Crime and

Punishment), are written within the framework of a Christian doctrine; juxtaposing

characterizations of believers and non-believers such as Raskolnikov and Sonia; and

enforcing the ultimate good in developing a belief in Christ. Dostoevsky also uses

his characters to describe the mental suffering and questioning that realizing the

truth of Jesus Christ caused him. Dostoevsky projected his own inner turmoil and

his doubting faith into his characters to “…achieve a kind of catharsis…” and

perhaps prevent himself from going mad (Lavrin 974).

In the game of literary composition, Fyodor Dostoevsky is still one of the

most talented and respected players. His works are still highly regarded by all

readers, including literary critics and scholars. Dostoevesky’s masterpiece Crime

and Punishment is written with such propensity that anyone, from the average reader

to the superincumbent reader, can enjoy this novel. The psychological and spiritual

questions pondered by Crime and Punishment’s characters will haunt any reader

long after the novel has been read.

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