- Reviewed by
Two of the volumes under review are studies of Dostoevskii's works; the third is a translation of a short nonfiction work of Dostoevskii's crucial to an understanding of his complex attitude toward Western Europe.
S. K. Somerwill-Ayrton's Poverty and Power in the Early Works of Dostoevskij, as its title suggest, offers a thematic analysis of most of Dostoevskii's works composed [End Page 839] before the writer's arrest in 1849 and his exile to Siberia. Its principal merit lies in its careful consideration of a number of minor works usually slighted by critics attempting an overview of Dostoevskii's long career or focusing on the later, major novels. Although such critics may discuss Poor Folk, The Double, or "White Nights" as precursors of the later works, few devote much attention to them in their own right and even fewer deal with stories like "Polzunkov" and "A Novel in Nine Letters" (an exception to this is Victor Terras' The Young Dostoevsky). Somerwil-Ayrton treats the stories as a set of experiments or a suite of variations on the themes of money, work, social control, and love, with consideration of the dynamics of oppression (tyrant-victim axis) in each work. Although the application of mis analytic grid to each work in chronological order leads to a certain amount of redundancy, it also enables Somerwil-Ayrton to isolate the constants in Dostoevskii's early work. In addition, the author provides valuable information on the literary and social context of Dostoevskii's early years, particularly socioeconomic conditions in St. Petersburg in the 1840s, a city of government clerks in which men outnumbered women and the demands of maintaining an outward appearance (uniforms) commensurate with one's bureaucratic status often led to relative impoverishment. The constraints imposed by a society that causes the individual to suffer yet provides him with his notions of his worth lead to the psychological conflicts that underlie not only the early works but all of Dostoevskii's fiction. Somerwil-Ayrton's study, although seemingly modest in its goals and claims, provides valuable insights into Dostoevskii's early period and the roots of his later materpieces.
The Brothers Karamazov, the last and perhaps the greatest of those works, is the focus of Arther Trace's study. One of Dostoevskii's central notions, that belief in God and belief in immortality are inextricably linked and together guarantee man's freedom and permit ethical behavior, provides the main theme of Furnace of Doubt, which examines each of the major characters in the novel, his behavior, and theories, in light of this thesis. Trace offers some interesting observations with regard to the effects of belief and disbelief in the characters of the novel, particularly Ivan Karamazov, but the general tone of his study is that of a series of essays or lectures rather than a scholarly study. Quotations from Dostoevskii's works are all from translations rather than the Russian text (despite the recent thirty-volume Soviet Academy of Sciences edition) and transliteration of names is not normalized and at times confused. The flighty society lady in the novel is Madame Khokhlakova, not Holakhov (sic. p. 62) (k and kh represent two distinct Russian letters and phonemes). At least one name is simply wrong: the heroine of The Idiot is Nastas'ia Filippovna, not Natasha, a diminutive of the quite different name Natalia. This lack of attention to detail can also be seen in the penultimate chapter, a survey of Dostoevskii scholarship and debate over Dostoevskii in the Soviet Union. However, anyone interested in this topic can find much more detailed and judicious discussion in Vladimir Seduro's Dostoevski's Image in Russia Today. Scholarship since the controversy over Dostoevskii's works in the late 1950s and early 1960s...