Reading Against the Grain
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Northwestern University Press
The great writers fill the world with their spirit. The task of the critic is to keep the spirit alive. The best criticism strives to find a balance between the freshness of new perspectives and the wisdom of established scholarship. It has been my good fortune to read and discuss Dostoevsky’s works with brilliant students as well as with wise scholars and friends. This book emerged ...
Note on the Text
Bibliographical references follow a modified Library of Congress transliteration system. Elsewhere, to make the text more readable to a general audience, first and last names ending in –ii have been changed to –y, such as Dostoevsky or Merezhkovsky rather than Dostoevskii or Merezhkovskii. We have also, for the sake of readability, collapsed –iia endings to –ia. Names ...
THIS BOOK is only part of a dialogue that began when Dostoevsky’s friend Dmitry Grigorovich settled down to read the newly completed manuscript of his first novel, Poor Folk, one evening in May 1845. He finished it in one uninterrupted sitting, then rushed out in the middle of the night to proclaim to the world the advent of a new Gogol.1 In spite of ...
1. The Body and the Book: Poor Folk
DOSTOEVSKY ENJOYED one of the most remarkable debuts in literary history when Russia’s foremost literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, welcomed the unknown writer’s Poor Folk (Bednye liudi, 1846) as the long-awaited first Russian “social novel.”1 To this day, Poor Folk sustains reading as social criticism. Still, the most enduring feature of Dostoevsky’s ...
2. The Spirit of St. Petersburg: White Nights
As we have seen, challenging assumptions about the surface of things can lead to unexpected insights into their inner nature. As a “physical person,” a civil servant in St. Petersburg in the mid-1840s, Makar Devushkin enacts a conventional story of selfless love frustrated by circumstance. As a spokesman for romantic literature, however, he represents a ...
3. Purging Bad Money: The Gambler
Throughout his life, Dostoevsky was profoundly concerned with the power of the written word and the ethics of literary creation. His early works of the 1840s, as we have seen, utilize clich
4. Confession and Slander in Action: Crime and Punishment
There is something fundamental about the inability of language to tell the whole truth. Commenting on a study demonstrating that chimpanzees who learn sign language immediately try to trick their trainers, Walter Burkert suggests that “at the very beginnings of civilization, lying and language were there together.”1 In Latin, “to give words” (verba dare) means “to deceive,” ...
5. The Idiot’s “Vertical Sanctuary”: The Holbein Christ and Ippolit’s Confession
In a notebook entry on September 15, 1868, Dostoevsky writes: “Ippolit is the main axis of the whole novel” (9:277). Whether or not one can take this remark too seriously, it is certainly true that Ippolit’s “Necessary Explanation” serves as the intellectual center of The Idiot. But there’s not much to the dying Ippolit except his confession. ...
6. The Demon of Doubt and the Revengeof the Neglected Son: Demons
DEMONS (BESY, 1871) is the first of Dostoevsky’s three major contributions to the nineteenth-century Russian literature of generational conflict.1 In these last three novels the author joins the fervent “fathers and children” debates that played out in the politically heated literary world of mid-nineteenth-century Russia. Here he explores the responsibility ...
7. On Slander, Idolatry, and Impostors: Demons
AS WE HAVE SEEN, the question of fatherhood lies at the center of Dostoevsky’s pamphlet-novel. As his legal father, Stepan Trofimovich bears responsibility for Peter Stepanovich’s actions; Peter’s crimes can be attributed to his father’s neglect. As tutor, Stepan Trofimovich has shaped the younger generation, Stavrogin in particular. The action of Demons ...
8. The Mothers Karamazov
IN THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV Dostoevsky offers one of the great paternal portraits in world literature. Fedor Pavlovich Karamazov dominates the novel: he is the great elemental force at its center, the mystery of the seed in the Gospel of John, the “evil urge” without which no life is possible. This last novel is so obviously an exploration of the question ...
DOSTOEVSKY’S NOVELS challenge the lawyer, the scientist, and the judge. Caught up in the fictional world, we ask the obvious questions: Why is there poverty and crime? Why do people injure one another? Why do the innocent suffer? The answers, based as they are on a faith in the power of logic and human critical discourse, are never adequate, ...