Home  »  Crime and Punishment  »  Criticisms and Interpretations. III. From the London “Times.” Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1917. Crime and Punishment. Vol. XVIII. Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction@Criticisms and Interpretations

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881). Crime and Punishment.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. III. From the London “Times.” Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1917. Crime and Punishment. Vol. XVIII. Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction@Criticisms and Interpretations

THE NOVELS of Dostoevsky may seem to discover a very strange world to us, in which people talk and act like no one that we have ever met. Yet we do not read them because we want to hear about these strange Russian people, so unlike ourselves. Rather we read them because they remind us of what we had forgotten about ourselves, as a scent may suddenly remind us of some place or scene not remembered since childhood. And as we have no doubt about the truth of the memories recalled by a scent, so we have none about Dostoevsky’s truth.

It is strange, like those memories of childhood, but only because it has been so long sleeping in our minds. He has no need to prove it, and he never tries to do so; he only presents it for our recognition; and we recognize it at once, however contrary it may be to all that we are accustomed to believe about ourselves.

The strangeness of Dostoevsky’s novels lies in his method, which is unlike that of other novelists because his interest is different from theirs. The novel of pure plot is all concerned with success or failure. The hero has some definite task to perform, and we read to discover whether he succeeds in performing it. But even in novels where character is more considered it is still the interest of failure and success which usually makes the plot. The hero, for instance, falls in love and the plot forms round this love interest; or he is married, and there is a suspense about his happiness or unhappiness. But in the greatest of Dostoevsky’s books, such as “The Brothers Karamazov” or “The Idiot,” the interest is not even in the happiness or unhappiness of the hero; for to Dostoevsky happiness and unhappiness seem to be external things, and he is not concerned even with this kind of failure or success. He has such a firm belief in the existence of the soul, and with it a faith so strong in the order of the universe, that he applies no final tests whatever to his life. Plot with most novelists is an effort to make life seem more conclusive than it really is; and that is one of the reasons why we like a firm plot in a novel. With its tests and judgments and results it produces an illusion of certainty agreeable to our weakness of faith. But Dostoevsky needs no illusion of certainty. and gives none. He had a faith independent of happiness and even of the state of his own soul. Life indeed had poured unhappiness upon him, so that he knew the worst of it from his own experience; yet we can tell from his books that he knew also a peace of thought compared with which all his own miseries were unreal to him. In that he differs from Tolstoy, who saw this peace of thought in the distance and could not reach it. Tolstoy therefore conceived of life as an inevitable discord between will and conviction, and tried to impose the impossible on mankind as he tried to impose it upon himself, judging them with the severity of his self-judgments. His books are full of his own pursuit of certainty and his own half-failure and half-success. He still makes happiness the test, even though he feels that the noblest of men cannot attain to it; for his own happiness was caused by the conflict in his mind between will and conviction. But in Dostoevsky this conflict had ceased. He was not happy, but he was not born by the desire for happiness; nor did he test his own soul or the souls of others by their happiness or unhappiness. His faith in the soul was so great that he saw it independent of circumstance, and almost independent of its own manifestation in action. For in these manifestations there is always the alloy of circumstance, or the passions of the flesh, or of good or evil fortune; and he tried to see the soul free of this. He did not judge men by their diversities which outward things seemed to impose on them. For him the soul itself was more real than all these diversities, and they only interested him for their power of revealing or obscuring it. Therefore his object in his novels is to reveal the soul, not to pass any judgements upon men, nor to tell us how they fare in this world; and this object makes his peculiar method. He does not try to show us souls free from their bodies or free from circumstance, for to do that would be contrary to his own experience and his own faith. Rather he shows them tormented and mistranslated, even to themselves, but in such a way that we see the reality beyond the torments and the mistranslations. His characters drift together and fall into long wayward conversations that have nothing to do with any events in the book. They quarrel about nothing; they have no sense of shame; they behave intolerably, so that we know that we should hate them in real life. But, as we read, we do not hate them, for we recognize ourselves—not indeed in their words and behavior, but in what they reveal through them. They have an extraordinary frankness which may be in the Russian character but which is also part of Dostoevsky’s method, for the characters of other Russian novelists are not so frank as his. He makes them talk and act so as to reveal themselves, and for no other purpose whatever. And yet they always reveal themselves unconsciously, and their frankness, though surprising, is not incredible.

But we, accustomed to novels concerned with failure and success, with plots formed upon that concern, are bewildered by Dostoevsky’s method; and even he is a little bewildered by it. He never quite learned how to tell his own kind of story—a story in which all outward events are subordinate to the changes and manifestations of the soul. Even in “The Brothers Karamazov” which seems to be imposed upon the real interest of the book as the unintelligible plot of “Little Dorrit” is imposed upon the real interest of that masterpiece. And in “The Idiot” events are so causeless and have so little effect that we cannot remember them. The best plan is not to try to remember them, for they matter very little. The book is about the souls of men and women, and where the construction is clumsy it is only because Dostoevsky is impatient to tell us what he has to tell.

Those who believe that the soul is only an illusion—and there are many who believe this without knowing it—will be surprised to find how much truth Dostoevsky has discovered through his error. Whether his faith was right or wrong, it certainly served him well as a novelist, and so did his experience. No modern writer has been so well acquainted with evil and misery as he was. Other novelists write about them as moving exceptions in life; he wrote about them, because in his experience they were the rule. Other novelists have a quarrel with life or with society, or with particular institutions; but he has no quarrel with anything. There is neither hatred in him, nor righteous indignation, nor despair. He had suffered from government as much as any man in the world, yet he never saw it as a hideous abstraction, and its crimes and errors were for him only the crimes and errors of men like himself.

We hate men when they seem no longer men to us, when we see nothing in them but tendencies which we abhor; and a novelist who expresses his hatred of tendencies in his characters deprives them of life and makes them uninteresting to all except those who share his hatred. Even Tolstoy makes some of his characters lifeless through hatred; but Dostoevsky hates no one, for behind every tendency he looks for the soul, and the tendency only interests him because of the soul that is concealed or betrayed by it. Thus his wicked people, and they abound, are never introduced into his books either to gratify his hatred of them or to make a plot with their wickedness. He is as much concerned with their souls as with the souls of his saints, Alyosha and Prince Myshkin. Iago seems to be drawn from life, but only from external observation. We never feel that Shakespeare has been Iago himself, or has deducted him from possibilities in himself. But Dostoevsky’s worst characters are like Hamlet. He knows things about them that he could only know about himself, and they live through his sympathy, not merely through his observation. He makes no division of men into sheep and goats—not even that subtle division, common in the best novels, by which the sheep are more real than the goats. For him all men have more likeness to each other than unlikeness, for they all have souls; and because he is always aware of the soul in them he has a Christian sense of their equality. It is not merely rich and poor or clever or stupid that are equal to him, but even good and bad. He treats the drunkard Lebedyev with respect and, though his books contain other characters as absurd as any in Dickens, he does not introduce them, like Dickens, to make fun of them, but only because he is interested in the manner in which their absurdities mistranslate them. Nor is the soul made different for him by sex, for that is only a difference of the body; and so he does not insist on femininity in his women. He knows women, but he knows them as human beings like men; and he is interested in sexual facts not as they affect his own passions but as they affect the soul. He, like his hero, Myshkin, was an epileptic, and what he tells us of Myskin’s attitude towards women may have been true of himself. But if that is so, his own lack of appetite, like the deafness of Beethoven, made his art more profound and spiritual. He makes no appeal to the passions of his readers, as Beethoven in his later works makes none to the mere sense of sound.

Indeed, he was an artist purified by suffering as saints are purified by it; for through it he attained to that complete disinterestedness which is as necessary to the artist as to the saint. Whenever a man sees people and things in relation only to his own personal wants and appetites he cannot use them as subject matter for art. Dostoevsky learnt to free everything and everybody from this relation more completely, perhaps, than any writer known to us. Not even vanity or fear, nor any theory begotten of them, perverted his view of human life. In his art at any rate he achieved that complete liberation which is aimed at by the wisdom of the East; and his heroes exhibit that liberation in their conduct. Myshkin would be a man of no account in our world, but Christ might have chosen him for one of His Apostles. Any Western novelist, drawing such a character, would have made him unreal by insisting upon his goodness and by displaying it only in external actions, as saints in most European pictures are to be recognized only by a halo and a look of silly sanctity. We fail with such characters because we should not recognize them if we met them in real life, and because we do not even want to be like them ourselves. They represent an ideal imposed on us long ago from the East, and now only faintly and conventionally remembered. We test everybody by some kind of success in this life, even if it be only the success of a just self-satisfaction. But Myshkin has not even that. He is unconscious of his own goodness, and even of the badness of other men. People who meet him are impatient with him and call him “the idiot,” because he seems to be purposeless and defenceless. But we do not feel that the novelist has afflicted them with incredible blindness, for we know, as we read, that we too should call Myshkin an idiot if we met him. Indeed, his understanding has never been trained by competition or defence; but that is the reason why now and then it surprises every one by its profundity. For he understands men’s minds just because, like Dostoevsky himself, he does not see them in relation to his own wants, and because his disinterestedness makes them put off all disguise before them.

“Dear Prince,” some one says to him, “it’s not easy to reach Paradise on earth; but you reckon on finding it. Paradise is a difficult matter, Prince—much more difficult than it seems to your good heart.” But Myshkin’s heart is not good because it cherishes illusions. He does not expect to find Paradise on earth, and he does not like people because he thinks them better than they are. Seeing very clearly what they are, he likes even the worst of them in spite of it; and to read Dostoevsky’s books throws us for the time into Myshkin’s state of mind. When we are confronted with some fearful wickedness, even when we read about it in the newspapers, it shakes our faith in life and makes it seem like a nightmare in which ordinary comfortable reality has suddenly turned into an inexplicable horror. But in Dostoevsky’s books the horror of the nightmare suddenly turns to a happy familiar beauty. He shows us wickedness worse than any we had ever imagined, wickedness which if we met with it in real life, would make us believe in human monsters without souls; and then, like a melody rising through the discord of madness, be shows us the soul, just like our own behind that wickedness. And we believe in the one as we have believed in the other; for we feel that a man is telling us about life who has ceased to fear it, and that his faith, tested by all the suffering which he reveals in his books, is something more to be trusted than our own experience.—From the London “Times” (1913).