The novelist of novelists

December 5, 2021

To celebrate the bicentennial of Dostoyevsky one needs to think of death – or the execution that almost took place

The novelist of novelists

To celebrate the bicentennial of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (that fell on November 11) one needs to think of death – or the execution that almost took place. On December 22, 1849, in St Petersburg, Dostoyevsky was made to stand before a firing squad at a public square. He was about to be executed. The execution order was read out. Dostoyevsky had been sentenced to death because of his anti-authoritarian and anti-government activities. He was considered guilty of distributing books that were critical of the Tsarist regime. He was also considered guilty of owning an illegal printing press and of criticising the army of the tsar. He was 28 years old at the time. The firing squad was ready when it was announced that the tsar had commuted the death sentence to hard labour in a Siberian prison camp. Dostoyevsky wrote about this life-altering incident to his brother thus: “Today, the twenty-second of December, we were taken to the Semyonov drill ground. There the sentence of death was read to all of us, we were told to kiss the cross, our swords were broken over our heads, and our last toilet was made (white shirts). Then three were tied to the pillar for execution. I was the sixth… Finally the retreat was sounded and those tied to the pillar were led back, and it was announced to us that His Imperial Majesty had granted us our lives...I was today in the grip of death for three quarters of an hour; I have lived it through with that idea; I was at the last instant and now I live again.” This was a mock event or in Baudrillardian terms, a simulation of a public execution. The prisoners had already been pardoned the previous day. The tsar wanted to strike terror in the hearts of prisoners and the general population. The event affected Dostoyevsky as a real execution would. He believed that he was about to die and then was given a chance to live. He endured the prison camp in Siberia for four years.

Life for Dostoyevsky had not been easy before he was accused of being a revolutionary liberal, imprisoned and mock-executed. His life was plagued with personal troubles: he suffered from epileptic seizures and he had experienced a harsh childhood in a hospital for the economically deprived classes where his father was a doctor. He had witnessed illness and death in the hospital and often drew on his experiences to write stories of unparalleled psychological depth and philosophical insights. In the hospital, he observed how his father, attended to the disenfranchised classes of Tsarist Russia. As a child, he had witnessed the case of a nine-year old girl who had been abused by an elderly drunk man. His father had to attend to the child. This kind of firsthand knowledge informed many of his novels. The Poor Folk, The Devils, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov all have their sources in Dostoyevsky’s real-life experiences. He even used his epilepsy as material for his novel The Idiot. The condition – an epileptic seizure that causes uncontrollable ecstasy – has a mysterious origin, cryptogenic, and has been named after our author as the Dostoevsky Syndrome. Epilepsy altered his capacity to work and the seizures became debilitating during his imprisonment. He would experience immense euphoria and extreme fatigue after a seizure. Because of Dostoyevsky’s intimate knowledge of the human condition in all its wretched forms, Nietzsche called Dostoyevsky “the only psychologist” who could teach Nietzsche something.

After his release from prison after four years, Dostoyevsky had to serve six years in mandatory military service. During these years, he became a compulsive gambler. This habit added to his financial difficulties. He turned this experience into a short novel, titled The Gambler. At one point in his life, he had to hire the services of a stenographer so that he could complete a novel within a month to pay off his debts. He ended up marrying his stenographer and running away with her to Western Europe to escape his creditors. The couple experienced many hardships but stayed together till Dostoyevsky’s death. Anna Dostoyevskaya took it upon herself to keep her husband out of poverty and helped him become the first author in Russia who had his own publishing house and a bookshop. This made him Russia’s “first self-published author.”

He is widely known for being a pioneer of the novel of ideas because his characters spend their lives exploring their ideas. In Crime and Punishment, for example, he explored the idea of moral responsibility and whether some individuals were above the law. The protagonist, Raskolnikov explores this hypothesis by killing a pawnbroker. He imagines himself to be above the law as Napoleon had been. Ultimately he confesses to his crime and is exiled to Siberia to serve his sentence. Most of the stories are inspired by Dostoyevsky’s own experiences. The inspiration for this novel is said to have been a man who was simultaneously a poet and a killer: Pierre François Lacenaire. Dostoyevsky created a character that kills to test a hypothesis. Thereby, he changed the stereotypical image of the criminal character. The stories are given a philosophical turn by the writer and are embraced by readers all over the world. He wrote fifteen novels and seventeen short novels that have been translated into 170 languages of the world.

Dostoyevsky explored the conflict between Orthodox Christianity and worldly rationality in his monumental novels. His novels inspired the work of Mikhail Bakhtin to create new theories to explain the fictional world that Dostoyevsky had created. Dostoyevsky’s characters discuss their ideas and actions with other characters. This characteristic trait made Bakhtin think of dialogism. For Bakhtin, Dostoyevsky’s novels were marked by polyphony, a multitude of characters acting as proponents of different philosophical positions without any finality being available to them. This “unfinalisability,” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s theorisation, is what makes Dostoyevsky’s novelistic world discursive rather than ideological: “Dostoevsky always represents a person on the threshold of a final decision, at a moment of crisis, at an unfinalisable, and unpredeterminable, turning point for their soul.” This is the reason Dostoyevsky is considered a philosopher, a novelist, a psychologist and an explorer of the human psyche whose work will be read for centuries to come. It is no wonder that he is called the novelist of novelists.

The author teaches literature and critical theory at the University of Lahore. He can be reached at

The novelist of novelists