Dostoevsky for the Classroom

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B. Pokrovsky's drawing. 'Semionov-platz Mock Execution Ritual', 1849, via Wikimedia Commons

[I]t was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,” but a prophecy. After all, he was given the gift of seeing much, he was extraordinarily illumined.
―Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) is universally viewed as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest and most influential writers. His biography is as dramatic as any of his novels—he suffered from epilepsy, engaged in radical politics, faced a firing squad, and spent years in a hard labor camp. His observations of those around him and of the spirit of his age, informed by reading and faith are reflected in his fiction, giving it great psychological and philosophical depth.

Notes from the Underground and The Grand Inquisitor: Introductions to Existentialism

On his return from exile in a Siberian gulag, Dostoevsky wrote Notes from the Underground (1864). The first of his major works is a blistering satire on the beliefs of the radical enlightenment just then winning the allegiance of young Russian intellectuals. By removing the old religious beliefs in sin and salvation, modern science was going to solve the world’s problems once and for all. It is to this imaginary audience that the unnamed narrator of Notes, one of the most astonishing anti-heroes in all literature, lectures: “I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway.”

By satirizing the hyper-rationalism and utopian sentiments of his time, the Russian novelist forces us to confront some of the more uncomfortable tendencies of modernity. Dostoevsky’s critique of utopian thinking predicted many of the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism. Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, and Mao’s China tried to systematically direct and change human behavior through rational control of who we are and what is good for us.

EDSITEment’s new Launchpad on Notes from Underground guides the student through a close reading of each of the sections of this short work, raising questions at each stage for thoughtful engagement with the text. At the conclusion, students will have previewed many of the central themes of the philosophical movement that came to be known as existentialism: authenticity, doubt, death, meaning, the bureaucratization of society, and scientific determinism.*

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s last and perhaps greatest novel, is considered a “philosophical” novel, exploring questions of morality, God, doubt, and free will. One of the more famous chapters includes a bizarre encounter between the infamous “Grand Inquisitor” of the Spanish Inquisition and Jesus himself. The chapter is a story within a story, narrated by the middle of the three Karamazov Brothers, Ivan, in a strange and provocative “poem in prose" which can be read independently as a profound mediation of the aspirations and needs of human beings.

Entitled “The Grand Inquisitor,” the poem in prose is part of an ongoing conversation between Ivan and his younger brother, Alyosha. The two have been discussing, in the chapter entitled “Rebellion”, the existence of evil in a universe said to be created by an omnipotent God. Ivan cannot fathom a God that would let children suffer and even be tortured. Alyosha, somewhat troubled by Ivan's argument, reminds Ivan of the sacrifice made by Christ. In response, Ivan presents his poem in prose and raises questions about the tension between freedom and happiness in the human soul.

EDSITEment’s new Launchpad on The Grand Inquisitor guides students through a close reading of, and thoughtful engagement with this short but profound confrontation.

Crime and Punishment: A Common Core Exemplar

Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866 in serial form, is a complex text with a riveting and troubling story line about a young man who steps outside the boundaries of legality and decency and pays a great price for it. It is not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is a superb choice for college-bound juniors and seniors, especially those in Advanced Placement, honors, and International Baccalaureate programs. Several translations are available, including the long-favored one by Constance Garnett.

This complex and lengthy literary work features a young man torn in conflicting directions. On one hand instinctively compassionate and kind, Raskolnikov is also coldly intellectual and aloof. The crime he seems to have been contemplating for a long time occurs at the end of Part 1. Punishment fills the rest of the novel. Although his mind insists that the old woman he killed was barely human and the world was better off without her, he is wretchedly unhappy and caught in what he sees as a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. His confession, conviction, and deportation to Siberia comes as a relief, and the novel’s conclusion implies but does not fully explain his redemption as a human being. The Common Core State Standards has identified this novel as an exemplar text for grades 11 – CCR.

EDSITEment’s new three-lesson unit, Schisms and Divisions in Crime and Punishment: A Common Core Exemplar asks students to go beyond character analysis in order to comprehend Dostoevsky’s underlying themes. What does the novel imply about human nature? Dostoevsky shows his readers that people are neither simple nor easily classified; they are often torn in opposite directions by forces both inside of and outside of themselves, sometimes with catastrophic results.

The three lessons stress the polarizations that dominate the novel: characters torn by opposing tendencies; theories that separate ordinary people from the extraordinary; disconnects between intellect and emotion; societal divides that formed the fermenting mixture that led to revolution half a century later. Aligns with ELA Anchor Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize key supporting details and ideas.

  • While Dostoevsky himself would have rejected the existentialist viewpoint; as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, he identified faith as a resolution to existential angst.

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