Dostoevsky’s Art: Driven, Dramatic, Didactic Expression of Human Sentiment and Psyche

Arjun Madan
March 16, 2024

Before contributing to a rich and rather saturated discourse about the creative style of a literary authority and his works which single – handedly constitute an entire literary phenomenon, I would like to pose a question for you to reflect upon:

What do Albert Einstein and Virginia Woolf have in common, other than being pioneering innovators and renown experts in their respective fields?

A shared admiration for the heartfelt philosophical and psychological art of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Characterized by an unprecedented (and still, quite inimitable) psychological depth, sapience for human emotions and incisive, original, intense expression of profound, rather dense philosophical ideas in contrastingly gripping, visceral, dramatic yet realistic narratives; Dostoevsky’s oeuvre has maintained its resonance acutely despite tremendous contextual differences. Tracing, explaining and predicting the psychological undercurrents and intellectual developments of successive societies, remaining contemporary and relevant to each succeeding generation – like Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.

File:1665 Girl with a Pearl Earring.jpg
Girl with A Pearl Earring, portrait by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer

However, Dostoevsky’s towering reputation as the thinker whose ideas and presentation have found an echo in every subsequent intellectual development – while developing some of the most ancient paradoxes and preoccupations of humanity, has considerably obscured the stylistic construction which beautifully supports and enhances the transmission of the very ideas and observations he is treasured for. During my extensive commitment to the exploration of literature, I’ve developed the notion (and have come around to firmly believe it) that meaning in written craft is a two–way street. The underlying thematic concerns and what the artist has to say about them – which constitutes meaning, have a considerable impact on the overall effect of the work – and the linguistic style which enshrines this meaning impacts how it’s conveyed and received, adding nuance, specificity and effect to it – which makes it all the more potent in fulfilling its value and the wordsmith’s purpose. It is this conviction which compels me to reflect upon and explore Dostoevsky’s stylistic talents and technique – and contribute to an important, but often neglected and overlooked aspect of the discourse around this illustrious artist of human nature, utilizing what is widely considered to be his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov, as a contextual backdrop to exemplify the stylistic attributes and hallmarks under discussion.

Einstein, perhaps quite cryptically, asserted that he learnt more from Dostoevsky than from any other thinker.

Virginia Woolf, creatively characterised by her nuanced and precise descriptions of mental states and psychological experiences, rendered with a poetic suppleness –  replete with metaphor, simile and imagery – is far more suited to describe a Dostoyevskian reading experience than my humble self. This suitability is apparent in her description, furnished in a prominent essay originated by her authorship:

‘The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading . . . But, as we listen, our confusion slowly settles. A rope is flung to us; we catch hold of a soliloquy; holding on by the skin of our teeth, we are rushed through the water; feverishly, wildly, we rush on and on, now submerged, now in a moment of vision understanding more than we have ever understood before, and receiving such revelations as we are wont to get only from the press of life at its fullest . . . The pace at which we are living is so tremendous that sparks must rush off our wheels as we fly. Moreover, when the speed is thus increased and the elements of the soul are seen, not separately in scenes of humour or scenes of passion as our slower English minds conceive them, but streaked, involved, inextricably confused, a new panorama of the human mind is revealed. The old divisions melt into each other. Men are at the same time villains and saints; their acts are at once beautiful and despicable. There in none of that precise division between good and bad to which we are used.’

Of course, any holistic discussion of Dostoevsky’s literary canon is incomplete without an exploration of the philosophical keynotes and psychological motifs he is treasured for, which find an expression in the ‘moments of vision’ and the veritable ‘ropes’ flung out to us throughout his searing narratives – alluded to by Woolf in her abovementioned rendition and pronouncedly held in high esteem. The same is true for this discussion, even if the said exploration occurs in the context of analysing how Dostoevsky’s literary style enhances and develops the impact of ideas and observations.

Often, such expression is concentrated in meaningful passages, which almost always occur in dialogue, such as the following excerpt from Father Zosima’s (a monk’s) interaction with fellow priests and disciples, while on his deathbed:

‘The world has proclaimed freedom, especially as of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” – this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united . . . by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horses, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, they will sacrifice life, honour, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it.  We see the same thing in those who are not rich, while the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink . . . They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.’

And yes, these percipient observations – transferable without loss of potency in meaning to today’s context, emanate from a 150-year-old creative work.

Stylistically, in Dostoevsky, dialogic exploration of ideas and textual keynotes creates an almost postmodernist proximity of what is being said with the reader – as if the speaker was addressing the reader itself, instead of the in-narrative listener. Not quite breaking the fourth wall, but coming quite close to it. Such expositions are similar in impact and structure to the style developed by Classical authors, particularly rhetoric – astute observations about the individual and societal psyche are encapsulated in succinct, terse epigrams – which are then deconstructed with questions, creating proximity with the reader and stimulating thought more overtly, magnetising the ideas which are being talked about.

A compelling intensity is created within such passages dense with thought and perception, through the ample use of juxtaposition. Using parallelism and catechism (evident in the epigram. ‘They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy’), Dostoevsky links a miscellany of analogies and postulations to draw parallels and convey a cohesive point very apparently with their arrangement and structural organisation. These two techniques are also used to draw similarities between the polar aspects of the same thought, enhancing the juxtaposition effect mentioned earlier. Dostoevsky’s ample and permeant use of ‘amplification’ as a literary technique in dialogue embodies the iterations we make as we go along real conversations, lending verisimilitude and an opportunity for intensifying meaning in such passages through multiple adjectives and adverbs.

Indeed, it is in dialogue that Dostoevsky’s art finds its creative pinnacle. Written with distinct, nonpareil psychological realism to embody normal conversation more perfectly than any other work (that I’ve came across), with its repetitions, its pauses, uneven sentences and tangential nature in keeping with the train of thought; while still packing a literary punch – with marvellously distinct character voices responding to each other, seeking to perceive each other, striving for control and influence over each other, with an underlying subtext guiding the conversation, while subtly ‘showing’ and establishing character attributes in play – making the dialogue which incorporates them meaningful, unputdownable and tensely important for the progression of the narrative despite its semblance with realistic conversation. An imperfect but still relevant exemplification of this would be the following extract:

‘“Well, if he’s sick, God help him! Were you really going to shoot yourself tomorrow? What a silly man! But why? I love such men, reckless men, like you.” She prattled to him with a somewhat heavy tongue. “So you’re ready to do anything for me? Eh? But were you really going to shoot yourself tomorrow, you little fool? No, wait now, tomorrow maybe I’ll have something to tell you…not today, but tomorrow. And you’d like it to be today? No, today I don’t want to…Go now, go enjoy yourself.”’

The subtextual question here is Grushenka’s (the speaker’s) pledge of affection to Dmitri (the addressee), a matter of extreme importance to the latter. One can also notice Grushenka’s slyness and cunningness made apparent in her prevarication here.

One particular feature of Dostoevskian dialogue that remarkably stood out to me was repetition, an aspect so common in our daily conversations that we tend to ignore it, and is yet almost uniquely imbibed in his dialogue. Quotidian interactions are simple, with a focus on the meaning of what is being conveyed instead of style, making repetition an almost default pattern for emphasizing the specific ideas we want to convey. This lifelikeness of dialogue and its underlying observation is what I admire as a creative feature – it lends a touch of verisimilitude and amplifies the above mentioned psychological realism to a degree of finesse unparalleled (at least in this manner) by any other work that I’m acquainted with.

Furthermore, although it might not be apparent with this extract, Dostoevsky’s instinctively riveting and thrilling pace is upheld in part by his rich dialogue – often interjected by action, enhancing the dialogue’s meaning with expression, endowing what’s being said with subtext and nuance; often revealing character’s motivation or intent behind what they say, or facilitating the mingling of their thoughts with what they say to create a rich, harmonious psychological melody of the character.

It is the mellifluous, stirringly human amelioration of these distinct, idiosyncratic psychological melodies that comprises perhaps the most salient narrative glory of Dostoevsky’s corpus; named ‘polyphony’ by the acclaimed literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who borrowed the term from music to adequately describe the interplay of marvellously distinct character voices through radically free dialogue evident in Dostoevsky, and lacking in his contemporaries and predecessors. It is a Dostoyevskian stylistic quality that, even if not known – is deeply felt, by even the most unobservant and uninitiated reader of his works.

As opposed to conventional, ‘monologic’ narratives, where all character’s voices are subordinated to a single narrative conscience – which arises from and is identified with that of the author; Dostoevsky’s works exhibit a decentred authorial-narrative stance, which empowers all voices with a greater degree of independence. Voices in the Dostoyevskian narrative are distinct and immiscible, and consequently can’t be reduced to a single narrative voice and outlook. Indeed, this ‘immiscibility’ is fundamental and essential to Dostoevsky’s magnetically riveting, realistic dialogue as well as to the Dostoyevskian story as a whole – because it arises from the interaction of autonomous, fluid personalities and consciousnesses, which is evident in his creative process, where a multiplicity of concurrent, independent voices arise from the compositional structure of the novel being formed spontaneously around the interactions of the personalities they embody. From this creative method, no ‘monologic’ narrative can emerge, only a series of concrete events made up of organised human interactions, voices and orientations.

This accounts for the plurality of distinctively different voices present simultaneously throughout Dostoevsky’s narratives, but what might be the artistic brilliance behind the complexity and richness of each individual character voice itself, which express an almost conscious personality of their own? Bakhtin points to Dostoevsky’s psychological observation about the interplay of thoughts and emotions – and how they both influence each other in a person’s psyche; and postulates that this manifests in his narratives through an artistic fusion of idea and character personality, whereby a thematic idea concerned as a keynote in the text resides at the core of a character’s personality, giving him/her an outlook and an irreducible, unmistakeably unique spiritual and psychological orientation, essentially making them metonymical demonstrations of the ideas they represent. He uses the term ‘voice-idea’ to denote this unity of idea and personality.

Dostoevsky’s characters, which find expression in these voices, are men and women under stress, victims of modern neuroses, in the grip of modern ideas. Their presentation, while being eminently readable, has consistently provoked comparisons with modernist and post-modernist writers; in my opinion, is better without the deliberate, contrived, obscure and rather evasive style of the latter. Indeed, considering his popularity with prominent creatives of Modern fiction, such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce (who commented so about Dostoevsky: ‘He is the man more than any other who has created modern prose, and intensified it to it present day pitch’), a significant Dostoyevskian claim to artistic quality and value is the considerable influence over, and even being a possible forerunner of, modernist literature. Consider Dostoevsky’s dramatic psychological monologues, the ‘soliloquies’ we catch hold of in Woolf’s description of a Dostoyevskian reading experience; which brilliantly provide an insight into character perceptions about a plot event, revealing character concerns and psychological preoccupations – in turn adding to characterisation by revealing what the character values enough to be concerned about. Presented with authenticity and originality as the blistering pace of thought is set to paper, these cognitive monologues are similar in at least purpose and psychological depth to the characteristic ‘stream of consciousness’ writing properly originated and popularised by modernists - particularly by William Faulkner, whose creative admiration for Dostoevsky is well known and documented. A coruscating exemplification of a Dostoyevskian psychological monologue would be:

‘“Viper will eat Viper”, his brother Ivan had said yesterday, speaking with irritation about their father and Dmitri. So, in his eyes their brother Dmitri was a viper, and perhaps had long been a viper? Perhaps since Ivan had first met Katerina Ivanovna? These words, of course, had escaped Ivan unwittingly, but they were all the more important for that. If so, what sort of peace could there be? On the contrary, weren’t there only new pretexts for hatred and enmity in their family? And, above all, whom should he, Alyosha, feel pity for, and what should he wish for each of them? He loved them both, but what could he wish for each of them amid such terrible contradictions?”’

The conventional plot elements of a Dostoyevskian narrative are fairly apparent and straightforward; although they do contribute, it is chiefly his characteristically intense psychological drama – apparent in such passages of sentiment and psyche, that drive his compelling and kinetic narrative momentum. Such passages are effectuated by Dostoevsky’s skilful and precise application of several stylistic techniques and perceptive observations about the human psyche. The tangential nature of thought is made apparent by different ideas and their iterations stemming from the same external impression – in this case, the impression of ‘Viper’ occurs as a refrain; uncertainty which characterises human thought is uniquely (and rather exclusively) expressed and encapsulated in open ended suppositions and low modality verbs which indicate ambiguity – the preponderant use of ‘perhaps’ in the passage is a case in point. The din of questions created by pysma emulate the psyche striving to perceive and synthesize a situation based on external and internal impressions.