Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 6, 1985

Dostoevsky's Detractors

Victor Terras, Brown University

In his lifetime, Dostoevsky was not blessed with laudatory reviews. (1) So much so that, with time, he became defensive about the artistic quality of his work and excused himself by having had to write hurriedly, without a chance to pay attention to stylistic niceties. Anybody familiar with Dostoevsky's notebooks, drafts, and galley proofs knows that this was not true. But generations of critics have used these remarks of Dostoevsky's to corroborate their negative assessment of his art.

Most negative opinions about Dostoevsky's art boil down to an assertion that, while his works are of some interest psychologically or otherwise, their artistic quality is low. (2) Dobroljubov said in fact that it was "below criticism." (3) Some more recent critics, such as Bunin and Nabokov, concur. Some negative criticism was and still is caused by the critics' disagreement with Dostoevsky's ideological positions. I shall discuss here only criticism directed at Dostoevsky's art. (I do realize that it is often difficult to keep "art" and "ideology" apart).

As regards novelistic structure, some critics have seen Dostoevsky's plots as chaotic and disorganized (in particular, those of The Idiot and The Possessed), (4) others have found them "Gothic" and aimed at cheap effects; (5) still others have charged Dostoevsky with excessive naturalism ("copying court records"). (6) Many critics have found Dostoevsky's characters unnatural, schematic, and contrived. (7) The observation that they all talk alike - like the author - is heard often. (8)

Even more intense is the criticism levelled at Dostoevsky's stylistic craftsmanship. From the very beginning, critics found his style prolix, repetitious, and lacking in polish. (9) Often enough Dostoevsky was also found to be obscure, pretentious, artificial, and sentimental. Finally, he has been found to lack balance, restraint, and good taste. In a word, whatever the merits of his oeuvre as a whole, its aesthetic value was found to be small.

Great moral flaws have also been found in Dostoevsky's works. The charge heard most often is that of pessimism. (10) Almost as often, the outré, hysterical, and morbid nature of Dostoevsky's works is held up to censure. The label of a "cruel talent" has stuck to him ever since Mikhailovsky's essay of that title appeared in 1882. (11) Dostoevsky's fascination with the extremes of the human condition is condemned by many critics. Less common are charges of insincerity, unctuousness, (12), and "rosy Christianity." (13)

The truth content of Dostoevsky's works has also been challenged.


In particular, he is said to have pursued the exceptional instead of the typical. Tendentious distortion of reality is a common charge, (14) as is that of faulty psychology. In an age of realism, Dostoevsky's penchant for the fantastic, the paradoxic, and the mystical met with much disapproval. A criticism heard somewhat less frequently is that Dostoevsky develops his psychological dramas in the abstract, without a natural background. Also, some critics claim that Dostoevsky's psychological analysis keeps him from presenting credible whole characters. (15)

These opinions, each voiced by more than one critic, may be assumed to be representative of a substantial body of readers and deserve attention not only in terms of Rezeptionsgeschichte, but also as an avenue to an analysis of Dostoevsky's works.

As regards the structure of Dostoevsky's novels, the critics' dissatisfaction is well founded. In terms of a well spaced and economically developed linear plot, a Dostoevskian novel with its multitude of minor characters and subplots, inserted anecdotes, philosophic dialogues, the narrator's essayistic and other digressions is hardly "well structured." But this linear or syntagmatic view ignores the wealth of paradigmatic structures which do quite as much to integrate the text to form an organic whole as an elegant linear plot would: leitmotifs, recurrent imagery, mirroring, doubling, symbolic foreshadowing, parallelism, situation rhyme, and other such devices.

The charge that Dostoevsky's novels have Gothic traits, featuring high or perverse passion, intrigue, murder, suicide, etc. is of course valid. Dostoevsky's answer to such criticism was that extremes were more revealing of the essence of the human condition than the so-called "average." This is a fundamental question on which Dostoevsky disagreed with most of his contemporaries. (16) Maximilian Braun has wisely suggested that Dostoevsky's forte were precisely the crises, rare but still real, of human life, while he had less of an eye and ear for everyday life: courtship and marriage, making a living, raising a family, etc. It depends on one's Weltanschauung which one considers more important. (17)

The charges of "naturalism" are also justified. This goes both for Dostoevsky's use of topics and details of current journalistic interest, as well as for his frequent depictions of the seamy side of life and of distasteful traits of personal behavior, the latter noted with disapproval by Leont'ev. (18)

As for Dostoevsky's characters, it is true that many of them are based on identifiable real life prototypes. It is also true that these, as well as some other, apparently imaginary characters are readily perceived as "types" - which was Dostoevsky's intent. The portraits of, say, Turgenev in The Possessed or Eliseev in The Brothers Karamazov are indiscreetly recognizable and quite cruel. They are also drawn satirically, as social types. But all this can hardly be considered an aesthetic blemish, no more than Aristophanes' lampoons of Euripides and Socrates, unless one clings to a narrow conception of the realist novel, excluding satire from it on the grounds that it distorts reality. More serious is Saltykov's charge that in Dostoevsky's


Idiot there appear, "on the one side, characters full of life and truth, but on the other, some mysterious puppets whirling madly as though in a dream, made by hands trembling with rage." (19) Similar impressions come from Mikhailovsky, Tolstoy, and others, who all found Dostoevsky's characters artificial, contrived, and carelessly executed. This includes Kirillov, Stavrogin, Shatov, and Pjotr Verkhovensky, called "pale, pretentious, and artificial" by Mikhailovsky, (20) while Tolstoy's identical charge refers to The Brothers Karamazov as a whole. (21) These opinions may be explained by the fact that the characters perceived as artificial and contrived were in fact created as ideas incarnate. They owe their life to the ideas which possess them. Their social and psychological Gestalt is a function of these ideas. The disagreement between Dostoevsky and those of his critics who would rather see ideas as a function of a character's social and psychological identity is of a basic nature. It is, broadly speaking, the disagreement between idealism and positivism.

The most damaging of the charges levelled at Dostoevsky's characters is that "they all talk alike" - like the author. It has been heard often, ever since Belinsky, (22) and from as authoritative a reader as Tolstoy. (23) It clashes with the opinion, held by many critics, that Dostoevsky is a master of individualization, and most of all, with Bakhtin's polyphonic theory of the Dostoevskian novel. (24) How can this contradiction be resolved? It is a fact that Dostoevsky, never a writer "from his notebook," is not a very careful stylist when it comes to creating a social, regional, or occupational idiolect for his characters. He also lets some of his characters express thoughts which appear to be "over their heads," and which are of course a part of the author's ideological argument. (25) Furthermore, more than most writers, Dostoevsky tends to introduce a literary subtext into his dialogue, a trait which deconstructs its authenticity. The justification for all this is that Dostoevsky's novels are not primarily novels of manners, of even realistic social novels, but are rather in many ways close to the tradition which began with the Platonic dialogue. They are novels about ideas as much as about people.

The reputation of a poor stylist has accompanied Dostoevsky ever since the publication of his first work. In this instance, the critics' negative opinion is the result of a misunderstanding which has been removed by Bakhtin's insights. Bakhtin showed that Dostoevsky's text creates a polyphonic concert of living voices, one of which is the narrator's, rather than a homophonic narrative dominated by the narrator's voice. Hence a controlled, economic, and well integrated narrative style is not what Dostoevsky pursues. He will write elegantly only when the voice in question demands it. (26) If one disregards the "polyphony" argument, Dostoevsky's distinctively popular, half colloquial, half journalistic manner, which places his works with the roman-feuilleton and with Trivialliteratur at large, may be legitimately seen as an aesthetic flaw - or as an innovative trait.

The alleged moral flaws of Dostoevsky's works are a function of the critic's Weltanschauung. I believe that a Christian view close to Dostoevsky's lets these flaws disappear. This is true of Dostoevsky's alleged pessimism. Thus, an often heard criti-


cism of The Idiot is that the Good, personified in Prince Myshkin, seems wholly ineffectual and the Ideal which the Prince pursues quite incompatible with life. (27) Such criticism is invalid from Dostoevsky's Christian viewpoint, as the Swiss theologian Walter Nigg has eloquently demonstrated. (28) On this Earth, says Nigg, "a Christian must fail." A Christian's hope and joy are nurtured not by any earthly "and they lived happily ever after," but by faith in resurrection. A similar defense may be advanced with regard to the charge that the atmosphere created by Dostoevsky is sickly, hysterical, outré (as he said himself). Nietzsche once called the evangelic world a mixture of the sickly, the childlike, and the sublime. The fervent excitement which permeates Dostoevsky's world is a trait which it shares with every ambience of religious or political ferment, that of the Pauline epistles, for example.

As for the "cruelty" of Dostoevsky's talent, a charge raised by V. P. Burenin (29) even before Mikhailovsky's celebrated article, and reiterated by Nabokov, who speaks of Dostoevsky's "wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity," (30) this is yet another matter that depends on the critic's point of view. A remark by Saltykov, rather to the same effect, may put this trait in the right context. Speaking of Notes from Underground, Saltykov suggests that the point of this work is to show that every man is trash, nor would he ever become a good man until he will become convinced that he is indeed trash. Saltykov adds: "In the end, he moves on to the real subject of his musings. He draws his proofs mostly from St. Thomas Aquinas, but since he fails to reveal this, his readers may think that these thoughts are the narrator's own." (31) The meaning of Saltykov's Aesopian comment is, of course, that Dostoevsky has taken his hero to the depths of abjection and degradation only in order to then lead him on to faith and salvation. From a Christian viewpoint, there is nothing wrong with this. It is difficult for a reader who does not share Dostoevsky's Christian convictions to see Marmeladov, that image of abjection and degradation, as the most positive character of Crime and Punishment (discounting Sonja, who is a saint), but from Dostoevsky's Christian viewpoint he is just that.

Other charges related to the moral aspect of Dostoevsky's works are also a matter of ideology. Such are the charges of unctuousness and "rosy Christianity." The former is a matter of faith: a non-believer, such as Nabokov, will find the reading of the Gospel which brings together "the murderer and the harlot" quite intolerable; (32) the believer will find it edifying. Leont'ev's charge of "rosy Christianity" is apparently correct with regard to some of Dostoevsky's writings, though not with regard to the spirit of his total oeuvre.

Turning now to the truth content of Dostoevsky's works, the foremost charge is that he deals with the exceptional, rather than with the typical: a serious charge, considering Dostoevsky's insistence that he was a realist. (33) Belinsky said that madmen (Dostoevsky's Goljadkin, in this case), being atypical, "belong in lunatic asylums, not in novels." (34) Dostoevsky, in commenting on his novel years later, said that he had heralded, in this character precisely, an important new social type. (35) Analogous disagreements between Dostoevsky and his critics were repeated in connection with almost every work of his. Dostoevsky


was confident that the future would prove him right: his "exceptional" characters would one day be recognized as prophetic of Russia's future, while those of Goncharov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy would appear as what they were, representations of Russia's past. (36)

The charges of outright distortion of reality relate mainly to Dostoevsky's understanding of the mood and moral attitude of the young generation of the Russian intelligentsia. These charges were - and still are - politically motivated. (37) Significantly, Dostoevsky's image of the simple Russian people is not challenged.

Ever since the 1840s, Dostoevsky had the reputation of a keen psychologist. Even then there were some critics who found his psychologism excessive. In the 1860s and 1870s, charges of excessive psychologizing were made frequently. (38) Occasionally, a critic, Dobroljubov, for example, (39) would also claim that Dostoevsky's psychology was faulty or schematic, but most of all it would be suggested that Dostoevsky's morbidly self-conscious and self-lacerating characters were unrepresentative of the actual condition of Russian society, but were, rather, projections of Dostoevsky's own diseased mind. (40) The answer to this particular charge is the same as that to the charge of the exceptional or fantastic quality of Dostoevsky's plots and characters: Dostoevsky's "underground man" has continued to exist as a living type for a whole century after his first appearance.

As for the charge that Dostoevsky developed his psychological dramas in a vacuum, without a natural background, (41) I believe that it is unfounded. A careful reader will find that each scene in a Dostoevskian novel is provided with more aptly chosen genre detail than most novels of his age. Some critics have said that external details, such as food and drink, clothing and land- or cityscape, are missing in Dostoevsky. This is simply not true. There is ample material for an article "On Food and Drink in The Brothers Karamazov;" for example. Each of the major novels contains a great deal of topographic detail, specifics of byt, and many personalized and perfectly "normal" minor characters. The many critics who have emphasized the dramatic quality of Dostoevsky's novels, Nabokov in particular, (42) are often blind to the profusion of purely novelistic traits in Dostoevsky's works.



  1. There were critics who saw The Brothers Karamazov as the work of "a talent in decline" (see F. M. Dostoevskij, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij v tridtsati tomakh [Moscow and Leningrad, 1976], vol. 15: 501). But the same was said of his second work. The Double (see V. G. Belinskij, "Vzgljad na russkuju literaturu 1846 goda," Polnoe sobranie sochinenij [Moscow, 1952-59], vol. 10: 40).
  2. For example, P. N. Tkachev wrote, reviewing A Raw Youth, that "the importance of Mr. Dostoevsky as an artist is from a purely aesthetic point of view very, very small" (quoted from F. M. Dostoevskij, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij v tridtsati tomakh [PSS from here on], 17: 351. A. M. Skabichevsky said, in a review of the same work: "As an artist and novelist, this writer is extremely careless and sometimes shows a striking lack of skill" [PSS, 17: 353]. E. L. Markov suggested in an article of 1879 that The Possessed was Dostoevsky's most important work, "however, not on account of its artistic virtues, but because of the import of problems raised in it" (PSS, 12: 268). These examples are easily multiplied.
  3. N. A. Dobroljubov, in his otherwise favorable essay, "Downtrodden People" (1861), said: "Mr. Dostoevsky probably will have no objection against my declaring his novel [The Insulted and Injured], so to speak, 'below aesthetic criticism'" (N. A. Dobroljubov, Sobranie sochinenij v devjati tomakh [Moscow and Leningrad, 1961-64], 7: 240).
  4. See, for example, the opinion of A. A. Chujko on the former (PSS, 9: 417) and D. D. Minaev on the latter (PSS, 12:260).
  5. V. V. Nabokov sees Dostoevsky as essentially "a writer of mystery stories" whose effect depends entirely on plot. See Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature (New York, 1981), p. 109. For "Gothic" traits in Dostoevsky, see George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism (New York, 1959), pp. 190 ff.
  6. P. N. Tkachev, in a review of The Possessed, entitled "Sick People" and published under the pseudonym P. Nikitin, wrote: "In The Possessed, the creative bankruptcy of the author of Poor Folk becomes evident: he starts copying court records, distorting and falsifying the facts, and naively imagines that he is creating a work of art" (Delo, 1873, Nos. 3 and 4). N. K. Mikhailovsky, in his reaction to The Possessed, suggested that it was a mistake to make the Nechaev case the core of a work claiming general relevance ("Literaturnye i zhurnal'nye zametki," Otechestvennye zapiski, 1873, No. 2).
  7. For example, M. A. Antonovich, in his essay "A Mystic-Ascetic Novel" (1881), gives a highly negative assessment of the artistic qualities of The Brothers Karamazov, whose "complete unnaturalness of characters and their actions" he censures. See PSS, 15: 503.
  8. For examples see note (23) below.
  9. Nabokov writes: "It is, as in all Dostoevsky's novels, a rush and tumble of words with endless repetitions, mutterings aside, a verbal overflow which shocks the reader after, say, Lermontov's transparent and beautifully poised prose" (p. 130) .
  10. For example, V. K. Petersen suggested that Dostoevsky's talent was limited to negation and that he "never created a single


    positive type" (see PSS, 15: 506-07).
  11. N. K. Mikhailovskij, "Zhestokij talant," Literaturno-kriticheskie stat'i (Moscow, 1957), pp. 181-263. In English: Dostoevsky, a Cruel Talent, tr. Spencer Cadmus (Ann Arbor, 1978).
  12. V. P. Burenin defends Dostoevsky's "lampadnoe maslo" and "psikhiatricheskaja isterika" by suggesting that they do, in The Brothers Karamazov, reflect some actualities of Russian life. Other critics were less kind.
  13. K. N. Leont'ev's criticism of Dostoevsky's Christianity amounted to a suggestion that Dostoevsky was substituting a Utopian humanism for true Christianity: "Christianity will sometimes call even grief, suffering, ruin, and insult a divine visitation. Meanwhile, simple humanism wants to eradicate from the face of the earth these insults, ruinations, and sorrows so useful to us" (K. Leont'ev, "Nashi novye khristiane," Sobranie sochinenij [9 vols., Moscow, 1912], 8: 183). It seems, however, that at least in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was trying to make precisely the same point.
  14. Mikhailovsky's perceptive abstraction of Dostoevsky's master plot deserves to be quoted: Dostoevsky first deprives his character of God, then observes what happens to that character. The plot proceeds to demonstrate the ruinous effects of godlessness. But the point is that the author arbitrarily directs and manipulates the results of his experiment (see PSS, 15: 502-03) .
  15. See, for example, PSS 15: 508-09.
  16. This is explicitly stated in the "author's" preface to The Brothers Karamazov (PSS, 14: 5).
  17. Maximilian Braun, Dostoevskij (Göttingen, 1976), pp. 12-13.
  18. K. Leont'ev, Analiz, stil' i vejanie: O romanakh gr. L. N. Tolstogo (Braun University Press reprint, Providence, R. I., 1965), p. 95.
  19. M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, "Svetlov, ego vzgljady, kharakter i dejatel'nost': Roman v trekh chastjakh Omulevskogo. SPb. 1871 g.", Sobranie sochinenij (Moscow, 1965-77), 9: 412-13. For a similar statement concerning A Raw Youth, see Skabichevsky's review, quoted PSS, 17: 348.
  20. Quoted from PSS 12: 264-65.
  21. See, for example, his letter to A. K. Chertkova of 23 October 1910 (L. N. Tolstoj, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij, 88: 229).
  22. Belinsky wrote about The Double: "There is only one substantial flaw in this novel: almost all of its characters, no matter how masterfully drawn, speak almost the same language" (V. G. Belinskij, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij, 9: 565) .
  23. Tolstoy's diary entry of October 12, 1910 says: "After dinner I read Dostoevsky. The descriptions are good .... but the conversations are impossible, entirely unnatural" (L. N. Tolstoj, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij, 58: 117). V. F. Bulgakov reports that Tolstoy had told him of Dostoevsky's characters that "they all speak one and the same language" (ibid., 58: 541). The same is confirmed by Tolstoy's letter to A. K. Chertkova (see note 21 above) and by a diary entry of October 18, 1910 by Tolstoy's wife (S. A. Tolstaja, Dnevniki, Moscow, 1936), 4: 234. Among others who said that Dostoevsky's characters all speak the same language are Dobroljubov (see his Sobranie sochinenij, 7: 239) and V. G.


    Avseenko (see PSS, 17: 347).
  24. M. M. Bakhtin, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo, 2d ed. (Moscow, 1963) .
  25. "The tailor resembles an orator more than a simple-minded narrator; behind him there incessantly appears the author himself, who uses him as an instrument of something like a narrative tour de force," wrote P. V. Annenkov about Dostoevsky's story "An Honest Thief" in the January, 1849 issue of Sovremennik.
  26. The story "White Nights" is a case in point.
  27. Most recently, Dennis Patrick Slattery, The Idiot, Dostoevsky's Fantastic Prince: A Phenomenological Approach (New York, 1984).
  28. Walter Nigg, "Nur schön, weil er lächerlich ist: Dostojewskijs 'Idiot'," in Der christliche Narr (Zürich and Stuttgart, 1956), pp. 349-403.
  29. See PSS, 15: 498.
  30. Nabokov, p. 104.
  31. Saltykov-Shchedrin, "Strizhi: dramaticheskaja byl'" (1864), Sobranie sochinenij, 6: 493.
  32. Nabokov, p. 110.
  33. See Sven Linnér, Dostoevskij on Realism (Uppsala, 1967).
  34. Belinsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij, 10: 41.
  35. F. M. Dostoevskij, Dnevnik pisatelja, 1877, November, chap. i, PSS, 26: 25.
  36. See Dostoevsky's notebook entry, PSS 17: 350.
  37. To Dostoevsky's opponents it was "cheap baiting of so-called nihilism" (Saltykov-Shchedrin, Sobranie sochinenij, 9: 413).
  38. Turgenev, in particular, found Dostoevsky's psychologizing offensive, calling it a "rancid fingering of self" (preloe samokovyrjan'e) when discussing Crime and Punishment in a letter to A. A. Fet (6 April 1866; I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij i pisem, 6: 66), and "psychological nitpicking" (psikhologicheskoe kovyrjan'e) with regard to A Raw Youth, in a letter to Saltykov-Shchedrin (25 November 1875; ibid., 11 : 164) .
  39. Dobroljubov, Sobranie sochinenij, 7: 239.
  40. One critic, G. A. Lopatin, likened Dostoevsky to "a silkworm or spider, who pulls the threads of its magic fabric from inside itself" and suggested that Dostoevsky "depicted a soul such as it appeared to his own diseased imagination" (quoted from PSS, 12: 267). Many others, including Strakhov and Tolstoy, said essentially the same.
  41. Nabokov says: "If you examine closely any of his works, say The Brothers Karamazov, you will note that the natural background and all things relevant to the perception of the senses hardly exist. What landscape there is, is a landscape of ideas, a moral landscape. The weather does not exist in his world, so it does not much matter how people dress" (Nabokov, p. 104). I believe that every single point of this statement is easily refuted by a catalogue of passages in which food and drink, clothing, as well as topographic details are mentioned.
  42. Nabokov, p. 104.
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