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Fyodor Dostoevsky - Biography

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
by Karen Bernardo

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote out of a radical Christian faith. This may seem an odd thing to say about a writer who created something as dark as "Notes From The Underground," until we remember that the prophets of the Old Testament did not exactly spread sunshine and flowers. Like all great artists, Dostoevsky believed his mission was to shake his readers out of their complacency. He does not write to make us happy, or even to inspire or uplift us, but to change us from the very core of our being.
Dostoevsky's protagonists in both "Notes From The Underground" and "White Nights" are completely urban men, a type already common in Dostoevsky's day, but which would become even more common in the twentieth century than the nineteenth. Yet here their similarities end. His protagonist in the story "White Nights" is a victim of romanticism who is eventually redeemed; his protagonist in "Notes from the Underground" is a victim of existentialism, but he is unredeemable because he doesn't even believe in the concept of redemption. 

For Dostoevsky to have written so compellingly about these characters, he must have felt some spark of identification with them. And indeed, there is no question that the author based "White Nights" on his own experiences in St. Petersburg when he was a young man, and modeled the protagonist after himself. But what of the tortured antihero of "Notes from the Underground?" How could Dostoevsky, who believed with all his soul in man's redemption through Christ, create such a perfect advertisement for existentialism -- even nihilism? The answer undoubtedly lies in Dostoevsky's perception of himself as an outcast from society. Although he felt his mission as a writer to be of divine origin -- in stark contrast to that of his story's protagonist, whose mission seems only to maintain whatever shred of self-respect he can muster in a cold and unfeeling world -- Dostoevsky knew what it felt like to live without society's respect and admiration. Out of the depth of his own pain, he was able to create negative characters so fully-fleshed that they engage our sympathy, and force us to question our own mission in life.

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White Nights

Notes From The Underground

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