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Special Blog Series on Existentialism: Part IV – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist who lived and wrote during the 19th century, and much of his work can be understood as a critical and creative engagement with the ideologies of his times. This sample essay, provided by the custom writing services of Ultius, about Dostoevsky will consist of:

  • A discussion of Dostoevsky’s early career, up until the point of his deep creative awakening
  • Analyze his key archetype of the Underground Man
  • Focus on his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, his last and quite possibly greatest work
  • Reflect on the philosophical significance of Dostoevsky within the context of the existentialist tradition as a whole

Fyodor Dostoevsky – His life and works

As a young man starting off as a writer, Dostoevsky’s literary style and ethos was primarily characterized by a kind of realism undergirded by socialist sympathies. His first novel, for example, was called Poor Folk and it won him a great deal of critical acclaim upon publication, due to the fact that the content and themes of poverty in the novel were fully congruent with a broader literary zeitgeist that was permeating the contemporary Russian culture of the time.

After this novel, however, Dostoevsky attempted to find some literary way forward for himself, but was primarily meant with dead-ends and rejections. Essentially, his contemporaries could not understand why he wanted to diverge from what had worked so well in Poor Folk. But Dostoevsky himself knew that his literary calling was trying to lead him elsewhere, even as he did not yet know quite exactly where.

Imprisonment and near execution

This all changed when Dostoevsky was arrested one day on the charge of engaging in subversive political activities. In truth, it is somewhat unclear how deeply engaged he ever was in such activities, and his arrest may have been matter more than anything else of just having been at the wrong place at the wrong time (see Frank). Nevertheless, Dostoevsky was sentenced to the death penalty.

At the last minute before the execution actually took place, though, he was pardoned—after having truly thought he only had a few moments left to live. It would seem that this experience, along with his period of imprisonment in Siberia after it, had a truly transformative effect on the man. Virtually all of the works for which Dostoevsky is now famous were written in the aftermath of his experience. The ethos of these works is fundamentally different from what can be found in his early novel, Poor Folk. His novella, Notes from Underground, which was written by Dostoevsky after this profound experience isregarded as a turning point.

The Underground Man

Notes from Underground is written from the perspective and with the voice of the Underground Man, the protagonist of the novella. In the context of the novel, Notes from Underground has two parts:

  1. The Underground Man raving about his philosophical outlook
  2. His narration of a humiliating experience from his past

The Underground Man must be understood as the archetype of a certain psychological type whom Dostoevsky could almost be credited with having single-handedly discovered. As Iyer has described him:

The Underground Man is a dreamer: he can sit alone in his room for months on end and be a hero—inside his own head. But his actual life leaves a great deal to be desired, to put it as gently as possible; and when it comes to the praxis of making his dreams incarnate, this guy can barely function. (Iyer 24)

The Underground Man has a brilliant imagination, but his mind is completely filled to the brim with resentment.

Dostoevsky’s Undergound Man as a heroic character

At the level of philosophy, the Underground Man could be seen as almost heroic for the utterly radical quality of his affirmation of self and subjectivity. As Dostoevsky has his character say:

My God, but what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic if for some reason these laws and two times two is four are not to my liking? To be sure, I won’t break through such a wall with my forehead if I really have not got strength enough to do it, but neither will I be reconciled with it. (Dostoevsky 13)

To the Underground Man, then, the “laws” of both mathematics and nature are relatively irrelevant compared subjective freedom he experiences within his own imagination; he acknowledges but does not respect the empirical and objective limits that are self-evidently placed upon him by the world.

The Underground Man as the prototype for later characters

The heroism implicit in this posture, however, turns tragic when one considers the fact that the Underground Man really does not know how to live effectively in the world or to deal meaningfully with other human beings. This is revealed by the second part of Dostoevsky’s novella, which is especially poignant for a reader who has come to more or less sympathize with the Underground Man’s subjective passion after having read the first part.

The second part largely consists of the Underground Man, as a victim of social anxiety, making a fool of humself publicly and treating a girl miserably when she actually sympathizes with him and wants to express her care for him. This serves to show in no uncertain terms that the Underground Man is actually a very sick figure, and that his subjective passion as expressed through his philosophy has really led him not to actual existential freedom at all but rather to the enslavement of solipsism.

This is a dialectic that captivated Dostoevsky for the rest of his career as a writer, to the point that the Underground Man can actually be read as the prototype for several other characters he created over the course of his mature novels.

Raskolnikov as the evolution of the existential protagonist

This is most evident, for example, in Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the novel, Crime and Punishment. In this work, Dostoevsky would seem to have essentially taken the Underground Man, fleshed out that archetype into a full-fledged novel, and then written a novel about him. Raskolnikov takes seriously the notion that a “great man” is allowed to overstep common morality in the pursuit of his own destiny—and thus ends up killing two women simply in order to take money from them.

Much of the novel features the cat-and-mouse Raskolnikov attempts to conceal and get away from his crime, which is followed by a trend of increasing paranoia and mental disintegration. Unlike the Underground Man, though, Raskolnikov actually meets with a happy ending: he ends up in prison and realizes that he is in love with a fallen woman. He thus ends up with a revelation that is able to break him out of the real psychological prison in which the Underground Man remained entrapped.

The Brothers Karamazov

The title of Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, takes its name from the simple fact that it revolves around the stories of the three brothers Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha Karamazov. Each of these brothers could be understood as exemplifying a different mode of existence, as it were. Dmitri is the sensualist who is primarily driven by the search for pleasure.

Ivan is a rationalist who attempts to figure out and understand the world through reason alone; and Alyosha is a novice priest and a devout Christian living by the ethics of his faith. There are several dialectical interplays that emerge as the stories of these brothers unfold over the course of the pages of the novel, with the relations between the brothers and their situations almost sometimes being a personification of the battles between the various ideologies at play in their worldviews.

Ivan as representative of further character evolution

Ivan in particular could be understood as yet another incarnation of the archetype of the Underground Man. He exemplifies Dostoevsky’s vision of what can be expected to happen when a person takes the death of God seriously and attempts to pursue existential meaning through the powers of autonomous reason at all. Ivan famously declares within the novel that if there was no God, then “all things would be permitted”.

It is important to note, however, that Ivan’s tone in saying this is far more melancholy than it is celebratory. A world in which all things were permitted would be a meaningless and nihilistic world, and one would be hard-pressed to live within such a world in a truly human way.

Dostoevsky’s conflict with faith in The Brothers Karamazov

This point is underscored by the fact that Dostoevsky eventually has Ivan hallucinate the Devil, with the strong implication that the kind of worldview to which he has been led by his pure reason is inherently Satanic in nature. Moreover, there is something tragic in the fact that Dostoevsky himself probably resembled Ivan more than he did Alyosha. Alyosha could be understood as Dostoevsky’s ideal of a kind of pure faith; but he himself was always tormented by the questions that plagued Ivan, to the point that his own marvelous creativity could be seen as his own effort to work out these issues in dialogue with himself.

A revolt against sucularism

Dostoevsky lived in a time when the secular vision of the world was first coming into being, with its underlying belief in progress and reason. The socialists in Russia thought that people could construct utopia with their own hands, and the nihilists believed that there was no such thing as a value that had eternal validity. In response, Dostoevsky systematically developed a vision according to which there could be no real brotherhood between people without the revelation of the Gospel within the heart, according to which reason in and of itself was powerless to develop a truly meaningful and human vision of the world. Dostoevsky, then, stood as a bulwark of the religious existentialist ethos against what he perceived to be the basic dehumanization that was gripping a world that was rapidly starting to lose faith in the Lord.

Dostoevsky’s vision confirmed by modern society

In this sense, the vision of Dostoevsky is very close to the vision of Kierkegaard, and both of these men provide a brilliant and highly developed philosophy of religious faith in the face of the increasingly secularization that has characterized the modern world over the course of the last several centuries. In truth, Dostoevsky’s vision has yet to be refuted in any serious way—and more than that, it is essentially irrefutable, as it consists of nothing other than a kind of meta-critique of the powers of reason itself.

At this point, reason cannot really defend itself, due to simple fact that it is the authority of reason itself, as such, which is being called in question here. One of Dostoevsky’s main points was that reason, in the absence of a living and human heart, was not a force of liberation but rather exactly the dark power that led the Underground Man and his various incarnations over the brink of mental illness. Several aspects of the twenty-first century world would only seem to confirm this basic philosophical vision.


An important point to understand is that Dostoevsky’s works are highly ideological in nature, and that his philosophical vision can be understood as a kind of defense of faith in particular and the existential ethos in general in the face of a world that was rapidly being seduced by the promises of science, objectivity, and pure reason. After his near-execution and accompanying creative awakening, Dostoevsky consistently developed a desperate faith that emerges at the very point at which reason declares its existential bankruptcy an idea that was integral in inpiring fellow existentialist thinker Lev Shestov.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. 2004. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead and Poor Folk. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2012. Print.

Iyer, Sethu A. Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. Austin: CreateSpace, 2016. Print.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Essential Kierkegaard. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2000. Print.

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