Major Themes in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Works ๐Ÿ“š

A number of themes routinely dominate Fyodor Dostoevsky’ works. They reflect his preoccupation with the conditions of rapidly modernizing Russia.

Major Themes in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Works ๐Ÿ“š

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Russian Novelist, (1821 - 1881)

Dostoevsky often had a lot to say about the Russian society of his time, and these ideas are most times reflected in his works. An opinionated individual with strong opinions on subjects like religion, spirituality, politics, economics, and aesthetics.

Major Themes in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Works


Freedom

The issue of individual freedom is a central one for Dostoevsky, and occupied center stage in many of his works. Dostoevsky’s idea of freedom is influenced by his own experiences with incarceration and then forced military service. In “Notes from the Dead House”, Dostoevsky, building from his experience with criminals incarcerated alongside him in Siberia, attempts to explore the dimension of the desire for freedom as expressed through deviance. 

Seeing no other way and being incapable of asserting self will in any other way due to various limitations (poverty, lack of charisma, etc.), the individual sometimes resorts to crime and gets his thrill from the feeling of breaking beyond the bounds of human and society’s own moral and legal boundaries. 

In “Notes from the Dead House“, Dostoevsky documents the gradual progression of a regular man to a serial killer; this man kills first presumably to right a wrong, to remove an evil, or possibly for some motive he decides within himself to be just, but soon having tasted the sense of freedom that comes with operating outside the bounds of conventional morality, he soon takes a liking to kill and so kills for a variety of other purposes.

In ‘Crime and Punishment’, Raskolnikov’s desire to test his strength by seeing if he could kill for the higher good and live with the consequences is linked to the helplessness of his poverty, providing him with almost no other outlet for expressing his freedom. Killing Alyona becomes not only a means to an end to his poverty, but also a chance to assert his self will. 

Dostoevsky is primarily concerned about how best to balance this individual urges for freedom which usually comes at the expense of another’s freedom, and the desire to achieve harmony and peaceful coexistence in society. For Dostoevsky, the opposite of freedom, Incarceration, and various other ways human freedom is limited, can also act as a valid redemptive force for the deviant, the sinner, and the evildoer. 

Money

The issue of money occupies a central position in Dostoevsky’s writings. Given his own life of penury, this is hardly surprising. For Dostoevsky, the desire for wealth is not usually an end in itself, but a desire for a sort of freedom and allowance to assert one’s freedom. In ‘Crime and Punishment’, faced with the humiliation of seeing his family make great sacrifices for his sake, as well as the bitter disappointment of falling short of his family’s expectations of his greatness, Raskolnikov decides to commit murder and rob to gain wealth to assert his self-dignity and meet not only his economic obligation, but social expectations expected of him. 

However, the act offers no such benefits, and Raskolnikov is even unable to make use of the money he steals. Dostoevsky also uses the craving for money in his characters to signal his disapproval with greed and miserliness, like in the case of Ganya in ‘The Idiot’. Disregarding for money and its benefits is sometimes used in it to display a remarkable character disposition, such as the scene where Nastasya Philipovna in ‘The Idiot‘  throws a large bundle of money in a fire in open rebellion at certain figures in her life.

Dostoevsky was also concerned with the fatalistic dimensions of money insofar as it conditions certain aspects of society towards certain dispositions. For example, Raskolnikov was driven towards the idea of acquiring power through murder and robbery, as his poverty would allow him no other viable avenue to express himself. Dostoevsky was particularly disturbed about how social conditions create a situation of great unfairness and tragedies, like the suffering of children and the inevitability of prostitution in the lives of a kind and pure souls like Sonia in ‘Crime and Punishment’

Nihilism

Dostoevsky’s return from prison in Siberia coincided with the blossoming of nihilist sentiments among a section of Russia’s Intelligentsia. His strong and evolving views on this radical movement informed his writing in a major way. Dostoevsky was opposed to the outgrowth of nihilistic sentiments like atheism, rational egoism, and utilitarianism that a number of contemporary intellectuals during his time espoused. He scoffed at the naivety behind the idea of a communist utopia where men learned to live in peace and harmony, guided by adherence to rational egoism. 

Dostoevsky’s opposition to nihilist sentiments is not unconnected with his own subscription to conservative values expressed through his nationalistic, orthodox Christian, and monarchist sentiments which are in opposition to the social order upturning goals of the new Russian radicals of his time. 

Through his books, Dostoevsky opposes Nihilism on an intellectual level, arguing that a reliance on scientific knowledge and logic alone was insufficient to order society and achieve peace and harmony. ‘In Crime and Punishment’, he criticized the rational egoist calculation that inspired Raskolnikov to murder in the belief that she was a net negative to society and that her death would benefit many more. He displays the folly of this sentiment in Raskolnikov’s last dream in prison in Siberia, where the plague-like full implication of his ideas are revealed. In Dostoevsky’s works, there are typically characters who espouse and employ nihilistic sentiments, whose folly is inevitably displayed at various points of the book. 

Suffering

The theme of suffering is one that features prominently in a lot of Dostoevsky’s works. It arises out of his personal belief in the redemptive power of suffering, with its roots in his own salvation from execution and subsequent imprisonment. Dostoevsky often imbued his characters with qualities that predispose them towards suffering. In ‘Crime and Punishment‘, Raskolnikov’s eventual salvation and absolution from his sins come only through suffering, both in a physical form as a prisoner and in a psychological form in the form of his mental torment and anguish. The question of the suffering of children is cause for serious discussions about the justice of the world, and of God himself, in ‘Brothers Karamazov’. 

In ‘The Idiot‘, Nastasya Philipovna’s low self-esteem and crippling self-guilt leads her into a path of self-destruction, with her frolicking at the hands of the dangerous Rogozhin. Through the instrument of suffering, Dostoevsky is thus able to extract karmic comeuppance for his villains, as well as redemption for his heroes who had gone astray. Through it, he sheds light on the psyche and philosophy of some of his characters, while also exposing sociological conditions that are important to his philosophical or spiritual ideas as espoused through these stories. 

FAQs

What idea most preoccupies Fyodor Dostoevsky?

Dostoevsky’s preoccupation with challenging nihilist ideas, as expressed in radical political, economic, social, and religious systems, dominates his writing.

Was Fyodor Dostoevsky a liberal or conservative?

Although Dostoevsky starts out as a liberal who joins a secret group united in their efforts to overthrow the old order, especially through the emancipation of the Serfs, he grows to accept more Conservative values. He is a believer in the Russian Orthodox Church and an opponent of Western values.

Was Fyodor Dostoevsky religious?

The question of religion occupies a central place in Dostoevsky’s writing and exposes his faith in the capacity of Christian love and ethics, rather than any other moral framework, to best advance society.

Major Themes in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Works 📚
About Israel Njoku
Israel has a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication. He loves entertainment, pop-culture and the arts and tries to extract themes with wider reaching implications from them through rigorous analysis.
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