Dostoevsky and Autobiography -- Prison

Jennifer Jay

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky is perhaps one of the most well known but least understood authors from the nineteenth century. His life was one full of misfortune and suffering; his works filled with religious pondering and philosophical discussions. Dostoevsky's life experiences were integrated into the characters in his pieces, both in terms of personality and ideology. An especially important turning point in his life was his arrest and imprisonment at the age of twenty-seven, shortly after the beginning of his writing career. This prison sentence and time in exile served to shape his perceptions and beliefs towards life, which were then incorporated into his literary works.

Dostoevsky entered the Chief Engineering Academy in Saint Petersburg in 1838, at the age of 17. Upon his graduation, he served in the civil service, but gave it up to pursue writing full-time. 1846 saw the publishing of his first books, Poor Folk, and The Double. In Poor Folk, he explores some of the social issues of the day, and the work has even been dubbed of a "socialist character." During this time, he had joined forces with other young intellectuals, and began attending meetings headed by Petrashevsky. These young "social realists" would meet and discuss current political issues -- most importantly, the idea of the liberation of the serfs. This issue was especially of interest to Fyodor, who had been exposed to the cruelties of serfdom early in his life. He had a deep hatred of the institution of serfdom, which was perhaps rooted in his guilt towards the murder of his father. It was thought that Mikhail Andreevich was murdered by his own serfs during a particularly violent bout of anger towards them. Fyodor, while he was in no way associated with the death (he was in school in Saint Petersburg at the time), none the less felt guilt. Part of this may have been due to his incessant nagging for more money from his father during his last few years.

This group of idealists was influenced by the changing political status in Europe during the middle of the nineteenth century. This was a time of a new social awareness -- new rights and liberties were being fought for and won, governments were transforming, and a series of "utopian socialist" books were quickly becoming popular. Dostoevsky had been an avid reader of such authors as Hugo, Sand, Sue, and others in this field. As time went by, Dostoevsky found the Petrashevsky circle to be too mild and non-political for his taste. He began to frequent a much more revolutionary group, known as Speshnev's secret revolutionary society. Dostoevsky claimed to be not against the Russian government, but simply against the institution of serfdom.

In April of 1849, the members of these groups were arrested by the Tsarist police and taken to the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prison used for important and maximum-security prisoners. The conditions in this prison were bleak at best. The prisoners slept on hard straw beds in small, damp rooms without much light. For eight months Dostoevsky and his fellow prisoners were questioned and kept in jail. For the first part of the imprisonment, the inmates were without books, without any form of entertainment. The conditions were as those in solitary confinement. After some time, books were allowed, which helped alleviate the ennui. Most of these books were of a religious nature, so Dostoevsky spent his time poring over the Bible and various spiritual books.

In October, the prisoners were finally removed from their cells and led to awaiting carriages. They were not sure of their fate yet, but assumed the sentence would be fairly light. When the carriages stopped, the prisoners were led onto a square and lined up on a gallows. The men were sentenced to be shot; they were given a cross to kiss, the chance to confess to a priest, and then were dressed in peasant shirts and hoods for the execution. The first three men in line were led to some stakes and tied; the soldiers took aim, and held their positions. Soon Dostoevsky heard a drum roll and realized that he, the sixth in line, and his fellow prisoners, were to be saved. The tsar's messenger came riding into the square and read the pardon. Dostoevsky and his group were taken back to the prison and prepared for the long journey to hard labor camp in Siberia.

This scene on the square, the staged execution, and the last minute pardon were to have a lasting effect on many from the group. Two even went permanently insane from the psychological trauma experienced as they faced certain death. While the experience was definitely traumatic for Fyodor Mikhailovich, he internalized the situation much differently. This scene was to serve as a reaffirmation and strengthening agent of his religious beliefs. This close scrape with death gave Dostoevsky a new appreciation of life.

In his novel, The Idiot, written twenty years after his arrest and imprisonment, the character Prince Myshkin tells a story of an execution that much resembles Dostoevsky's own staged one.

...But better if I tell you of another man I met last year...this man was led out along with others on to a scaffold and had his sentence of death by shooing read out to him, for political offenses. About twenty minutes later a reprieve was read out and a milder punishment substitute...he was dying at 27, healthy and strong...he says that nothing was more terrible at that moment than the nagging thought: "What if I didn't have to die!...I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for...(Part I, chapter 5)

This concept of a better use of time, of wasted minutes, was one that struck Dostoevsky especially. In a letter to his brother Mikhail, Fyodor told him of his new outlook towards life. Never before had Fyodor had a true appreciation for life. "When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul - then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness."

As his appreciation for life was renewed, he discovered that man can overcome oppressive circumstances and be joyful. His philosophy became one of unconditional love and forgiveness -- two moral values which struck him in the moments before his "execution." He rationalized that these morals were the "...supreme human consolation." In unconditional love was the hope for the future of the world. Dostoevsky's views changed from one of social revolution to a more spiritual level, as he realized that though he could not ever change the past, it was possible to change the future. His stay of execution convinced him to spend his life communicating to others that man had the power to "...turn each moment into an eternity of happiness." With this newfound attitude towards life, Dostoevsky was prepared to face his sentence of labor camp and Siberian exile with a spiritual strength and a positive vision of the future.

Although he had found this fantastic personal strength with which to overcome the worst misery, he realized the fruitlessness of trying to convince others. This becomes one of the main themes in The Idiot. In Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky created the morally perfect, yet socially outcast, man. Myshkin possesses those very characteristics that Fyodor discovered during his prison time, unconditional love and complete forgiveness, yet he his, for all practical purposes, an idiot in the social world. Hence, Dostoevsky admits that his very ideal of the perfect morality can not exist in this world.

He explores this same theme a bit later in his life, in the short story, "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man." The narrator of the story felt, "...that it really made no difference to (him) whether or not the world existed. (He) began to feel with (his) whole being that nothing had happened while (he'd) been alive." The ridiculous man had become oblivious to people, didn't care "about anything anymore." He had decided that to kill himself was "...a matter of such indifference to (him) that (he) felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference." He falls asleep and has a dream. In this dream, he is taken to Paradise -- a mirror image of our earth, but an earth that knew no evil, no suffering. As he arrives, he realizes that he never ceased loving his old earth, and does not want this parallel. He notices that there is no suffering on this "other earth." He says that on the "old earth" "...we can truly love only with suffering and through suffering. We don't know how to love otherwise; we don't know any other love..." He was welcomed to this Paradise by the happy, serene inhabitants, who tried to erase his suffering. Dostoevsky created these Paridise-dwellers as folks who did not "strive to find the meaning of life, because their own lives were full of meaning." The people did not need science to understand, they had an inherent knowledge. In this utopian world, the ridiculous man appreciated their simplicity, yet he ends by corrupting the planet. He brings lies, jealousy, science and suffering to them, and the alter earth becomes just like our own.

When the ridiculous man wakes up, it is to a newfound hope and "thirst to live." He decides to go out in the world to preach the Truth, to love others completely. He goes out loving everyone, even those who laugh at him. People make fun of his dream, ridiculing his preaching. Yet he fights to instill an awareness of life in those around him; indeed, he concludes that if everyone wanted happiness and had an awareness of life, the perfect earth could be reached - the earth before the fall of Adam and Eve, before man's corruption.

This transformation from destitution to hope and love of the world is an exaggeration of Dostoevsky's own new vision of the world after his life has been saved. For Fyodor, near-death was enough to incite an appreciation for the world -- and this he tried to do through the characters of his novels.

In Siberia, Dostoevsky was put into a labor camp with common criminals -- mostly those from the lower echelons of society. This was his first time spent with these "narod," or common folk, and it gave him new incite into the life of the non-privileged. Whereas the first part of his life had been spent mostly among the educated, in prison he was subjected to treatment as a lowly criminal. Here he gained the insight into the darker side of humanity, the evil and godless behavior.
In "The House of the Dead," Dostoevsky writes as a man among convicts, and tells the tales of murder and suffering as he heard in Siberia. Perhaps the most horrible tale is that of "In the Hospital (Punishment and Punishers)." Here we read of the practice of lashing and are introduced into Dostoevsky's view on the matter of the inhumanity of the punishers. As man gains power over his fellow humans, he becomes tyrannical, and this tyranny becomes a disease. "The human being, the member of society, is drowned forever in the tyrant, and it is practically impossible for him to regain human dignity, repentance, and regeneration...the power given to one man to inflict corporal punishment upon another is a social will inevitably lead to the disintegration of society." The story ends by simply stating, "It's hard to imagine to what an extent a man's nature can be corrupted."

This tale was written in 1861-1862, only two years after his return from exile. His vision of mankind had been horribly twisted by the time spent in prison, and partially due to the atrocities and the terrible stories he heard, he became convinced that man can live only through suffering. By suffering, man could eventually find hope and love; through God's path, man had a future.

The common themes that run throughout Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky's books and short stories are those of suffering, unconditional love, and the hope of salvation through these means. In his characters, Dostoevsky often discussed these matters from many points of view. By incorporating evil and atheistic characters, those with the values that he cherished became the stronger, and often more successful people. Dostoevsky, while preaching his religious, philosophical beliefs, made sure to use both sides, arguing for and against. Through these arguments, he allowed for the characters that advanced his views to succeed.

It was his eight months in prison at the Peter and Paul Fortress, then his "close call" with certain death and time in labor camp and exile, that served to strengthen Dostoevsky's personal views. Because of the conditions through which he had to survive, his moral values and vision for hope in future life were reiterated and played into his future writings.