Dostoevsky and The Adolescent

From every great writer’s repertoire of memories comes the material for their works.   The experiences that they have had, the books they have read, and the struggles they have been through (to name a few) all shape the person that they are, and therefore comprise the influences for the works they compose.  In Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, one would expect some references to the author’s experience with adolescence and youth.  While Dostoevsky was far from being young when writing the book, he understood with clarity the problems and challenges that face the not-fully-matured youth. 

The main character of A Raw Youth is not yet an adult, but not a child either; rather he exhibits characteristics of both.  He is in the throes of adolescence—trying to determine what life is about and his purpose in it.  Hence the emergence of his ‘idea,’ which revolves around the millionaire Rothschild.  This ‘ultimate ideal’ is one that was an important part of Dostoevsky’s youth.  He too was like Arkady in that much of his youth was spent searching for a higher ideal and a reason for living.  Dostoevsky was a voracious reader, and ‘by his very nature he was an introspective, withdrawn individual.  The interior always prevailed in his personality over the exterior. (Mochulsky, 9)’ Moreover, Dostoevsky was passionate, if somewhat flighty, in his loyalties.  While his character Arkady merely dabbles in the social revolutionary group at Dergachev’s, and is actually in opposition to what they are preaching, Dostoevsky was a devoted member to such a group in his youth known as Petrashevsky’s circle.  For Dostoevsky this fascination began with his acquaintance with Petrashevsky in the spring of 1846 and by the next year he was a familiar face in the circle’s gatherings.  The ideas that first captured Dostoevsky were those that revolved around the theme of ‘Christian socialism,’ with the ideals of Fourier at its head.  This eventually was replaced by the ideal of ‘atheistic communism’ and the rejection of Christ, which would remain his ideal until after his arrest and imprisonment in Siberia.  Arkady, as we see in The Raw Youth, escapes the fate that befell the rest of Dergachev’s circle, but Dostoevsky did not. 

The protagonist likewise shared many details of his early youth with that of Dostoevsky’s.  The description of the school where Arkady stayed (and was miserable in) was a description of one in which the writer himself was enrolled in:  “In 1833 the Dostoevsky brothers were enrolled in the boarding school of Monsieur Souchard, a poorly enough educated Frenchman, who together with his wife somehow taught French grammar.  Life at this curious establishment has been described by the writer in A Raw Youth. (Mochulsky, 10)” Souchard later became Touchard--the character so reviled by Arkady.  The character of Lambert is a memory from those days as well.

Just as present, however, are the ideas that shaped Dostoevsky’s life.  One sees this throughout, such as the Biblical references.  Dostoevsky’s mastery of the Old and New Testaments are evident throughout all of his works.  One of the most interesting parts of this book that offers insight into Dostoevsky’s outlook at the time he wrote it (having lost a child due to illness) is when Makar speaks of Job:  “The much-suffering Job, too, was comforted, looking at his new children, but that he forgot the former ones, and that he could have forgotten them—is impossible! Only over the years sorrow seems to mingle with joy and turn into a bright sighing.  That’s how it is in the world:  every soul is both tested and comforted. (Mochulsky, 410)’ One more important Biblical reference in the work is that of the Prodigal Son, in which the ‘lost’ son returns home to find his father full of forgiveness and joy.  It is mentioned three times, which denotes the sense of importance attributed to it by the author.  

Other works of literature which either influenced The Adolescent or were mentioned in it include those of Rousseau, Schiller and Dostoevsky’s childhood favorite, Pushkin.  All three however, represent different phases that he himself went through.  “Dostoevsky’s youth was passed under the dominance of romantic ‘day-dreaming,’ the idealism of Schiller, and French utopian socialism.  (Mochulsky, 114)” He was enraptured with the ideas put forth by the French philosophers and especially those of Schiller, which in his later life, became points of mockery.  He, like Arkady, was once subject to the influence of such works.  In a letter to his brother in is youth, Dostoevsky wrote:  “You wrote to me, dear brother, that I have not read Schiller; you’re mistaken, brother!  I learned Schiller by heart; his was my voice; he was my delirium.  And I think that fate has never acted more opportunely in my life than to have introduced me to the great poet at this very period of my life. (Mochulsky, 14)” For Dostoevsky as well as the Adolescent, such ideals are the passing ideals of ‘raw youth,’ and not those of full maturity.  As for Pushkin, Dostoevsky’s early childhood revolved much around the Russian writer’s works: “The brothers knew Pushkin by heart.  After the poet’s death, Fyodor used to say: ‘If our own family had not been in mourning [their mother died in 1837], I would have asked father’s permission to wear mourning for Pushkin. (Mochulsky, 9)” 

Not only works of literature, but works of art that Dostoevsky was familiar with find place in this novel as well.  In Part Three, Versilov describes a painting in Dresden that particularly influenced him (and which Dostoevsky likely was fascinated by as well):  “In Dresden, in the gallery, there’s a painting by Claude Lorraine—Acis and Galatea…a wonderful reverie, a lofty delusion of mankind!  The golden age—the most incredible dream of all that have ever been, but for which people have given all their lives and all their strength… (Adolescent, 467)”  Versilov has experienced a dream as the result of this painting…one that ends with ‘this setting sun of the first day of European mankind, which I had seen in my dream, turned for me as soon as I woke up, in reality, into the setting sun of the last day of European mankind!  At that time especially it was as if a death knell could be heard over Europe. (Adolescent, 467)” For Dostoevsky, there was indeed a grand struggle before the civilized world, as new ideas struggled against the idea of God.

Overall, The Adolescent is the result of many fragmentary themes pushed into one.  Dostoevsky referred to it having at least four novels combined all into one (Mochlusky, 482).  Most notable is the theme explored about fathers and children that the writer had been toying with, which later was given its full due in The Brothers Karamazov.  It was, as he referred to it, ‘the first sample of my thought.’ (Mochulsky, 537)  Makar is also the beginning of a character fully developed in The Brothers Karamazov, via the figure of Father Zosima.  This idea of the wandering holy man was one that clearly captivated the writer’s imagination, because it was Dostoevsky’s experiment with creating the best in man found on earth.  In The Idiot, he explored this theme through Prince Myshkin, only to have it end the only logical way:  insanity and asylum.  He continues this searching for the ideal man through The Adolescent, and he concludes it in The Brothers Karamazov

Ultimately every work of art is in some way the result of the environment and influences that have touched the artist.  For Dostoevsky, youth was a time of experimentation, of learning and of anguish, but one in which anything is possible.  To more clearly define what exactly is a result of Dostoevsky’s life in this work is to attempt the impossible.  It all is.  Whether it is a character modeled on a childhood memory or literary references, it is all ultimately the result of the author’s experiences.  Did Dostoevsky accurately capture the essence of adolescence in this work?  Is the process of maturity and growing seen in the main character?  There is no doubt that Dostoevsky had a keen insight as to the reality of human relationships and development.  After all, it was his goal in life, expressed while in the adolescent phase himself at age eighteen:  “To study the meaning of man and of life—I am making sufficient progress here…Man is a mystery.  One must solve it.  If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time.  I occupy myself with this mystery because I want to be a man. (Mochulsky, 17)” The Adolescent is ultimately this—an attempt, at understanding man and the driving force behind him.