Why are Dostoevsky’s novels so compulsively readable? What makes his characters seem so alive?
No one has grasped the magic of Dostoevsky’s novels better than the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Most novels, Bakhtin argued, are “monologic,” unified by a cunning plot or the perspective of the narrator or author. Monologic authors allow characters to speak, but ultimately use characters as mouthpieces to amplify their own voice.
Dostoevsky invented a new “polyphonic” poetics that operated by a new set of principles. Because he didn’t work by the old monologic rules, his novels seem formless, chaotic. They are unified, but not in the usual ways—not by plot, nor by the consciousness of a narrator, nor by style, nor by the consciousness of the author that incorporates the consciousnesses of the characters. The polyphonic novel is unified by the carnivalesque play of multiple voices.
That’s why Dostoevsky’s characters are so real. Dostoevsky’s polyphonic world is full of free subjects, not objects. We don’t know what they might say or do next, and we suspect that the author doesn’t know either. They speak in their own voices, and Dostoevsky doesn’t drown them out. His voice is only one among many. Vladimir Nabokov got it right when he said that Dostoevsky had a playwright’s sensibilities, though Nabokov meant it as a criticism.
Still, the variety can be exaggerated. Polyphonic as they are, Dostoevsky’s novels concentrate obsessively on a handful of themes—freedom, beauty, and the Christ who is the standard and guarantor of both.
Dostoevsky came to understand freedom while serving a sentence in a Siberian prison: “Freedom is the mainspring of human action. I have been watching carefully all this time, watching men who have little freedom, men who have been imprisoned because of terrible crimes. But even here, I see that everything is about freedom.”
Why do prisoners spend the little money they make so wastefully? Because money affords a rare opportunity for free choice. Money is “coined liberty”; using it freely is more human than using it wisely. Crime itself is an expression of a desire for freedom: “Think of a fire heating water to steam. The water gets hotter and hotter, and the steam more and more angry. If the steam doesn’t have anywhere to go, the whole thing will explode. That is crime.”
Dostoevsky saw this process going on everywhere. Russian radicals grew increasingly violent because their desire for freedom was frustrated. The czar could ease the tension by relaxing censorship laws to allow young radicals to let off some steam. By denying freedom, scientific determinism was a theoretical pressure cooker that produced disabled souls like the Underground Man. Dostoevsky’s novels teem with thwarted characters on the verge of exploding—Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov, the radicals of The Possessed.
Christ is the guarantor of true freedom; if he does not exist, neither does freedom. That was the thrust of Dostoevsky’s argument for immortality that he penned shortly after the death of his first wife, Marya. True freedom is love, the capacity to sacrifice one’s Ego for the good of others. No one can love freely until he escapes the tyranny of Ego, but in this life Ego always gets in the way. Freedom is nullified by our selfish desire for our own way.
There are two possible conclusions: Either true freedom is impossible, in which case life is meaningless and the world is designed to frustrate human desire; or, true freedom will be realized in a future Kingdom of Christ, when Ego will be finally overthrown. If life is to have meaning at all, immortality must be real. Dostoevsky’s heroes—Alyosha Karamazov most especially—achieve a kind of freedom now by lives of selfless service because they hope for a freedom beyond this life.
Christ is also the center of Dostoevsky’s aesthetics. Every artist strives to realize an ideal of beauty, but all inevitably fail. Either that desire for beauty is a cruel taunt, or we will know true beauty in the Kingdom of Christ. With Christ at the center, life is an endless striving for an ideal of freedom and beauty, both together, a striving sustained by the hope for the freedom and beauty of the new heavens and earth.
Polyphony granted; yet in Dostoevsky’s own descriptions of his work, he explains that he has a point to make. He complained about censors removing the overtly Christian portions of Notes from Underground, and he viewed Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov as a “response” to Ivan’s complaint against God—“non-Euclidian,” but still a response. Dialogism granted; yet Dostoevsky’s complex novels are animated by his conviction that there is a monologue beyond the dialogue, the one Word of the one God who entices us into his future kingdom of freedom and beauty.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.