Unit 3: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–1881) was a Russian novelist, journalist, and essayist whose literary works are foundational texts in the history of existentialism. Dostoevsky (sometimes spelled Dostoyevsky) explored the loneliness and desperation of the human condition. He viewed the human condition as constrained by social, political, and economic institutions and limited by God, whose existence, Dostoevsky argued, imposes limits on human existence. This unit will guide you in an exploration of the main existentialist themes in Dostoevsky's literary works, paying special attention to the concepts of human freedom and moral responsibility in Notes from the Underground (1864) and "The Grand Inquisitor" (1880).
Completing this unit should take you approximately 6 hours.
Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:
- identify Fyodor Dostoevsky's place in the history of existentialism;
- describe Dostoevsky's notions of freedom and revolution;
- summarize the idea of Dostoevsky's Underground Man;
- analyze Dostoevsky's perspective on morality;
- explain Dostoevsky's critique of reason;
- describe the key ideas encompassed by Dostoevsky's notion of truth; and
- summarize the main themes in Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor".
3.1: Dostoevsky on the Problem of Freedom
Read this article, which introduces Dostoevsky. As you read, pay particular attention to the details of Dostoevsky's imprisonment.
Read literary critic Terry Eagleton's essay on Dostoevsky. As you read, note the different ways in which Dr. Eagleton defines freedom as it appears in the works of Dostoevsky. Pay particular attention to the way in which Eagleton applies the lessons learned in his readings of Dostoevsky to the American way of life. Ask yourself what the human desire for absolute and total freedom means. Can we be absolutely and totally free? What gets in the way of our absolute and total freedom?
Read Dr. Jackson's journal article. As you read, ask yourself what the author means by calling Dostoevsky a "contemporary" writer. Note the ways in which Dr. Jackson believes Dostoevsky is relevant today.
3.2: Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground"
As you read, pay close attention to the Underground Man's opinion of himself. As you progress, consider whether the Underground Man is as maladjusted as he makes himself out to be. Could he simply be insane? Also consider Dostoevsky's anti-rationalism throughout the work and his suspicion of others who tout human reason as superior to human will. Finally, consider the following question as you near the end of the novel: Why is Underground Man unable to make those decisions that are so easy for the rest of us to make? Given what the Underground Man says about himself at the start of the book, how is Underground Man in revolt against himself? In his critique of (according to him) narrow-minded people and the masses, Underground Man seems to be in revolt against nature – how is this so? Ultimately, Dostoevsky's Underground Man feels as if he is in a revolt against nature's laws. Pay close attention to how this and other types of revolt are illustrated by Dostoevsky in this work.
3.3: Dostoevsky on Morality
Read this excerpt. As you read, you will reach the following line in the text:
"I think if the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness."
What do you think Dostoevsky intends to convey in this line?
What does it mean to say that human beings must follow their whims? What does it mean to say that the laws of reason are an illusion? Notice that in this respect, Dostoevsky has a lot in common with Pascal and Kierkegaard; namely, a suspicion of reason. Create a list of the most common philosophical features shared by the three thinkers.
3.4: Dostoevsky on Reason
Read this essay, which focuses on Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment – in particular, its main character, Raskolnikov. As the work's protagonist, Raskolnikov is a proud and rational being who must face the consequences of his actions. Considering Dostoevsky's anti-rationalism, in what way does Dr. McNeil characterize Raskolnikov as representing reason and rationalism? Is total freedom compatible with intellectual pride? How can reason get in the way of freedom? Or, how can reason make freedom possible?
3.5: Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor"
Read Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor", which is a parable relayed by one of the characters in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. As you read, consider answering the following questions: Why is Jesus on trial? What is he accused of? List the temptations Jesus faced, according to the Grand Inquisitor. Then, sketch the main argument against Jesus, as presented by the Grand Inquisitor. Why do you think Jesus is silent for most of the time as the Grand Inquisitor speaks? How does Dostoevsky suggest that Christ's rejection of the temptations place an unbearable burden, and an unreachable ideal, on humankind? Why does Ivan, who is telling us the story of the Grand Inquisitor, reject God's absolute power?
Watch this lecture. As you watch, pay special attention to Dr. Sadler's description of Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor". Then consider the following question: What are the Grand Inquisitor's faults?
Unit 3 Assessment
- Receive a grade
Take this assessment to see how well you understood this unit.
- This assessment does not count towards your grade. It is just for practice!
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