Commentary Magazine

Dostoevsky by Joseph Frank

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881
by Joseph Frank
Princeton. 812 pp. $35.00

In 1976, when he was a fifty-eight-year-old Princeton professor of comparative literature, Joseph Frank brought out the first volume of what has become a magisterial life of Fyodor Dostoevsky; at eighty-four, he has now published the fifth and last volume. Like Edmund Wilson in an earlier generation, Frank taught himself Russian, learned practically everything there was to know about the culture of Dostoevsky’s era (1821-81), read everything the novelist ever wrote, and set himself the formidable task of telling a largely non-Slavist, Anglophonic readership what he found.

Frank helpfully opens this final volume with a reprise of the first four. Dostoevsky had grown up socially less elevated and spiritually more orthodox than his rivals Turgenev and Tolstoy. In the late 1840’s, after his first novel Poor Folk had made him the darling of Utopian revolutionaries who wanted to free the serfs and reorganize Russia along communalist lines, he was arrested as a conspirator, put in front of a firing-squad for what, in hideous jest, turned out to be a mock execution, and sent to Siberia for four years of hard labor, followed by six years as a grunt in the army.

Seeing his life all but snuffed out and then given back to him, or living intimately in prison with peasant murderers and thieves who were nonetheless godly in ways upper- and middle-class people back in Moscow and Petersburg were not, deepened Dostoevsky’s Christianity and made him abjure forever the Utopian radicalism of his youth. The novels he began to write in the 1860’s, after this enforced ten-year hiatus, reflected his personal experiences but reverberated, too, with the ideological conflicts of his time.

What were those conflicts? Perhaps it is easiest to figure them simply as a contest of liberals versus conservatives. The former were Westernizers who argued that the enserfed Russian masses could be liberated through French- or English-style revolutions or reforms. The latter were Slavophiles who believed that the welfare of the Russian masses could be taken care of politically by the Czar and the nobility (had not the Czar emancipated the serfs with the stroke of a pen in 1861?) and religiously and morally by Eastern Orthodoxy. For the Slavophiles, of whom Dostoevsky was decidedly one, the primordial desires of the Russian masses were to be free (a) to choose between good and evil for themselves, without dictation from rulers or even from priests, and (b) to bear the burden of responsibility for their choice and its consequences. The working-out of this moral calculus is the thematic burden of the major novel of Dostoevsky’s middle years, Crime and Punishment (1866).



In 1871 Dostoevsky returned from Europe, where he had gone in 1867 to escape from creditors. He discovered a subtle but important change in the Russian mental climate. The Left-radicals of the 1860’s had been aggressively atheistic. The new, still Left-leaning Populists of the 1870’s, many of them sobered by the numerous assassinations that seemed a prologue to bloody revolution on the French scale, had in effect made peace with Christianity. Not with its doctrines, which remained incredible to most of them, but with its morality, which they believed pointed to social justice for the least of their countryfolk.

Dostoevsky, however, was certain that trying to maintain Christian morality without Christian doctrine—the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, the redemptive sacrifice of Christ—would lead to disaster. Irreligious moralists would end up forcing people to behave in their rational self-interest in that best of all engineered worlds symbolized, in the first part of Notes From Underground (1864), as the ant heap. But people did not want to be ants. As Dostoevsky had discovered in Siberia, the meanest peasant wanted the freedom to express himself, confess and take responsibility for his own sins, and even possess a pitiable scrap of property. And not only did the meanest peasant want this freedom: spiritually, through up-from-underground acts of “irrational” resistance, repentance, and charity of the kind Dostoevsky wrote about in his prison memoir, The House of the Dead (1862), the peasant proved he had such freedom.

No program to “help the peasantry” emanating from their “betters” had a chance of success if it did not build on what Dostoevsky regarded as the facts of human nature. He made this “Slavophilic” case year after year in his final decade: in Demons (1871-2), with its unforgettable exposure of the terror and suicide brought on by well-intending but irreligious radical conspirators; in The Diary of a Writer (1873-81), the essays he contributed to a magazine he was also editing; in Raw Youth (1875), a failed and unread novel for which Frank makes as good a case as can be made; and finally in his last novel, the ample and magnificent The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80).

Dostoevsky died shortly after finishing this book (he had proposed writing a sequel), and a month after he died, so did Czar Alexander II—assassinated by demon-possessed radicals of the sort Dostoevsky had portrayed in fiction. Frank makes it clear that The Brothers Karamazov, a story about parricide, was composed with an eye to earlier attempts on the life of the Czar or of those who served him as Russia’s “father.”

The Brothers Karamazov is a mystery, and the mystery is about which Karamazov brother has killed and/or conspired to kill the debauched old father. The eldest brother, Dimitry, wants to kill old Karamazov in revenge for the father’s having stolen both his money and his mistress. The second brother, Ivan, is willing to see his brother commit the crime, in part because it would hasten the inheritance of his share of the patrimony and in part because, like the character Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, he thinks killing such a father is no crime.

Ivan’s amoralist meditations are contained in three brilliant chapters, “Rebellion,” “The Grand Inquisitor,” and “The Devil.” “Rebellion” refers not to Ivan’s atheism—he is willing to admit the existence of God—but to his refusal to accept the world as God made it. What he finds unacceptable—morally unacceptable—is the suffering of innocent children, the agonizing accounts of which in this chapter were, as Frank indicates, drawn by Dostoevsky from newspapers or historical records. If this is the “show” God is putting on, Ivan declines the ticket that is supposed to let him in.

Ivan knows the theologically correct answers to the question of why God permits evil: first, to ensure people’s freedom to choose between it and the good; second, to give good people a cause to fight for. But he thinks these answers misguided. As his prose poem about the Grand Inquisitor reveals, people do not mind having a cause to fight for, but they generally do not want to have to choose that cause for themselves. They would rather have their supply of daily bread guaranteed, and let their masters—in this case, the Grand Inquisitor and other authorities of church and state—provide them with party-line answers to the big questions. So (as Ivan imagines it) the Inquisitor and others of his Jesuit order have taken upon themselves the burden of providing those answers, a kindness that just happens to entail torturing and burning anyone who does not get in line.

The Inquisitor’s Big-Brotherly self-justifications and methods of enforcement portend all the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, especially, as Frank remarks, of the left-wing variety. (Nazis, after all, candidly declared race-war, while Communists spoke disingenuously about brotherly love just as the Inquisitor said he was acting in the spirit of Jesus.) As for Ivan, he figures he can emulate the Inquisitor’s example: just as the Inquisitor claims to be “correcting” God’s creation, Ivan can “correct” his own situation by rubbing out his monstrous father.

Ivan’s heart, however, is no more able than Raskolnikov’s to accede to such a program. His schizophrenia on this matter floridly manifests itself in a chapter recording his hallucinatory conversation with the devil. For Dosteovsky, his creator, the sane position—which will seem crazy to victimologists—is to submit to the “mystic” reverence we feel for our fathers and mothers. Without it, the family breaks up, and soon after, the society. It is all very Shakespearean, especially if one thinks of those history plays about bad kings whom it is tempting but nevertheless wrong to depose.

Dostoevsky’s correspondence clarifies what for an impatient reader might be obscure: namely, that Ivan’s rebellious position is at bottom egoistic (who is he to presume to “correct” God’s creation?), and that a triumphant counter-statement is there, in the novel, in Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov brother, and in the saintly monk Zosima. Zosima’s career in its early stages resembles Dimitry’s, full of sensuality and anger. In its later stages, it connects with what we have seen of Alyosha, who returns good for evil, forgives his enemies, and defends the weak. Together, these Christian heroes prove that Ivan underestimates human nature: people can actively love one another.



They can especially love one another, it seems, if they are Russian—or, more precisely, un-Westernized Russians. Although Dostoevsky does not make the mistake of sentimentalizing the Russian peasants, he does allow them a “mystery” other nations’ peasants are said to lack. Frank points out that in the 1870’s Eastern Orthodoxy had taken a stand against such ethnocentrism, but Dostoevsky seems not to have noticed. The results are sometimes troubling: when it comes to salvation, other so-called Christians (Catholics, Protestants) need not apply, and people of other faiths, notably Jews, should not even inquire.1

Fortunately, being a chauvinistic tribalist on some issues did not disable Dostoevsky as an artist. What other name, among Russian novelists, can we adduce alongside Tolstoy’s? And even as a moralist, Dostoevsky puts forward insights that, in our time as well as his, are essential. We are “by nature” freedom-needing creatures, and the freedom we need is indivisible: the freedom to choose between good and evil is bound up with the freedom to say and print what we think, which is bound up with the freedom to worship as we will, which is bound up with the freedom to trade and own property, etc.

But best, in my opinion, is The Brothers Karamazov‘s emphasis on children. If they are not trained to love freedom, and to deal charitably with one another, then they will have no resistance to the Inquisitors who offer to organize their lives. Alyosha’s work with the boys who first persecute and then draw near to their pathetic schoolfellow Ilyusha is a triumph of psychological penetration. How easy it would have been for a lesser novelist than Dostoevsky to turn Ilyusha’s death into a risibly sentimental spectacle. As it is, I challenge anyone not to weep at least inwardly when Ilusha dies, or to refrain from joining the boys in shouting “Hurrah for Karamazov” when Alyosha assures them, “half laughing, half ecstatic,” that they shall all be resurrected and see each other again.

This is not a doctrine to agree or disagree with; it is what Frank recognizes as an aesthetic idea, like the final note of optimistic innocence after all the agonies in an 18th-century opera. As he says with unembarrassed directness, it conveys, “in a naively acceptable and touching form, the basic beliefs and moral-religious convictions [Dostoevsky] has sought to champion so peerlessly.”

Peerless, too, is Frank’s achievement in this five-volume life. Its clear depiction of Dostoevsky’s epoch, its untendentiously critical synopses of the fiction, above all its respect for the artist himself, even when his hopes were fantastic and his fears ominously delusional, will be the despair of competitors for a hundred years. Meanwhile, many grateful readers will want to have Frank by their side as they read or reread Dostoevsky himself, a writer who can sometimes seem to understand us better than we do ourselves.



1 Perhaps compensating for his earlier neglect of this topic, thoroughly explored in David Goldstein’s Dostoevsky and the Jews (1981), Frank here takes up the unpleasant task of registering Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitic statements in his essays, letters, and novels.


About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.

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