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Paul Fung reviews the latest CUP book on Dostoevsky and his place in Russian literary history, exploring the worlds inhabited by the radical author.

Dostoevsky in Context, edited by Deborah A. Martinsen and Olga Maiorova (Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 351.

The book is in two parts: Part One: Social, Historical and Cultural Context; Part Two: Literature, Journalism and Languages. Part One is further divided into four sections. The first section entitled: Changing Political, Economic and Social Landscape. This section positions Dostoevsky as an author who was born in an age where a number of policy changes took place: the abolition of serfdom, the introduction of jury in the law court, the increasing concern of the ‘woman question’, the debate on using corporal punishment, etc. It is not possible to comment on all the topics in this review (there are altogether thirty-four topics, one chapter each). But of particular interest among the topics is the discussion of punishment (chapter four). On the one hand, being a responsible citizen in a community, an individual should receive punishment when he violates the regulations that are agreed and adopted by the majority. Such view, originates in the Enlightenment tradition, is premised on the idea that each citizen is rational and would take responsibility of his own behavior. Another view of punishment is a preventive one. An individual should receive punishment because it can help prevent him to commit the crime again. More, the punishment can help rehabilitate the criminal, ideally creating a moral change in him. Dostoevsky finds it difficult to endorse any of the two approaches, but tends to support the latter one. It is his hope that punishment can bring out moral change in criminals. Hence, in the epilogue of Crime and Punishment (1866), we see the imprisoned Raskolnikov takes out the Bible and is just about to read the chapter on the resurrection. And yet, the novel finishes at that point, leaving the question whether imprisonment can really change Raskolnikov or not open.

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Section two (Political, Social, and Cultural Institutions) covers a wide range of interesting topics that are pertinent to the quotidian aspects of life, e.g. ‘Suicide’ (a key theme in Dostoevsky’s A Meek One (1848) and Demons (1872)), ‘Gambling’ (fully examined in The Gambler (1867) and commented by Sigmund Freud in his essay ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide’ (1928)) and ‘Jews, Race and Biology’. Section three (Space and Place) is much shorter, but devoting two important ones on St. Petersburg and the Crystal Palace. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man claims it is a misfortune to dwell in the nineteenth-century Petersburg. Then he adds: ‘City can be intentional and unintentional’. The chapter on Crystal Palace explores the cultural history of the architecture and how it is represented in Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? (1863) and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment. The chapter multiplies the meanings of the palace instead of reaffirming the palace as the symbol of utilitarianism, as shown in many other criticisms.

Section four has a refreshing chapter that explores the writer’s connection with Islam. The figure of Mohammad is adopted to articulate his own ecstatic experience of epilepsy in both his diary and The Idiot (1869). The same name appears along with Napoleon and Julius Caesar in Crime and Punishment to represent a transgressor who founds the law of a nation. Overall, the chapters in Part One are written in roughly similar patterns: the first half maps out the historical context. The second half shows Dostoevsky’s response to this context in his fictional and personal writings. Most of the time, the writer does not passively depict historical facts, but use them with twists, just like the use of Mohammad in explaining epilepsy. Part Two shifts its focus to the act of writing. Dostoevsky: Translator and Translated provides up-to-date survey and evaluation of the English translations of Dostoevsky’s novels. Also worth noting in Part Two is that altogether three chapters are devoted to the writer’s journalism, a topic that is not often dealt in-depth in conventional Dostoevsky criticism (the reading list of these three chapters are particularly useful).

As the editor stated in the introduction, the strength of this book lies in the historical account of the worlds in which Dostoevsky lived. Instead of simply confirming Dostoevsky’s depiction of the country, such account sketches a more comprehensive picture of Russia, so that the reader can make a more informed response to his work. The book cannot cover all relevant topics, but it could have included topics like: Health Care, Illness, Modernity, Romanticism, Twentieth-Century Receptions and Critical Theory. Another absence is close reading of individual novels. Most of the time the historical contexts are used to explain one or two moments in the fictional texts. To what extent can historical context offer a framework for sustainable textual analysis? Instead of supplementing our understanding of the fictions (if not circumscribing it), can historical context liberate new artistic and philosophical interpretations of the fictional texts? The answer is beyond the scope of this book but it is important to think of one if we want to pave a new direction in Dostoevsky’s criticism.


Paul Fung teaches literature at Hang Seng Management College. His book, Dostoevsky and the Epileptic Mode of Being, was published in 2015 with Legenda.

One thought on “Dostoevsky in Context

  1. Pingback: 脈絡中的杜斯妥也夫斯基 – 微批

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