Skip to content

Dostoyevski and the religion of suffering 1.

By Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé

Part One.
Navigate our series by starting here

HERE COMES THE SCYTHIAN, the true Scythian, who is going to revolutionize all our intellectual habits! We accompany him into the very heart of Moscow, into that monstrous cathedral of Saint Basil, shaped and painted like a Chinese pagoda, built by Tartar architects and yet harboring the Christian’s God!

Dostoevsky in 1880.

Turgeneff [Turgenev] and Dostoyevsky, though at school together and embarking together in the same intellectual movement, and though making their début the same year, yet stand in violent contrast to each other. The one thing they had in common was human sympathy, that distinctive mark of the men of “The ‘Forties.” In Dostoyevsky this feeling became exalted into a despairing compassion for the poor, and this made him the special teacher of this class which believed in him.

Invisible bonds exist between all forms of art born in the same hour. The desire which led all these Russian writers the study the realities of life s, and the influences which, at the same moment, induced the great landscape painters of France to study nature, seem to have sprung from the same source. Corot, Rousseau, Millet, illustrate a common tendency, combined with the personal differences which existed in and characterized their respective talents. The preference given to either of these painters will indicate the preference to be given to either of those writers. I do not wish to force the comparison, but it is yet the only means for rapidly putting one’s mind at ease in regard to the unknown.

Corot stands for Turgeneff’s grace and poesy; Rousseau for Tolstoy’s simple grandeur, and Millet for Dostoyevsky’s tragic bitterness.

His novels are now translated in France, but what astonishes me is that they are read everywhere with pleasure. It puts me at ease when writing about them.

I should not have believed it if I had tried to describe this strange figure before the resemblance could have been verified by the reading of his novels. But these would be difficult to understand unless one knew the life of the writer who created them – I was going to say experienced them. Never mind – the former word indicates the latter.

In commenting on the labours and life of this man I invite the reader to accompany me on a journey, always sad, often frightful, at times ominous. Those who feel a repugnance on entering hospitals, courts of justice, prisons, and who are afraid to pass through a cemetery at night, had best keep away. I should be a disloyal traveling companion if I tried to enliven a journey which destiny and character had fated to make continuously sad. I am confident that some will follow me, even if the task is heavy; they are of those who believe that the French spirit is burdened with the hereditary duty of knowing all that there is to be known in the world, and of continuing to have the honour of leading the world. And the Russia of the last twenty years will remain an inexplicable enigma if one ignores the books which have made the deepest impression and created the greatest disturbance in that time. Let us examine the works, [1] which have been of such consequence, but first the most dramatic one of all, the life of the man who conceived them.


HE WAS BORN IN 1821 in a hospital at Moscow. Implacable Fate decreed that his eyes should first open on scenes exasperated by the greatest misfortunes. His father, a retired military doctor, was attached to that establishment. His family belonged to that class of “nobility” which furnish the vast army of petty officials, and like nearly all of them, he had a small property and a few serfs, in the province of Tula. The boy was often taken there, and these first impressions of the countryside will from time to time appear in his works, but not often, and always curtailed. Contrary to most Russian writers, who as a rule are fond of the country and invariably return to scenes connected with the localities in which they grew up, Dostoyevsky only refers to them casually. Psychologically this is no loss, for to his human soul the suburbs of great towns and their miserable streets are the “green fields” of his choice. When recalling these days of his childhood, the time when particular impressions are first made, it is not the memories of peaceful woods and open skies that will influence the writer’s imagination, but the garden of the poor-house, the uniformed patients in their brown coats and white caps, the mild games played by the “humiliated” and “outraged.”

Michael Dostoevsky, ca. 1847. From Letters (Chatto 1914).

The doctor was in bad circumstances and had many children. After the two eldest, Michael and Feodor, had spent some time at a school in Moscow, the father obtained a nomination for them to the College of Military Engineers at St. Petersburg. These two brothers, further united by the same love of literature, were always the best of friends. They supported each other in all the great crises of their lives. The letter written to Michael finds the best place in the volume of Correspondence which tells all about the private life of Feodor. Both boys found themselves very much out of place in this technical college, which for them took the place of a university. Dostoyevsky had no classical education. It would have given him the polish and sedateness acquired by an early acquaintance with literature. He made up for it, whether for good or evil, by devouring Pushkin and Gogol and the French novels, Balzac, Eugène Sue, and George Sand, all which seem to have had a great ascendancy over his imagination. But Gogol was his favorite master. In Dead Souls he found the revelation regarding the poor wretches, to whom he was naturally attracted. Dostoyevsky left college in 1843 with the rank of sub-lieutenant, but did not wear his epaulettes more than a year, when he retired to give himself up exclusively to literature, as a profession.

From that day commenced, to last forty years, that ferocious duel between the writer and misery. The father was dead, and the small patrimony, divided amongst so many, soon vanished. The young Feodor undertook translation work and toyed with journalism. During those forty years, his private correspondence, much resembling Balzac’s, is but one long cry of anguish, a constant recapitulation of his indebtedness, bewailing his “cab-horse” work, hired in advance by his publishers. The only daily bread he was certain of was that of the convict prison – should he get there. Thoroughly hardened against all physical privations, Dostoyevsky was most sensitive in other ways. Pride, which was his chief characteristic, suffered terribly at the slightest occasion which revealed his poverty. One sees this festering sore in his letters, in the heroes of his romances, who are visible embodiments of his soul – all are ever tormented by feelings of shyness and distrust. Thus already an invalid, with nerves badly shaken, he was subject to hallucinations. He thought himself the victim of every kind of disease. Often before going to sleep he placed a note upon the desk to this effect – “It is possible that I may fall into a lethargic sleep to-night; therefore care must be taken not to have me buried before a certain number of days…”

Dmitry Grigorovich, 1876.

WHAT WAS CERTAINLY NOT an hallucination was his terribly painful illness – epilepsy – the first symptoms of which now appeared, though it has been asserted that it came to him later in Siberia. But a friend of his assured me that at this time Dostoyevsky often used to fall down in the street, foaming at the mouth. Yes, we may be certain that from that time up to his death he was but a frail bundle of nerves, with a woman’s soul in a Russian peasant’s body; self-centered, shy, full of hallucinations, yet possessing a heart readily overflowing with floods of compassion for the submerged.

Hard work alone pleased and consoled him. In his correspondence he describes the outlines of his forthcoming novels with outbursts of childish delight. Later he recalls these first experiences by placing them in the mouth of a character (drawn from himself), an author who figures in Humbled and Outraged. He writes –

If I have ever been happy it was certainly not in the first moments when intoxicated with success, but it was when I had not as yet shown my manuscript to any one, during those long nights passed in happy dreams filled with enthusiastic hope, with my whole soul in my work; when I lived alone with my vision, with the people created by myself, whom I loved as my own kith and kin, people who seemed to have a real existence, sharing their joys sorrows, and actually shedding tears for the misfortunes which befell the hero of my own creation.

This sentiment shows up strikingly in his first book, Poor Folk, which contains the germ of all his others to follow. Dostoyevsky was twenty-one when he wrote it.


Nikolay Nekrasov.

Toward the end of his life, in his Notebooks of a Scribe, he gave us an account of the fine history of its first appearance. The poor young engineer did not know a soul in the literary world and did not know what to do with his manuscript. One of his comrades – Grigorovich by name, who holds an honoured place in literature, and who confirms the truth of this anecdote – took the manuscript to Nekrasoff, the poet of the “disinherited.” As three o’clock in the morning Dostoyevsky heard some one knocking at his door. It was Grigorovich, who had returned, bringing Nekrasoff with him. The poet threw himself into the arms of the unknown author with signs of deepest emotion. He had spent all night reading the novel, and had been completely upset. Nekrasoff also belonged to that distrustful and shy class of beings to which nearly every Russian writer at this time belonged. These naturally closed hearts, brought into sudden contact by an irresistible impulse, opened out to each other sat the first shock and with the generous warmth of youth. Dawn found these three ardent spirits still in excited converse and henceforth inseparably bound together in a communion of hope and dreams of Art and Poesy.

Directly on leaving his protégé, Nekrasoff went straight to Belinsky, the Russian oracle, the critic whose name alone was sufficient to make the beginner shake in his shoes. “A new Gogol has been born unto us!” shouted the poet ass he burst into his friend’s rooms. “Gogols spring up like mushrooms nowadays,” returned the critic in his most frigid manner, but took hold of the manuscript as if it had been a piece of poisoned bread.

Vissarion Belinsky in 1843.

It is of course well known that in every land the great critics take hold of manuscripts in this self-same manner. But the perusal of the manuscript had the same magic effect on Belinsky. When the author, trembling with anxiety, presented himself before the judge, Belinsky excitedly addressed him thus:

Young man, have you understood all the truth of what you have written? No, with your twenty years you could not understand. It is the revelation of inborn art, a gift from above. Be true to this gift, and you will be a great writer.

A few months later Poor Folk appeared in a periodical, and the verdict of the critic was ratified by the whole of Russia.

BELINSKY WAS JUSTIFIED IN being astonished. No one would believe that a mind of twenty could have conceived such a simple, yet such a thrilling tragedy. That is the age when one “divines” happiness, that “science” learnt in youth, without aid of master, and loses the moment of its practical application. Also the age for inventing unhappiness, startling and heroic, bringing its own reward by its very majesty and tumult. But the sufferings of decay, drab and dumb, the sufferings of shame, hidden like the plague! How and where had he learnt all this before his time, this miserable genius?

The first English-language translation, 1894.

It is a very ordinary story in the form of an interchange of letters between two people. One of them is a clerk in a government office, the worse for years and anxiety, going down the hill of a sad life, struggling against material distress, suffering the torments of humiliation. He just escapes being ridiculous. He is uneducated and simple minded, the butt of his fellow clerks – speaks badly, is of average intellect, while his sole ambition is to be a good copyist. But under this faded and comical exterior there beats a child’s heart, so candid, so devoted – I was going to say so saintly dull – with its divine gift for self-sacrifice! This is the favourite type for all Russian observers, as being that which embodies the best qualities of the genius of their people. It is the same type as that used by Turgeneff for Lukerya in Living Relics; for Karatayeff in War and Peace by Tolstoy. But these are only peasants, whereas Dyevushkin of Poor Folk is many rungs higher up the intellectual and social ladder.

There is, however, one ray of gladsome light in his life, otherwise as gloomy and frozen as any Russian winter night. Opposite the garret window at which he does his copying work there lives, also in poor lodgings, a young girl. She is a distant relation, buffeted by Fate, she also, and but for the feeble protection of this clerk, would be quite alone in the world. Isolated and stifled on all sides by the brutal pressure of men and things, these two miserable ones support each other in the struggle for life. In this state of mutual affection the man displays a tactful unselfishness, a delicacy all the more pleasing because it clashes with his habitual clumsiness of ideas and actions. It is as a timid flower, born in poor soil, among the brambles, betrayed only by its scent. He undergoes heroic privations to support, even merely to enliven, the existence of his friend. The efforts are well hidden, and would not be guessed but for his clumsiness. To him they appear so natural! Sometimes it is the devotion of a father, or a brother, even of a faithful hound. – that at least is how he would in good faith describe them were he to analyse his feelings. And yet, I well know the real name to give that sentiment. But tell him not; for he would die of shame at the mere sound of the word!

The woman’s character is sketched in a striking manner. She is far superior to her friend in mind and education, and guides him in matters of intelligence, wherein he is still a novice. She sis gentle and frail, with a heart less steady, less resigned. She, on her part, had not entirely renounced life, and is continually protesting against the sacrifices Dyevushkin imposes on himself, and implores him not to be anxious about her. Then a “sigh of poverty” escapes her, if perhaps only a childish whim, when longing for a piece of frippery! As they can only meet at long intervals for fear of giving cause for gossip, a daily correspondence is established between them. Their letters tell us of their past, their sad history, the little incidents of their daily life, their disappointments; the terrors of the girl pursued by vice, ever on the watch, the discouragements of an unemployed in search of bread, pitifully endeavouring to defend the rags of her human dignity, grasped at by cruel hands. At last the crisis arrives. Dyevushkin loses his one joy! No doubt you think that she is going to be ravished and taken away by a young lover supplanting his brotherly affection in the heart of his protégée! Oh, no! It is far more human, far sadder!

A man – the disturbing element – who in the past had paid her attention, offers her his hand. He is of ripe age, very rich, somewhat suspicious; nevertheless his intentions are honourable. Tired of struggling against fate, possibly persuaded that it will alleviate some of the difficulties connected with her friend, the unfortunate girl accepts. Here the study of character is an achieved truth – perfect! The affianced girl, passing from indigence to luxury, is instantly intoxicated with the new atmosphere. Dresses, jewels, at last! In her ingenuous cruelty she fills her last letters with details regarding these important objects; as was her wont, she charges Dyevushkin, who lately had always done her commissions for her, to go to the milliner and to the jeweler. It might be thought that this is a vile soul, unworthy of the exquisite sentiment which she had inspired! Not for an instant is the reader given this impression, so successful is the writer in keeping to the true note. No, it is but a touch of restrained youth and humanity which at last springs up to the surface of a crushed life. Can we blame her? And then, the cruelty explains itself as being due to the differences of sentiment. Hers is a friendship which will remain loyal, grateful, if a little elastic. How can she understand that to him it is sheer despair!

It is one of the marriage conditions that a journey is to be immediately undertaken to a distant province. Up to the last moment Dyevushkin replies to her letters, giving in full detail an account of the commissions entrusted to him, making every effort to show himself well acquainted with lace and ribbons. It is with difficulty that here and there a repressed sigh betrays the anguish invading him at the thought of his coming abandonment but in the last letter the torn heart bursts and the miserable man sees before him the horrible remainder of his days, lonely, void! He no longer knows what he is writing; nevertheless his plaint is made with such shyness that it seems as if he had not quite realized the entire secret of his own sorrow. The drama ends with that moan, prolonged into solitude, behind the train with separates these “Poor Folk.”

THIS FIRST BOOK OF his is somewhat drawn out, but the fault is less noticeable here than in his later works. Some of the scenes are most realistic, with tragic vigour. A young woman recounts the death of a student living in the same house, the despair of his father, an unlettered, simple old man who lived in apprehensive admiration of his son’s intelligence – “so learned”!

Anna, daughter of Feodor, our landlady, arranged the funeral. She bought a coffin – quite a plain one – and hired a man with his dust cart. To cover her outlay she possessed herself of his books and all his clothes. The old man quarreled with her over this with much noise, and seized all the books he could get hold of. He was a dolt without any memory. He ran round and round the coffin in a fussy manner, thinking to make himself useful, rearranging the wreaths placed on the body, or the candles. His mind could not remain fixed long on any one object…

Neither my mother nor Anna, the daughter of Feodor, went to church for absolution. My mother was ill, Anna had quarreled with the old man and would have nothing to do with the arrangements. I went alone with him. During the ceremony I was seized with a vague fear, with a presentiment for the future. I could hardly stand on my feet. At least they nailed down the coffin, placed it on the cart and off they went. The carter made his horse trot, the old man ran behind moaning in a loud voice; his sobs were in gasps, intermingled with hiccoughs due to loss of his breath by running; the poor man lost his hat and did not stop to pick it up; rain poured down on his head; the wind got up and changed rain into hail, which stung his face. The old man did not seem to notice the frightful weather and kept on sobbing and running from one side of the cart to the other. The tails of his long, shabby coat flapped in the wind like huge wings. From out of every pocket books kept falling out. In his hands he had a large volume, which he pressed to his bosom with all his might. The passers-by uncovered and cross themselves. Some turned round and looked at the old man in astonishment. Every moment he lost some books, which rolled in the mud. He stopped to pick them up and then ran all the faster to come up with the cart. At the corner of the street an old beggar woman joined the procession, also running. The cart disappeared round the corner and was lost to view.

I would like to quote other and similar passages, but I hesitate, nor can I find them; and that is the highest praise one can give a novel. The structure is so solid, the material so simple and so well adapted to giving the general impression as a whole that to isolate a passage would be to impair its value. It would be like detaching a single stone from a Greek temple, whose beauty is derived solely from its general outline. This is an innate gift of all Russian writers. The pages of their books silently accumulate like drops of water, slow and sure. Suddenly, before having realized the rising of the tide, one finds oneself standing in a deep lake and gradually submerged by the swelling of a dismal flood.

There is another feature they have in common – in which Turgeneff excelled and where Dostoyevsky possibly ever surpassed him – it is the art of being able with one line, one word, to raise infinite memories, innumerable sentiments and ideas. This art is fully exemplified in Poor Folk. The sentences in those pages do not seem to be written lengthways but down into the depths, and cause subdued vibrations which gradually lose themselves in the unknown. They resemble the narrow keys of an organ whence the sound seems to arise, but which are only the means for acting on the invisible connections with the heart of the instrument – that source of harmony, whence really proceeds the “tempest’s thunder.” On reaching the last page, we have got to know these two people as if we had lived with them all our lives. The author has not told us the thousandth part of what we ourselves know of them, because of the scientific exactitude of what his mere indications reveal. I apologize to the schools of “precise and exact” study, but the writer is indeed the more powerful because he does not describe everything. We are grateful to him for what he allows us to imagine.

THE WORK IS A masterpiece of desolation, deserving as an epigraph the words written by Dyevushkin of one of his companions in misery, on being struck by another blow of misfortune: “His tears were streaming, but not perhaps on account of his last misfortune, but for nothing in particular, in ordinary course, as his eyes were at all times brimful with tears!”

The work is a masterpiece of tenderness; jutting out of the heart in one steady stream. Dostoyevsky in this work has given us an insight into his inner nature – his morbid sensitiveness, his need of sympathy and affection, his bitter conception of life, his ferocious pride.

As in Dyevushkin’s simulated letter, his own letters at this period speak of the intolerable annoyance his “shabby greatcoat” occasioned him.

To enable one to share the surprise felt by Nekrasoff and Belinsky, and to understand the originality of this creation, the moment of its literary conception must be borne in mind. The Tales of a Hunter (by Turgeneff) only appeared five years later. It is quite true that Gogol had supplied the theme in his Greatcoat, but Dostoyevsky substituted a suggestive emotion to what his master merely imagined.

He continued to write essays in the same strain, but with less success. His restless talent made him examine other directions – even comedy. A farce of his bears the singular title: The Wife of another and the Husband Under the Bed. The jesting is course and heavy, for good nature was what the author failed in most. He possessed the shrewdness of the philosopher, a niceness of heart, but he knew nothing of the delicacy suited to the “mirth of the soul.”

Fate not charges itself to thrust him back into his proper course, and that with the rudeness she sometimes displays in her manner of indicating her intentions. We now come to the terrible trial which gives this man a peculiarly tragic position among all writers.

[1] Complete Works, 14 vols. Edited by Brothers Panteleyeff. St. Petersburg, 1883.

Note: This is part one of a five-part series. The remaining parts will be published this year in the New Series. This text was first published as an extended chapter in an English-language translation by Col. Herbert Anthony Sawyerin The Russian Novel (Chapman & Hall, 1913). It has been manually transcribed exclusively for the New Series, with very minor edits to track usage. Dostoyevski and the Religion of Suffering has been published in book form by The Fortnightly Review in our series of Odd Volumes published for our subscribers.

Eugène-Melchior, vicomte de Vogüé.

THE FIRST FRENCH EDITION of Le roman russe appeared in 1886 and was perhaps one of the most influential books of literary comment of the 19th century, bringing Russian fiction to the attention of French, then English, readers, most of whom were previously unaware of it. Le roman russe, wrote historian Owen Chadwick, “was so critical, and yet so constructive, so personal and yet so objective, so penetrating without being astringent, so prosaic and yet so haunting, that even after so many decades you cannot read it without wanting to go back to read the Russian novelists for themselves. If we say that Vogüé ‘popularized’ Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, that would be true. But the description is very inadequate both to explain what the book achieved and the way it achieved that effect.” Vogüé was an acquaintance of Maupassant’s and other contemporary literary celebrities, a contributor to the Revue des deux Mondes and a friend of Ferdinand Brunetiere’s.

To obtain the unedited text, please see the copyright page for instructions. Please note The Fortnightly Review and in citations based on this transcription.