July 08, 2004

Memories of Fyodor

No, no, no Laura.

Matt Y's right--Dostoevsky trumps Tolstoy!

The Tolstoy versus Dostoevsky debates brings me back to my freshman year in college (14, gasp, years ago!)

My core English "Short story/Novel" class was taught by a kind, but uber-lefty, MLA-entrenched politically correct obsessed prof.

I noticed that she had chosen the authors we were to read, not by the quality of their writing, but via blatant quota requirements. So we had, pretty much, an African-American writer, an American Indian writer, an Asian-American writer, a Hispanic and, er, instead of some fussy representative of ye olde oppressive white canon--someone a little on the funky side of the fence.

Soon into the course, I went up to the prof at the end of class.

Why, I innocently queried (hard to believe, I was all of 17!) a) have we seemingly chosen writers mostly based on ethnic background rather than talent and b) why don't we include a great novelist like Fyodor Dostoevsky (then and, still now, my favorite author) on the syllabus?

Point blank, she told me she had never been able to get through a Dostoevsky novel in its entirety.

Why?

She couldn't abide his portrayal of female characters--so simply chose not to read him.

I was incredulous. What would Hilton Kramer make of this, I wondered even back then?

And I thought, how many woman in the world have the intoxicating power, enduring mystery, and complexity of this Dostoevsky creation?

But, then again, I was doubtless just objectifying her in crude fashion like a boorishly male, adolescent hot-head.

More oppression! More victims!

To the bonfires with the offending texts!

Absurd, isn't it?

And yet:

From the beginning of Part One, Nastasya Filippovna appears to be a fascinating, wild creature who is rebelling against the "natural" role of woman for her time. The shock and scandal that seems to surround her exploits suggests that her actions are not within the confines of her "role". However, the more we come to know her the more we see that she has been exploited by society of the time and the men that surround her and desire to possess her. Unable to stand up under the destructive forces that surrounded her, the strongest, most promising character was reduced to insanity by Dostoyevsky. It seems that he may sympathize with her situation, given the use of word choice we have seen, and even some of the ironic, yet sad depiction of a young girl violated. She has been refused her own identity and "renounc[es] the world...[she] has almost ceased to exist and [she] know[s] it" (480). Nastasya Filippovna must die to escape the tragic and unjust plight of a woman scorned.

Maybe my old prof had a point...but she could have at least read Dosto's books, no?

Posted by Gregory at July 8, 2004 11:21 PM
Comments

It's nice that it's not necessary to choose between D and T but one can enjoy them both! However, if forced to choose I would have to go with Tolstoy. D's greatness coexists with serious flaws. Among them: One doesn't have to be a politically correct feminist to recognize that portraying female characters is not one of D's strong points. The heroines in the later novels (I mean post-Crime and Punishment, his greatest work) , N.F. and Aglaya in the Idiot, Lisa Drozdov in Devils, and Katerina and Grushenka in BK are melodramitically conceived and seem to be inspired from literature rather than life, and at times execrably written. At his best, D achieves an amazing emotional intensity, but Tolstoy far surpasses him as a realistic and profound commentator on the human condition.

Posted by: Phil P at July 10, 2004 01:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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