In high school, you may have heard several times about the importance of reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work. He is one of the greatest Russian authors who has written masterpieces of world literature, often discussing topics such as faith, society, and politics.
If you still need some reason to read Dostoevsky, here it is: he is one of the most honest authors out there. His stories are about addiction, poverty, morality, and the loss of freedom because Dostoevsky really lived through it all. He was addicted to gambling and ended up in misery, having to beg to survive. He was also sentenced to death for subversion, a penalty pardoned at the last minute and changed to a few years of hard labor in Siberia. Throughout his work, the author has written about these experiences and much more. This list tries to enumerate the 10 most significant books of a genius.
This is an obvious choice for first place. After all, the 1866 book is considered one of the greatest of all time. Long and dense, Crime and Punishment tells a seemingly simple story that is epitomized in its title. Raskolnikov is a poor student who’s deeply in debt (Dostoevsky himself was being threatened by creditors when he wrote the book). To get some money, the protagonist decides to commit murder. The description of the cowardly crime is graphic and repugnant. However, faced with the nightmare that the protagonist begins to live from then on, the reader is led to sympathize with the murderer. Raskolnikov is haunted by his conscience and the horror of guilt. When the “punishment” of the title finally arrives, it is a relief. Few books have gone so deep into the psychological consequences of committing a violent crime, which is why Crime and Punishment remains a timeless masterpiece.
2. The Idiot
Published in 1869, The Idiot chronicles the curious adventure of the young protagonist Myshkin. After being released from a sanatorium in Switzerland, where he was in treatment for years, Myshkin decides to return to his native Russia. But his strange new ideals of empathy and compassion come into conflict with the materialistic and atheistic society of that time. Worst: Myshkin’s good intentions are confused with insanity. The lead character can be seen as an allegory (and even satire) to Jesus Christ, and the message at the end is ironic: the only safe destination for someone who naively preaches goodness in modern society is the sanatorium.
Although Dostoevsky has published 15 novels, many scholars suggest that some of the author’s most interesting work can be found in the 17 short stories he also wrote. Among several anthologies, this one from 2001 is a great choice to have Dostoevsky’s seven most representative short stories on the shelf. The volume includes two tales that some researchers place among the best he has written: “Poor Folk” (1845) and “White Night” (1848). The first deals with poverty, a common theme in the author’s work (and life). The plot is narrated through the letters exchanged by two characters commenting on the difficulties they suffer living in poverty. The other tale is a beautiful love story à la Dostoevsky: the author narrates the inner conflicts of a young man whose love is likely not returned.
4. The Gambler
This 1867 novella is considered short by the author’s standards (less than 200 pages), but it’s probably the most personal of all his books. The Gambler deals with two of his obsessions: gambling addiction and the desire to win even when you’re a notorious loser. The protagonist Alexei Ivanovich is a young tutor who works for a Russian general. Unable to accept his place in society, Ivanovich falls madly in love with Polina, the General’s stepdaughter. She, in turn, manipulates the naive young man and introduces him to an addiction to gambling. The Gambler is a dark, dramatic journey through an underworld of casinos, bets, and millionaire losses that destroy lives. Like Dostoevsky in real life, Ivanovich indulges in a routine of win (sometimes) and lose (all the time) that won’t end well.
This is Dostoevsky’s last book, published in 1880–just a year before the writer’s death. At nearly 800 pages, it is also his longest work. The Brothers Karamazov tells the saga of brothers Alexei, Ivan, and Dmitri. They were born from two marriages of a father who doesn’t care about them. So the three Karamazovs live in love, in conflict, and finally, became involved in a murder case. The narrative is complex, including side stories that won’t make sense until later. A considerable part of the book compiles long philosophical and theological discussions between Alexei and his teacher, Father Zosima. Such dialogues epitomize many of Dostoevsky’s particular beliefs about faith and guilt.
A brilliant farse of political criticism that remains frighteningly current. The story takes place in a little town and the characters represent different ideologies that populated Russian society at the end of the 19th century. One of them is Verkhovensky, who forms a group of revolutionary terrorists to overthrow the government and the church. Published in 1872, Demons turned out to be prophetic–although Dostoevsky is in fact condemning radicalism. As in the book, the lower classes in real life also got tired of being oppressed by the Tsarist regime and many turned to radicalism. This culminated in the death of Tsar Alexander II in a bombing in 1881, kick-starting the Russian Revolution. Well, Dostoevsky tried to warn them…
Humiliated and Insulted was the first Dostoevsky published after his release from prison. This is noticeable: the author avoids big political and philosophical speeches (or hides them very well), but there’s a lot of bitterness and sadness on every page. The story is narrated by a young author named Ivan and involves Natasha, the girl he is madly in love with, and Nellie, an orphan girl that the narrator decides to adopt. When Natasha runs away with another man, Ivan is devastated. But soon the couple begins to face difficulties and asks the narrator for help. More accessible than most of Dostoevsky’s books, The Insulted and Humiliated is a dramatic and painful love story about someone who must sacrifice all he cares about to help the love of his life and the partner she has chosen over him. It’s as sad as it sounds.
If this one doesn’t make you reevaluate your own life, nothing will. Published in 1864, the book is almost an essay or statement written by an unnamed man who introduces himself as “The Underground Man.” Antisocial and haunted by his failures, he decides to leave society. The first part of the book is a long monologue in which the 40-year-old protagonist tries to explain his worldviews (many of them similar to those of Dostoevsky himself). The second part is composed of memories of the narrator’s youth, sometimes dramatic, sometimes pathetic, but always humiliating, justifying the character’s later behavior. As in life, not everything is black and white. Dostoevsky leaves the reader torn between loving and hating the narrator along the way.
Dostoevsky was married twice and wasn’t exactly a model husband. He even had many known extramarital affairs. That’s why it is interesting to read this short novella from 1870, maybe an examination of conscience by the author. The story is lighter than most of his work but equally complex in the way it presents the characters and their motivations. It all starts with the meeting of old friends Velchaninov and Trusotsky. The first was a notorious seducer, the second is a recent widower. Gradually the reader discovers that, in the past, Velchaninov had an affair with Natalia, the deceased wife of Trusotsky. And what follows is a tense narrative (even a little sadistic at times) in which the widower and the lover try to resolve their differences. The result is fascinating: part melodrama, part tragicomedy, but all Dostoevsky.
A lesser-known work and at the same time an essential book to understand Dostoevsky’s mind. Published in 1862, The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical memoir disguised as fiction. The author tried to exorcise the trauma of the time he spent in a Siberian prison camp. Narrator Goryanchikov is a man sentenced to 10 years in prison for murdering his wife. The book is composed of short narratives about the routine of the prison and also Goryanchikov’s relationship with the other inmates. Most of these characters were inspired by real people Dostoevsky met during his time in prison. The result is one of his most dramatic books, which explores (sometimes in rather uncomfortable detail) the physical and mental abuses that prisoners suffered in Russian labor camps at the time. It’s a difficult read, but it helps to understand some of the author’s views on faith and humanity in his later books.