Cultural Metanarratives in Unižennye i oskorblennye: Russian Literary Tradition as Historical Consciousness in Fedor Dostoevskij’s Search for the Russian Spirit

Elizabeth Blake, Ohio State University

The investigation of temporality in Fedor Dostoevskij’s oeuvre has encouraged the author’s characterization as a chronicler who attempts to “recover the meaning of Russian history” in Besy (Harriet Murav, Holy Foolishness, 122), as a feuilletonist who comments upon contemporary issues in such journalistic writings as “Peterburgskaja letopis′”, and as a prophet whose apocalyptic predictions become most apparent in Dnevnik pisatelja (Gary Saul Morson, The Boundaries of Genre, 33). These studies of Dostoevskij’s historiography (specifically as presented in these cited works and in Andrew Wachtel’s An Obsession with History) focus on works written during the last decade of his life and display a strong underlying Christian eschatology. However, Dostoevskij’s understanding of history as it developed in his earlier works reveal that the “intergeneric dialogue” between history and literature is derived more from an eschatology drawing on a national historical tradition rather than from the Christian utopianism Morson finds in Dnevnik pisatelja (Morson, 79). Andrej Dostoevskij’s recollection of family historical readings, including Nikolaj Karamzin’s Istorija gosudarstva rossijskogo and several Russian historical novels from the 1830s, as well as Aleksandr Rizenkampf’s description of Fedor Dostoevskij’s non-extant historical dramas (Marija Stjuart and Boris Godunov) testify to the author’s early fascination with historical genres. Despite his frequent dialogue with historical narratives in his fiction in the 1840s, Dostoevskij does not outline his understanding of the “intergeneric dialogue” between the historical and the literary until he publishes a series of articles entitled “Rjad statej o russkoj literature” in the first issues of Vremja (1861–4), the journal he established with his older brother Mixail. Also appearing in the first issues of this journal were several installments of the first of Dostoevskij’s major post-Siberian novels, Unižennye i oskorblennye. In a comparative analysis of this novel and Dostoevskij’s “intergeneric dialogue” as it is presented “Rjad statej o russkoj literature” I shall, by emphasizing the synergetic relationship between his journalistic and fictional writings, explore Dostoevskij’s dialogue with the historical.

A discussion of “Rjad statej o russkoj literature” will demonstrate how Dostoevskij’s focus on Russian literature to the exclusion of European literature allows him to emphasize those historical elements in Russian literature (particularly in the fiction of Aleksandr Puškin) that he believes contribute to the on-going development of a national consciousness. As a result, Dostoevskij lends the fiction of his (near) contemporaries a historical and cultural dimension that places the literary work in a temporal continuum in order to ensure its place in the cultural sphere as a sustainer of national identity. The effects of this cultural metanarrative become apparent in the novel, Unižennye i oskorblennye, when the narrator, a young writer, accounts for his adoption of certain literary conventions (and rejection of outdated conventions) in an attempt to encapsulate the literature of his time. The narrator’s anticipation of his place in the historical progression of Russian literature, when coupled with Dostoevskij’s breakdown of temporal barriers between the historical and the contemporary, will reveal that Dostoevskij’s writings, already in 1861, betray an orientation toward the future which will only later adopt Christian eschatological overtones.