Dostoevsky is a two-trick pony

Like most other people who enjoy self-abuse through reading thousand-page novels, I’ve had the experience of reading Dostoevsky and marveling at his ability to capture “reality”. I’ve read “Crime and Punishment” in the past, and am now reading “The Brothers Karamazov”. Needless to say, there have been many parts that have completely floored me. I used to think that Dostoevsky was perhaps a “god amongst men”, having the ability to capture emotions and human behaviour in a way that is far beyond our abilities. However, in light of my previous two articles on goal conflict and the dynamic model of human personality, I feel that Dostoevsky uses only two tricks again and again to create unbelievably real scenarios, and that we too may perhaps be able to use those tricks to enhance our writing.

The trick that Dostoevsky uses most often is the following: his characters behave in one particular way, and then behave in a completely opposite way the next moment. And for some reason, this only makes them more believable. For instance, the poor Captain in The Brothers Karamazov is elated when he is offered money by Alyosha. He dreams aloud about how he will use that money to pay for medical treatment for his family, and take his son on a long-promised vacation. However, it is at that moment that he chooses to throw the money on the ground, stamp on it in disgust, and let Alyosha know exactly what he think of his charity. What’s more surprising is that Alyosha later says that now that the Captain has rejected his money once, if he is again offered the same money the next day, he will happily accept it. And we know that Alyosha is correct.

This can be seen through the lens of the passive goal guidance system dealing with conflicting goals- his goal of providing for his family vs his goal of preserving/signaling his honor. When the Captain fantasizes in detail about how this money will solve all his problems, his passive goal guidance system mistakes imagination for reality, and assumes that all his financial problems are already solved. This causes disengagement with this goal, and engagement with the conflicting goal of saving his honor and not accepting charity from the brother of his enemy. Moreover, when he makes a big show of how his honor matters to him much more than any of his financial problems, his goal of proving to the world that his honor cannot be bought is also fulfilled, and now the conflicting goal of providing for his family again re-surfaces. Hence, Alyosha correctly predicts that if the Captain is offered that money again, he will readily take it.

This jumping between conflicting goals is something we also see in the most other characters in the book. For example, Grushenka is torn between taking revenge on the man who betrayed her, or running into his arms when he comes calling again. However, it is only after fantasizing in great detail, about how she will take her revenge by insulting him and turning down his offer to go with him, that she decides to run into his arms. This may be interpreted as her being torn between two conflicting goals- her goal of taking revenge for earlier wrongdoing, vs her goal of being with a man she still loves. After she imagines taking revenge on him in great detail, her passive goal guidance system assumes that this goal has been fulfilled, and disengages with it. This causes her other goal to surface- that of running into his arms, and this is exactly what she does.

Another trick that Dostoevsky uses is that his characters readily abandon the good and solid things in their life, and value only those things that carry an element of risk or uncertainty. For instance, Mitya has a beautiful, rich and virtuous fiance, Katerina Ivanovna, who is ready to forgive all of his infidelity and be with him. However, he abandons her and chooses to pursue Grushenka, who is an undependable and promiscuous escort to a rich landlord in town, and also has a relationship with his own father. This brings us back to the paper on the dynamic theory of personality, which told us that our desire for something/someone increases with the uncertainty involved in obtaining the object/person (it is maximum when our chances of obtaining that object/person are 50-50). Hence, Katerina Ivanovna, despite all her qualities, was too much of a sure thing for Mitya to desire. He was self-destructively pulled towards a woman who was much more ambivalent towards him, and with whom his future was much more uncertain.

To Dostoevsky’s credit, the concepts of goal conflict and the dynamic theory of personality are manifestly true for the human nature. Hence, it is through the use of these two concepts that he is able to create hyperreal characters. Tolstoy uses the concept of goal conflict as well. For instance, when Natasha is finally pursued by her childhood love in War and Peace, she doesn’t reciprocate, but falls for someone entirely different. However, I find Tolstoy’s treatment to be much more subtle than Dostoevsky’s. Although Tolstoy and Dostoevsky both occupy a position in world literature that has hardly been challenged in the last couple of centuries, I find Tolstoy to be much more of a literary genius than Dostoevsky. I can perhaps explain this more in a future post.

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Graduate student

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