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Joyce Carol Oates on Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tragic Rites in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed

That so prodigiously long and so luridly convoluted a novel as The Possessed evolves, nevertheless, with the structural coherence of a tragedy of Aeschylus or Euripides is a testament of Dostoyevsky's unparalleled genius. It has always been known that he is a marvelous creator of character—he is the equal of Dickens, and perhaps even the equal of Shakespeare, in this regard. But that he is a genius as a craftsman is perhaps less well known. It is, in fact, an embarrassing cliche of literary criticism that only short works of fiction, like novellas or short stories, exhibit perfect "form," and that any lengthy work inevitably suffers from a relative shapelessness. The naive critic tries to compare The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, discovering the one to be marvelously compact and the other sprawling and structurally unsound. But Moby-Dick is a masterpiece of structure, of a complexity that goes beyond anything Hawthorne would have dared to attempt; and it is to be presumed that the ordinary critic, infused with a myopic Jamesian sensibility, simply cannot see its vast magnificent form. My reading, over the years, of criticism on Dostoyevsky has led me to the conclusion that many of Dostoyevsky's critics are simply incapable of measuring his genius. Perhaps it is the case that the academic-trained critic will peer into a work of art in the hope of seeing his own reflection there, or certain "critical" qualities his professors in graduate school told him to admire: symmetry, unity of tone, precision, even brevity. Don't all literary works aspire to the condition of the well-wrought poem?

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Tragic and Comic Visions in The Brothers Karamazov

The problems of The Brothers Karamazov are not due to any weakness on the author's part, but to his extraordinary inventiveness. Within the confines of his careful structure a series of mocking antitheses appear: have they been created consciously or unconsciously? Are they ingenious, or are they simply mistakes? The key to Dostoevski's genius, however, seems to be in his command of the dynamics of fiction. Not life, certainly: life is never equal to the pace and intricacy of any of Dostoevski's works. The theme of transformation or rebirth is more than simply a religious (and rather magical) idea; it is a part of Dostoevski's imagination. Reality is constantly turning into something else; simplicity breaks up into fragments, baffling us; nothing stays, nothing is permanent; characters who are defined in one way break loose and assume deeper, vaster dimensions; dogmatic truths are echoed and mocked hundreds of pages later; the revered father figure is shadowed by demonic father figures; doubles multiply and question the very basis of individual identity; what is intended to be a parable or prophecy (Russian spirit threatened by European intellect) becomes a great mystic work in which all of men's acts, whether "good" or "evil," are held finally to be of little account, for it is precisely this heresy of Ivan's tragic pride, his assumption that man's sin is of importance, that Dostoevski wants to destroy.

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