Why Reading Dostoyevsky Has Changed Me
The spring before I left for college, my family experienced a trauma that has deeply affected our lives ever since. My ongoing response to this experience—the way in which I allow it to shape and affect me—still weighs heavily on my mind, and the road toward healthy relationships with certain family members has been hard and riddled with obstacles. In five years, I have worked with counselors, pastors, mentors, and friends who have walked with me on this road, helping me forward. The time and love these individuals have poured into me is a gift I treasure deeply. Yet, without discounting the impact of this counsel, I can say in earnest that reading the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky over the last six months has changed the way I understand my life more drastically than anything else has.
I do not mean that it has been a comforting experience, or that it has necessarily simplified my circumstances or decisions, or that I have come to any particularly satisfying conclusions. In truth, it has often been the opposite. How, then, has it brought me closer to healing? I will try to articulate it, though my description will certainly be incomplete (how can one sum up Dostoyevsky neatly?).
In September, I joined a small group of friends setting out to read and discuss three Dostoyevsky novels: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. Initially I was intimidated and a little skeptical. I felt my own lack of knowledge and was concerned that I could not do these great works of literature justice. Despite my own lack, reading these novels communally has changed me.
In Dostoyevsky’s work, I encountered narratives charged with fundamental ethical questions. The stories he weaves bring us to the very crux of certain moral issues as he compels us to consider: How are we morally responsible for our actions, or for the actions of our fellow men? How does our environment affect our decisions? Do circumstances out of our control—abuse, neglect, poverty, insanity—relieve us of our responsibility? When is redemption possible or impossible? How is good poisoned when it communes with evil, and how can it be preserved?
These questions are specifically relevant to the situation my family faced, and asking them, really grappling with them, has changed the way I understand my past. Admittedly, I had asked or been asked forms of these questions in counseling, but in that context I lacked the tools with which to approach them. My emotions were so raw and the situation so immediately real that I could not approach them without prejudice or fear. Somehow, in the context of Dostoyevsky’s novels, I could access these questions.
Have I found answers? Only hazy and incomplete ones. But through the process of wrestling with these questions, I have grown. Dostoyevsky shows us the complexities of human nature. He shows us the depravity of man. Without excusing it, he helps us see it closely and see that we are close with it. At first, as I read, I judged his characters quickly. But Dostoyevsky would not let me. Just when I believed I had diagnosed a character, he complicated my judgment by showing the character in a new light. This happened over and over. And yet, the solution was not to withhold judgment altogether or to excuse wrong by calling it some other name. I do not think I could have done this even if I had wanted to. The result was a tension that encapsulated the fundamental questions being asked.
This tension, experienced over hundreds of pages, has grown my compassion. I not only feel it, but I see legitimate reason for it. And yet, at the same time, my aversion to evil and sin has not faded away but grown stronger. I cannot help but feel this same change in my understanding of my own life. Resentment has begun to give way to this mix of compassion and insistence upon what is right. This is not a change I could have mustered on my own. I had tried many times. It was the act of reading—the conceptualizing of these great questions within masterfully woven stories—that brought me to a place I could not have found on my own.
No doubt I owe the special brilliance of Dostoyevsky credit for my experience. But it alone did not change me. The experience of reading would not have been as powerful if I had read alone. If I could have mustered enough resolve, I probably could have read these novels on my own. I could perhaps have even made some thoughtful observations here and there and identified elements of my own life within the novels. But reading and discussing these novels in a community of friends was absolutely essential to their effect on me.
What you notice about a novel, which characters earn your sympathy, and which parts enrage you depends entirely on your own personality and past experiences. In a group of thoughtful individuals, whose perspectives I deeply respect, I could not ignore interpretations that challenged my own. This had a great effect on me, because the questions the novels raise, as I have noted, had great bearing on my personal life. It would have been easier and more comfortable to jump to conclusions based on my own tendencies and experiences. But because I was reading with others, I was forced to consider angles and implications I would not have recognized on my own.
And finally, there is something to be said for discussing out loud. Perhaps one of the most memorable insights I have gained from Dostoyevsky is that naming a thing—calling it what it is, out loud, in front of others—is extremely powerful. To discuss a novel among others, to speak out loud the impression it has made on you, is to acknowledge it more deeply. To grapple with fundamental questions of morality out loud, not to give up but to dare to examine them in the open, is powerful. It was essential for me to consider them truly and was a key element in helping me find renewal through reading.
My experience of finding refreshment through reading great books with good friends is one that is, I am sure, shared by many others. It is perhaps an essential experience for educators in particular. As we pour ourselves into our students, we must also reach further in our own education to replenish our souls. Have you found this to be true in your own life? We would be delighted to hear how. If you, on the other hand, find yourself running dry and yearning for refreshment, consider joining with others and diving into good literature together. Gather a small group of thoughtful readers who will challenge and sharpen your thoughts and insights, choose great books, place yourself in a restful setting, and move slowly through the texts, giving yourselves the opportunity to take deep dives into the literature and feast on it together. The effect will likely change the way you see yourself and the world around you, as it certainly has for me.