By Michael R. Katz
In his classic study Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929), the literary theorist, scholar, and philosopher of language, Mikhail Bakhtin included a brilliant “exercise” in literary “what-ifs.” In the chapter entitled “The Hero in Dostoevsky’s Art,” Bakhtin analyzes as a characteristic example of the Leo Tolstoy’s “monologic manner” and poses the following question: “How would [Tolstoy’s] ‘Three Deaths’ look if… Dostoevsky had written them, that is, if they had been structured in a polyphonic manner?”
The critic goes on to make a more general point:
Of course, Dostoevsky would never have depicted three deaths: in his world, where self-consciousness is the dominant of a person’s image and where the interaction of full and autonomous consciousness is the fundamental event, death cannot function as something that finalizes and elucidates life. Death in the Tolstoyan interpretation of it is totally absent from Dostoevsky’s world.
Bakhtin’s 1963 edition contains further provocations:
In Dostoevsky there are considerably fewer deaths than in Tolstoy – and in most cases Dostoevsky’s deaths are murders and suicides. In Tolstoy there are a great many deaths…. Dostoevsky never depicts death from within. Final agony and death are observed by others. Death cannot be a fact of consciousness itself…. In Dostoevsky’s world death finalizes nothing, because death does not affect the most important thing in this world – consciousness for its own sake…. In Dostoevsky’s world there are only murders, suicides, and insanity, that is, there are only death-acts, responsively conscious….
There are indeed, as Bakhtin states, “a great many deaths in Tolstoy,” and they have attracted a considerable amount of attention from literary critics. The list covers Tolstoy’s entire career, from beginning to end, from his early work Childhood (1852) to his short story “Alyosha-the-Pot” (1904), published posthumously.
On the other hand, only a small number of “natural deaths” ever occur in Dostoevsky’s fiction. The author’s real interests and talents are revealed in the assortment of murders, both literal and metaphorical, committed in every one of his novels. There are numerous murders and suicides, responsively conscious “death acts” that span his literary career as a novelist from his first novel, Crime and Punishment (1866), to his last, The Brothers Karamazov (1880).
For example, in Dostoevsky’s Devils, there are two contrasting deaths in quick succession. Stepan Verkhovensky dies nearing the end of his bizarre pilgrimage to the monastery at Spasov, accompanied at first by the gospel seller, Sofiya Ulitina, then joined by Varvara Stavrogina. Languishing in a large hut, a doctor is summoned who announces that one should expect “even the very worst.” A priest is sent for and Stepan undergoes a sort of conversion. The narrator explains:
Whether he really had converted or whether the majestic ceremony attendant on the administration of the sacrament had impressed him deeply and aroused his artistic sensibility, still, firmly and, it’s said, with great emotion, he uttered several things in direct contradiction to his former convictions.
Stepan dies “three days” later (the number three marking the death of a person who is “saved”). He is buried in hallowed ground, the churchyard in Skvoreshniki, and his grave is covered over with a marble slab.
Stepan’s death is followed immediately by the discovery of Nikolai Stavrogin’s suicide in his mother’s house in Skvoreshniki. She rushes up the stairs to the attic in “his part of the house,” and discovers her son’s body hanging by a strong silk cord amply smeared with soap, behind the door. A note declares: “No one is to blame, I did myself.” The narrator concludes: “Everything indicated premeditation and consciousness up to the very last minute.” The final line of the novel confirms both the medical diagnosis and the hero’s spiritual desolation: “At the postmortem our medical experts absolutely and emphatically rejected the possibility of insanity.”
Stepan’s demise contains clear echoes of two deaths in Tolstoy’s novels: Prince Andrei in War and Peace and Ivan Ilych in The Death of Ivan Ilych. In a curious way, the description of Stepan’s strange pilgrimage and departure foreshadows Tolstoy’s own real-life pilgrimage and departure forty years after the novel was written. An article in the recent Dostoevsky Encyclopedia published in Moscow in 2008 even suggests that Dostoevsky
…as it were exactly described exactly forty years (!) before it happened, the last days of L. N. Tolstoy: his ‘departure,’ feverish illness en route, and his death in a stranger’s bed, in an accidental house….
Dostoevsky contrasts the death of Stepan Verkhovensky with the “murder” (suicide) of Nikolai Stavrogin, thus juxtaposing two primary forms of “death-departure.” Bakhtin argued that “righteous men,” earn “a special place occupied by their death-departures” in Dostoevsky’s novels. Stepan Verkhovensky’s end represents the epitome of the “death-departure” of a righteous man, one who was not always righteous, but who became so at the end. Nikolai Stavrogin’s strange and pitiful suicide is much more typical of the death-acts described in Dostoevsky’s novels than is Stepan Verkhovensky’s “Tolstoyan” “conversion.”
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Image Credit: Portrait of Fedor Dostoyevsky. By Vasily Perov. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.