A Summary of Marlene Chambers’s 1961 Article “Some Notes on the Aesthetics Of Dostoevsky”


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Chambers notes that, despite a great deal of critical literature on Dostoevsky, little has been written about his artistic technique or aesthetic principles. A few scholars have made limited attempts, which she summarizes. Only two are really worth mentioning.

Clarence Manning’s analysis supports his thesis that “Dostoevsky in his greater novels uses again and again in the same way phrases, ideas, and situations which he has used before but each time he deepens them, renders them more tense and steps up the tempo of the movement, until he finally produces out of commonplace material unforgettable scenes of rare power and psychological depth.”[1] George Gibian on the other hand focuses on two techniques in Crime and Punishment – oblique statement and functional symbolism – but, unlike Manning, does not attempt to show Dostoevsky’s increasing mastery over these techniques.

Chambers argues that the value of these attempts lies in their critical method rather than in their comprehensiveness; overall, “scarcely any attempt has been made to determine the aesthetic principles which guided Dostoevsky’s work as a critic and artist” (115). This pertains, of course, to before the year 1961. Chambers then goes into a discussion about realism, claiming that “although Dostoevsky’s attitude toward ‘realism’ in art has been much discussed, his insistence on a broad definition of the term is usually introduced merely to explain the melodrama and the eccentricity of the characters and situations which are common in his creative works,” and that “his theory is thus subordinated to the accomplished fact of its practical application” (115). The key, it seems, at least to Chambers, is to get at what precisely Dostoevsky understood by ‘realism’. She refers first to Renato Poggioli, who quotes Dostoevsky’s definition of ‘higher realism’:

“They call me a psychologist; it is not true. I am merely a realist in the higher sense of the word, that is, I depict all the depths of the human soul.”

A little later she offers what she calls Dostoevsky’s most frequently quoted comment on the subject of realism, which is actually a defense of his artistic conception of ‘exceptional’ characters and events:

“I have my own idea about art, and it is this: What most people regard as fantastic and lacking in universality, I hold to be the inmost essence of truth. Arid observation of everyday trivialities I have long ceased to regard as realism­­­—it is quite the reverse. In any newspaper one takes up one comes across reports of wholly authentic facts, which nevertheless strike one as extraordinary. Our writers regard them as fantastic, and take no account of them; and yet they are the truth, for they are facts. But who troubles to observe, record, describe them? They happen every day and every moment, therefore they are not ‘exceptional.'”[2]

Chambers calls it ‘unfortunate’ that this statement has often been taken as Dostoevsky’s last word on artistic realism, for two reasons. First, its negative and ex post facto view suggest that Dostoevsky lacked a positive and informative theory of the nature of ‘realism’ and ‘truth’. Second, although he did in fact have such a theory, these statements seem contradictory or misleading because of the double sense he gives to ‘realism’ and ‘reality’ – using them to refer to the ‘inmost essence of truth’ as well as ‘arid observation of everyday trivialities’. Nevertheless, Chambers argues, Dostoevsky’s distinction between these two definitions of reality is essential to his theory of art, which is based on his notion of the ‘reality of the ideal’.

She goes on to give several examples of Dostoevsky nonfictional writings on art to demonstrate what he meant by ‘reality of the ideal’. Artistic realism does not consist of ‘essences’ of ‘typicalness,’ of the result of merely recording the ‘phenomena of reality,’ or of ‘setting forth correctly all given qualities of a person’ – rather, “one has resolutely to illumine him with one’s own artistic vision,” so that “a genuine artist, under no circumstances, should remain on one level with the person portrayed by him, confining himself to mere realistic truth; the impression will carry no truth”.[3] For Dostoevsky, then,

The “truth” that the genuine artist must strive for is the reality of the ideal, and this ideal reality is not to be found in the “realistic truth” of the “substance of things,” but only in “nature as it reflects itself in his idea.” The genuine artist is a “heart-reader” like Cervantes, a “realist in the higher sense of the word,” a depictor of the “deepest and most mysterious traits of the human spirit.” (118)

Dostoevsky’s view of reality provides the basis of his idea that ‘pure art’ cannot exist because creative inspiration is a central component of ‘ultimate reality’ – therefore all artistic productions are useful because they offer this reality in objectified form. Dostoevsky writes, in his essay on Dobrolyubov, that “art is always contemporary and functional; it never existed otherwise and, above all, would not be able to exist otherwise.” His further writing on art and beauty in that article simply support this notion. Beauty is differentiated from art by its embodying of humanity’s ideals, while the creative work ‘incarnates’ beauty. According to Dostoevsky’s system of aesthetics,

“Beauty can therefore be assumed to have a real existence apart from the art work, but beauty cannot exist apart from the ideal. Beauty is not the physical objectification of the ideal, but the metaphysical ideal itself; the art work is the physical embodiment of beauty.” (118)

Dostoevsky strictly separated harmony of form (external beauty) from the harmony and tranquility of ultimate moral and spiritual beauty. Concerning the latter, he writes:

“It is to Deism that we owe the Saviour—that is to say, the conception of a man so noble that one cannot grasp it without a sense of awe—a conception of which one cannot doubt that it represents the undying ideal of mankind.” [4]

Moreover, he later writes to his niece that:

“All writers, not ours alone but foreigners also, who have sought to represent Absolute Beauty, were unequal to the task, for it is an infinitely difficult one. The beautiful is the ideal; but ideals with us as in civilized Europe have long been wavering. There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ.”[5]

Chambers points out that, “if beauty is the figurative embodiment of man’s ideal, it must be considered as synonymous with the moral and spiritual truth literally incarnated by the figure of Christ” (119).

In conclusion, Dostoevsky maintained that there can be no ‘pure art’ – inspired by God or the longing for the beautiful ideal of God, the artist instills this ideal beauty in his work. His novel The Idiot and its protagonist Prince Myshkin can be seen as a supreme and the most straightforward example of this idea [my input]. Art depicts ultimate reality by embodying the ideal, and, as a manifestation of the ideal reality, art is necessarily useful to mankind.

In 1873, Dostoevsky came up with a definition for the aim of art:

“The aim of art is not to portray these or those incidents in the ways of life, but their general idea, sharp-sightedly divined and correctly removed from the whole multiplicity of analogous living phenomena.”[6]

This, of course, traces right back to his mission to portray all the depths of the human soul. In Chambers’s last words, “Dostoevsky’s basic concept of art as the embodiment of the ideal beauty of God, a concept which he first expressed at the age of seventeen, is reflected throughout all his practical criticism of art.” (120)


[1] Clarence A. Manning, “Alyosha Valkovsky and Prince Myshkin,” Modern Language Notes, LVII (1942), 182-185.

[2] Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends, trans. (from the German) by Ethel Colburn Mayne (London, 1914), pp. 166-167.

[3] Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer, trans. Boris Brasol (New York, 1954), p. 108-109.

[4] Dostoevsky, Letters, p. 21.

[5] Ibid., p. 142.

[6] Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer, p. 90.


Article reference:

Chambers, Marlene. “Some Notes on the Aesthetics of Dostoevsky”. Comparative Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Spring, 1961), pp. 114-122.