So, if you’ve read any of the other blogs I’ve written on Existentialism, you might have wondered at the absence of one very important name from my mentions of existentialists. Widely regarded, by literature students and tutors alike, as one of the first existentialist writers, the unforgettable Fyodor Dostoyevsky should have been dominating my existentialist ramblings – that is, ramblings on existentialism, not necessarily ramblings from an existentialist perspective; don’t worry about it.

However, as students of philosophy are more likely to know, Dostoyevsky himself was certainly not even close to the archetype of the existentialist – unless we go into the whole Punk Rock rejection of Punk Rock type thing, which ends up with Johnny Rotten selling butter for fuck’s sake.

Why Wasn’t Fyodor Dostoyevsky An Existentialist?

Existentialists are rebels, apparently – which in of itself is a major chain around the neck of the philosophy, but it will do for now – they believe in themselves and nothing else and sometimes they don’t even believe in that. Whilst some of Dostoyevsky’s characters may well have displayed Existentialist tendencies, good ol’ Fyodor was actually dedicated to religion and mysticism and not actually “radicalistic” personal tendencies towards choice and free will.

Also – and I’m going to take this opportunity to get this off my chest cos’ it really pisses me off – existentialism should not mean depression or being addicted to the darker sides of the human psyche; i.e. suicide, self-harm, alcoholism, et cetera. Whilst, yeah, I’m not going to argue that Dostoyevsky wasn’t obsessed with the more miserable half of the human spectrum of emotions and the miserable perceptions of free will, that doesn’t make him an existentialist.

If anything, it makes him a killjoy. I mean, yeah, he was a really great writer, but he could’ve done with cheering up once in a while. Negativity has its place in literature, but a long, drawn out misery isn’t relevant to the western audience, especially in an age of instant entertainment. In my opinion, joy always makes the misery seem that much worse – the storm always looks shittier after the sunlight.

With that being said, he didn’t have that great of a life, really, so I guess we can let him off.

Existentialism In Notes From The Underground

There are several examples of Existentialism in Dostoyevsky’s first published work – the novella Notes From The Underground – even the first chapter features something as simple as “I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite” which effectively sets up the absurdist, illogical reasoning that Albert Camus would build a career upon.Dostoyevsky,

Another quote, from later in Notes, reads; “Another circumstance, too, worried me in those days: that there was no one like me and I was unlike anyone else. “I am alone and they are everyone,” I thought – and pondered.” This is one of the points that Sartre would raise in Nausea and other texts – the idea that everyone sees themselves as a subject, as the only subject, and everything else is an object.

Although there are many more examples of existentialist thought throughout the piece and, indeed, throughout his entire career, there are far more qualified people to direct you through his thoughts and deeds than I. It is worth mentioning, of course, that the unnamed narrator is not meant to be Dostoyevsky himself but is, instead, often referred to as the Underground Man.

In the same way, he is not what Dostoyevsky believed the human race should become, which is something of a trend in other existentialist works, but rather an example of what Dostoyevsky believed that the world, with society and the human condition as the contributing factors, was creating.

If you’ve got the time, you should check out an in-depth video on Notes from Dr. Sadler, who is extremely good at taking complicated ideas and making them simple to understand for people who haven’t the time to pick apart entire texts to get to the hidden meaning.

Besides that, what do you think? Do you believe that Dostoyevsky was actually an existentialist himself, or was he merely adept at think about ideas which would eventually lead into existentialism? Do you think that you need to be an existentialist in order to effectively, truly, write about existentialism?


10 thoughts on “Was Dostoyevsky An Existentialist?

    1. Would you necessarily say that being a Christian existentialist is actually possible?
      Even in the source you’ve recommended, Dostoyevsky is quoted as saying ‘If anyone proved to me that Christ was outside the truth . . . then I would prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth’ – existentialism is – for the most part – the search for the “truth”. To wilfully through this aside for the ‘obedience’ of christianity seems to be a denial of existentialism as a whole.
      One of the major components of existentialism, for me at least, is the refusal to believe – actually believe in anything besides oneself. I’d say it possibly shares more with sollipsism than nihilism or any other philosophical belief in this regard. Perhaps this is why, in my opinion, Kierkegaard was not necessarily an existentialist – rather, he and poor old Fyodor were actually precursors to existentialism.

  1. I’m not sure. I know that Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky were described as being existentialists.

    My guess is that a working definition of existentialism is “existence precedes essence” or “I exist, therefore I am”. A Christian would say “I abide in Christ, therefore I am”.

      1. I think that’s, potentially, part of it – but then there is the argument that one’s existence is defined by one’s existence. Surely someone’s beliefs come second to that?

      2. I see what you mean. But without the capacity to think about one’s existence and the beliefs connected to it what do we have? That’s when we have JUST existence (not to say that’s not appreciated, but…). If you narrow down existentialism like that you can call existentialists only animals (and even so we don’t know how much some of the more intelligent animals can reflect on their own existence). Existentialism doesn’t exist as such without the belief system that it constitutes. So in this manner I think Dostoyevskiy perfectly fits into it with his mystical stubbornnes and all that. But I agree that he is “special” in the list.

      3. There is a part of me that’s agreeing with you, but an even bigger part s just saying “What do we have BUT existence? Are we not all only animals?” We can justify this ‘higher function’ (I feel like a right prick saying higher function!) of ours over other creatures by saying that we’re something special – but are we? Really?
        And I suppose the argument could be made that the very idea of existentialism is just another means of justifying our existence, and over-thinking the fact that we DO exist.
        Maybe we need some kind of modern existentialist theory – one wreathed in YOLOs, et cetera!

      4. 🙂 Every animal is special. So are we. Different, unique and just mind-blowing. We got this thing, a human thinking (your not a prick for trying to find a good term for it, I am looking for words as well, because it’s hard to grasp within the limits of language what it is actually what we have), that makes life more difficult in a way, on the other hand it is a huge plus, if we want to be honest. I don’t like the justification part at all… We are who we are, and indeed, we’ve got nothing, but our existence – with its baggage. And (lucky?) we can meditate on this. And believe what we want to believe. Our thinking is inseparable of who we are – it’s like an eye watching a mirror in a mirror watching an eye. Or something like that. 😛 That’s it. I still can’t digest most of what the existantialists wrote, I have my own limits I guess, but I like it, and I will re-read them over and over again.

      5. We could define special as abnormal, in which case – if everyone is special – there is no normality and therefore being special is impossible. Maybe we’re all special to ourselves – that should be enough! I’m with you on that last part, at least – I sometimes wonder if Sartre sat there and had his own doubts about the stuff he was writing; as to whether he thought he would cause years of critical reading into his every word! I tend to think that existentialism is, above all, a positive thing – it shines best when we’re in the shit. Up until now I’ve been running on the logic that ‘everything is shit’ – fortunately, from what little existentialism I understand, everything doesn’t include me; it’s the whole self vs the other thing that I’ve tended to gravitate towards.

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