Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Text by Frank W. Boreham
November 11, 1821 – February 9, 1881 | Moscow, Russian Empire
Russia had never seen such a funeral. It was in many respects the most extraordinary demonstration of public feeling ever witnessed in the Czar’s dominions. The sorrow was a national sorrow, the loftiest and the lowliest alike lamented; the cities were in tears. Forty-thousand men followed the coffin to the grave. “When I heard of Dostoyevsky’s death,” says Tolstoy, “I felt that I had lost a kinsman, the closest and the dearest, and the one of whom I had most need.” The students of Russia, to whom he had been a father, sent an open letter to his widow.
“Dostoyevsky’s ideals,” they said, “will never be forgotten. From generation to generation we shall hand them down as a precious inheritance from our great and beloved teacher. His memory will never be extinguished in the hearts of the youth of Russia, and, in years to come, we shall teach our children to love and honor his name. Dostoyevsky will always stand out brightly before us in the battle of life; for it was he who taught us the possibility of preserving the purity of the soul undefiled in every position of life and in all conceivable conditions and circumstances.”
Clearly, then, we have here a man among men; a man who stirred the hearts of thousands; a man who, through his books, still speaks to multitudes. What is the secret of his deep and widespread influence? Let us go back a day or two.
That never-to-be-forgotten funeral took place on February 12, 1881. On February 9, Dostoyevsky lay dying. “When he awoke that morning,” his daughter tells us, “my mother realized that his hours were numbered.”
Brave little mother! So this is the end of her fifteen years of romance! In the novels of Dostoyevsky, there is no prettier story than the story of the meeting of these two. Dostoyevsky was forty-five at the time. Through voluntarily taking over the debts of his dead brother, his finances had become involved. Moreover, he had fallen into the clutches of an unscrupulous publisher, for whom he had contracted to write a novel on the understanding that, if it was not finished by a certain date, all the author’s copyrights would fall into the publisher’s hands. As the date approached, the impossibility of the task became evident, and ruin stared him in the face. Somebody advised him to get a stenographer; but no stenographer could be found. There was, it is true, a girl of nineteen who knew shorthand; but lady stenographers were then unknown; and the girl doubted if her people would consent to her taking the appointment. However, Dostoyevsky’s fame removed the parents’ scruples, and she set to work. On her way to the novelist’s house, she used to tell her daughter afterwards, she tried to imagine what their first session would be like. “We shall work for an hour,” she thought, “and then we shall talk of literature.” Dostoyevsky had had an epileptic attack the night before; he was absent-minded, nervous, and peremptory (demanding). He seemed quite unconscious of the charms of his young stenographer and treated her as a kind of Remington typewriter. He dictated the first chapter of his novel in a harsh voice, complained that she did not write fast enough, made her read aloud what he had dictated, scolded her, and declared that she had not understood him. She was crushed, and left the house determined never to return. But she thought better of it during the night and, next morning, resumed her post. Little by little, Dostoyevsky became conscious that his Remington machine was a charming young girl and an ardent admirer of his genius. He confided his troubles to her, and she pitied him. In her girlish dream, she had pictured him petted and pampered; instead, she saw a sick man, weary, badly fed, badly lodged, badly served, hunted down like a wild beast by merciless creditors, and ruthlessly exploited by selfish relatives. She perceived the idea of protecting Dostoyevsky, of sharing the heavy burden he had taken upon his shoulders, and of comforting him in his sorrows. She was not in love with this man, who was more than twenty-five years her senior, but she understood his beautiful soul and reverenced his genius. She determined to save Dostoyevsky from his publishers and succeeded. She begged him to prolong the hours of dictation, spent the night copying out what she had taken down in the day, and worked with such good-will that, to the chagrin of the avaricious publisher, the novel was ready on the appointed day. Shortly afterwards, he married her.
And now, fifteen years afterwards – the funeral was on the anniversary of the wedding – Dostoyevsky is dying!
“He made us come into the room,” his daughter says, “and, taking our little hands in his, he begged my mother to read the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He listened with his eyes closed, absorbed in his thoughts. ‘My children,’ he said in his feeble voice, ‘never forget what you have just heard. Have absolute faith in God and never despair of His pardon. I love you dearly, but my love is nothing compared with the love of God for all those He has created. Even if you should be so unhappy as to commit a crime in the course of your life, never despair of God. You are His children; humble yourselves before Him, as before your father, implore His pardon, and He will rejoice over your repentance, as the father rejoiced over that of the Prodigal Son.’”
A few minutes later Dostoyevsky passed triumphantly away. “I have been present,” says Aimee Dostoyevsky, “at many deathbeds, but none was so radiant as that of my father. He saw without fear the end approaching. His was a truly Christian death. He was ready to appear before his Eternal Father hoping that, to recompense him for all that he had suffered in this life, God would give him another great work to do, another great task to accomplish.”
Now before we turn on tiptoe from this silent room, let us examine, reverently and carefully, the faded and battered New Testament lying at the dead man’s side – the Testament from which, a few moments ago, the mother read in brave but broken accents the story of the Prodigal Son. It has a history; and that history may reveal much of what we wish to know.
For this man, who has just died so restfully, has looked death in the face before. His career is as romantic as his novels; indeed, his novels are, in the main, a reflection of his career. As a small boy he revels in historical romances – particularly those of Sir Walter Scott – and he enters so vividly into the thrilling experiences of the various characters that he often faints with the volume clasped in his hands. He is fond, too, of the open air. “All my life,” he says, “I have loved the forest, with its mushrooms, its fruits, its insects, its birds, and its squirrels; I reveled in the scent of its damp leaves. Even at this moment, as I write, I can smell the aroma of the birches.” As a young fellow, he interests himself in the welfare of his country; he joins a society that meets to discuss public questions; and, at the age of twenty-eight, is arrested for meddling with such matters. With thirty-three others he is charged with conspiracy and, after a hurried trial, is sentenced to death. The condemned men afterwards discover that the sentence was a grim jest on the part of the Czar and his lieutenants, who thought by this expedient, to frighten them.
On a bitter morning, with the temperature many degrees below the freezing point, they are led to the scaffold; their ordinary clothes are exchanged for shrouds; and thus, nearly naked, they are compelled to stand for half an hour while the burial service is being slowly read. Facing them stand the soldiers with their muskets. A pile of coffins is stacked suggestively in a corner of the yard. At the last moment, with the muskets actually at the shoulders of the guards, a white flag is waved, and it is announced that the Czar has commuted the sentence to one of ten years’ exile in Siberia. Several of the prisoners lost their reason under the strain; several others died shortly afterwards. Dostoyevsky passed courageously through the ordeal; but it affected his nerves; he never recalled the experience without a shudder, and he refers to it with horror in several of his books.
On Christmas Eve, 1849, he commenced the dreadful journey to Omsk and remained in Siberia “like a man buried alive, nailed down in his coffin.” On his arrival in that desolate region, two women slip a New Testament into his hand and, taking advantage of a moment when the officer’s back is turned, whisper to him to search it carefully at his leisure. Between the pages he finds a note for twenty-five rubles. The money is a vast comfort to him: but the New Testament itself proves an infinitely vaster one.
His daughter tells us that, during his exile, that Testament was his only solace. “He studied the precious volume from cover to cover; pondered every word; learned much of it by heart; and never forgot it. All his works are saturated with it, and it is this which gives them their power. Many of his admirers have said to me that it was a strange chance that ordained that my father should have only the Gospels to read during the most important and formative years of his life. But was it a chance? Is there such a thing as chance in our lives? The work of Jesus is not finished; in each generation He chooses His disciples, signs to them to follow Him, and gives them the same power over the human heart that He gave to the poor fishermen of Galilee.” Aimee Dostoyevsky believed that it was by that divine hand that the Testament was presented to her father that day. “Throughout his life,” she adds, “he would never be without his old prison Testament, the faithful friend that had consoled him in the darkest hours of his life. He always took it with him on his travels and kept it in a drawer of his writing-table, within reach of his hand. He consulted it in all the important moments of his life,” and, as we have seen, it was his comfort in the hour of death.
It was in Siberia that Dostoyevsky discovered the beauty of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Siberia was the far country. It was there that he saw the prodigal among the husks and the swine. His companions were the lowest of the low and the vilest of the vile. “Imagine,” he says, “an old crazy wooden building that should long ago have been broken up as useless. In the summer it is unbearably hot; in the winter, unbearably cold. All the boards are rotten. On the ground filth lies an inch thick; every instant one is in danger of slipping. The small windows are so frozen over that even by day one can scarcely read; the ice on the panes is three inches thick. We are packed like herrings in a barrel. The atmosphere is intolerable; the prisoners stink like pigs; there are vermin by the bushel; we sleep upon bare boards.” And, in the midst of this disgusting and degrading scene, I catch a glimpse of Dostoyevsky. At first glance he is by no means an attractive figure. He is small and slender, round-shouldered and thick-necked. He is clothed in convict motley (cloth woven from threads of two or more colors), one leg black, the other grey; the colors of his coat likewise divided; his head half-shaved and bent forward in deep thought. His face is half the face of a Russian peasant and half the face of a dejected criminal. He is shy, taciturn, rather ugly, and extremely awkward. He has a flattened nose; small piercing eyes under eyelashes which tremble with nervousness; and a long, thick, untidy beard with fair hair. The stamp of his epilepsy is distinctly upon him. We see all this at a glance, and the glance is not alluring. But [Nikolay] Nekrasov, the poet, has given us the picture as the convicts saw it. In this picture Dostoyevsky appears almost sublime. He moves among his fellow-prisoners with his New Testament in his hand, telling them its stories and reading to them its words of comfort and grace. He seems to them a kind of prophet, gently rebuking their blasphemies and excesses, and speaking to them of poetry, of science, of God, and of the love of Christ. It is his way of pointing the prodigal to the path that leads to the Father’s heart and the Father’s home.
For this was the treasure that he found in that New Testament! This was the beauty of the story of the Prodigal Son! It revealed the way to the Father. “One sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy,” he writes from Siberia. “And yet God gives me moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple: here it is. I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Savior; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more; if anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth!” Alexander Pushkin has a poem about a poor knight who, in a moment of supreme exaltation, sees the Holy Virgin at the foot of the Cross. Dostoyevsky was very fond of the poem; whenever he read it, his face was radiated, his voice trembled, his eyes filled with tears. “For it was,” his daughter says, “the story of his own soul. He, too, was a poor knight; he, too, had a beatific vision; but it was not the medieval Virgin who appeared to him, but Christ who came to him in his prison and called him to follow Him.”
Christ – no one like Christ!
Christ – the Savior!
Christ – the way to the Father!
On his bended knees Dostoyevsky blessed God for sending him into the Siberian steppes (vast level and treeless plains in Siberia). For it was amid those stern and awful solitudes that he found the road that leads to the Father’s home.
That old prison Testament, and the revelation that it brought to him, were in his thoughts through all the years that followed. We catch fitful glimpses of the battered volume in all his writings. I pick up The Possessed, and I find, near the close of the book as the story draws to its climax, that Stepan Trofimovitch is taken ill and Sofya Matveyevna sits by his couch, reading. And what is she reading? She is reading two striking passages from the New Testament!
And in Crime and Punishment there is a really tremendous scene. In his article on Dostoyevsky in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Mr. Thomas Seccombe (1866-1923), M.A. (Balliol College, Oxford), declares that, for poignancy and emotional intensity, there is nothing in modern literature to equal it. It describes Raskolnikov, the conscience-stricken and self-tormented murderer, creeping at dead of night to the squalid waterside hovel in which Sonia lives. Sonia is part of the flotsam and jetsam (odds and ends) of the city’s wreckage. The relationship between these two was a relationship of sympathy; each had sinned terribly; and each had sinned for the sake of others rather than for self. On a rickety little table in Sonia’s room stands a tallow candle fixed in an improvised candlestick of twisted metal. In the course of earnest conversation, Sonia glances at a book lying on a chest of drawers. He takes it down. It is a New Testament. He hands it to Sonia and begs her to read it to him. “Sonia opens the book; her hands tremble; the words stick in her throat. Twice she tries without being able to utter a syllable.” At length she succeeds. And then –
“She closes the book: she seems afraid to raise her eyes on Raskolnikov: her feverish trembling continues. The dying piece of candle dimly lights up this low-ceilinged room in which an assassin and a harlot have just read the Book of Books!”
This is in the middle of the story. On the last page, when Raskolnikov and Sonia have both been purified by suffering, Raskolnikov is still cherishing in his prison cell the New Testament which, at his earnest request, Sonia has brought him.
Here is Raskolnikov – a Prodigal Son!
Here is Sonia – a Prodigal Daughter!
Here is the Book of Books – pointing the prodigals to the Father’s House!
The candle in Sonia’s wretched room burned lower and lower and, at last, sputtered out. But the candle that, in that Siberian prison, was lit in Dostoyevsky’s soul, grew taller and taller the longer it burned. Like the path of the righteous, which shines brighter and brighter until full day (Prov. 4:18), its light waxed brighter and clearer. It flung its radiance right around the world: it found a reflection in the glowing lives of thousands; it lit up Dostoyevsky’s death chamber with the glory of a great hope; and it illumined his flight to that Celestial City in which they need neither candle nor sun.
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