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In the early decades of the 19th century, Russian literature was predominantly Romantic. By 1840, however, Realism emerged as an important literary trend, mainly as a reaction to Romantic writing and mostly in prose fiction. These Russian realists often wrote about social and political problems because they believed that literature should portray life with unapologetic honesty. One of the founders of Russian realism was the renowned critic, Vissarion Belinsky (1811-48). He held that literature should serve the needs of society by depicting a clear picture of its many shortcomings and by advocating viable social reforms. His views influenced the great 19th-century Russian realists in fiction from Turgenev and Goncharov, to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov.
In the 1850s and early '60s, Turgenev's novels, such as Rudin and Fathers and Sons, reveal his deep understanding of Russian society and people. Goncharov, in novels like Oblomov (1859), tried to convince his readers that only practical action, not sentiment or romance, could lead to social reform. By the 1860s and '70s, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were the principal realists in fiction. They replaced the elegant style of Romanticism with the simplified and practical prose of realism. They also discarded certain Romantic notions of sentiment and heroism. In their work, they depicted instead a deep concern for the natural stages of individual behavior and human development.
Tolstoy's War and Peace (begun in 1865) is an epic novel that captures the intense passion and dramatic sweep of Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia. His Anna Karenina (1875) attacks romantic love as self-indulgence and encourages a sense of family love and moral duty. It explores and reflects upon the destructive power of love when Anna leaves husband, child and home to follow her desperately doomed love for a handsome officer called Vronsky. Dostoevsky rivals Tolstoy in the depth and scope of his genius through his great novels such as Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov.
As a novelist, Dostoevsky has been interpreted in different ways. Some see him as a writer keen on portraying social realities in the manner of a Balzac or a Dickens. Others look upon him as a psychologist delving into the depths of the human mind, and often depicting characters that are either mentally sick or spiritually depraved. Still others insist that he is, primarily, a philosopher in search of the ultimate truth, looking for reasons to explain human existence and searching for solutions to the most profound human problems. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky is a mix of all these characteristics and much more. His understanding of the most basic human needs, and his portrayal of a depressed and lonely human being, is finely depicted here.
Dostoevsky's fictional works are essentially novels of "ideas" which are embodied in the great characters he creates in them. These characters are highly individualized, vital, intense and complex humans who are far from being stereotypes. He usually places them in a vortex of conflicting passions and tumultuous ideas. The reader sees them caught in highly dramatic situations, often floundering in the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, yet making laudable efforts to attain salvation through their suffering. Dostoevsky gives the reader dramatic portrayals of the inner conflicts in his central characters. They often experience a violent spiritual struggle between their belief in goodness (or God) and their strong sense of pride and self-centeredness.
In most of his novels, he wrote about downtrodden and miserable individuals, who were insulted and injured by the cruel circumstances of human life and social injustice. Some of his most memorable characters, such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or Dmitri and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, are strange men who defy the stultifying conventions of ordinary society. The spiritual, intellectual and emotional conflicts of such 'driven' characters epitomize Dostoevsky's abiding interest in analyzing the conflict of good and evil from profoundly philosophical and psychological standpoints. Along with Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky is ranked as one of the greatest novelists of Russian and world literature.