A Chat with Greta Matzner-Gore about Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form

Today we’re sitting down with Greta Matzner-Gore to talk about her book, Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form: Suspense, Closure, Minor Characters, a fantastic new contribution to Dostoevsky scholarship and to our understanding of the novel, form, and nineteenth-century Russian literature.

BK: First, congratulations on the publication of your book last month! Tell us a little about your book. How would you describe it to a layperson? What questions do you ask in it? What would you say is its overarching narrative?

GMG: My book is about how Dostoevsky’s works work on us.

From the very beginning of his career (I’m talking 1847 here), Dostoevsky’s readers were comparing his novels to moral mirrors—look into the hearts of his most unlikeable characters, and you’ll see yourself there. My book asks how he creates this mirroring effect, how he draws us into the ethical dramas that play out on the pages of his novels.

I argue that Dostoevsky uses a slew of innovative narrative techniques in order to do so. He ratchets up the suspense, experiments with different kinds of endings, adds or subtracts minor characters from the plot—all in a bid to better control our reading experience and, ultimately, to transform us.

BK: How did you first become interested in the question of how Dostoevsky constructs his novels?

GMG: When I was 16 years old. It was a hot day in July (really!), and I was lying on a hammock devouring Crime and Punishment. I was already a fan of detective fiction, and I was struck by how different Crime and Punishment was from anything I’d read before. What impressed me most was the powerful justification Raskolnikov had for committing his crime. In most detective stories I’d read, the motive for the murder was the weakest part of the plot—in the end you find out that so-and-so killed x number of people in order to win an inheritance, in revenge for a personal humiliation, out of jealousy, etc. The motive is never anything very convincing, and it never really matters: the point is the intellectual exercise of solving the crime, not the crime itself. But in Dostoevsky’s novel, the crime matters, and Raskolnikov’s justification for it matters too. His justification is (at least on the surface) rational and compelling: the pawnbroker is cruel, destructive, and parasitical, and the world would be better off without her in it. At one point, I even caught myself agreeing with Raskolnikov’s thought processes. Then I immediately felt horrified with myself. “Did I really just think that? Did I really just think that the premeditated murder of an elderly woman was, well, maybe not so bad after all?”

By the time I finished the novel, I was convinced that I hadn’t simply come to this thought of my own accord. Instead, the novel was designed to lead me to it—to make me feel the full logical power of Raskolnikov’s justifications for murder, and then ultimately to reject them (and the part of myself that found them convincing). That’s when I started getting interested in how Dostoevsky did it, in the artistic sleight-of-hand that makes the readerly manipulation possible. That was my first serious encounter with Russian literature, and it set the course for my entire future career.

Many years later, I learned that Robert Belknap had been teaching Crime and Punishment along more or less those same lines for decades. So my “discovery” as a 16-year-old wasn’t exactly original, but at least I was in good company!   

BK: You call Dostoevsky’s novels “maximally interactive” – what do you think is the result of this kind of art? Why does Dostoevsky pursue it?

GMG: Dostoevsky believed that art changes us, and changes us for the better. In his polemic “Mr –bov and the Question of Art” (1861), he imagined what might happen to a young man who sees the Apollo Belvedere for the first time:

And because the youth’s impression was, perhaps, an ardent one, convulsing his nerves and making his epidermis turn cold; perhaps—who knows!—perhaps as a result of such sensations of higher beauty, as a result of this convulsion of the nerves, some sort of internal change even takes place in a person, some sort of shifting of particles, some sort of galvanic current, which, in one instant, makes the past not what it was before, turns a piece of ordinary iron into a magnet.

Twenty years later, Dostoevsky insists, that (no longer young) man may still be acting under the magnetic influence of this “majestic and infinitely beautiful image,” albeit in ways that he may not fully recognize or understand. According to Dostoevsky, works of art like the Apollo Belvedere can “form” people and form them for good.

Of course, Dostoevsky knew that his own work had little in common with the Apollo Belvedere. He wrote long, messy, disorienting narratives, where the moments of “higher beauty” are few and far between. (After all, he considered himself a realist, a writer committed to portraying 19th-century Russian life in all its chaos and disorder). But he still dreamed that his novels would have a positive moral impact on the people who read them, that they would produce their own kind of ethical-aesthetic shock.

And that’s, I think, why Dostoevsky aims for “maximal interactivity.” He knows he isn’t going to electrify his readers with images of beauty, kindness, or love, so he pushes hard in the opposite direction. With the help of his seductive, morally ambivalent narrators, he immerses us in violence, cruelty, and ugliness; he encourages us to emotionally participate in them; and then exposes us to ourselves. It’s a little sadistic, to be honest. But then we’re talking about Dostoevsky here! 

BK: What are the stakes of “narrative ethics”? How does Dostoevsky bring them to the fore?

GMG: People have been arguing about the moral stakes of novel reading for centuries. For hundreds of years, the usual worry was that novels would have a morally degenerative effect on their readers. In the past few decades, however, the standard line has shifted. The most influential critics have argued that reading novels (at least certain classics, anyway) is regenerative instead. It is a kind of moral training ground, instructing readers in empathy, sympathy, and compassion; teaching them to withhold judgment and respect difference—lessons that they can then take into their day-to-day lives.

What makes Dostoevsky so interesting for me is that he plays on both of these possibilities. His narrators do seem to be “training” readers in particular habits of mind, but often in bad habits: malicious gossip, attraction to violence, hasty judgments and social stereotyping (to name just a few).

I think that Dostoevsky is still trying to write novels that will, in the final account, have a positive impact on the people who read them. But he takes his readers on a circuitous route toward that ultimate goal, pushing them to recognize their own complicity in sin first. In a sense, the plots Dostoevsky writes for his protagonists and the ones he imagines for his readers are structurally similar: we have to descend in order to ascend. 

BK: Your book focuses on three novels, mainly: Demons, The Adolescent, and Brothers Karamazov – why these three?

GMG: It happened organically. Each chapter grew out of a sense of uneasiness with each of the three novels, a sense that there was something wrong with them. As literary critics, we’re trained to look for resonances between form and content. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a fundamental disconnect between the ethical principles championed by the positive characters in these novels, and the narrative form of the novels—which often seemed to be working at cross purposes.

I could write a lot about this topic, so I will limit myself to one example: how I came up with the idea for chapter one (“Curiosity, Suspense, and Dostoevsky’s Demons”). It all started with Liputin, who always got under my skin. A self-declared “gossip” and “spy,” he is one of the nastiest characters in the novel. But nevertheless, he (through his gossiping and spying) fulfills an essential narrative function—exposition. His gossip provides insider information about Stavrogin’s secret past, which readers need to know in order to make sense of the novel’s plot. The novel is built on the very mechanisms of knowing and telling that it explicitly critiques.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that such disconnects between form and content were not the insoluble problems they seemed to be at first glance—they were the point. Dostoevsky’s novels are not written about, for, or by perfect people who have already realized his dream of universal brotherhood on earth. They are written about, for, and by people who haven’t, who are still struggling with their personal weaknesses and limitations, and who are trying to do better.

BK: What is the most exciting part of your book for you? How does this book change the conversation?

GMG: One benefit of focusing on just three novels is that it allowed me to write in-depth, holistic interpretations of each one, showing how even their tiniest textual details resonate with their biggest philosophical questions. That’s what I was aiming for, and that’s what I am ultimately most proud of. I am also excited about the new insights the book provides into Dostoevsky’s artistic process. Each chapter traces Dostoevsky’s work on a single novel, from his notebooks to the finished product: how he grapples with some question of novelistic craft, starts thinking through its moral stakes, and in the end creates a narrator who is struggling with the same challenges to ethical storytelling that he is.  

Ultimately, I hope that the book will help change the way not just Slavists, but also literary theorists and historians in general think and talk about Dostoevsky’s legacy. He has an international reputation for being an emotionally explosive writer and an influential religious philosopher. But he is also one of the nineteenth-century’s most subtle thinkers about the ethics of reading and writing fiction. He didn’t write much in the way of literary theory, but he was still a great narrative theorist in his own way.


Greta Matzner-Gore is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California. A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature, her research interests include narrative theory, the ethics of reading, and the intersections between science and literature. She is also a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Reader Advisory Board. Her first book, Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form, is available now from Northwestern University Press.

A Chat with Anna Berman on Dostoevsky and the Family Novel

On the blog today Kate Holland interviews Anna Berman about her book Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood.

siblings-in-tolstoy-and-dostoevskyCongratulations on the publication of your book! Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky joins a venerable series of works comparing the two great nineteenth century Russian novelists. How did you conceive of the idea of comparing the two in this way? And how did you become interested in the problem of the family novel?

Well, I actually came to this all through siblings.  When I was an undergraduate at Brown University I decided to write my senior thesis on siblings in War and Peace because it was a way to focus on all my favorite scenes in my favorite book.  As I started into the project and my adviser pushed me to engage with the scholarly literature on Tolstoy, I noticed that none of the discussions of family in his works dealt with siblings (they were all about husbands and wives or parents and children). I only really started reading Dostoevsky during my MPhil at Cambridge, and I was very surprised when I read The Brothers Karamazov to discover that most people discuss family there in terms of Oedipal struggle and focus on the theme of parricide. Few people had written about the brothers as brothers.  So my MPhil thesis ended up being on siblings in BK… and by the time I finished writing it, I knew that I desperately wanted to write a dissertation that explored the role of siblings in the two authors together.

Tell us a little about your book. What questions are you asking in it? Would you say it has an overarching narrative?

Basically, my book is looking at the role that siblings play in the art and thought of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  I start with exploring each author’s conception of the literal sibling bond—for both it plays a very positive role—and then the overarching narrative is exploring how they move from their ideas about siblinghood within the family to their more abstract ideals of universal brotherhood.  I am trying to show that there is a link between these two things; their views of the literal sibling bond shape their broader, philosophical ideals.

One of the main arguments of your book is that vertical family bonds such as parent-child are replaced by lateral ones, such as between siblings. How does this play out in Dostoevsky’s novels?

Scholars have been very right to focus on the importance of parent-child relationships in Dostoevsky’s works and to look at the theme of the breakdown of the transmission of values from fathers to sons in his late works.  What I’m trying to add to this picture is that as the fathers fail, brothers fill in.  So, for example, in The Brothers Karamazov, Zosima gets his ideas from his brother Markel.  And he passes them on to Alyosha, who in some ways is like a son, but whom Zosima sees as his brother come back to him at the end of his way.  He literally tells the story of his life to a group of monks, whom he is calling “brothers.” Fyodor Pavlovich is failing in just about every way imaginable as a father, but Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha reach out to each other with love and support.

What role does Freud play in your book? Do you find him helpful in any way as an interpreter of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s family novels?

Ah Freud… I know many people think it is outdated to write about him, but I studied with a psychoanalyst, Juliet Mitchell, who has done brilliant work on siblings, and under her influence, I have found that Freud still has a lot to teach us.  He was one of the greatest theorizers of the family in the twentieth century and we are still living in a world that was deeply shaped by his views.  So yes, I do find him useful.  What Freud himself wrote about Dostoevsky was wildly inaccurate (Joseph Frank has detailed this quite thoughtfully), but I think his ideas about love and family can still offer insights into Dostoevsky’s fictional worlds.  In my chapter on the first half of Dostoevsky’s career, I look at the way he constructs love triangles, and there we find an interesting slippage between the roles of brother and lover that Freud can speak to.  But I do not only use Freud; I try to put him in dialogue with other thinkers whose works prove relevant to understanding the human problems Dostoevsky is raising.

What do you think is the critical pay-off for thinking about Dostoevsky’s works as family novels? How does it change the way we read them?

A focus on siblings shifts our attention from what I believe is sometimes an over-emphasis on romantic relations and allows us to see the more stable, sustaining kinship love that Dostoevsky actually valued more strongly.  Passionate love is dangerous in Dostoevsky’s works, while sisters and brothers provide each other with true emotional and spiritual support.

What do you think is different about the evolution of the family novel in Russia compared to other national traditions?

This is a GREAT question, and it’s actually the topic of my next book.  For the new project I’m looking comparatively at the family plotlines we find in the nineteenth-century Russian and English novel.  So my full answer to this would probably be several hundred pages long.  The family novel as a genre began in England in the eighteenth century and originally came to Russia from there (broadly speaking, the Russians credited the English with writing the family and the French with writing love and adultery).  Yet as the Russians were reading the English, the differing historical conditions and status of the family in Russia caused them to diverge strongly from their English models and to create radically different family plots.

Just to give one example: the English honored primogeniture, which meant that all property went to the oldest son.  In plot terms, this means that in English novels only one brother can have a marriage plot that culminates in settling down on the family estate and producing an heir (the English family ideal).  And as a result, the English wrote very few novels that feature a significant pair of brothers.  In Russia, estates were split among all the children, and as a result, we find many more significant brother-brother relationships in Russian novels.  One of my arguments is that the Russians think of the family more laterally, while the English are more focused on vertical issues of origin and descent.  And with that, maybe I will save the rest for book number two!

What did you conclude about the similarities and differences of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s conceptions of universal brotherhood?

For both authors universal brotherhood is the ideal, but how you get there looks different because they have such different conceptions of the family.  Tolstoyan family is rooted in close family bonds and shared associations; his characters have typically grown up together and their connection comes from such shared intimacy.  So the challenge for him is to actually break down the bonds of family a bit to leave room for expansion.  Dostoevsky, on the other hand, had his idea of the “accidental family” (created partly as a response against Tolstoy).  His characters were often raised separately and only come to know each other as young adults.  So for them, the family bond is not something learned in childhood, but requires what he calls “active love.”  In this sense, it is easier for his characters to get from loving a sister or brother they just met to loving someone “like” a sibling to loving all of mankind; all these things require the same active love, which for Dostoevsky is predicated on faith.

In your analysis of brotherhood in The Brothers Karamazov, you differ from many other scholars by affording a principle role in your argument to Smerdyakov. Can you tell us a little bit about Smerdyakov as a testcase of Dostoevsky’s model of brotherhood?

This actually relates to the previous question.  The Karamazov brothers come from different mothers (except Ivan and Alyosha) and they were mostly not raised together.  So they only come to know each other as young adults and their love must be based on the “active love” Dostoevsky calls for in the novel.  Olga Meerson has argued that: “The chief taboo in The Brothers Karamazov is the idea that Smerdiakov is the fourth son of Fedor Pavlovich—or more precisely, an equal to the other brothers in his blood-sonship.”  I am suggesting that it’s not a taboo to see Smerdyakov as a brother, but a test: can other characters—and particularly Smerdyakov’s legitimate half-brothers—recognize him and love him as a brother despite all the negative things we learn about him?  He is the first step from the blood family to a wider, universal brotherhood. When Smerdyakov’s brothers fail to love and acknowledge him, they fail to enter this wider brotherhood. And the reader is implicated in this test as well; the narrator tries to make us believe that Smerdyakov is not worth of our attention or of anyone’s love.  So in a sense, this contributes to Dostoevsky’s point that all are guilty for all. We have all failed to see Smerdyakov as part of our human family, so even we the readers share the guilt for the act he commits.

And finally, just to be mischievous, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? And why?

Well, I’m slightly embarrassed to say it in this particular blog, but the answer is unequivocally Tolstoy.  Dostoevsky I admire deeply, and I will never tire of studying him, but his psychology is much more foreign to me.  All these characters on the edge of a brain fever fascinate me, but Tolstoy’s characters feel more real and I think I appreciate the fact that they inhabit a world closer to my own.  So I would turn to Dostoevsky for philosophy and ideas, but Tolstoy remains closer to my heart.


Anna Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood (Northwestern University Press, 2015) is her first book. She has published articles on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Russian opera, the relationship of science and literature, and the family novel as a genre. She is a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Reader’s Advisory Board.