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.