Dostoevsky and the Age of Positivism


“Once it’s proved to you, for example, that you are descended from an ape, there’s no use making a wry face; just take it for what it is,” the Underground Man tells us. Lebeziatnikov attempts to educate the prostitute, Sonia, by lending her a copy of G.H. Lewes’s The Physiology of Common Life. Ivan Karamazov rejects non-Euclidean geometry, while his brother Dmitri worries that chemistry will displace God: “Move over a little, Your Reverence, there’s no help for it, chemistry’s coming!” This one-semester course will frame a rich and multifaceted reading of Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov with an exploration of Dostoevsky’s complicated relationship to the newly emerging science of his day. We will consider Dostoevsky’s response in the context of the very many of his contemporaries also engaged in a new discourse of science, including Dostoevsky’s main ideological opponent, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, as well as writers whose more nuanced approach shaped Dostoevsky’s own: Balzac, Poe, Wilkie Collins, and George Eliot in Middlemarch. Finally, we will read some of the scientists and science writers whose works both influenced and were influenced by 19th-century European literature, including Darwin, Comte, the French physiologist Claude Bernard, and G.H. Lewes—not just a favorite of the fictional Lebeziatnikov but also the common-law husband of the real George Eliot.