Considered one of the greatest writers who ever lived, Fyodor Dostoyevsky captured the spirit of 19th-century Russia while dealing with weighty religious and philosophical subjects in his work. He enjoyed a significant level of success during his lifetime, but his stature as an author has continued to grow in the 100+ years after his death. He's also managed to influence an impressive collection of writers, including everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Jean-Paul Sartre.
Of course, the biography of Fyodor Dostoyevsky wouldn't be included here unless he had some manner of connection to gambling. As it turns out, he has a couple.
First off, Dostoyevsky was an avid gambler for much of his life, often putting himself and his family in financial jeopardy in the process. Second, he penned the famed literary work known as The Gambler, which coincidentally was used to help alleviate some of the monetary hardships that his arisen from his love for casinos.
Once we've covered the high (and low) points of his life, I'll also take a closer look at some of his more notable works. And for those who prefer movies to books, I've included a few recommendations for films based on his most famous gambling-related novel.
The Early Life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dostoyevsky was born on November 11th, 1821, in Moscow, Russia to Mikhail and Maria. The second of eight children, he grew up playing in the gardens of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor, where his father served as a doctor. Mikhail later accepted a position as a collegiate assessor, a move that granted the family noble status.
The young Fyodor was interested in literature from an early age, and he received a liberal dose of both modern classics and fairy tales from his parents and nanny. When he was four, his mother taught him to read and write by using a bible.
He was sent to a series of boarding schools in 1833, and the future author often struggled to fit in among his more aristocratic classmates. Fyodor and his brother Mikhail were eventually sent to the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute, although the former was rejected because of his poor health and instead assigned to an academy in Estonia. In 1837, Dostoyevsky's mother died of tuberculosis.
Dostoyevsky's love of the arts stood in stark contrast to most of his classmates, as they preferred subjects such as engineering, science, and math. Despite his tendency to stick out, he managed to earn the respect of both teachers and peers, picking up the nickname "Monk Photius" along the way (due to his fascination with religion).
His father died in 1839, and the official cause was listed as a stroke. A neighbor, however, accused the local peasantry of murder, although they would later be acquitted.
While deeply troubled to the point of a seizure, Dostoyevsky continued his studies and eventually became an engineer cadet. He moved out on his own, often traveling to Reval to visit his brother. During these trips, he would be exposed to all manner of high culture, but he was also introduced to the joys of gambling for the first time.
The first literary work by Dostoyevsky was published in 1843, but this-and a number of other translations-failed to bring him any money or accolades. He therefore decided to write a novel, and his first effort, Poor Folk, was published in 1846. Due to its success, he decided to devote himself to writing full-time, resigning his post in the military.
The work was a success, and he followed it up with The Double in the same year. The latter was a commercial and critical disappointment, however, and the strain brought on a series of seizures. Between his poor health and fondness for gambling, the author often had to rely on others to get by. He continued to produce various short stories, but his affiliation with a group of socialists would land him in trouble in 1849.
In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested on charges of reading and distributing banned literature. He and others were initially sentenced to death for their actions, but the verdict was commuted at the last minute by Emperor Nicolas I. Instead, he was sentenced to four years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp.
Dostoyevsky spent his time packed inside a barracks with 200 other prisoners. His hands and feet were constantly shackled, and he suffered from hemorrhoids, weight loss, fever, and seizures. Despite all of this, he somehow survived and was released in 1854.
The terms of his sentence also required Dostoyevsky to serve a stint in the military, so he joined the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion. He also wrote The House of the Dead, drawing on his own experiences for this semi-autobiographical look at a Siberian prison camp.
He sometimes served as a tutor to make ends meet, and a formal letter of apology eventually earned him the right to publish books and even get married. His financial struggles continued, and he was released from his military service in 1859. Dostoyevsky was also given permission to return to Russia, and he wasted no time in doing so.
His literary output continued, but the author always seemed to suffer from severe bouts of poverty. His seizures continued, but this didn't prevent him from visiting Eastern Europe, falling in love, and blowing his remaining finances at the casinos in Baden-Baden and Wiesbaden.
After the death of his first wife and brother, Dostoyevsky married the stenographer who'd helped him complete The Gambler. They departed for Eastern Europe for a honeymoon, and they wouldn't return to Russia for more than four years. He started a family during this period, wrote The Idiot, and finally managed to conquer his addiction to gambling.
Later Life and Death
Dostoyevsky continued to increase the size of his family, although he also endured chronic health problems, police surveillance, and continued debt. He also ran into occasional legal problems regarding the content of his work, although none of it resulted in imprisonment or exile.
The publication of The Writer's Diary in 1876 brought an influx of admirers, although his health problems continued. He considered moving to a different climate, but that was before he received a personal request from Tsar Alexander II to educate the ruler's children.
The author soon found himself the toast of Russia, receiving numerous honors and rubbing elbows with all manner of celebrities and notables. Unfortunately, his health problems continued, and these were later compounded by the death of one of his sons from a massive epileptic seizure.
In January of 1881, the author began to suffer from pulmonary bleeding. Doctors were consulted, but they could do nothing to prevent the inevitable. On February 9th, 1881, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky passed away at the age of 59.
He was buried in a Saint Petersburg cemetery near two of his favorite poets, and it was reported that the crowd of mourners ranged in size from 40,000 to 100,000.
Quotes from The Gambler
Since you've wound up on this site, there's a decent chance that you enjoy slots, roulette, poker, or some other manner of gaming. For those who also aspire to improve their understanding of classic literature, there no better place to start than The Gambler.
Written in 1867, this novella is perhaps the most critically acclaimed story ever penned about games of chance. Of course, there's also a lot more taking place within the pages, including greed, addiction, desperation, and unrequited love.
For those who are totally unfamiliar with The Gambler, here are some excerpts. These should also serve as a decent introduction to Dostoyevsky's distinctive style of writing.
- "But gamblers know how a man can sit for almost twenty-four hours at cards, without looking to right, or to left."
- "Well, what, what new thing can they say to me that I don't know myself? And is that the point? The point here is that-one turn of the wheel, and everything changes, and these same moralizers will be the first (I'm sure of it) to come with friendly jokes to congratulate me. And they won't all turn away from me as they do now. Spit on them all! What am I now? Zero. What may I be tomorrow? Tomorrow I may rise from the dead and begin to live anew! I may find the man in me before he's lost!"
- "No, it was not the money that I valued-what I wanted was to make all this mob of Heintzes, hotel proprietors, and fine ladies of Baden talk about me, recount my story, wonder at me, extol my doings, and worship my winnings."
- "In the same way, I saw our General once approach the table in a stolid, important manner. A lackey darted to offer him a chair, but the General did not even notice him. Slowly he took out his money bags, and slowly extracted 300 francs in gold, which he staked on the black, and won. Yet he did not take up his winnings-he left them there on the table. Again the black turned up, and again he did not gather in what he had won; and when, in the third round, the RED turned up he lost, at a stroke, 1200 francs. Yet even then he rose with a smile, and thus preserved his reputation; yet I knew that his money bags must be chafing his heart, as well as that, had the stake been twice or thrice as much again, he would still have restrained himself from venting his disappointment."
- "Well, wherein lies my difficulty? It lies in the fact that by a single turn of a roulette wheel everything for me, has become changed."
- "Even as I approach the gambling hall, as soon as I hear, two rooms away, the jingle of money poured out on the table, I almost go into convulsions."
If you're not exactly the literary type, The Gambler has also inspired a number of movies that you might find more palatable. Some of the most notable include the following:
- The Great Sinner (1949)
A study of gambling addicts starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.
- The Gamblers (2007)
This low-budget German film emphasizes the romance between a tutor and the stepdaughter of a gambling addict.
- The Gambler (1997)
Michael Gambon portrays Dostoyevsky as the author tries to complete his novel to pay off various debts. Also starring Dominic West (from The Wire).
- The Gambler (2014)
A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, this work stars Mark Wahlberg as a literary professor with a gambling addiction who becomes the target of ruthless loan sharks. More of a spiritual adaption than a straight remake, it features an excellent supporting cast that includes John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Michael K. Williams, and Brie Larson.
Suggested Reading from Fyodor Dostoyevsky
If you'd like to learn more about the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, then I suggest reading one or more of the works on this list. Those enamored with games of chance are obviously urged to start with the shorter novel known as The Gambler, at which point you can transition to one of his more involved efforts. In total, Dostoyevsky penned 15 novels and novellas, as well as 17 short stories, so there's plenty of miserable Russian goodness to choose from.
- Poor Folk (1846)
Tells of the relationship between an elderly official and his seamstress relative. The focus is on the poor, especially their suffering and lack of self-esteem.
- Notes from Underground (1864)
Highly influential on modernist literature, this bizarre work focuses on a former civil servant and his rather bleak views on society and the human condition.
- Crime and Punishment (1866)
The tale of a former student who decides to rob and murder an elderly pawnbroker, as well as his healing relationship with a virtuous teenage prostitute.
- The Idiot (1868)
The story of a pure-hearted nobleman who's unmoved by wealth and power. He finds himself drawn to two different women, eventually suffering the kind of heartbreak associated with many of the author's tales.
- Demons (1871)
Warning of the consequences of nihilism, this novel tells of a revolutionary who plots a murder in order to bring his group of conspirators closer together. If you've guessed that things go horribly awry, then you're starting to get the hang of Dostoyevsky's work.
- The Brothers Karamazov (1879)
Considered by many literary critics to be Dostoyevsky's finest work, this nearly 800-page novel concerns a deadbeat father and his three estranged sons. The primary themes of the story involve morality, God, and free will, with the usual amount of Russian anguish and self-loathing thrown in for good measure.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the titans of the literary world, and his works are acclaimed for their ability to examine the psychological state of man and provide insight into the world of 19th-century Russia. One of his most notable stories was The Gambler, a tale of love, loss, and roulette. Dostoyevsky was all too familiar with these subjects, especially since his own addiction to gambling caused him a great deal of financial hardship during his adult years.
Author: Shane Rivers
Updated: February 2017
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