At the age of 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky, sentenced to death for revolutionary activities, stood before a firing squad. The young writer and agitator kissed a cross that was passed around among the prisoners. The Tsar’s soldiers raised their guns. Then a rider rushed into the square and announced a pardon: the condemned men, including Dostoevsky, were to be sent to hard labour in Siberia instead.
Very few of us will ever have a terrifying, unreal moment like Dostoevsky’s: convinced he was about to die, then spared at the last minute. When Dostoevsky returned from Siberia and wrote his great novels, his near-death echoed through his work. He felt compelled to imagine killers and their victims in the most graphic, even sickening ways.
Being alone with Dostoevsky and his perverse, troubled characters can be an appalling experience. But still we read on, unable to tear ourselves away from a world so miserable and so alien to our hopes. Dostoevsky shows us what subjecting ourselves to a book whose vision is extreme and uncomfortable can do for us: broaden our knowledge of others.
Increasingly, psychologists and neuroscientists have been focusing on empathy as a crucial part of what makes us human. Moral life is unimaginable without the ability to identify with other people, to feel their experiences. But what about people whose inner lives we can’t bear to think about: the torturers and killers we condemn as evil, even inhuman? Every day we gulp down headlines and lurid, tabloid stories about such bad people, but this is voyeurism, not an entry into another world. Dostoevsky actually portrays bad people in unrivalled depth, and over hundreds of pages: the terrorists, the murderers, the scoundrels. Lately, psychological studies have suggested that reading serious fiction increases empathy, enabling us to stand in the shoes of others. This is especially valuable when we read about those who seem completely unlike us: not just people from a different nation, race or religion, but those who are morally different, who are, to use the inescapable word, evil.
Dostoevsky is not alone among the great realists in his ability to depict evil. When I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I am always most intrigued by the novel’s chilling portrait of Napoleon. In Tolstoy’s hands, the Emperor resembles an overgrown child, but he knows only cold satisfaction, instead of a child’s joy. Yet Tolstoy’s Napoleon, who is capable of sending thousands of men to their deaths without hesitation, remains part of the spectrum of humanity. He’s not a monster, but one of us.
When you read a novel seriously, you're alone with the author’s characters, listening and feeling as carefully as you can. Sometimes, as with Dostoevsky, the reader enters a world that may seem foreign and even repulsive, but that also fascinates. We feel exhilarated but uneasy as we find ourselves trapped with the people we usually turn away from, life’s villains. At times a television series like Breaking Bad is able, like a realist novel, to make us sympathise with a hero whom we also want to condemn. But novels, because they demand that we immerse ourselves in the lives of others more slowly and thoroughly than television or movies, give us a fuller portrait of the dark side.
Reading a novel forces us to experience the lives of characters who are radically different from us, something we can't get from other art forms. Only by spending a long time inside the head of a character can we know something of the full range of human life. The more we can do that, the better for how we see the world, because we've spent serious time with otherness during our reading.
Novels deliver the unlike, the alien, as an antidote to our comforts and our day-to-day prejudices. Increasingly, we are snugly wrapped in our worldviews. Conservatives see everything in blue, progressives in red. The internet seems designed to back up our opinions, because when we’re online we make a habit of seeking out the like-minded. We gang up on those we disagree with, rather than listening carefully to contrary opinions. When the web shows us the horrors of war and domestic violence, we take a quick look and move on. Distracted by snapshots of horror, we think we are following terrible events. But we’re not, because we don’t commit ourselves to finding out about the human actors behind them. Reading a novel means committing yourself, to the author and the characters. Glancing at evil and tragedy, as the internet encourages us to do, lets us avoid the hard questions about motivation and human personality that novels make us confront.
Because the internet molds itself to our whims, letting us go where we want, when we want, it prevents us from really experiencing otherness in the way that a novel, the longest of long forms, can offer. A novel has a structure, while the web doesn’t; a novel pushes back, and demands that we stay involved. Sinking into a book and subjecting ourselves to the author is the shock treatment we need to break out of our habit of online distractions, which can numb our capacity to see how human beings develop over time. Without that capacity, we lose the power to identify with the people around us, especially those we find morally troubling.
When we read Crime and Punishment, we sympathise against our will with the murderer Raskolnikov. But Dostoevsky, remembering his own near-execution, also makes us watch a murder from the point of view of the victim. Dostoevsky imagines what it's really like to kill someone in a way that movies and television and online games almost never do. Raskolnikov first kills an old woman pawnbroker, and then her sister Lizaveta, who arrives unexpectedly on the scene. As Raskolnikov lifts his axe, the author shows us Lizaveta paralysed with fear. We suddenly see the murder through the eyes of the victim, after having experienced the inner life of the murderer through so many gripping pages.
In ordinary life we tend to choose sides. We wouldn't want to think about a murderer and his victim at once. But Dostoevsky makes us identify with both. We can't push either of them away; our moral judgments get put on hold so that we can really see into the lives of other people. We've spent so much time with the murderer, in our slow, captivated reading of the book, that we can't just reject him now. But we also know that, when he scorns the sacredness of human life, he has done the unforgivable.
We are moral creatures, and so we must divide humanity into innocent and guilty, victim and evil predator. But there is something about such distinctions that cuts us off from further knowledge. When we're prevented from picking sides, as happens when we read a novelist like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, we've learned something essential: that we need to move beyond comforting moral judgments, if we really care about understanding the world.
A few hours after his reprieve from death, Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his brother, “Life, life is everywhere, life is inside us... There will be people beside me, and to be a man among people is to remain a man forever...” These words suggest that Dostoevsky knew his uncanny strength, from that moment on, would be his ability to imagine other people, and to help us imagine other people too.
David Mikics is the author of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Harvard/Belknap). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston