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The Psychological Novel and Science of the Brain: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Narrative of Consciousness


This dissertation situates the remarkable narrative discoveries of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy in portraying the consciousness of characters within the intense discussion of the emerging science of the brain in the 1860s and 1870s, in Russia and Western Europe. How do Dostoevsky and Tolstoy respond to developments in neurophysiology, and what new techniques arise from the close engagement between literature and science? I turn to two novels, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1868) and Tolstoy Anna Karenina (1877) and demonstrate how, responding to the contemporary debates surrounding the intervention of science into the workings of the human mind, these literary writers created their own experimental models of the psyche that are special to literature.

The dissertation first traces the discussion of the advances in neurophysiology in the 1860s and 1870s in the popular “thick journals” (which combined fiction, science, politics, and more) and specialized professional publications. In the Russian press, popular journals published original work by scientists in Russia and in Western Europe, and critics reviewed new scientific discoveries for the general audience. What is more, scientists (such as Ivan Sechenov in his groundbreaking Reflexes of the Brain) wrote for a popular audience and adopted a literary style. In the journals, literary critics, philosophers, psychologists, theologians, and others debated scientific ideas about the workings of the human brain. In these debates, the science of the brain clashed with religious thinking: Could “reflexes of the brain” replace the idea of the human soul and its immortality? The dissertation then turns to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, two novels that have long been celebrated for their visionary narrative techniques. In the case of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the dissertation situates this novel’s narrative, especially the emergence of style indirect libre in Chapter 5 of Part 2, in the context of the medical understanding of epilepsy. An important parallel can be seen in the case of Gustave Flaubert, who also had epilepsy and who is known for his innovative use of style indirect libre. Turning to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I study the novel’s narrative in the context of the clash between science and religion, centered on the concept of the soul. I consider the correspondence between Tolstoy and his close friend Nikolai Strakhov, especially their discussion of the concept of the soul in relation to the discoveries in brain science. I then offer close readings of the key scenes that, as I argue, offer Tolstoy’s own model for the workings of the human mind.

In the Western European context, scholars working on the intersection of science and literature in the 19th century (Gillian Beer, George Levine, Vanessa Ryan, Nicholas Dames, Michael Finn) have long argued that in England and France, novelists responded to scientists and, in their turn, had an influence on the development of scientific ideas. Meanwhile, narratologists have explored the special ways in which 19th century European novels developed new methods for constructing narratives of human life and representing consciousness. This dissertation shows that the Russian novelists Dostoevsky and Tolstoy competed with science to offer their own experimental models of consciousness, ones that prefigured the narrative innovations of the modernist novel.

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