Thesis: Dostoevsky’s manic and depressive episodes aided in his ability to
properly illustrate the workings of the human mind, through his writing.


Outline: I. Introduction II. What is Manic Depression and Depression? III. Other
Writers with Mental Illnesses IV. Dostoevsky’s Life V. Analysis of
“Notes-” VI. Conclusion Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, author
of several acclaimed books-including “Notes From Underground”-a
semi-autobiographical story, introduced a new form of writing,
“stream-of-consciousness”, to Russia and Europe. Soon, this form of
writing that would become the mark of the Existentialist, spread to the
America’s. Interestingly enough, the “stream-of-consciousness” that
manifested itself in his writing was actually the product of a mood disorder,
which can be characterized by intensely emotional thoughts. Caught in a rift of
contrasting thoughts, the Manic-Depressive-commonly endowed with superior
artistic abilities, can be very insightful to the ways of man. Manic-depression
can clinically be defined as a mood disorder with two contrasting states: mania
and depression. There must be an occurrence of one or more Manic or Mixed
episodes and often, the individual has also had one or more Major Depressive
episodes in the past. In Manic-Depressive disorder, also known as Bipolar
disorder, the manic and depressive episodes recur in varying degrees of
intensity. The DSM-IV describes Manic and Depressive episodes as: “The
essential feature is a distinct period when the predominant mood is either
elevated, expansive or irritable, and when there are associated symptoms of the
manic syndrome.” These symptoms include hyperactivity, pressure of speech,
flight of ideas, inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep,
distractibility, and excessive involvement in activities that have a high
potential for painful consequences, which are not recognized. The manual
describes depressive episodes as: “The essential feature is either a
dysphoric mood, usually depression, or loss of interest or pleasure in most
usual activities and pass-times. This disturbance is prominent, relatively
persistent, and associated with other symptoms of the depressive syndrome.”
These symptoms include appetite disturbance, change in weight, sleep
disturbance, psychomotor agitation or retardation, decreased energy, feelings of
worthlessness or guilt, difficulty concentrating or thinking, and thoughts of
death or suicide, or suicidal attempts. Manic Depression is also due to a
biochemical imbalance in the brain. These biochemical reactions include the
“increasing and decreasing of intra- and extracellular sodium, chloride,
and potassium (Beck 65).” The inclining and declining of these functions
support the contrasting manic and depressive moods. “The spirit of genius
no free-floating, absolute power, but is strictly bound to the laws of
biochemistry and the endocrine glands.” This again credits the idea that
manic-depression can stimulate artistry. Though it is difficult to prove
Manic-Depressive disorder among those who have passed away, the occurrence of
this behavior and has been traced through letters written to friends and family,
and personal accounts. Creative people, such as Keats, Woolf, and Dostoevsky,
have been named among those who had this illness. Keats’s notes and letters were
evidence of his violent mood swings; his surgery lecture notes, embellished with
many impromptu sketches in the margins were evidence of his wide-ranging
interests, and also of his mercurial nature. Woolf became violent and delusional
in her manic episodes, and when she was in a depressive state, she barely spoke
or ate, and attempted suicide. Born in the hospital for the poor, Dostoevsky was
the second of seven children. He led a happy and peaceful childhood where he
held particular warm feelings towards his family. “It is not abnormal for
one with the Manic-depressive syndrome to live a life of normalcy- that
is, of course, until an element of unpleasantry enters his life (Ostow
82).” His father, murdered by his own serfs, had a hot tempered and
irritable state of mind. His mother, described as tender and sensitive with a
literary and musical talent, died when Fyodor was fifteen-years-old. After
graduating from St. Petersburg’s Academy of Military Engineers as lieutenant, he
was assigned to a military department. Dostoevsky worked there for one year
before he realized that working in a department gave him no satisfaction, and
that he wanted to write and work as an author. Later, he became acquainted with
the utopian socialist group, for which he seemed to have become strongman. This
association got him four years in Siberian prison. After a four-year stay at the
Siberian prison, he married a widow and later regained his rights as a nobleman.

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Periods of relative prosperity and happiness stopped abruptly Dostoevsky’s wife
and brother died. He was left alone with his brother’s debts, and was resorted
to gambling as a way out from economic difficulties. Except for the last ten
years, the Dostoevsky family suffered from economical difficulties caused by
brother’s debts, an always-begging stepson and Fyodor’s gambling spree. They
also were extremely unlucky regarding their three children. Like Dostoevsky’s
life, his writing contained many avenues down which one could lose his- or
herself. He begins his two-part “Notes From Underground” with a stream
of ironies, a forewarning to the reader of what lies ahead. Seemingly unfocused
and ambiguous, it is possible to see through his writing, and detect his
manic-depression in his style. An obvious example of this is the terminal
confusion in his writing: “I am a sick man… I am a week man. An
unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. However, I don’t know a fig about my
sickness, and am not sure what it is that hurts me. I am not being treated and
never have been, though I respect medicine and doctors. What’s more, I am also
superstitious in the extreme; well, at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m
sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, sir, I refuse to
be treated out of weakness.” This terminal confusion is reminiscent of
human nature, and its never-ending cycle. Throughout calamity and affirmative
events in human life, we, as human beings have the tendency to chase our
thoughts, analyzing and dissecting them. Like those in the depressive state,
Dostoevsky, who wrote in the same tempo as his thought patterns, basically
illustrated the way our thought processes work. As though in the midst of
conversation, Dostoevsky assumes the reader’s irritability, “what precisely
am I? — then I will answer you: I am one Collegiate assessor”. He refers
to himself as his post. Dostoevsky’s depressive episode comes into play.

“During a depressive episode, feelings of detachment may be exhibited by
the patient, as he may refer to himself in the third person or as an object (Ostow
128).” Likely, it is very much so like humans to refer to themselves as
what they are capable of contributing to society. Detached and forlorn,
depressives get lost in their own worlds. Frantically grasping for what is solid
before them is, at times, the only thing that will keep them together. In this
example, Dostoevsky referring to himself as his post is his way of affirming his
humanity. Dostoevsky was obviously very aware of his Manic-depressive disorder,
He repeatedly points out that he is “overly conscious”, and that it is
his sickness and a real sickness. Like some manic-depressives-those being few in
number, he was somehow able to predict his mood changes and was able to make use
of them accordingly. An example of a manic stream of consciousness is as
follows: “To live beyond forty is indecent, banal, immoral! Who does beyond
forty — answer me sincerely, honestly? I’ll tell you who does: fools and
scoundrels do. I’ll say it in the faces of the elders, all these venerable
elders, all the silver-haired and sweet-smelling elders quotation marks! I’ll
say it in the whole world’s face! I have the right to speak this way, because I
myself live to be sixty. A live to be seventy! I’ll live to be
eighty!…weights! Let me catch my breath…” Extremely energetic and
feisty, characteristic of a manic episode, Dostoevsky once again chases his
tail, and we see into the mind of a human being. We have a front row seat of his
hyperactivity rise to the point of exhaustion. He begins with tuning forty, and
goes on to explain how aging beyond this would be indecent-a morbid thought. We
see him quickly rise to the point of pure babble. Excessive speech is also
characteristic of the mania syndrome. Woolf was known to speak on end, night and
day for three whole days, unceasingly (Jamison 56). Dostoevsky refers to himself
a “normal” human being — one who is not overly conscious, as an
insect. There should be no shock that one would think so lowly of himself.


Behind the mask of “the Underground Man”, he examines his emotional
stamina, referring to himself as an insect, or a low species of the living (Murry
3). According to Dostoevsky, not thinking and not being conscious, both
internally and externally, is a luxury. In “Notes From Underground”,
Dostoevsky takes on a guided tour of the functions of the mind. Debilitating
psychological illnesses can be held accountable for one compulsively
questioning, and burdening themselves with existential thoughts. Dostoevsky’s
Manic-depression gave him, ironically, this ability.


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