Mary Hietbrink is an editor who works at Eerdmans. She wrote the following summary of The Insulted and Injured, the first major work of fiction that Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote after his Siberian exile and the first of the long novels that made him famous. Our bold new translation of this literary classic is by Boris Jakim. Consult Mary’s diagram if you need help keeping the relationships in this Russian novel straight!
Fyodor Dostoevsky is an author who needs no introduction, but this novel probably does. Dostoevsky wrote it several years before Notes from Underground, which was the first offering in Eerdmans’ Dostoevsky series.
In some ways it’s hard to believe that these two works were written by the same author. Notes from Underground is a very dark ride of a story; The Insulted and Injured has plenty of misery to go around, but if there’s a devil in this tale, there’s a savior in it, too.
The savior is Ivan Petrovich, the protagonist and the narrator of this story. Ivan is important to a small universe of other people. He loves his childhood sweetheart, Natasha, even though she has rejected him for Alyosha; Ivan even tries to do what he can to help her in her tempestuous relationship with Alyosha. Ivan is also a friend to Natasha’s parents, who are distraught about her living with her careless and unfaithful lover. And he literally saves the orphaned Nellie from a life of prostitution.
As this story outline shows, there’s a lot of insult and injury going on here. Ivan, though not perfect, is doing his best to right these wrongs. But hovering over this interconnected universe of people is Prince Valkovsky, a vicious man who is proud of the havoc he can wreak in others’ lives. He hurts Natasha by scheming to have his son marry an heiress. In a legal suit he almost bankrupts Natasha’s parents. He uses his son Alyosha to gain the heiress’s money. And in a final dark turn, we find out that Nellie is the prince’s illegitimate daughter, whose pregnant mother he abandoned in Europe. Ivan discovers all of this and confronts Valkovsky — but he’s no match for this Machiavellian schemer. Still, although Valkovsky’s evil succeeds, it does not ultimately vanquish Ivan’s goodness (though, like many saviors, Ivan loses his life in his attempts to help others).
Retold like this, the story sounds a bit like a Russian soap opera. But it has a depth and a scope that move it to a completely different realm of storytelling. Not only is this novel a great read; it also shows how Dostoevsky will deal with good and evil in his subsequent masterpieces. Prince Valkovsky in particular is his first thoroughly evil character, a precursor of such famous characters as Fyodor Karamazov.
In short, this is a truly powerful story, made all the more compelling by Boris Jakim’s bold, fresh translation of it.