The Mathematical Genius of F.M. Dostoevsky: Imaginary Numbers, Statistics, Non-Euclidean Geometry and Infinity

Marsh-Soloway, Michael, Slavic Languages and Literatures - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Connolly, Julian, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia

Prior to becoming a man of letters, F.M. Dostoevsky (1821-1881) studied at the Main Engineering School [Glavnoe inzhenernoe uchilishche] in St. Petersburg from 1838 to 1843. Although most scholars discount the lasting legacy of his engineering studies, the literary aesthetics of his works communicate an awareness of mathematical principles and debates. In the context of nineteenth-century Russian literature, Dostoevsky is perhaps the only major novelist to have embedded explicit mathematical expressions and terminology in his prose. His works, for example, contain references to “square roots”, “logarithmic tables”, “repeating decimals”, and the curious equation, “2x2=5.”

After he was arrested, submitted to mock execution by firing squad, and sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia for his involvement in the revolutionary Petrashevsky Circle in 1849, most of his books and journals from the period of his education were confiscated, and destroyed by the Third Section of the Russian Secret Police. This dissertation reconstructs the curriculum and readings that Dostoevsky encountered during his studies, and connects such sources to the mathematical references and themes in his published works. Whereas scholars tend generally to underestimate, or even outright ignore the legacy of his studies at the Main Engineering School, my project presents his education as a formative period of his artistic development.

This dissertation unearths subtexts in works by Dostoevsky, reiterating veins of mathematical thought, which evolved throughout Classical Antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution. Extending the arguments set forth in Liza Knapp’s 1996 book, The Annihilation of Inertia: Dostoevsky’s Metaphysics, this dissertation illuminates mathematical elements and discourses derived from a selection of his most popular literary texts, including Zapiski iz podpol’ia (1864), Prestuplenie i nakazanie (1866), Igrok (1867), Son smeshnogo cheloveka (1877), and Brat’ia Karamazovy (1881). Whereas Knapp explores the formulation of Dostoevsky’s existential philosophy in relation to his knowledge of Newtonian mechanics and physics, my project considers his knowledge of geometry and number theory as the disciplines that contributed to the holistic conception of his metaphysical ideas. His works, for instance, convey acknowledgement of Non-Euclidean geometric principles devised by Nikolai Lobachevsky (1792-1856), and advances in complex number theory proposed by Leonhard Euler (1707-1783). Both Lobachevsky and Euler conducted research in Russia that seems to have reached the attention of Dostoevsky during his schooling and subsequent reading.

As an artist, Dostoevsky participated in multifarious polemics. He engaged contrasting worldviews in the formulation of his own synergistic outlooks, combining principles from the traditions of literature, spirituality, and mathematics. By engaging the sources from which Dostoevsky derived such integrative inspiration, and studying his narrative methods, this dissertation explores his interdisciplinary imagination. The genius of Dostoevsky can be viewed through a new lens that aligns his creative insights with the foundational frameworks of modern mathematics.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
F.M. Dostoevsky, Nikolai Lobachevsky, Leonhard Euler, Utilitarian Calculus, Non-Euclidean Geometry, Complex Number Theory, Glavnoe inzhenernoe uchilishche, History of Mathematics, History of Engineering
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