8 best Dostoevsky books, ranked by piercing prose and insights

8 best Dostoevsky books, ranked by piercing prose and insights

In Reading Lists by Lanie Pemberton

8 best Dostoevsky books, ranked by piercing prose and insights

Remembered alongside influential writers like Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was a Russian author and journalist known for exploring philosophical questions and the psychology of the human condition.

After studying engineering, Dostoevsky quickly turned to his first love: literature. His life was far from easy, and not just because of this career change. Dostoevsky’s interest in Socialism led to being condemned to death (his sentence was later commuted) and hard labor in Siberia. These experiences didn’t dampen his passion for writing, but instead fueled the themes present in all of his works.

Dostoevsky may have gotten his start well over a century ago (with Poor Folk, an epistolary novella), but his themes of morality, redemption, and personal struggle are timeless. As a result, Dostoevsky’s works continue to resonate with modern readers.

The best Dostoevsky books to start with include standout titles like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, but my favorite recommendation is The Idiot — a novel about a man whose goodness may just be his downfall.

Arguably Fyodor Dostoevsky’s most famous book, Crime and Punishment follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a poverty-stricken man who murders a greedy pawnbroker, believing the stolen wealth will contribute to a greater good. But after committing the crime, Raskolnikov spirals into guilt and shame, horrified by his own actions and self-justification. 

This 1866 novel is a hefty read, but a worthy one for its moral explorations and implications. Crime and Punishment has inspired dozens of screen adaptations, and author Joyce Carol Oates named it among her favorite books

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If Crime and Punishment feels like too daunting a start, this Dostoevsky novella may be the better entry point for you 

It’s written from the perspective of an unnamed narrator (the “Underground Man”) who rejects the notion that people make rational choices, and instead believes most human decisions are rooted in self-interest, or negative feelings like spite and pride. Later, the Underground Man gives examples from his own life that illustrate his beliefs.

Notes from Underground is considered among the first examples of existentialism in literature, making it a mainstay for readers interested in philosophy. 

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The last book written by Dostoevsky before his death — which Sigmund Freud called “the most magnificent novel ever written” — is part family saga, part courtroom drama, with the author’s signature ruminations on morality, faith, and human motivation.

This story follows the tumultuous relationship between Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and his three adult sons. After Fyodor’s murder, his eldest son Dmitri is accused of the crime, and though he’d recently argued with his father over his inheritance (and the fact that they’re interested in the same woman), Dmitri firmly denies the allegations. 

The Brothers Karamazov was originally published as a serial, and it’s the longest audiobook featured on this list (37 hours). It’s ambitious, but well worth the time for its richly drawn characters, particularly the brothers with their contrasting perspectives and philosophies.

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Written during a difficult time in Dostoevsky’s life (he was struggling with immense debt and the loss of his child), The Idiot was one of the author’s more experimental works. It evolved in fits and starts before Dostoevsky honed in on what he wanted to achieve: a portrait of a benevolent man whose naivety makes him vulnerable to the wretched people he encounters.

Dostoevsky drew on his own experiences when writing this novel: Like the author, protagonist Prince Myshkin suffers from debilitating epilepsy. There’s also discussion of capital punishment and a person’s near-death experience by firing squad, which replicates Dostoevsky’s real-life brush with death after being convicted of conspiring with Socialists. 

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A political satire that explores the often violent effects of extremism, Demons is set in a fictional Russian town where a group of radicals, led by a zealous leader, attempt to create chaos and overthrow the government. 

Also known as The Possessed or The Devils, Dostoevsky wrote this story as a response to — and a warning against — the growing adoption of nihilistic ideals in mid-19th-century Russia.


Similar to The Idiot, this novel was inspired by Dostoevsky’s personal experiences; namely, being confined to a Siberian labor camp.

Told from the perspective of a variety of inmates, including Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, who’s been sentenced to 10 years of hard labor, the novel reveals the harsh realities of prison camps, including physical and psychological abuse. 

While The House of the Dead is a clear indictment of the Russian justice system, it also explores humanity’s capacity for redemption, compassion, and community.

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Another quick read by Dostoevsky standards, The Gambler digs into the psychology of addiction and the lengths we’ll go to for love.

Alexei Ivanovich is a tutor for a wealthy family, including The General and his stepdaughter, Polina, whom Alexei is in love with. Unknown to Alexei, The General is burdened by massive debts. When the family’s last hope — inheritance from a wealthy aunt — falls through, Alexei descends into a gambling addiction, hoping to win Polina’s love with his earnings. 

Ironically, Dostoevsky wrote this story to help pay off his own gambling debts. 

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This novel is thought to be inspired by Charles Dickens, whose works Dostoevsky read while imprisoned in Siberia (its themes, dilemmas, and characters certainly have a Dickensian appeal). 

Vanya, a struggling young writer, is in love with his childhood friend, Natasha, but is forced to stand aside as she pursues a relationship with the son of Prince Valkovsky, who’s vehemently against the marriage. Meanwhile, Vanya takes in a young orphan girl, having no idea her mysterious heritage is tied to Natasha’s complicated situation.

This one may not be as widely read as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and others, but it’s a favorite among Dostoevsky fans.

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About the Author: Lanie Pemberton

Lanie is a San Diego-based freelance writer who loves reading crime thrillers and nonfiction about animals and the natural world. When not writing and reading (or writing about what to read), Lanie spends as much time as possible at the beach with her husband and pampered pittie, Peach.