Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

"My Life Had Stood - A Loaded Gun": Dostoevsky, Dickinson, and the Question of Freedom


As far apart as Dickinson and Dostoevsky are in terms of national contexts, gendered possibilities of life, and their choice of minimalist or maximalist forms, their experiences of constriction and freedom bore significant similarities. Dostoevsky penned his vow to love life on the day that he was manacled as a political prisoner and marched off to thirteen years of forced labor and exile in Siberia. He exploded back on the Petersburg literary scene with three block-busters, Notes from the Underground, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, and Crime and Punishment, establishing himself forever as Russia’s most controversial explorer of the violence of human thought. In these same years Emily Dickinson was sequestering herself in her family’s Amherst house for the remainder of her life, yet she announced her rebel’s credo in these enigmatic lines:  “My Life Had Stood, a Loaded Gun – until the Day…”

In this class we will explore the idea that Dickinson and Dostoevsky are the original shifters of modern literary art and philosophy. We will unpack the agonizing relationship of freedom, action, and language that both authors explore. Classes will be organized around presentations, debates in pairs, exploring “scandalous scenes,” and eventually a symposium of students’ paper projects. There are no prerequisites for this course apart from a desire to read poems and novels closely and in tandem.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Monika Greenleaf

"Like many readers, I discovered Dostoevsky as a master of human absurdity and torment when I was fifteen. Then, as a Stanford student during the era of political and existential protest, I found that no other writer pierced the orchestrated power-structures of social and interior discourse like this radically political, religious, and comical novelist. Emily Dickinson emerged for me as just such a resolute creator of unprospected forms of interior life. IntroSems offers me the chance to splice my roots and read Dostoevsky and Dickinson with young students who find themselves at a similar juncture of engagement with new frameworks of thought and self-discovery."

Monika Greenleaf is an associate professor in Slavic Languages and Literatures and in Comparative Literature. She earned her B.A. here at Stanford and returned to teach here, earning an M.A. at Oxford University and a Ph.D. at Yale along the way. She works on poetry and on literature as performance in addition to studying the great Russian novelists.