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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Dostoevsky - Grandfather of the Zombie Apocalypse

It's not often that one is able to discover something in a 149-year-old book that no one else seems to have caught, but I have, and the internet confirms that I am the only one to realize that Fyodor Dostoevsky originated the idea of a zombie apocalypse in his novel Crime and Punishment.

Seriously.

In the epilogue of the book, when the main character Rodion Raskolnikov is finally enduring his "Punishment" he has this dream:
He [Raskolnikov] dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.

A "plague" of "microbes" that affects human behavior, making them "at once mad and furious", driving them to kill; not just to kill, but to "fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other." With the exception of some early stories that uses radiation as the culprit, the majority of zombie lore show the cause of the "plague" as some form of "microbe." [ex. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later]

The outbreak moves fast, and spreads wide: "Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection." [ex. Night of the Living Dead]

It evokes a military response, "They gathered together in armies against one another..." [ex. World War Z]

He shows the confusion and breakdown of communication among the survivors: "The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew." [ex. The Walking Dead]

He shows how our priorities would change: "The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned." [ex. also The Walking Dead]

And he shows the dangers of survivor against survivor: "Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other." [ex. Zombieland, and again, The Walking Dead]

Civilization moves to the edge of destruction: "There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further."

Until finally, there is a glimmer of hope that all the death and destruction cleansed the earth for a better future: "Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth," before the inevitable dark, hopelessness of humankind closes in: "but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices."

So Robert Kirkman, Max Brooks, Colson Whitehead, Isaac Marion, and other writers who have expanded the zombie mythos, make sure you give thanks to the one who first put the zombie apocalypse into our literary consciousness; as one that is currently writing a zombie novel, let me pay my dues here: "Thank you, Fyodor. Without your idea of a microbial plague that decimates civilization, our society would lack the awesome stories this idea has generated."

1 comment:

Domenic Domenic said...

You're right. I just googled "Dostoevsky - zombie apocalypse" because I recently read Crime and Punishment, or rather reread it after 30 years, and was struck by that dream. I was expecting to see reams of references, but it's only you.