In Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons, Pyotr Stepanovich says to Kirillov:
"...it was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you" (558).
This one statement explains the power of Dostoevsky's novels: he writes about people who have become consumed with an idea. It is not enough to call his books novels of ideas; they are books about people with ideas. As Bakhtin says, "In Dostoevsky's work each opinion really does become a living thing and is inseparable from an embodied human voice" (17), but "Dostoevsky portrayed not the life of an idea in an isolated consciousness, and not the interrelationship of ideas, but the interaction of consciousnesses in the sphere of ideas (but not of ideas only)" (32).
Wikipedia, in its infinite wisdom, thus says that "his characters are driven by ideas rather than by ordinary biological or social imperatives. In comparison with Tolstoy, whose characters are realistic, the characters of Dostoevsky are usually more symbolic of the ideas they represent."
Here I have to disagree. Yes, the characters are driven by ideas; however, this only makes them symbolic of the ideas they represent if you believe people cannot actually be driven by ideas. If you are not driven by ideas (if you have never changed your life for an idea), then indeed, you may see these characters as symbolic.
But people can be consumed by an idea, and people can live their lives more by an idea than by "biological or social imperatives." And this is where, to me, Dostoevsky could be called a realist. He portrays individuals consumed by ideas, and after all, individuals consumed by ideas do exist.
But Dostoevsky's power comes partly in the way he merges realism and ideas. He doesn't offer us the dull realism that so many dull realists think they must offer if they are to be realists. And he doesn't offer us abstract philosophy. He offers us ideas existing among people in the world; he offers us people with ideas.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Tr. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Demons. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1994.
"Fyodor Dostoevsky." Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Aug. 2007. 9 Aug. 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fyodor_Dostoevsky>