The Brothers Karamazov – 10: Boys

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Antonio Mancini - Il Malatino

What does it say about Dostoyevsky that, after the roller coaster of the last three parts, he switches gears and writes a whole section about – schoolboys?

Let me just say: any remaining reservations I had about his writing skills disappeared in this part.  I mean that seriously.  As with “The Russian Monk” (VI), this part left me very impressed.

Most of us who have ever thought of being writers know about the Character Arc.  We tend to think the Character Arc is a long journey (it is).  But the most difficult part is actually writing it.  It can become a laborious process, and in the middle of that process we writers tend to lose the subtlety of good writing that the rest of our novel may possess.  We usually sacrifice the subtlety because the Character Arc appears to us like the milestones of life – big, earth-shattering, and loudly delineated.  Plot twist: it doesn’t have to be.

Dostoyevsky uses the conflict and dynamics between Ilyusha and the other schoolboys for two purposes.  One is to include social commentary, such as thirteen-year-old Kolya’s rant against medicine (reminiscent of Bazarov from Fathers and Sons).  Kolya is very outspoken and claims to be a socialist, later admitting some of his ideas are copied verbatim from books he has read.  He argues with Alyosha only to realize he doesn’t have any foundation to stand on.  The endnotes to the P&V edition suggest Dostoyevsky wrote Kolya this way as a critique of such perspectives, with the implication that those ideas are “schoolboyish.”  Whether an effective argument or not, it’s plausible enough in the insecure, confused, yet good-intentioned Kolya.

The second purpose of going “off-topic” in part 10 is the aforementioned Character Arc.  We see Alyosha again, but now he is not wearing his monastic attire.  He is acting as a mediator between the proud Kolya and Kolya’s former friend Ilyusha, who has now fallen ill and fears that Kolya holds a grudge against him.  The fact that Alyosha has, for the time, left the Karamazov scandal behind him to come and help Ilyusha and his family is quite extraordinary.  This is the same Alyosha who was so intent on being the communicator in his own family; the same Aloysha who, in his own moral struggle, went to talk to Grushenka for Dmitri’s sake.  And he is the one who felt confusion and grief over his personal loss that nobody else really understood.

He followed God’s Will while living in the monastery.  Now he’s found his calling, which is to have the heart of a monk while living within society, with all its flaws and suffering.  In answer to my question from book two, I think Alyosha will be all right.  If there’s any justice by the end of this book – I think he’ll be all right.

The Brothers Karamazov – 7–9: Part III

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And now we (unavoidably) head into spoiler territory…

In these three parts – “Alyosha,” “Mitya,” and “The Preliminary Investigation” – we learn that Grushenka, while attempting to escape with her former seducer, becomes convinced that it is Dmitri “Mitya” Karamazov she really loves.  He pursues her and interrupts her elopement by throwing a raucous party, squandering hundreds (or is it thousands?) of rubles which he claims he stole from Katerina, his ex-fiancee.  Meanwhile, when his father Fyodor is found dead and 3000 rubles missing from his bedroom, all evidence is against Mitya.  He is found and interrogated; he himself claims no alibi.  In fact, he confesses he was at his father’s house, but ran away before committing the murder that was in his mind.  Nothing else Dmitri or the witnesses say can corroborate his alleged innocence, and he is arrested as the criminal.

This was a grim and difficult part to get through.  Only one passage – spoken by Dmitri to the authorities –  particularly stood out to me, but it seems to sum it up Part III pretty well.  Here it is from Garnett’s translation, and while my translation is the P&V one, the essence is the same:

“You see, gentlemen,” he said at last, with difficulty controlling himself, “you see. I listen to you and am haunted by a dream…. It’s a dream I have sometimes, you know…. I often dream it—it’s always the same … that some one is hunting me, some one I’m awfully afraid of … that he’s hunting me in the dark, in the night … tracking me, and I hide somewhere from him, behind a door or cupboard, hide in a degrading way, and the worst of it is, he always knows where I am, but he pretends not to know where I am on purpose, to prolong my agony, to enjoy my terror…. That’s just what you’re doing now. It’s just like that!”

I want to make it clear that I don’t care for psychoanalytic interpretation of literature (read: Hamlet).  It’s a type of thinking which seems to often look for perversion where there is no real evidence for it.  That said, in The Brothers Karamazov, I would say there is a possibility of a history of abuse, based on Fyodor’s actual character and what is repeatedly stated by Dmitri about him.

We know Fyodor was capable of the most vile deeds towards women, including his two young wives and the mentally challenged, homeless woman, Lizaveta.  There is no indication of where his immorality would stop; he was frequently proud of it.  It is not far-fetched to wonder if he, whether consciously or drunkenly, had ever treated his oldest son in the same way.  Dmitri lived in vehement disgust of his father’s behavior and presence:

“Perhaps I shan’t kill, and perhaps I shall. I’m afraid that he will suddenly become so loathsome to me with his face at that moment. I hate his ugly throat, his nose, his eyes, his shameless snigger. I feel a physical repulsion. That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s what may be too much for me.” (p. 131)

The old man’s profile that he loathed so, his pendent Adam’s apple, his hooked nose, his lips that smiled in greedy expectation, were all brightly lighted up by the slanting lamplight falling on the left from the room. A horrible fury of hatred suddenly surged up in Mitya’s heart: “There he was, his rival, the man who had tormented him, had ruined his life!” … “Perhaps I shall not kill him, perhaps I shall. I’m afraid he’ll suddenly be so loathsome to me at that moment. I hate his double chin, his nose, his eyes, his shameless grin. I feel a personal repulsion. That’s what I’m afraid of, that’s what may be too much for me.” (p. 439)

“I couldn’t bear the look of him, there was something in him ignoble, impudent, trampling on everything sacred, something sneering and irreverent, loathsome, loathsome. But now that he’s dead, I feel differently.”
“How do you mean?”
“I don’t feel differently, but I wish I hadn’t hated him so.”
“You feel penitent?”
“No, not penitent, don’t write that. I’m not much good myself, I’m not very beautiful, so I had no right to consider him repulsive. That’s what I mean. Write that down, if you like.” (p. 520)

Fyodor’s pursuit of Grushenka and money quarrel with Dmitri are certainly enough grounds for hatred, and maybe there are no others.  It seems evident, however, that Dmitri’s hatred is a lifelong emotion, going beyond even that of Ivan.  No matter how much the sons take after the father, they at least are conscious of the Karamazovs’ sins, and they are the ones who suffer the consequences.