The Brothers Karamazov – 11 & 12 (Conclusion)

Kuindzhi Evening 1885 1890

I finished The Brothers Karamazov this past weekend.  From the last two parts, “Brother Ivan Fyodorovich” and “A Judicial Error,” I was left with no particularly strong feelings or impressions.  It was a struggle to finish – ultimately, I rate the book 3.5 out of 5 stars, leaning towards 4 on Goodreads (which still doesn’t allow you to have “half” a star.)

Thinking back over this book journal – which I am glad I kept and am sorry to see end – I feel the first half of the book was very strong.  The religious chapters and scenes at the monastery were honestly my favorites.  Parts III & IV, which is to say books 712, were not so interesting, despite being highly sensational, as you come to expect from Dostoyevsky.

Incidentally, this mirrors my reaction to The Idiot.  I gave that one a better rating of 4.5, and I have to say I liked that book better…I’m not sure it is a better book, but its treatment of similar themes was more compelling.  Anyways, I also thought the first half of The Idiot was excellent, while the second half seemed over the top.

If that weren’t enough, as I recollect now, Notes from Underground went south – pardon the pun – in the second half, too.  Now I will have to try Crime and Punishment again, which surely gets only better in the second half (I hope?).

What happened in The Brothers Karamazov?  What is this enigmatic Russian classic about?  And why was it disappointing?

I think I was expecting more of the human element.  You might wonder how a book about every dirty detail of a family could be lacking in that area, but really, it isn’t a character-driven novel.  When you read The Idiot, you get inside Myshkin’s head.  You empathize with Nastasya, and you fear Rogozhin like a personal enemy (well, nearly!).  That didn’t happen in BK, because Dostoyevsky intentionally wrote a social commentary.  The endnotes say it, of course, but it’s quite obvious throughout.  He wanted us to get acquainted with mentalities, philosophies, and contradictions – not people.  The characters are, for the most part, means to that end.

This wasn’t what I was expecting, hence the disappointment.  The ending was incredibly abrupt, and so any interest invested in Alyosha or Ivan or Katrina was not given a satisfactory conclusion.  In retrospect, it makes sense.  I’m not saying BK isn’t a great novel.  I do think that, for the modern reader, Dostoyevsky said more, and with more subtlety, in his earlier work The Idiot.  Sometimes the best commentary is implied and not outlined.  The main thing The Idiot didn’t have were the subplots about the monastery and the schoolboys, which, again, were my favorite parts in The Brothers Karamazov.

The Brothers Karamazov – 10: Boys

Previously: Book IBook IIBook IIIBooks IV & VBook VI, Books VII–IX

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

Previously: Book IBook IIBook IIIBooks IV & VBook VI

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.

The Brothers Karamazov – 6: The Russian Monk

Previously: Book I, Book II, Book III, Books IV & V

Today I spent some time cleaning out my closet, one of my favorite things to do on academic break.  Afterwards, I settled down to read another part of BK.  In all honesty, the chapter “From the Life of the Elder Zosima” did not look too promising.  Typically my expectations are low for stories in a story, and I was anxious to get back to Alyosha’s story.  This was going to be a struggle to get through, I thought.

As Thorin might say . . . I have never been so wrong.

About halfway through, this “story in a story” actually moved me to tears.  And it struck me how timely it was, reading this part during this time of my life.  I always thought I should have read BK long ago, but it turns out this was the best timing.  “The Russian Monk” is a story about love, Godly love, and what a powerful force it is, and how profound, deep, painful, and beautiful it must be, to love your neighbor, and your enemies.

One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially seeing men’s sin, asking oneself: “Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?”  Always resolve to take it by humble love . . . A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it. 

I think I should mention another theme in “The Russian Monk,” which is Zosima’s directive to “take on” others’ guilt, or at least to feel as if it is yours.  This kind of confused me.  Does he mean for his listeners to interpret it literally?  (That is not, to my knowledge, a biblical idea.) As a description of humility and sin being universal, it would make a striking point.  I think that was the intent, but I’d have to re-read it several times to come to a more definite evaluation of what he saying.  As a way of disclaimer, there were one or two other points like this that call for reading this part with a grain of salt, in terms of Christian beliefs.

That said, it is still worth reading, and there is much that is relevant.  I was not looking for Christian doctrinal instruction in a secular novel.  I did find many Christian truths poignantly illustrated in the character of Zosima.  He is certainly one of best representations of a cleric in any literature I’ve read.  There were so many beautiful quotes, like the one above.  I will just add one more (also about love):

. . . love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.

This has been my favorite part of the book so far.

The Brothers Karamazov – 4 & 5: Strains; Pro and Contra

Previously: Book I, Book II, Book III

The carriage started and raced off.  All was vague in the traveler’s soul, but he greedily looked around him at the fields, the hills, the trees, a flock of geese flying high above him in the clear sky.  Suddenly he felt so well.

What I got out of these two parts was not so much plot development but character development.  Through the eyes of Alyosha, we finally get to meet the enigmatic Karamazov brother, Ivan.  This in turn shows us their family’s dysfunctional situation through his perspective, which by instinct is less disinterested than he might wish it to be.

It’s odd, but by far Ivan is my favorite character.  He is somewhat coldhearted, frequently profane, and not without some of the violent emotional tendencies of the oldest brother, Dmitri.  Still it is his anti-heroic traits and heroic potential that make him the most interesting character.  His bitterness is paradoxically deep-rooted and superficial.  He can’t conceal either his loneliness or his confusion.  He expresses self-destructive thoughts, only to confess:

I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic…some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.

And later, as if in response to everything that has happened with his father:

I don’t understand anything…and I no longer want to understand anything.  I want to stick to the fact.  I made up my mind long ago not to understand.

The existentialist themes make me think of Notes from Underground, as well as Kafka, in places.

Ivan’s outlook is, to some degree, summarized in the chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor.”  “The Grand Inquisitor” is a remarkable chapter (containing a paragraph eight pages long), a rather bizarre story told by Ivan about a persecutor from the Spanish Inquisition who meets Jesus and rejects Him.  It is spoken in first-person by the Inquisitor.  While I have not read Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, this chapter seems to have been written in the same style – that is, making a point from the opposite side.

Of course, maybe it depends on your perspective.  Maybe it can be read from an anti-Christian viewpoint, and quite probably a lot of people take it that way.  What made me question that interpretation were lines like the following (spoken by the Inquisitor):

You did not come down from the cross when they shouted to you, mocking and reviling you: “Come down from the cross and we will believe that it is you.”  You did not come down because, again, you did not want to enslave man by a miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous.

This hearkens back to something the narrator asserts way back in chapter 5: “In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith.”  He claims a realist must wish to believe in miracles, and if the realist does not, then “if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact.”  I don’t know about stating things in such generalized terms, but certainly this reminds me of the Pharisees’ refusal to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, even after witnessing numerous miracles.

But back to the Inquisitor’s words, “faith that is free.” This notion of free will is a recurrent theme in DostoyevskyNot only free will, but the contrast of choosing to be enslaved to something, in a psychological or moral sense.  The Karamazovs’ cruelty and dissipation is something they (except Alyosha) view as a family trait, even as an excuse.   Ivan, at least, even in his cynicism, has given it some thought and questioning, if on a more global scale.

The concept of “national identity” is somewhat controversial.  Throughout The Brothers Karamazov, the characters have been making certain statements, usually derogatory, about the Russian identity.  I find it quite fascinating, the way you can interpret subject matter in this book as referring to specific characters, Russia, or the world at large.  It is one thing to read it from a detached, Western perspective and find some thread of connection throughout Russian historical events, up to the present day.  At the same time, it is extremely important to read it autobiographically.  The subject matter hits much closer to home than we might be comfortable to admit.

I did not mean for this post to be so long!  For sure, this was the most thought-provoking section so far.  This is why I can’t enjoy reading Dostoyevsky.  He inevitably reminds me of people I have met and real topics discussed, and then I start to feel claustrophobic.  Appropriately enough, philosophy is less enjoyable when it is least abstract.