Fyodor Dostoevsky: Brat'ia Karamazovy [The Brothers Karamazov] (2859 words)

  • Richard Peace (University of Bristol)

Brat’ia Karamazovy [The Brothers Karamazov; or The Karamazov Brothers], published in serial form in 1879-80, is Dostoevsky’s last great novel – many consider it his greatest. The plot is more complicated than Prestuplenie i nakazanie [Crime and Punishment], in as much as a central hero, divided as he may be, has been replaced by three figures – brothers, who symbolically represent aspects of the human condition: Ivan – the intellect; Dmitrii – the emotions; Alësha [Alyosha] – spirituality.

Fëdor [Fyodor] Pavlovich, renowned for his debauchery, has fathered three legitimate sons by two wives, who are now dead, but also, as rumour has it, an illegitimate one, Smerdiakov, by a half-demented beggar woman, “Stinking Liza” (the smell is continued in the son’s name: smerdiashchii means “stinking”). Smerdiakov works as a servant in the Karamazov household, and as an illegitimate “brother”, we may add him as a fourth, not fully realised, category to the symbolic representation of the human condition – baseness, and a propensity towards a sin which “smells to heaven”.

Dmitrii and his father are in contention over money, the inheritance Dmitrii should have received after his mother’s death, but relations between father and son are further complicated through sexual rivalry. Both men are passionately drawn to a femme fatale, Grushenka, who keeps both of her admirers guessing. The opening scene of the novel is set in the local monastery, where both men have gone, ostensibly to seek guidance in their dispute from a much-venerated monk, Zosima. He has a special status in the monastery, as an “elder” (starets), and the youngest son, Alësha Karamazov, is a novice under his spiritual control – which, according to the starets tradition, means total and utter obedience.

Zosima is not only in touch with Alësha’s spirituality; he also addresses the essential nature of each brother. Thus, through the enigmatic act of bowing down to Dmitrii, he appears to acknowledge the great suffering that Dmitrii’s passionate nature will bring him. He also enters into an intellectual debate with Ivan, who rather speciously develops an argument he had advanced in one of his articles, on the role of ecclesiastical courts. It is through this that the important theme of justice is first introduced into the novel. Nevertheless, Zosima feels that Ivan is not quite honest in his arguments, but he agrees with his assertion that the Church should become the State. The opposite view, that the State should become the Church, is, according to Zosima, the way of Rome. Here we have an idea which will be developed later in the novel, in Ivan’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”; and in this figure, who stands in stark contrast to the values of the elder Zosima, we are presented with two forms of moral authority.

This opening scene in the monk’s cell, therefore, contains many kernels of ideas that will become important in the future course of the novel. Yet it is not as dry and undramatic as such a setting and such discourse might suggest. There is a wild card – the father Fëdor Pavlovich, whose provocative behaviour always seems about to erupt into scandal – and it does. The scene ends in scandal, all the more piquant because of its austere and venerable setting.

A later scene of carousing with Ivan and his father, and Smerdiakov in attendance, is disrupted by the sudden irruption of Dmitrii, who suspects the presence of Grushenka in the house. He is distraught, attacks his father, and his violence and threats suggest that he could be capable of parricide. Dmitrii’s emotional life is further complicated by the fact that he has “a magnanimous fiancée”, Katerina Ivanovna, who, already twice spurned by him, uses her “magnanimity” to torment him. She “lends” Dmitrii money, which, dishonourably, he uses to go on a drinking spree with Grushenka to the village of Mokroe. Yet, as it later transpires, Dmitrii has only spent half of his fiancée’s money there. The other half he keeps in an amulet near his heart, as a pledge that he is not entirely a rogue, and may redeem himself. This half, and pledge of his probity, kept next to his heart, not only has symbolic significance, but assumes factual importance when it comes to the issue of Dmitrii’s guilt, and the origin of the money he squandered after his father’s murder.

An important section in the novel is the series of meetings Alësha has with his brothers, almost as though he is their confessor. Dmitrii bares his soul, revealing his passionate nature, his sense of shame, and the desire to rise above his baser emotional responses. Before his tête à tête with Ivan, Alësha learns much about Smerdiakov, partly through an overheard conversation, and partly through meeting him face to face. He catches up with Ivan in an inn, and finds his own faith tempted by Ivan’s nihilistic talk and his rebellion against God. His brother argues that if divine harmony is based on the suffering of just one human being, then he, Ivan, will reject it; very respectfully he will return the ticket. It is during this meeting that Ivan recounts his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” – a graphic indictment of a church acting in Christ’s name, whilst at the same time rejecting Christ.

Each of these three meetings is marked by a “literary” theme unique to the character himself. Dmitrii quotes Schiller’s Das Eleusische Fest, a poem which he sees as relevant to his own situation; Smerdiakov rejects poetry, but sings banal verses to a guitar; Ivan, the original thinker, recounts the theme of his own “Legend”. Whilst Dmitrii is wallowing in the sense of “man everywhere in deep degradation”, the uneducated and unoriginal lackey, Smerdiakov, falls under the spell of the originality of Ivan’s freethinking talk.

Fëdor Pavlovich is keen to send Ivan on a business trip, so that he can lure Grushenka to the house in his absence. Smerdiakov, however, through what he thinks are hints and tacit agreements, assumes that he has a pact with Ivan to kill the old man when Ivan is away. Ivan departs, consciously – or at least subconsciously – aware of the real situation. The old man thinks that Grushenka will come for money, but it is Dmitrii who turns up in a state of delirium and armed with a heavy pestle. He appears to be on the point of striking his father down, when the narrative is interrupted by a row of dots. As Dmitrii leaves the grounds, he is pursued by his father’s other servant, Grigorii, who had actually brought him up when his own father had neglected him as a child. Dmitrii knocks him down and thus commits violence against another father-figure. Throughout all these dramatic events, Smerdiakov is apparently lying in an epileptic coma. The case against Dmitrii appears overwhelming. He has blood on him, suddenly has money, and there is a history of threats and violence against his father. He is arrested in the middle of a drunken spree with Grushenka in Mokroe.

In their account of events, the judicial examination and the court scenes which follow mirror – and distort – the plot-line which has gone before. The concept of “doubles” is a key element in Dostoevsky’s novelistic technique, and here, for the first time, we have a doubling of plot – not a shadowy commentary on a central character (as, say, Raskolnikov’s doubles in Crime and Punishment) but a shadow reiteration of events.

Ivan tries to rescue his brother. He realises that the actual murderer was Smerdiakov but, disturbingly, that he was acting under the influence of Ivan’s own ideas. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov had been both the theoretician and executant of murder, but in The Brothers Karamazov this idea-cell has undergone division into the two related aspects of the crime. Smerdiakov is a debased double for the would-be intellectual, yet Ivan, the theoretician, is just as – if not more – guilty of the murder as is Smerdiakov. Nevertheless, Ivan is obviously psychologically disturbed, and his attempt to intervene on behalf of his brother is seen by the court as the product of delirium. Furthermore, his evidence is subverted by Katerina Ivanovna, who wishes to protect Ivan – as she is, in fact, more emotionally drawn to him than to his brother. Smerdiakov withdraws himself from the proceedings – he hangs himself.

At the very time of the murder of the father, in an echoing device typical of Dostoevsky’s technique, that other father-figure Zosima also dies. The fact that the body of this saintly man begins to smell causes consternation in the monastery. The monks had been expecting the reverse to happen: their venerated holy-man would on his death exude the aroma of sanctity. Perhaps Zosima was not as saintly as he seemed. Such disillusionment causes a crisis of faith in Alësha, and he too, in a weak moment, dallies with Grushenka. Alesha is exhausted. He falls asleep as prayers are being read over Zosima’s body and dreams of Christ’s first miracle at the wedding feast at Canaa in Galilee. The gloom of a funeral has become the joyous celebration of a wedding, and among the guests at the festive table with Christ is his own mentor, father Zosima. Alesha’s faith is restored. He goes out into the monastery garden, looks up at the stars and, in a moment of mystic ecstasy, falls down on the earth, kisses it and waters it with his tears, as father Zosima had always instructed him to do. In this heightened state, he is aware of some sort of spiritual contact with other worlds. He goes forth to become a spiritual guide in his own right. He becomes the leader of the children of the neighbourhood, an inspiration for the future generation.

In terms of the ideological structure of the novel, the lengthy section on the life and teachings of Zosima is the counterweight to the nihilistic ideas of another father-figure, Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor, and the rebellion against God of Ivan himself. It is significant that it is through Alësha that Zosima’s teachings are relayed. It is here that we learn of Zosima’s unconventional views on the existence of other worlds and the interconnectedness of the whole of nature. But his injunctions to fall on the earth, and kiss it and water it with one’s tears, seem teachings less Christian than pagan, related to the earth worship of the primitive Slavs. It is perhaps because of such unconventionality that Zosima has enemies within the monastic community (Father Ferapont) only too ready to exploit the unfortunate effect of the saint’s decomposing body. A further teaching of Zosima, related to his view of the interrelation of all nature, is his doctrine that “we are all to blame”: everyone bears responsibility for everyone else. This is an important concept for the novel itself. The blame for the father’s death cannot be put on one person alone. Each one of the brothers shares responsibility: Dmitrii for his emotional outbursts which set the climate for the murder; Ivan for his intellectual view that “everything is permitted”, Smerdiakov for acting on his ideas; and even Alësha for disobeying Zosima’s instruction to stay by the side of his brother Dmitrii. All are to blame.

Each brother comes to acknowledge his complicity: Ivan - through a series of interviews with Smerdiakov after the murder, and the persecuting hallucination of the devil mocking his ideas; Dmitrii – through a sense of responsibility for a hapless child, seen in a dream; Alësha - through conscience and subsequent loss of faith, following the death of the elder; and, finally, Smerdiakov himself – who is driven to suicide. It seems significant that, for the three main brothers, their confrontation with reality comes from dream and hallucination.

The novel brings together many threads of Dostoevsky’s own experience. In the penal settlement he had marvelled at the seeming insouciance of a fellow convict, who had apparently killed his own father. He describes his reaction to this figure in Zapiski iz mertvogo doma [Notes from the House of the Dead], only later to learn that the man was completely innocent, and the victim of a miscarriage of justice. In this wrongly convicted parricide, we may see the prototype of Dmitrii Karamazov.

Dostoevsky had strong misgivings about the western system of justice introduced during the reform period of the 1860s – the adversarial role of advocates (“hired consciences”) and decisions by jury (“the little peasants stood up for themselves”). These misgivings were compounded by his attendance in 1878 at the famous trial of Vera Zasulich, who had shot and wounded the governor general of St Petersburg. The jury freed her, even though she openly admitted the act. The notes he took during these proceedings served him for his account of the miscarriage of justice at the trial of Dmitrii. Justice is an issue at the beginning of the novel in the discussion on ecclesiastical courts. The question of divine justice is raised in Ivan’s “Rebellion”, and is continued in Zosima’s teachings on divine justice, as opposed to that of man. The State, Zosima argues, can only impose external punishments, whereas the only true punishment for wrongdoing is internal; it lies within the conscience of the perpetrator. Although Dmitrii has been wrongly punished by State law, he is, nevertheless, keenly aware of the guilt he bears, and this is his true punishment. Much the same could be also said for Ivan, tormented to a point of delirium by his conscience; nor does Alësha escape the internal crisis in his moment of doubt and loss of faith.

In 1878 Dostoevsky’s three-year-old son, Aleksei (Alësha) died from an epileptic attack. This was doubly distressing for Dostoevsky, as it suggested that the child had inherited his father’s disease: along with grief was a sense of parental guilt. He sought comfort in a remote monastery, Optina pustyn’, and found words of consolation in conversations with the elder Amvrosii. These conversations are reflected in the novel in the words of comfort spoken by Zosima to the peasant woman who has lost a child. Indeed, the whole experience may well have suggested a monastery as the spiritual backdrop to the violent passions of the world outside, and the spiritual authority of an “elder”. Dostoevsky’s tragic loss also suggests a further thematic trigger – that of children. In Ivan’s “Rebellion”, the evidence against divine harmony and the world God has created relies heavily on abuses heaped on children. Ivan’s image of God the father seems modelled on the uncaring behaviour of his own parent. Dmitrii’s awareness of his own culpability and the realisation that “we are all to blame” comes about through his dream of a child. It is, however, Alësha who is most associated with children, and at the end of the novel he will become their leader. Yet Dostoevsky’s children are not little angels of virtue. Alësha’s relationship with the cripple girl Liza Khokhlakova has a distinct sexual undertow, and she, for her part, inverts her victim-status as a cripple into sadistic daydreaming – watching a child being crucified while she eats pineapple compote. Iliusha torments a dog, and another boy, Kolia (who seems like an arrogant, immature version of the freethinking Ivan) develops a sense of conscience in Iliusha, but does so through a cruel trick. Iliusha dies, and it seems significant that it is the death of a child, and its commemoration, which brings the children together under the tutelage of Alësha.

If children are an important theme in the novel, the various guises of fatherhood are no less significant. Ivan rebels against God, and invents the tyrannical “father” – the Grand Inquisitor; Ivan and two other brothers rebel against their earthly father, Fëdor Pavlovich; Smerdiakov kills him; Dmitrii offers him violence, and further insults fatherhood – not only by his attack on Grigorii, but also by his assault on the father of Iliusha which has such dire consequences for the boy. Zosima represents a spiritual father – quite directly in the case of Alësha, and indirectly for his brothers.

There is a further factor conditioning the genesis of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky was planning a grandiose novel to be called “The Life of a Great Sinner”. The word for “life” in this provisional title was zhitie – specifically the “life of a saint”. The Brothers Karamazov appears to be the first stage in this ambitious plan. The “saintly sinner” would be Alësha, who in further stages of the work would yield to even greater temptations, but emerge virtuously triumphant at the end. This is why Dostoevsky insists in his preface that Alësha is the hero of his novel (even though his role may seem passive, when compared to that of his brothers). Yet, unfinished as the great plan is, Dostoevsky’s observation is still correct: the hero of The Brothers Karamazov is the very quality embodied in the unassuming Alësha – spirituality won through adversity.

Peace, Richard. "Brat'ia Karamazovy". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 August 2004
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=1367, accessed 08 December 2016.]