Another bit from the Brothers Karamazov

Brothers Karamazov

Originally when I started this series of posts I was going to write up a bit of a review of every tenth of Brothers Karamazov, sort of how I blogged about Murakami’s 1Q84. Well, with the marathon, Hurricane aftermath, and the beginning of holiday season in the US, I’ve read way more of the book than I’ve been able to write about. So I am about halfway through and couldn’t move ahead without writing some of my thoughts.


It is no wonder Freud loved The Brothers Karamazov. The intellectual and spiritual tensions between the three brothers and the father are fraught enough on their own terms. When we consider that Fyodor Pavlovich has had children with three different women and is to some degree responsible for all of those women’s deaths, that he has ignored his three legitimate children and left his illegitimate child unacknowledged, there are oceans of emotion underneath each of the brother’s actions, and however they dress up those emotions, there’s no denying that Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha and Smerdyakov all have reasons to resent their father.


As someone who’s put at least a little thought to financial planning, I can scarcely believe that anyone would be so impetuous and spendthrift as Dmitri on his last spree to win Grushenka. How can he just throw money away as he does? How can he put so little thought into it? He is desperate for just ten rubles at one moment and then throws fifty ruble tips at coachman as soon as he does have money. He wonders how he will pay Katerina Ivanovna back and then spends money that he could give to her on champagne and pate.

And yet there’s a passion and a freedom to that. He is a simple hearted man, blindly generous to most even as he is unthinkingly cruel to Ilyusha’s father the captain. There is a wild freedom to him and as pathetic as he is, there’s something enviable about his disregard for money, his ability to cast it to the wind; you sense that he is further along the path to salvation and a meaningful spiritual existence than anyone else but the monks and Alyosha.

The Karamazov Essence:

“’You say that because I blushed,’ Alyosha suddenly remarked. ‘ I blushed not at your words and not at your deeds, but because I’m the same as you… The steps are all the same. I am on the lowest, and you are above, somewhere on the thirteenth. That’s how I see it, but it’s all one and the same, all exactly the same sort of thing. Whoever steps on the lowest step will surely step on the highest.

‘So one had better not step at all.’

‘Not if one can help it.’

‘Can you?’

‘It seems not.’

Dmitri and Alyosha are speaking as though they had a choice about whether or not to live as Karamazov’s, or even as people in the world. Barring suicide (which you can never really rule out in a Dostoevsky novel), it is not as if they can simply cease to exist. They have to live in an impossible situation, in an irreconcilable state, and they are keenly aware of it.

Everyone in the book (but particularly Rakitin) seems to think that this trait of theirs, this sensuality, comes from their father. And indeed Fyodor Karamazov does have a weird vitality, a basal love of humanity, or least for the women of the world; however crass or repulsive he can be, he does have some strange ability to view everyone else on a level field. Consider his appreciate for the female sex; just as he was the only one to suggest that Stinking Lizaveta did indeed have a certain “piquancy,” he avers to his children that he is better able to appreciate the women of the world as women than are most men (98, 136).

He is a reproachable, but consider the fact that he defends Grushenka when Miusov abuses her in the Elder’s cell, and that most of the other characters, even the lower class characters like Rakitin, call her a “beast,” a “tiger,” and an “animal.” Fyodor Karamazov has an ability to see beyond the usual trappings; Dostoevsky’s genius is that we don’t get an idealized version of this ability—it’s dirty, sodden with Fyodor’s inherent, unseemly humanity.


Dostoevsky’s technique with Smerdyakov is interesting. He’s a loathsome character, but there is something noteworthy about the way that FMD establishes him as such, and this has to do with FMD’s favorite British author Dickens. The nearest equivalent I can think of to Smerdyakov in Dickens is Uriah Heep of David Copperfield. And yet Heep is so loathsome because he is constantly abasing himself to the Wickfields and to David Copperfield, claiming that he is “so very ‘umble,” even when he’s so obviously malicious. Ivan finds Smerdyakov so awful because he puts himself on the same level as Ivan.

Bother characterizations work, but it is a knotty aspect of the book. As I’ve written elsewhere, FMD is sort of stubbornly democratic in this book; Grushenka gets her due as a real, live, complicated person whose sentiments matter just as much as high class Katerina Ivanovna’s.  So why is Ivan inclined to look down on Smerdyakov? Should he look down on Smerdyakov as an uneducated lackey who’s getting too big for his britches, as an intellectual pretender, or as someone morally repugnant? Smerdyakov is only partially legitimate, both in the sense that he lacks an established parentage and that people like Ivan don’t really take him seriously. But how can the relationship between Ivan and Smerdyakov, or between Ivan and whatever nasty parts of human nature Smerdyakov represents, be healed or resolved? It would seem that abasing himself, or forgiving him in the same way that Alyosha seems to forgive Rakitin, would be the only answer.

A Dog

Just one little note; one of Ivan’s examples to Alyosha involves a boy being punished for mistreating a dog. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this little detail will grow and reappear in the event that defines Ilyusha’s fate. (If I recall Krasotkin and the other boys convince him that he has killed a local dog; his fatal illness somehow derives from guilt over this act).

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