The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Part I: What a family!

Nov. 12, 1959 Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz

And I thought Linus was so ingenious with such self-knowledge and view of mankind! But then again, it could be an example of great minds think alike… Charles Schultz and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Reading this first Part of The Brothers Karamazov (TBK) offers me surprising delights, for I find some well known, thought-provoking quotes in here.

The panel above is the last of the comic sequence where a frustrated Linus replies Lucy when she says he can never be a doctor because he doesn’t love mankind. In TBK, this line is, interestingly, spoken by a doctor, in an anecdote told by the Elder to ‘a lady of little faith’:

“the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons.” (57)

Here’s the edition I use, references to page numbers in brackets are from this Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.

As I learn about the characterization in Part I, focusing on the father Karamazov and his sons, I can see why Dostoevsky created such a famous line.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov – a man described as ‘worthless’, ‘depraved’, ‘muddleheaded’, ‘a buffoon’, and I’d just add womanizer and child abandoner, ‘for the child would have gotten in the way of his debaucheries.’ (p. 10) His eldest is Dmitri from first wife Adelaida Ivanovna, who deserted him and her own son. His second wife Sofia Ivanovna gave birth to Ivan and Alexi, and died when Alexi was four years old. All the brothers grew up away from their father.

Dmitri – Eldest, recently retired from the military. Abandoned by both his parents from birth, was raised by their servant Grigory and his wife for a while then a distant relative took over and some others. What could such a child turn out to be? The military has suited him well, so, at least his physique is well sculpted. However, the animosity towards his father runs deep, with conflicts over inheritance money and, alas, rivalry over the same woman Grushenka.

Ivan – The first son of Fyodor’s second wife. A rational man, argumentative, and an atheist. Expressed his view forthrightly in writing and in speech. While arguing against the existence of an overarching natural law of morality, he presents the scenario that if there’s no God, no immortality, then “nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy.” (p. 69) The Garnett translation uses the word ‘cannibalism’, which is much clearer. Without a universal measurement of good and evil, one cannot say what’s moral or not.

“If there is no immortality of the soul, then there is no virtue, and therefore everything is permitted.” (82)

I find it stimulating and gratifying to see Dostoevsky’s characters discuss issues such as this one openly, which reflects what were the important issues of the time. TBK is a novel of ideas, and Dostoevsky brings them out via lively dialogues and sometimes, surprisingly, in light-hearted strokes.

Alexei – or Alyosha, Dostoevesky’s hero as he states in his Author’s Note before the story begins. A youth who has quit his last year of schooling to return to his father’s town, and enters the monastery to follow the Elder Zosima. A ‘holy fool’ like the main character in Dostoevsky’s earlier book The Idiot. Called ‘an angel’ by his father, for this youngest son “pierced his heart… because he saw everything, and condemned nothing.” (94)

The Elder Zosima – Alyosha’s mentor, a spiritual leader in the monastery who gives advice to seekers. The ailing Elder urges Alyosha to ‘go into the world’ and not stay in the monastery after his death, something his youthful follower is perplexed about at this point in the book.

In a chapter entitled ‘A Lady of Little Faith’ (Bk 2, Ch.4), the Elder offers this advice to a woman who is distressed that she can’t find proof to confirm her faith, and the Elder replies,

“… One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”

“How? By what?”

“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.” (56)

A crucial chapter is Book 2, Ch. 6, where the three brothers and their father meet at the Elder’s cell in the presence of other monks to seek the Elder’s judgement on the dispute between Fyodor and his son Dimitri. Here’s a prime example of how Dostoevsky lets his characters discuss serious issues embedded with comical effects.

During the meeting, the brothers engage with the monks and discuss serious subjects such as European Liberalism, Russian Liberalism, the role of the Church in the State, and most importantly, the existence of God, while an impatient Fyodor can’t wait to air out the family’s dirty laundry. I find the juxtaposition of these conversations deadpan farcical.

“Dmitri Fyodorovich!” Fyodor Pavlovich suddenly screamed in a voice not his own, “if only you weren’t my son, I would challenge you to a duel this very moment … with pistols, at three paces … across a handkerchief! Across a handkerchief!’ he ended, stamping with both feet.

Dmitri Fyodorovich frowned horribly and looked at his father with inexpressible contempt.

“I thought… I thought,” he said somehow softly and restrainedly, “that I would come to my birthplace with the angel of my soul, my fiancée, to cherish him in his old age, and all I find is a depraved sensualist and despicable comedian!”

 “To a duel!” the old fool screamed again, breathless and spraying saliva with each word. (73-74)

The most important scene that takes place in this meeting is an action by the Elder Zosima. As if to end the Karamazov father and son confrontation, Zosima gets up, goes to Dmitri, kneels before him and bow, touching the floor with his forehead, astonishes everyone there. (74)

Another character, Rakitin, later interprets the Elder’s action as a foreshadowing, Zosima delivering a prophesy of a crime that will take place which has something to do with Dimitri and his father. I will have to read on to find out.

What a family!

Is it a coincidence that the unlovable head of the family Karamazov has the same first name as our author, Fyodor? I think here is a prime example of Dostoevsky’s humour and acerbic self-sarcasm. I gather that it’s the author’s intention to identify with humanity in all their foibles and failures––the fallen man.

As Dmitri tells Alyosha: “Don’t think I’m just a brute of an officer who drinks cognac and goes whoring. No, brother, I hardly think of anything else, of anything but that fallen man… I think about that man, because I myself am such a man.” (107)

Two other quotes that had sent ripples as I read:

“Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.” (108)

“Faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith.” (26)

***

Here’s the link to the Intro and Invite Post.

Hope you’re enjoying your read. Have you written a post for Part I? Do let me know so I can link it here.

Dolce Bellezza

What’s That Mark’s Reading!?

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Part I: What a family!”

  1. What a family, indeed! They are bedbugs…in fact, Karamazovs. Except, of course, our Alyosha…

    The comic you posted reminds me of a Simpson saying, which my friend and I oft repeated in the halls of our educational institution:

    People.
    They’re the worst.

    Of course, as Christians, we must love everyone, and that I try. But, it doesn’t mean I am not exasperated.

    The contrast between the brothers (and father) and Alyosha is so marked. My thoughts, such as they are, are posted as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find reading TBK is like watching a movie, sometimes even a cartoon or comedy. Dostoevsky dramatizes his characters so vividly, not that they’re caricatures, but impressionable descriptions. Really surprised at his humour. Come to think of it, TBK was originally a serial publication… like our TV episodes, have to be entertaining enough to keep viewers hooked and watch episode after episode. But of course, the issues and existential problems it deals with are incomparable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They are incomparable, and so applicable to this era as well! Perhaps we don’t progress very far as humans, in terms of overcoming our undesirable traits.

        I liked how you pointed out that Fyodor, the father, is given the same name as Fyodor, the author.

        I like ALL that you pointed out in your beautiful post above.

        Like

    1. Yes, theme and variations… Let me know if you can think of some more. I’m interested. This read is surprisingly entertaining. 🙂

      Like

  2. I’ve had trouble getting interested in rereading this because even though I know the conventions for nicknames the names are confusing, especially since so many are from the same family. When I stop to think I realize Mitya is Dimitri but that moment of having to stop and think takes me out of the story. Maybe I want a translation that keeps each name the same every time!

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    1. There’s a useful page “List of Characters” at the front of my P&V translated edition, listing all the major characters and the different names they have. I understand that’s a cultural tradition in Russia for one to have more than one name, addressed by people of different familiarity towards that person.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A smidge late but finished my post.

    Great post, Arti. You’ve definitely highlighted some of my favourite moments in the book so far as well. Hope you enjoy the rest.

    Like

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