The Brothers Karamazov Part II: What Sparks Joy

“They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.”

Nope, not a quote from Marie Kondo, although she’d totally agree. Fyodor Dostoevsky got that way back in 1880.

As the story unfolds, it looks like joy is what all the characters are searching for whether they know it or not, in their own way and circumstance, through the choices they make.

As rivals for the same woman Grushenka, the old man Fyodor is no match for his son Dmitri. Part I ends with his ex-military son storming into his house to look for Grushenka, thinking Fyodor has hidden her there. In a frantic scene, Dmitri ‘seized the old man by the two surviving wisps of hair on his temples, pulled, and smashed him against the floor. He even had time to kick the fallen man in the face two or three times with his heel.’ (139)

In Part II, Dostoevsky continues with the morning after, painting a comical Fyodor with purple bruises on his forehead which was wrapped in a red handkerchief, and his swollen, notable nose:

“Meanwhile he got up worriedly and looked in the mirror (perhaps already for the fortieth time that morning) at his nose. He also began to arrange the red handkerchief on his forehead in a more becoming way.” (172)

The comic relief could well be to set up for an intense chapter to come later. As he plans to leave for Moscow the next day and never return to this mess of a family, Ivan the intellectual and aspiring writer shares with his younger brother Alyosha his poem, which he relays in prose in the famous chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’

Referring to the Inquisition instigated by the Roman Catholic Church spanning several centuries in the Middle Ages, where a papal tribunal would judge and send those who were deemed heretic to be burned at the stake, this chapter could well be Dostoevsky’s critique of the Church. He uses acerbic sarcasm to drive his point home.

In this chapter, the ‘heretic’ the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor puts on trial inside a prison cell is none other than Christ Himself. The Inquisitor’s fierce accusation is that Christ is obstructing what the Church is doing – a scornful irony:

“… on your departure, you handed the work over to us… you gave us the right to bind and loose, and surely you cannot even think of taking this right away from us now. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?”

Christ’s grave error, according to The Grand Inquisitor, is that He had ‘overestimated’ man in thinking they would pursue freedom and the transcendent, misdirecting them to false gratification such as the spiritual, raising the bar too high. When tempted by Satan He should have turned stone into bread, for man does live on bread alone and would gladly exchange their free will for it, all because ‘man is created weaker and baser than you thought him!’ (256)

“Better that you enslave us, but feed us… give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread.” (253-4)

While Christ aims at pointing man to the spiritual, man seeks physical solutions and an end to their poverty. They would rather have the authority take over so they can be rid of the burden that comes with the freedom of choice, and that is exactly what The Grand Inquisitor says he, i.e. the Church, has done.   

Another accusation: Christ did not come down from the cross when taunted ‘because, again, [He] did not want to enslave man by a miracle but honoured faith that is out of free will.’ A misjudgement, the Grand Inquisitor mocked; this too is heresy.

_______

To counteract such intense and harsh criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, in the rest of Part II Dostoevsky presents another perspective. It could well be the different sides of struggles in the author’s mind, issues that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but which only reflect the complexity and often co-existence of faith and doubt, idealism and reality.

One man who has understood what it’s like to seek what Christ has intended and found transcendent joy is Father Zosima. Part II wraps up with Alyosha’s tribute to his mentor upon the Elder’s death.

In contrast to The Grand Inquisitor, and as if to answer his own critical judgment on the Church, Dostoevsky furnishes his readers with Elder Zosima’s biography and teachings compiled by Alyosha. Despite a childhood devoted to God influenced by the conversion of his brother shortly before his death, Zosima entered the military Cadet Corps in Petersburg and turned into a ‘wild, cruel, and absurd creature’, pulling him into ‘a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.’ (296)

A sudden spiritual epiphany opens his eyes resulting in a conversion that changes his whole being. He asks forgiveness of his servant whom he’d beaten the night before, as well as the adversary with whom he is supposed to have a duel that day.

These ending chapters of Part II are a joy to read, for they are fresh and positive, a huge contrast to The Grand Inquisitor’s accusations of the failure of man. It is here that leads to the quote in the beginning of this post… Zosima’s gentle critique of his fellowmen:

“The idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world… They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.” (314)

From the powerful but fallible religious institution represented by The Grand Inquisitor to the loving and seemingly powerless Zosima who finds joy and meaning in Christ, Dostoevsky has presented a foil in characterization. The last portrait of Zosima is one of peace and serenity:

“he––suffering, but still looking at them with a smile––silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.” (324)

__________

Have you written a post on TBK Part II? Let me know so I can link you here. Hope you’re enjoying your read.

***

Dolce Belleza

Published by

Arti

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

13 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov Part II: What Sparks Joy”

  1. I’m enjoying it more now that I have gotten further into it. What strikes me are the attitudes of all three of the legitimate brothers about nobility. As a plus, they seem to think that being noble does oblige them to some generosity towards those less privileged. As a minus, they don’t act on that very much, stomping around and pushing “peasants” into the snow. And the “brain fever”! They’re so sensitive in their nobility!

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    1. Jeane,

      I appreciate how we read the same book but pick out different issues to focus on, complementing each other’s reading insights. Dostoevsky sure has brought forth three different personalities (well, maybe four, including good ole dad) with their peculiar perspectives on various issues. I feel they just share the same family name, that’s all. Each one can’t be more different than the others. I’ve read somewhere that each of them represents a part of Dostoevsky himself. That’s a thought.

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  2. I’ll admit, getting through “The Grand Inquisitor” section was a bit of a slog for me, but I like how you juxtapose it with Father Zosima’s teaching. I hadn’t looked at the section set-up that way, but it really does make a great compare/contrast- from the failings of humans to what can really give lasting contentment, the difference between earthly “success” and final, spiritual joy.

    That Smerdyakov, though! He’s quite a piece of work. I’ve started the next part and am concerned about where his ambitions might lead! (If he has ambitions, or if he’s just a stinker (which would fit with his name, I suppose…)

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    1. Anne,

      I admit I had to read ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ twice before I could glean something that could succinctly summarize all the ideas there, complicated by the irony and sarcasm intended. But I find it such a brilliant way that Dostoevsky has expressed his criticism. So, when I came to Father Zosima’s Chapter, I could feel the stark contrast. Those two pics from my own ‘file photos’ depict very closely how I envision in my mind’s eye as I read: The Grand Inquisitor in the prison cell confronting Christ, and below, the peaceful sunset of Zosima’s.

      And, you’re right about Smerdyakov! What a guy… I’d wanted to write something about his storyline but the post is getting too long. I’m glad you mention him and up to now, I don’t get what he plans to do, but I can sense something tricky or maybe even sinister is on his mind. Just like watching a movie, I’d like to see how the story unfold. So, that’s the intrigue there for me. Would you be writing a post on your reading? I’d like to see you elaborate your thoughts… 🙂

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      1. I will be writing at least one post on the book- possibly more- but between getting the kids into some kind of summer routine and finishing up my own book stuff, my brain is mush 😂 Hoping to pull it back together soon…

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        1. Take your time, Anne. Wrapping up a school term and dive right into planning for a summer routine for the kids is demanding. You deserve a holiday yourself! And on top of that, your own book coming out. Congrats! 🙂

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    1. This is really a mixed bag of a book, I find. Now I’m in Part III and it’s quite a different treatment of the characters, now it’s a suspense, detective story. I just find it very interesting that many of today’s ideas (yes, like Marie Kondo’s supposedly original quip–her brand, actually) had been uttered by Dostoevsky long time ago. And like in Part I, the famous quote from Linus… 🙂

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  3. I love your insights, as always, Arti. Plus, imagine that you can make a connection between Dostoevsky and Kondo! Love it! I have fallen a bit behind in my reading, it I am hanging in with you to the end. ☺️

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    1. I know it’s hard doing this while you have to finish 19 other books for the summer. 🙂 Take your time… most important is to enjoy the experience and not feel pressured. According to my schedule, I’ll be posting Part III this Saturday July 3. I’ve already gone ahead to read Part IV. Can’t wait.

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  4. I have read this about ten years ago, but I can’t say that I remember it as well as a I ought to have. Looking forward to your thoughts on Part 3, which I am now beginning…

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