Category: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov.

true life

by Andrea Elizabeth

“I can see the sun, but even if I cannot see the sun, I know that it exists. And to know that the sun is there – that is living.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Broken hearts and desperate times

by Andrea Elizabeth

Crime and Punishment (4) to page 240.

I must take a break from my reading for two reasons. This is an intense book, and I want to say that I think it’s finally been revealed why Raskolnikov gave up his studies and his tutoring positions and descended into his morbid thinking. He just said, if he is to believed in his current state, he was in love with his fiancée who died before their wedding. The fact of his being engaged has previously been handled as an insignificant aside, perhaps as an obligation to his landlady. But apparently she didn’t approve of his marrying her sickly, homely daughter. So if he was truly in love with her and she died, perhaps his heart broke and he lost his attachment to the world and its aspirations and rules.

I find Dostoevsky refreshingly honest in his dealings with people’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Brothers Karamazov‘s characters acted in a more random fashion that I didn’t like as well as this more focused analysis. They say Dostoevsky’s characters personify ideas, and maybe BK’s ideas were more about changing whims, such as Alyosha’s intended, Lise, had,  as did Dmitri. I didn’t like how open-ended things were. Hopefully these characters in Crime and Punishment will follow a more deeply seated, consistent course and not be so easily thrown off track.

Back to C&P, I’m a little bothered about how sympathetically Raskolnikov is written. Rooting for a murderer doesn’t seem right, but I’ll keep an open mind. I faced the same dilemma with Dmitri in Brothers Karamazov, however I’m still not sure if he did it. I think Dostoevsky’s intention in being sympathetic to murderers is to show that we could all be capable of such an act. After all, ‘if one calls his brother a fool he is guilty of murder’. I tend to think though that there is a line between thinking and acting, but maybe it’s grayer than I imagine. Should committing such a crime be more unthinkable than writing someone off? The disciples were told to shake the dust off their feet in towns where their message wasn’t received, so there must be a difference. I suppose it’s hatred. Surely they weren’t to hate those who rejected them as the Beatitudes say.

I think Dostoevsky is seeking to dispel social prejudices. A humble task.

Raskolnikov’s despondency and desperate circumstances have perhaps been explained, but it still seems a leap for him to start thinking about murdering the Pawn lady. Apparently she used people, including her half-sister, very badly and capitalized on their misfortunes, but does Dostoevsky think that the unpardonable sin? Should profiteers be vilified to that extent and murderers be contrastingly “understood”? Or does it go back to the heart – are userers murderers in their heart? I still think there’s a line, but those who haven’t crossed it should take more care of their thoughts just the same.

And what about these?

by Andrea Elizabeth

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (I). Translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky

Right off the bat Marmeladov’s speech is quite the discomforting thing. Fyodor Karamazov wasn’t as disturbing because I didn’t believe that he cared about anyone, therefore rendering him an unsympathetic character in his debauchery. He obviously gets what’s coming to him. Dmitri seems to be able to talk himself through everything, so I didn’t suffer much on his behalf either. Marmeladov in this story, however, seems to be somewhat honorable and to love his family, so his admitted neglect of them provides more tension. It reminds me of Gregory Peck’s (I’ll always be on his side) portrayal of Dostoevsky’s Gambler. I couldn’t stand that his addiction to gambling took him over as it did. I had to turn the channel when he made his fatal mistake. As much as Marmeladov elicits sympathy, his family does more, even his daughter’s wicked stepmother, his wife because he is ultimately the one who drives them to their sinfulness.

Yet he believes God will forgive all and even call forth drunkards such as he.

“‘Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there. And He will say, ‘Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!’ And the wise and the reasonable will say unto Him, ‘Lord, why do you receive such as these?’ And He will say, ‘I receive them, my wise and reasonable ones, forasmuch as not one of them considered himself worthy of this thing…’ And He will stretch out His arms to us, and we will fall at His feet…and weep… and understand everything! …and everyone will understand…and Katarina Ivanovna…she, too, will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!” (p. 23)

Maybe so.

Solovyev’s idea of the universal

by Andrea Elizabeth

I find much of Vladimir Solovyev’s thought compelling and am not willing to dismiss it on the basis of disagreement with some of his premises, such as Absolute Divine simplicity. This inspirer of Dostoyevsky’s Alyosha possesses a universal outlook that is important. According to the excerpts found on this link of his book, Russia and the Universal Church, Solovyev believed that the western Church is part of a universal organism called the Church. He does not eliminate the distinctions between the east and west, but he believes that the east can learn from the west’s willingness to get their hands dirty.

St. Cassian [symbolizing eastern purists] need not become a different person or cease to care about keeping his clothes spotless. He must simply recognize that his comrade [symbolizing the western chuch] has certain important qualities which he himself lacks, and instead of sulking at this energetic worker he must frankly accept him as his companion and guide on the earthly voyage that still lies before them.

(bold unavoidable in copy and paste) I part with him on his validating the western Church as part of the universal Church, but I think he has a Christological, cosmological point. I believe Dostoyevsky parted with him too on this point or he wouldn’t have written “The Grand Inquisitor“. But there is a tendency among purists to dismiss those who do not live up to certain idealogical standards. These standards are well and good, and fully realized in heaven, but in humility we must accept that others may have a point or two to teach us, and not dismiss them out of hand. Solovyev’s statements about imperfection on earth are well taken, but I think the Orthodox Church on earth has preserved Orthodoxy in word, if not fully in deed. He does seem to disagree with the more isolated forms of monasticism, which seems too dismissive, but I think the criticism can still be valid regarding some isolationist views. It made me think of the cranky hermit monk in Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky redeemed too extreme a caricature in Elder Zosima.

Regarding the universal Church as an organism, perhaps Solovyev uses the wrong term by defining at least Catholics and Orthodox as a single body. I’ll sidestep discussing whether every individual in the eastern Church comprises The Body of Christ. I’m focusing for the moment on the Incarnation, and what Christ joined Himself to in becoming “created”. In a sense Christ recapitulated the whole cosmos when he became and redeemed mankind (if I understand St. Maximus correctly). I’ve read a couple of statements about panentheism lately, but Wikipedia gives a more positive approach to it. God is not divorced from his creation, even those who are not baptized into His body (I may be minimizing the importance of baptism in this post, but that is due to neglect and not intention or personal belief in the unique grace of Holy Baptism). The opposite tendency is to believe in universalism which is not espoused by the Orthodox Church. This type of universalism deals more with salvation, which I’m not talking about. I am not responsible for determining if Catholics or Protestants, or even individual Orthodox, are “saved”. But being open to “others” teaching us how to be more like Christ is what I think Solovyev also espouses in his book. How could others teach of us if they are not connected to Christ in some way? I’ll not try to explain further how that can be so.

Abiding Love

by Andrea Elizabeth

Now that Brothers Karamazov has had time to settle, I think that this last book of Dostoevsky, being a tribute to Alyosha who represents Dostoevsky’s own son who passed away, is about hoping in the continuance of souls in heaven and the final resurrection. This is not a stretch as the very last part of the book is devoted to it. Alyosha, with heaven’s eyes, looks at the unfaithfulness of his brothers’ hearts, but does not believe that is the real them. It grieves him, but he does not condemn them or give up on them. He is the model of 1 Corinthians 13,

1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

“Everything is Permitted”

by Andrea Elizabeth

This is not going to be pretty. But neither is Brothers Karamazov.

I underlined a few passages towards the end getting ready to prove this or that point about excessiveness, guilt and innocence, but then Dostoevsky doesn’t end up really proving anything about those points. Nothing is exonerated, condemned, or wrapped up neat and tidy. Not even Orthodoxy. He even sort of makes peace with the Jesuits at the end.

Russia appears to have been going through a time of reform and self-examination at the time this was written. To me Dostoevsky does not vilify or necessarily promote any of the competing thoughts swirling around about modernism, science, education, wealth, poverty, traditionalism, or miracles, but he does hold barbaric abuse up for scrutiny and criticism. He doesn’t do this in an emotional way which would cause a groundswell of angry revolution against it, but he seems to validate other nations looking at this part of Russia negatively. He also says that this is not all Russia is. Which I guess is the point, you can’t judge without love and mercy, and Russia has something to say about that too.

I get the impression that the prosecuting attorney represents a western mindset of judgment, guilt and innocence, but the defense attorney is more in line with Alyosha-type intuitive love. This latter type love surprisingly does not end of fixing everything though. It seems that the peasants get to have the last word, and Dostoevsky is silent about that. Maybe he feels that the story he doesn’t really tell about them will end up judging Russia, and that the momentum in them would lead to the revolution a few score years later. I think I will uphold his silence about that.

“They have Hamlet, we have the Karamazovs.”

Regarding the uninhibited excessiveness of the Karamazovs, and the women in their lives, I do not know if it is possible to follow their existential lead. They each, even Alyosha, were very inner driven and “themselves”. If you vilify lack of restraint, you would also end up squelching Alyosha’s bursting heart. And that is what characterizes Russia. There is a good passage talking about hovering between two abysses of good and evil, and Russians will drink the dregs of both abysses – alternatingly. But what if everyone drank the dregs instead of keeping a cool, calm, detached, stiff upper lip? I just watched The Queen last night, and you can’t vilify reserve and collected non-reaction either. Perhaps there is a time and place for everything, but it is interesting to see how different things get worked out, or not, in different times and places.

Who Likes Scoundrels?

by Andrea Elizabeth

This passage in Brothers Karamazov took me completely by surprise. I can understand differences between the sexes regarding the attractiveness of certain people and decors, but I did not think it extended into wanting certain people convicted for a crime or not. I thought that had more to do with being liberal or conservative rather than being female or male.

One of the most characteristic peculiarities of this whole society gathered in the courtroom, which must be pointed out, was that, as was later established by many observations, almost all the ladies, at least the great majority of them, favored [a certain person] and his acquittal. Mainly, perhaps, because an idea had been formed of him as a conqueror of women’s hearts. […] I know positively that in our town itself several serious family quarrels even took place on account of [a certain person]. Many ladies quarreled hotly with their husbands owing to a difference of opinion about this whole terrible affair, and naturally, after that, all the husbands of these ladies arrived in court feeling not only ill disposed towards the defendant but even resentful of him. And generally it can be stated positively that the entire male contingent, as opposed to the ladies, was aroused against the defendant (p. 657) […] and the majority of the men decidedly wished to see the criminal punished, except perhaps for the lawyers, who cared not about the moral aspect of the case, but only, so to speak, about its contemporary legal aspect. (p. 658)

I asked my husband if he felt as the men did when he read this book, and he, shockingly to me, agreed with them, without hesitation. I feel as the women did and cannot comprehend why anyone would think the person was lying or want him convicted. George said that he has observed that women like scoundrels. Since this seems true, I can imagine that it is because “scoundrels” seem uninhibited, and passionately like women. This probably appeals to our vanity. Regarding being uninhibited, which seems to be the theme of the Karamazovs, I have some thoughts stewing in the back of my mind which will have to wait until I’ve read the last 80 pages before I try to organize them. That post will probably be called, “Everything is Permitted”.

The Devil. Ivan Fyodorvich’s Nightmare

by Andrea Elizabeth

I haven’t read all of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, but I thought of it during this conversation with the devil,

“I myself suffer from the fantastic, and that is why I love your earthly realism. Here you have it all outlined, here you have the formula, here you have geometry, and with us it’s all indeterminate equations! I walk about here and dream. I love to dream. Besides, on earth I become superstitious -don’t laugh, please: that is precisely what I like, that I become superstitious. […] My dream is to become incarnate, but so that it’s final, irrevocable, in some fat, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife, and to believe everything she believes. My ideal is to go into a church and light a candle with a pure heart – by God, it’s true. That would put an end to my sufferings. (p.639)

He then goes into some of the funniest narratives in the whole book, and they are told by the devil. I read recently in a helpful post translated by Felix Culpa that Russians are too down in the dumps about their sins, they revel in it, so maybe that’s why any humor, dreams, and fantasy are attributed to the devil by Dostoevsky? I am currently pondering this question.

“Up to his neck in philosophy again!” Ivan snarled hatefully.

“God preserve me from that, but one can’t help complaining sometimes. I am a slandered man. Even you tell me I’m stupid every other minute. It shows how young you are. My friend, the point is not just intelligence! I have a naturally kind and cheerful heart, ‘and various little vaudevilles, I, too…’ You seem to take me decidedly for some gray-haired Khlestakov, and yet my fate is far more serious. By some pre-temporal assignment, which I have never been able to figure out, I am appointed ‘to negate,’ whereas I am sincerely kind and totally unable to negate. No, they say, go and negate, without negation there will be no criticism, and what sort of journal has no ‘criticism section’? Without criticism, there would be nothing but ‘Hosannah.’ But ‘Hosannah’ alone is not enough for life, it is necessary that this ‘Hosannah’ pass through the crucible of doubt, and so on, in the same vein. I don’t meddle with any of that, by the way, I didn’t create it, and I can’t answer for it. So they chose themselves a scapegoat, they made me write for the criticism section, and like came about. We understand this comedy: I, for instance, demand simply and directly that I be destroyed. No, they say, live, because without you there would be nothing. If everything on earth were sensible, nothing would happen. Without you there would be no events, and there must be events. And so I serve grudgingly, for the sake of events, and I do the unreasonable on orders. People take this whole comedy for something serious, despite all their undeniable intelligence. That is their tragedy. Well, they suffer, of course, but… still they live, they live really, not in fantasy: for suffering is life. Without suffering, what pleasure would be in it – everything would turn into an endless prayer service: holy, but a bit dull. And me? I suffer, and still I do not live. I am an x in an indeterminate equation. I am some sort of ghost of life who has lost all ends and beginnings, and I’ve finally even forgotten what to call myself. You’re laughing … no, you’re not laughing, you’re angry again. You’re eternally angry, you want reason only, but I will repeat to you once more that I would give all of that life beyond the stars, all ranks and honors, only to be incarnated in the soul of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife and light candles to God.” (p. 641, 2)

Now criticism and even events besides prayer are being attributed to the devil. Strangely though, rationality is not. He further develops what I suppose is Dostoevsky’s view of an apokastasis, after a toll-house type penance in which an atheist eventually decides to walk “a quadrillion kilometers” in order to be admitted into Paradise (p. 644) . Then the devil himself almost repents,

And I swear by all that is holy, I wanted to join the chorus and shout “Hosannah’ with everyone else. It was right on my lips, it was already bursting from my breast … you know, I’m very sensitive and artistically susceptible. But common sense – oh, it’s the most unfortunate quality of my nature – kept me within due bounds even then, and I missed the moment! For what – I thought at that same moment – what will happen after my ‘Hosanna’? Everything in the world will immediately be extinguished and no events will occur. And so, solely because of my official duty and my social position I was forced to quash the good moment in myself and stay with my nasty tricks. (p. 647)

I can’t help but think that Dostoevsky is likening himself to the devil in creating these very “eventful” novels. Is he debating keeping silent and sticking with 24-hour “Hosannahs”? I am currently theorizing that perhaps silence is like monastic celibacy – it is given to some, but not to others. Perhaps some must speak to attain silence.

Dostoevsky on male-female love

by Andrea Elizabeth

“God save you, dear boy, from ever asking forgiveness for your guilt from a woman you love! Especially from a woman you love, no matter how guilty you are before her! Because a woman – devil knows what a woman is brother, I’m a good judge of that at least! Try going and confessing your guilt to her; say, ‘I’m guilty, forgive me, pardon me,’ and right then and there you’ll be showered with reproaches! She’ll never forgive you directly and simply, she’ll humble you in the dust, she’ll take away things that weren’t even there, she’ll take everything, she’ll forget nothing, she’ll add things of her own, and only then will she forgive you. And that’s the best of them, the best! She’ll scrape up the last scraps and heap them on your head- such bloodthirstiness justs sits in them, I tell you, in all of them, to the last one, those angels without whom it’s even impossible for us to live! You see, my dear, I’ll tell you frankly and simply: every decent man ought to be under the heel of some woman, at least. That’s my conviction; not a conviction, but a feeling. A man ought to be magnanimous, and that’s no stain on a man. It’s no stain even on a hero, even on Caesar! Well, but still don’t go asking forgiveness, not ever, not for anything. Remember that rule: it was taught you by your brother Mitya, who perished because of women. No, I’d better restore myself in Grusha’s eyes some other way, without forgiveness. I revere her, Alexei, revere her! Only she doesn’t see it, no, it’s still not enough love for her. And she frets me, she frets me with her love. Before was nothing! Before it was just her infernal curves that fretted me, but now I’ve taken her whole soul into my soul, and through her I’ve become a man!” (Brothers Karamazov, translated by P&V, p. 594)

I think that’s the best I’ve read on the subject. Maybe this is what inspired Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman”.

In Our Town

by Andrea Elizabeth

Part III left off with such a dramatic cliffhanger, did he do it or didn’t he?!? Part IV lifts me unwillingly out of the courtroom milieu into the world of wayward and/or sickly, pitiful children. I usually don’t like it when new characters are introduced after the story is already firmly on its course. I want to stay with the ones who have propelled the action so far. However I can’t help but think that Dostoevsky is giving us insight into the major player, himself, in describing the 14 year old, precocious Kolya Krasotkin. I particularly liked this interchange,

“How do I know? They’ll go on shouting till nighttime now. I like stirring up fools in all strata of society. There stands another dolt, that peasant there. People say, ‘There’s no one stupider than a stupid Frenchman,’ but note how the Russian physiognomy betrays itself. Isn’t it written all over that peasant’s face that he’s a fool, eh?”

“Leave him alone, Kolya. Let’s keep going.”

“No now that I’ve gotten started, I wouldn’t stop for the world. Hey! Good morning, peasant!”

A burly peasant, who was slowly passing by and seemed to have had a drop to drink already, with a round, simple face and a beard streaked with gray, raised his head and looked at the lad.

“Well, good morning, if you’re not joking,” he answered unhurriedly.

“And if I am joking?” laughed Kolya.

“Joke then, if you’re joking, and God be with you. Nevermind, it’s allowed. A man can always have his joke.”

“Sorry, brother, I was joking.”

“So, God will forgive you.”

“But you, do you forgive me?”

“That I do. Run along now.

“Look here, you seem to be a smart peasant.”

“Smarter than you,” the peasant replied unexpectedly, and with the same air of importance.

“That’s unlikely,” Kolya was somewhat taken aback.

“It’s the truth I’m telling you.”

“Well, maybe it is.”

“So there, brother.”

“Good-bye, peasant.”


“Peasants differ,” Kolya observed to Smurov after some silence. “How was I to know I’d run into a smart one? I’m always prepared to recognize intelligence in the people.”

Far away the cathedral clock struck half past eleven. (p. 531,2)


I also want to note that the narrator frequently introduces scenes by the preface, “In our town”. The characters presence, for better or worse, is legitimized by that little phrase. I suppose that’s what it means to live in community, at least in spirit.