Afterword to The Brothers Karamozov

A portrait of Dostoevsky hangs in my living room, drawn from photographs by my stepson Philip: Dostoevsky is his favorite writer, The Brothers Karamazov his favorite novel. The writer’s deep-set eyes are brooding, even forbidding; as I read and re-read Karamazov, and realized how little fit I am to discuss it, I felt his gaze scorching me for my impudence in taking on the task.

I don’t read Russian. I don’t know much about Russian political and literary history, or about the Orthodox faith or Pushkin—Dostoevsky’s own favorite writer—and all these play a prominent role in The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve read Tolstoy, about whom Dostoevsky felt ambivalent, but not Turgenev, whom he despised, and even though I share his love for Dickens, Shakespeare and George Sand—in her obituary, he wrote how greatly he admired her for the “ideals [to which] she boldly and nobly entrusted her life”—I’d be hard-put to find their tracks in Karamazov without scholarly assistance.
Even so, even reading in translation, and relying on the scholarship of others, I am swept away by this novel. It’s a story of a murder, of the ultimate dysfunctional family, of Christian love and redemption, of the tensions in 19th-century Russia between so-called liberal European values (embodied by a minor character, Miusov, in the early chapters, and the devil who torments Ivan Fyodorovich near the novel’s end) and the innate values of Russia herself—themes that also occupied Tolstoy in Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Karamazov shows extraordinary empathy for Russian peasant women, and engages in petulant anti-Semitism (casually, in the chapter “A Little Demon,” Lise Khokhalov repeats the common European lies that Jews murder Christian babies and violate the communion host; Dostoevsky himself believed reports of both actions). In short, both in the writer’s prejudices and in his deep empathy for the downtrodden, Dostoevsky has created the most fully human work imaginable.

Dostoevsky grew up with a passion for literature. Even while a student at the Academy for Military Engineers, it was only the French and Russian literature curriculum that truly engaged him. He could read English and German as well as Russian and French; throughout his life he followed the literary currents in all four languages closely. He also began writing while still in his teens.

He resigned his military commission because his duties included flogging malefactors in the ranks, and he loathed corporal punishment, especially the excesses used in Russian peasant justice—as he makes clear in many places in Karamazov.

Like other 19th-century Russians, he early grappled with issues of reform and how Russia might be saved. As a young man, he took part in the inner, revolutionary circle of a Utopian Socialist group in St. Petersburg. In 1849, when he was twenty-eight, he was arrested and sentenced to death. In fact, on the Czar’s orders, he was put through a mock execution; just as he thought he was about to die, he was told the sentence was changed to a term of hard labor in Siberia.

It’s hard not to believe that this emotional wrench—preparing for death—capriciously reassigned to life—colored the rest of Dostoevsky’s life and work: anyone might do anything at any moment.

One of The Brothers Karamazov’s most arresting features is how everyone, even the buffoon and boor Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, can be good and bad, or heinous and grief-stricken at the same time. When Fyodor Pavlovich’s first wife died, the novel’s anonymous narrator says, “the story is that he…began shouting for joy…But others say he wept without restraint like a little child….As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.”

Similarly, in describing Smerdyakov for the first time, Dostoevsky says “it was impossible to tell what he was thinking by looking at him.” Like a peasant in a painting Dostoevsky much admired, Smerdyakov might “abandon everything and go off to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. Or he [might] suddenly set fire to his native village. Or he [might] do both.”

The characters rush about with the frenzy of an Almodovar film. They fall at each other’s feet, in respect or remorse or self-abasement; get drunk in one moment and break into Pushkin at the next; listen at keyholes; weep with deep grief, or simply from frustration. Except for Zosima in his cell, no one ever sits still.

During his prison sentence in Siberia, Dostoevsky spent four years on the most intimate terms with murderers and others convicted of violent crimes; from them he learned of the essential humanity that underlay most people.

Unlike the rest of his generation, notably Tolstoy, who kept trying to explicate “the Russian people” from an aloof distance on his vast estates, Dostoevsky saw “the people” as human. After Dostoevsky’s release from prison, both in his political thinking and in his fiction he tried to imagine a paradigm that might truly save both Russia, as well as humanity at large. His politics and his religious outlook shifted with time, but never his passion for justice or redemption.

These decades of intense experience and thought about literature, politics, and Russia herself are poured into The Brothers Karamazov. Trying to understand the book by looking at its separate pieces is like examining individual pieces of a watch to explain how it tells time. Is Karamazov a crime novel? A religious novel? A riposte to Turgenev and Tolstoy’s views on political engagement? An antidote to grief?
The Brothers Karamazov certainly is a gripping courtroom drama, more compelling than Grisham or Law and Order, as the provincial prosecutor battles the sophisticated St. Petersburg defense attorney over Dmitri Karamazov’s guilt in his father’s death. As a writer of crime fiction, I was particularly struck by Dostoevsky’s skill in planting clues about all the passions involved in the murder.

In the opening chapters of the novel, where Fyodor Pavlovich creates an embarrassing scene at his youngest son Alyosha’s monastery, he blurts out the keys to the action. In a bewildering, drunk outburst, he reveals the details of his eldest son Dmitri’s love for Grushenka, Dmitri’s engagement to the haughty Katarina Ivanovna, and his second son, Ivan’s, silent passion for her. He mentions Dmitri’s insult to an indigent captain, whose son Alyosha later befriends. Everything we need to know is there, but until we’ve read the entire novel, we don’t know we need to know it. Even Rakitin, who plays a pivotal role in the trial, and in trying to help Grushenka seduce Alyosha, is present; the unwary reader ignores him as just so much backdrop to the main action.

The story contains one large crime and mystery: the death of Fyodor Pavlovich, the identity of the murderer, and the motive. But it is full, as well, with other, vexing mysteries. Will Dmitri actually escape in the end? Will he run away to America with Grushenka as planned? Will Ivan recover his health and marry Katarina Ivanovna? What about Lise Khokhlakov—will she continue to revel in pain and disorder, or will she and Alyosha actually marry? Dostoevsky had planned a second volume focused more exclusively on Alyosha, but he died without writing it, so we don’t know if he planned ever to resolve these issues.

In contrast both to English fiction of the 19th century, and contemporary western crime fiction, place is unimportant in The Brothers Karamazov. In Eliot and Hardy’s novels, as in our modern crime fiction, place influences both plot and the personality of the characters, but Dostoevsky seems to take an opposite view.

His narrator refers to the scene of most of the action only as “our town,” and we know nothing about its location, or its topography. Every now and then we hear about Main Street, or the wattle fences that separate back gardens, but we’re not given much to imagine: it’s as if we are to assume that these events might take place anywhere in Russia, that the peasants who make up Dmitri’s jury, the Karamazov brothers themselves, the elder Zosima, the former serf Gregory, could show up anywhere. In fact, it’s only late in the novel that the narrator blurts out the town’s name: Skotoprigonyevsk. The name means something like “a town with cattle feedlots in it”—perhaps Emporia, Kansas. The narrator reveals the name as a complicated sign of his disapproval for Rakitin, the opportunist who has taken advantage of the Karamazov trial to make his fortune as a journalist in the capital.

Another difference between Karamazov and Victorian novelists is the character of Grushenka. This woman, who was kept by a Polish officer for a number of years, dangles both Dmitri Fyodorovich and his father on mocking strings. It’s this behavior, of course, that drives Dmitri’s uncontrolled passions to a fever pitch. Grushenka even tries to seduce Alyosha—the “Angel” of the novel. In Eliot or Dickens, she would have to die. But like almost everyone else in Karamazov, Grushenka is capable of both great good and evil, sometimes in the same breath. She loves Dmitri, supports him ardently through his arrest and trial, and wins the respect of most of the men in the courtroom. The reader, too, is on her side. Grushenka’s relations with Dmitri’s fiancée, Katarina Ivanovna, make up some of the most electric drama of the novel. In the end, both women, while still bitterly despising each other, collude in planning Dmitri’s possible rescue from prison.

In a modern crime story, Dmitri’s trial would be the novel’s gripping climax, but the conclusion of The Brothers Karamazov is far from dramatic: it’s an emotional meeting between Alyosha and some schoolboys whom he’s befriended. They’ve just finished burying one of their classmates, Ilyusha, whose father is beside himself with grief, hugging his dead son’s little boots with all the pathos of a Dickensian mother, or the mother in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a book which greatly influenced Dostoevsky. Perhaps instead of a thriller, we should regard the novel as a prime example of the Victorian era “sob-in,” as Oscar Wilde characterized such writing.

The sobbing is more wracking than in Dickens or Hugo, however, and the consolations less assured. Shortly before he began writing Karamazov, Dostoevsky had buried his own small son Alexei. He and his wife were beside themselves with grief, and his wife finally sent him on a pilgrimage to a famous elder, Father Ambrose, at a monastery in northern Russia.
Dostoevsky modeled the Elder Zosima in Karamazov on Father Ambrose; the words Zosima gives to a weeping peasant woman in the chapter, “Peasant Women Who Have Faith,” are the same that Ambrose gave Dostoevsky to carry home to his wife. At first, in the novel, Zosima mouths the standard comforts of Christianity to the grieving mother: her child is an angel with God and she shouldn’t be weeping so excessively for him. But the mother makes Zosima see that this is a cold comfort. He realizes that grieving for their children “is the lot set on earth for you mothers. Be not comforted….A long while will you know that mother’s grief….your bitter tears will be only tears of sorrow that purify the heart and deliver it from sin.”

This passage rings so true, so real, that it knocks me on my heels. Each time I read it, I re-experience my own most pain-filled losses, and am also consoled for them.

Through the middle of this tragic story, as in Dickens, runs an irrepressible vein of comedy. It’s what keeps the grief and the frenzied action from overwhelming the reader. The buffoon Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a character with Falstaffian appetites and cowardice—but none of Falstaff’s redeeming qualities—makes us laugh while we cringe. Fyodor Pavlovich enters the novel at a Karamazov family meeting in the Elder Zosima’s cell. Fyodor Pavlovich misquotes the lives of saints, makes up details about monastic confessions, and goads everyone except Alyosha and Zosima into furious disgust with him. He’s every relative who’s ever embarrassed us wrapped into one exaggerated monstrosity.

Throughout the second half of the novel, people keep referring to Dmitri as a “parricide.” I don’t know what the original Russian word is, but the English has a curious double meaning: it’s someone who has killed a father or mother, as well as someone who has assassinated the head of state.

Dostoevsky wrote Karamazov against the backdrop of extreme political agitation in Russia. There were many assassination attempts against the czar; a month after Dostoevsky’s death, the czar was, in fact, killed.

Dostoevsky refers to Hamlet a number of times in Karamazov, most notably as the prosecutor wraps up his wild “galloping troika” of a speech to the jury: “They have their Hamlets, while we have only Karamazovs.”

Among the many meanings of this exclamation, with its implied contrasts between liberal European thought (which Dostoevsky, unlike Tolstoy, did not despise) is another contrast: Hamlet deals openly with regicide, Karamazov only obliquely. But the novel reverberates with themes of order and disorder, with Dostoevsky’s anguish for his country and her needs equal—almost—to his grief over his personal loss.

People like Lise Khokhlakov and Fyodor Pavlovich himself actively seek and create disorder. Lise dwells with erotic relish on the torture of children, Fyodor Pavlovich sows discord far and wide. When Miusov, at the beginning of the novel, says that “all things are lawful,” if you follow Ivan Karamazov’s cold philosophy to its inexorable conclusion, the words, with their implication of lawlessness, deeply affect Smerdyakov and ultimately goad him into committing murder.

By the time he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky had lost his own youthful desire for disorder, for revolution. He had come to think that only active love was possible for Russia—and humanity’s—salvation, and that active love was most possible through Orthodox Christianity.

As the Elder Zosima explains it to the flighty Madame Khokhlakov, “active love” is a harsh and fearful thing, compared to her daydreams about it. In the chapter, “The Russian Monk,” which is a collection of the elder’s speeches and reminiscences collected after his death, Dostoevsky explores active love in some detail. It involves understanding one’s own life as implicated in the worst as well as the best in each person one meets. As John Donne’s wrote, “How many men that stand at an execution [who] ask, For what dies that man? should hear their own faults condemned and see themselves executed by attorney?”

This thread of active love runs through the whole novel, knits together its politics, its family dramas, and even the ending. Alyosha reminds the boys at the end that they all have within them the possibility of committing horrible deeds, but that their love for each other, and for their dead friend, can keep their lives whole.

Perhaps this seems an anti-climactic, even banal ending to a frenzied novel, as well as Dostoevsky’s own tormented life. But a major revolution and upending of government in Russia forty years later didn’t lead to harmony or ease for “the Russian people.” Dostoevsky, again in Donne’s phrase, “ha[d] proceeded a pace in a good University,” meaning in his difficult experience of life. If he advised the harsh and fearful discipline of active love as the best hope for political salvation, we should pay him serious attention.