The Brothers Karamazov: believing is seeing

There has been a terribly interesting, for me at least, discussion going on in the comments at Wuthering Expectations about Dostoevsky’s narrator in The Brothers Karamazov and his weakness compared with the other characters: “The non-omniscient omniscient narrator has no more understanding of anyone else than does, for example, the reader. The art of Dostoevsky is centered on the monologues.”

I agree, and the effect on me is also to think Dostoevsky was not fully in control, that “characters are in control of their own selves, their ideas.” I am putting this down on the list of Reasons I Have Trouble with Dostoevsky. It is these messy confessional mystical outpourings, held together with…what?

With my mind on the general weakness and blandness of the narrator, then, I was surprised to note that several of the passages that interested me enough to flag them during my reading involved that narrator alone. In particular, passages that deal with themes (presumably, as I’m only through Part I) central to the novel—the nature of faith, realism, and miracles—and usually reserved for the monologues of (thus far) Ivan Fyodorovich, Pyotr Alexandrovich, the elder Zosima, and the others. Here, for example, after his warning that the novice Alyosha is not “sickly” or “ecstatic” but “red-cheeked”:

[I]t seems to me that Alyosha was even more of a realist than the rest of us. Oh, of course, in the monastery he believed absolutely in miracles, but in my opinion miracles will never confound a realist. It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith. A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his realism, he must also allow for miracles. The Apostle Thomas declared that he would not believe until he saw, and when he saw, he said: “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle that made him believe? Most likely not, but he believed first and foremost because he wished to believe, and maybe already fully believed in his secret heart even as he was saying: “I will not believe until I see.”

This description of a realist’s reaction to miracles will be recalled shortly after, when the narrator reports on the elder’s audience with the “women of faith,” the first of whom is a “shrieker,” like Alyosha’s mother. The narrator explains his road to understanding the (temporary) healing of shriekers:

[W]hen the chalice was brought out, and they were led up to the chalice, the “demonic possession” would immediately cease and the sick ones would always calm down for a time. As a child, I was greatly struck and astonished by this. And it was then that I heard from some landowners and especially from my town teachers, in answer to my questions, that it was all a pretense in order to avoid work, and that it could always be eradicated by the proper severity, which they confirmed by telling various stories. But later on I was surprised to learn from medical experts that there is no pretense in it, that it is a terrible woman’s disease that seems to occur predominantly in our Russia, that it is a testimony to the hard lot of our peasant women, caused by exhausting work too soon after difficult, improper birth-giving without any medical help, and, besides that, by desperate grief, beatings, and so on, which the nature of many women, after all, as the general examples show, cannot endure. This strange and instant healing of the frenzied and struggling woman the moment she was brought to the chalice, which used to be explained to me as shamming and, moreover, almost as a trick arranged by the “clericals” themselves—this healing occurred, probably, also in a very natural way: both the women who brought her to the chalice and, above all, the sick woman herself, fully believed, as an unquestionable truth, that the unclean spirit that possessed the sick woman could not possibly endure if she, the sick woman, were brought to the chalice and made to bow before it. And therefore, in a nervous and certainly also mentally ill woman, there always occurred (and had to occur), at the moment of her bowing before the chalice, and inevitable shock, as it were, to her whole body, a shock provoked by expectation of the inevitable miracle of healing and by the most complete faith that it would occur. And it would occur, even if only for a moment. That is just what happened now, as soon as the elder covered the woman with his stole.

The narrator approaches the miracle of healing like an unbelieving realist. At first he does not believe in the miracle, just as above, and doubts the reality of the outward display he sees at mass. But when the “miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact,” that is, when he learns from doctors that this nervous disease is real (and thus that its cure must also be real), he admits it as “a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him.” And what is that fact of nature but the very fact he stated above: that miracle follows from belief. The miracle of healing is real because the women believe in miracles; they are healed, through natural means, because of their faith in the supernatural. Faith itself creates psychosomatic effects which in turn permit the realist to continue as a realist, “believing” in miracles only as natural phenomena.

Is he, then an unbelieving realist? The narrator may not give us messy confessions, but he doesn’t give us nothing either.


This is the first week of the Brothers Karamazov read-along hosted by Dolce Bellezza. Check out more posts on Part I.

13 comments to The Brothers Karamazov: believing is seeing

  • Oh very interesting, I hadn’t thought of this angle in regards to the narrator. I definitely feel that he is a character who will have his own stuff to work out through the book, although as you say, a rather bland character in comparison to the riot that is the Karamazovs…!

  • Sooo interesting here! I find Dostoevsky to be in total control but the type of messy control that the buffoon father exercises over his sons and others, the type of control that manifests itself in a surrender to the possibilities of language while still maintaining tight control over the narrative thread. The control, the precision we see in the neat monologues is one exercise of the novelist but the chaos he surrenders to in narration is another. One no less intentional than the other in my opinion. It is the chaos I find so intriguing here rather than the order.

    We are in sync over the shrieker bit though. Hope this is not dropped but explored further.

    Loving this book!

  • It’s interesting that you should mention the narrator, as I didn’t notice him at all! I was so caught up in grasping the personality, and philosophy, of each character that I wasn’t paying any attention to the omniscient narrator. As each person becomes slowly revealed, in intricate layer after layer, I’m intrigued to find if my predictions are confirmed as to what drives them in Dostoeyvksy’s world. Personally, I’m so very fond of Alyosha.

  • Alyosha has this curious role: he enables the monologues. He’s quiet, or just mumbles short responses, allowing others to go on and on and on. I’m thinking of the “Confession of an Ardent Heart” chapters as an example.

    So I’ve read this book before, and perhaps that’s why I am so doubtful that any particular theme or device (e.g., the role of the narrator) will really be worked through in a satisfying way. Dostoevsky picks up things – images, words – and then drops them, forgets about them.

    In his defense, he thinks that my interest in the conventionally well-written novel is the sign of a trivial mind. And since he’s right about that, he’s probably right about other things.

    Still – which monologues are the precise ones?

  • nicole

    Sarah—“stuff to work through”—yes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t though either.

    Frances—“the type of messy control that the buffoon father exercises over his sons and others”—yes, that is exactly it, actually. What a wonderful comparison!

    Bellezza—I definitely think there is the temptation to do that with Dostoevsky. The characters are very rich and the monologues so captivating that the rest fades a bit in the background.

    AR—Yes, I’ve noticed this about Alyosha, and find it a bit irritating. Makes him seem like a bit of an empty vessel.

    Not so sure I agree with you on the rest, but it could be vanity ;)

  • Alyosha the empty vessel – this turns out to be a common criticism of Karamazov – that Alysoha is in some way insufficient to carry the “positive” message of the novel. No one ever makes that complaint about Ivan and the “negative” ideas.

  • nicole

    But that’s because Ivan is too full of hot air!

  • And black bile. And noxious fumes. And he’s supposed to be the representative of “reason”!

    Or maybe that “supposed to be” is completely wrong. I’m trying to remember what happens when Ivan Karamazov meets Ivan Turgenev, in a Very Special guest apperance.

  • nicole

    What I’m still trying to figure out is whether indeed he is supposed to be, and if so, whether Dostoevsky is confused, lacks imagination, or just malicious. But thus far at least it seems impossible to tell from the text.

  • confused, lacks imagination, or just malicious

    Ha ha ha! Excellent, excellent.

    Hey, you’re done with FMF! I’m just starting The Last Post. The end of A Man Could Stand Up - was unbeatable.

  • nicole

    Not done, halfway done. Finished No More Parades last night. I just can’t stop being blown away by it either.

  • Parade’s End, No More Parades, yeesh. Welcome to Amateur Hour, brought to you by Amateur Reader.

  • Interesting thoughts on the narrator. I still haven’t made up my mind on what he’s all about, other than I find him humorous, and I feel like he feigns his incompetence for a reason I’m not quite sure of yet. Maybe it is only for the comic aspect, or maybe he’s another example of a liar.
    I like that Alyosha is good–it’s quite a relief after hearing about the debauchery of his father and others. But I tend to get irritated with him for not getting more angry with his father. Give me a little righteous indignation, Alyosha!

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