The Brothers Karamazov: “Well, I’m not very good at these subtleties…”

Part III of The Brothers Karamazov seems to cover so much narrative ground compared to the first two. It begins with the elder Zosima being prepared for burial, follows Alyosha to a visit with Grushenka, removes him from the monastery, and then begins the whirlwind that is the story of Dmitri. We go back in time two days to find out what he’s been up to while Zosima has been dying, and the answer is “a lot.”

According to the narrator, “[f]or the past two days he had been in such an unimaginable state that, as he himself said afterwards, he might well have come down with brain fever.” That sentence seems to sum up Dostoevsky for me. For two days Dmitri is in full-blown crisis mode—as are his brothers, his father, and most of their connections. As Richard Pevear notes in his introduction, “[n]arrative time is extremely condensed in the novel,” and that heightens the atmosphere of crisis. And the reliance on long speeches and dialogues externalizes the psychological crises of every character. The upshot is that everyone is freaking out all the time, and not doing much else.

My impression is that fans of Dostoevsky appreciate the psychological aspects of his work, the way he portrays human psychology. I continue to be confused by this, as it seems he only wants to portray one slice of psychology, and the world of his novels is so swallowed up in that slice that it appears to be the whole. I think a fair argument could be made that psychological crises are especially formative or important (Dmitri’s “I’ve found out more in this one cursed night than I’d have learned in twenty years of living…!”), but there is certainly more to life than the times you feel like you have brain fever—that is to say, when you don’t feel like “yourself” at all.

Dmitri’s current brain fever stems from his desire for Agrafena Alexandrovna. He is an odd duck, but I want to fight for him when he is mocked so badly for imagining a happy future life together with Grushenka:

Then, oh, then a totally new life would begin at once! He dreamed of this other, this renewed and now “virtuous” life (“it must, it must be virtuous”) ceaselessly and feverishly. He thirsted for this resurrection and renewal. The vile bog he had gotten stuck in of his own will burdened him too much, and, like a great many men in such cases, he believed most of all in a change of place: if only it weren’t for these people, if only it weren’t for these circumstances, if only one could fly away from this cursed place—then everything would be reborn! That was what he believed in and what he longed for.

Dostoevsky and, to a lesser extent, the narrator, scorn the idea that man alone can accomplish the salvation Dmitri wants. Humans forgiving other humans for their sins won’t cut it. Dmitri’s pathetic belief in that possibility gets him knocked down more than a few pegs. But can Dostoevsky really be so transparent? All his talk of forgiveness and who can forgive what of whom and how it all adds up to happiness and virtue seems so obviously and explicit.

What interests me most about the developments in Part III is how they relate to traditional mystery narratives. I don’t know enough yet to say much, but everything feels tilted by the fact that we’re spending time with someone we’re absolutely certain didn’t do it and not in any way attempting to investigate who did, except by what seem to be casual mentions by the narrator. Perhaps it’s because the narrator thwarts much that would normally build suspense by dropping facts and saying he’ll explain them later, then going back and filling things in for us, but the reader’s mental investigation of the crime does not build in the normal way either.


Thanks to Dolce Bellezza for hosting the Brothers Karamazov readalong, now in its third week. Visit her blog for more posts on Part III.

8 comments to The Brothers Karamazov: “Well, I’m not very good at these subtleties…”

  • Throughout my perusal of this book I’ve been reminded vaguely of The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins. They both have a mystery controlled by a narrator who has all the facts but is releasing them to you one by one as he sees fit. I think that ultimately I feel more manipulated by this technique and so I don’t like the format as much as the type of story where both you and the characters are attempting to solve the mystery. I’m hoping that all those “more about that later”s will be heaped upon us in the final section and we can wrap this thing up! ;)

  • Almost everyone in Dostoevsky’s world turns out to be a “shrieker.”

    If Zosima’s ethics are the “true” ethics of the novel, and I don’t want to say they are, but if, then “Talks and Homilies,” section h (320-2) is crucial here, the whole idea that every person is guilty for the sins of every other person – “go at once and seek torments for yourself, as if you were guilty of their wickedness.” The role of the judge is to “take upon yourself the crime of the criminal” and “let him go without reproach.”

  • “I continue to be confused by this, as it seems he only wants to portray one slice of psychology, and the world of his novels is so swallowed up in that slice that it appears to be the whole.” Yes. So well put. I feel exactly the same. What keeps me from loving this book, is that type of authorial manipulation too. Dostoevsky clearly has an agenda but becomes all/everyone/every man to coalesce into a final whole by novel’s end in a way. I think. But I have until next week to think some more.

  • nicole

    Sarah—I’ve been reminded of Wilkie Collins myself, but in my case, The Moonstone (the only one of his I’ve read). Mysteries before the way mysteries worked was fully in place, perhaps.

    AR—Yes, shriekers all! Good point, and I saw Frances make it elsewhere, noting their unregulated appetites. It’s quite true. As to the ethics…yes, thanks for bringing that up. I’m going to feel like it’s a mess until the end, I can tell.

    Frances—It seems like everyone is feeling manipulated. Maybe that is coming closer to why I don’t like Dostoevsky. He might just be too manipulative for my taste.

  • I loved the mystery of this, too. The religious aspects are a bit confusing to me; I’m not sure what Dostoevsky’s point is exactly, but I agree that humans cannot save themselves. (From your post: “Dostoevsky and, to a lesser extent, the narrator, scorn the idea that man alone can accomplish the salvation Dmitri wants. Humans forgiving other humans for their sins won’t cut it.”) I do not agree with Dmitri that his forgiveness will solve anything more than his own comfort. But, lest I go on a whole Christian treatise, I come back to the point of loving the mystery and being totally intrigued as to who actually did kill Fyodor. Part 4 was awesome, and I can’t wait to discuss it next Thursday!

  • Ecstasy! Everyone is in ecstasy at some point or other. It’s wearing me out! I’d like to read more about D’s life–all I can recall is drinking, gambling, misery and getting freed from a firing squad at the last minute–but I find myself thinking about where he’s coming from in terms of his life experiences.

  • Shelley, you’re in luck! The one-volume condensation of Joseph Frank’s five-volume Dostoevsky biography has just been published. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, 2010, Princeton University Press, 956 pages.

    Group read! Ha ha ha!

  • Hmmm…maybe I’ll just look him up on Wikipedia.

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