The Brothers Karamazov: “let no one grumble if I tell only that which struck me personally and which I have especially remembered”

The marathon is at an end, and a final thanks to the lovely host of The Brothers Karamazov readalong, Dolce Bellezza. Formally, the novel offered me little. I will refer you to Amateur Reader for a taste of why rather than moan.

As a novel of ideas, it didn’t offer much more. If Zosima’s ethics are true, and everyone is guilty of everything, I see only moral disorder: Ivan, who has harmed no one, feels guilty while Smerdyakov, a devious killer, has not done anything especially more wrong than anyone else. I prefer the ethics of the trial itself: as all the witnesses are called, each is impeached with his own personal foibles and failings, past sins brought to light to reduce present credibility and respectability. We have all sinned, yes, but as individuals. Not that any of that ends up fairly, either.

The trial did have its good points for the reading experience, despite the speechifying. One of the only ways the novel induced much emotion in me was in the frustrating parallels between Smerdyakov’s convincing Ivan that Ivan would not be believed, and the actual arguments put forth by the prosecution and defense. That is, the frustration of not being able to thwart the meticulously thought-out murder—despite having known who the killer was for hundreds of pages! That was good, but somehow I am not actually sure it was the intended effect.

Dostoevsky’s intended effect…I still don’t really know it, in general. I still don’t see why some people respond to him in a mystical way, I still don’t like him, whatever that might mean, and I’m ready to move on for a long while. I don’t want to give any impression that this was a bad or regrettable experience, or that there weren’t good moments. Anyway, a few other miscellaneous points:

Kolya Krasotkin

Kolya Krasotkin is an interesting little miniature of Ivan, but with the ability to sincerely look up to Alyosha, it seems, and open himself to hope and optimism almost in spite of himself. I noted two instances where he brought my recent reading of Tolstoy to mind. On the first page of Book X, the narrator says that Kolya’s mother “had of course endured incomparably more suffering than joy on account of him, trembling and dying of fear almost every day last he become ill, catch cold, be naughty, climb on a chair and fall off, and so on and so forth”—just like Tolstoy’s foolish mothers. Somewhat later, Kolya describes “doctors and all medical scum” as “swindlers” and rejects medicine as a “useless institution”—just like Pozdnyshev. I’m not proposing that these characters or books have much to do with each other directly, just that these seem to be more currents of 19th century Russian thought I’ve been discovering over the past few months.

Liza Khokhlakov

Liza struck me as one of the more intriguing characters in the novel, and she’s the one I most feel I’d like to understand better (however, I don’t think she’s worth a re-read). She is very perceptive, and one of my favorite scenes was her last one with Alyosha:

“You’re unfit to be a husband: I’d marry you, and suddenly give you a note to take to someone I’d have fallen in love with after you, and you would take it and make sure to deliver it, and even bring back the reply. And you’d be forty years old and still carrying such notes.”

I especially like the forty years old; Liza has the confidence of a much older judge of character. At the same time, I don’t trust that Liza is really whole or coherent. Normally I would say I just haven’t made total sense of her yet, but with Dostoevsky I don’t have faith there is necessarily sense to be made. Is that pineapple compote brilliant or insane?

The Devil and Descartes

The devil taunts Ivan:

“Let’s say I’m of one philosophy with you, if you like, that would be correct. Je pense donc je suis, I’m quite sure of that, but all the rest around me, all those worlds, God, even Satan himself—for me all that is unproven, whether it exists in itself, or is only my emanation, a consistent development of my I, which exists pre-temporally and uniquely….”

I couldn’t say how well Dostoevsky knew his Descartes, but this is a bit of a cute joke if he did. One property of Descartes’s argument on this subject is that it holds even in the presence of a deceiving god or demon; even if a being’s perceptions are deceived by such a god, the deceived being must itself exist.

The Narrator

One thing that has consistently bothered me about the madness of the monologues in the novel is the improbability of their being recounted. The narrator notes at the beginning of Book XII that he “will say beforehand, and say emphatically, that I am far from considering myself capable of recounting all that took place in court, not only with the proper fullness, but with the proper order.” And the courtroom scene takes up only 1/10 of the book!

The Stick with Two Ends

The defense attorney, Fetyukovich, speaks for me during his closing argument:

“Here, then, is a different psychology. I myself, gentlemen of the jury, have resorted to psychology now, in order to demonstrate that one can draw whatever conclusions one likes from it. It all depends on whose hands it is in. Psychology prompts novels even from the most serious people, and quite unintentionally. I am speaking of excessive psychology, gentlemen of the jury, of a certain abuse of it.”

This is, roughly, how I often think of Dostoevsky.

Stinking Lizaveta

What does it mean that the holy fool gives birth to the murderer? To, I believe, the parricide? It would seem to strangely agree with me on the weakness of holy folly. On the weakness of Russia for holy folly? The danger that the vulnerable holy fool, dear to Russia’s bosom, could be corrupted by godless European sensuousness and produce a sort of hybrid monster, a Russian “lackey” who plays dumb but instead plots out a nasty crime?


“Karamazovian” is a frequent adjective in the novel, but what does it really mean? It usually describes unrestraint, or excess, but again and again it struck me as inapt. I never really had the impression the brothers and their father were alike, despite some superficial similarities and parallels. Every time I read “Karamazovian” it seemed a forced attempt to associate them more closely with one another, as a family, as a unit, than they really were. And yet they were undeniably close in some ways. But I remain unconvinced that this “Karamazovian” is as solid a thing as the village perhaps thought it.

4 comments to The Brothers Karamazov: “let no one grumble if I tell only that which struck me personally and which I have especially remembered”

  • The way the defense attorney got everyone to look suspicious was great – my favorite thing about the trial. Also, thanks for bringing Lize up – she’s a most intriguing character and I would have liked to learn more about her. She definitely flirts with craziness, but cripes, if I had to live with her mother…! Anyway, another excellent post and a big hurrah for finishing it and putting Dostoevsky behind us for awhile! :)

  • {I clutch my head and groan} – Too. Much. Substance!

    I was tempted to follow Zosimish ethics to various horrible conclusions. The only mitigating factor I’ve come up with, which may be babble, is that Dostoevsky’s ideas may be so strongly built around Russian Orthodox monasticism that they aren’t meant so literally for everyone else. I mean, maybe monks, or Alysoha-like figures, play special roles that reg’lar folks don’t have to fill.

    Crime and Punishment has similar problems – that’s Nabokov’s ethical critique of Dostoevsky, this bizarre equivalency, Raskolnikov’s axe murder and Sonya’s prostitution treated as equivalent crimes. Or equivalent mechanisms that lead to salvation or something.

    Some closely related ideas will show up in James Hogg. It’s clearer to me, now, why existentialists, for example, break off the parts of Karamazov they like and quietly ignore the rest.

    The “pineapple compote” line, like “loyal as seven hundred poodles” – I feel the same way. Is this brilliant, or ridiculous, or ridiculously brilliant, or what? Anyway, I pinched it today, and will borrow more tomorrow.

    Karamazovian – how long were the brothers actually in this town? Hardly at all, if I remember right. So are the townspeople just attributing the characteristics of the father (who they know well) to all of the sons (who they don’t know at all) in a way that we, the readers, are supposed to see as ironic?

  • nicole

    Sarah—Ha, yes, Madame Khokhlakov! She was certainly a wild one. I did like her but glad I didn’t grow up with her.

    AR—In fact, your mitigating idea is that only way I can really make sense of Dostoevsky, and it’s an idea that’s much stronger in me now with my recent experience of Tolstoy. I hate the idea of saying “the Russians are just different,” but I think it does turn out that Russian Orthodoxy in general and monasticism in particular play a big role and prevent some of these ideas from surviving outside that milieu. And yes, I have pretty much the exact same issues with C&P.

    I don’t remember now exactly on the times the brothers were around, but I think Alyosha was there quite a bit longer (years?) than everyone else but the father. And everyone loves him from the time he arrives. Dmitri has been annoying people for a few months, and Ivan for even less time, I believe. So I think you may have a point about the townspeople and Fyodor, but then Alyosha should have crumbled their ideas of family unity before the others could arrive. Maybe.

    Also, you have me looking forward more and more to Hogg. I’m rather curious about it, because I also see Scottish religion as rather exceptional.

    And as much as I was frustrated by BK, now that it’s all over I suddenly feel like I want to read some actual criticism. Nothing long-form, just essays. I’d like to know, for example, what existentialists really get out of it—I have a vague idea that they liked it, because the Nietzsche-loving kid in my high school English class did, but beyond that, I’m not really sure. What do they break off? What do they keep?

  • For a piece of clean proto-existentialism, see p. 592, “A Hymn and a Secret,” Dmitri on the path to wherever he is going. He has “thirst to exist and be conscious.” “I am! In a thousand torments – I am; writhing under torture – but I am.”

    VN’s lecture on Dostoevsky has more on Karamazov than I had remembered. Victor Terras is good – Karamazov is just a short chapter of Reading Dostoevsky – VN is the prosecution, Terras is the defense.

    Your idea about Higg is just right – what works in that novel is that Hogg takes Scottish Calvinism seriously, no matter how horrifying the results.