Trapped In A Glass Case of Emotion: The Curious Case of the Catastrophic Karamazovs
by Kerry Moore
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel is the literary equivalent of a cannonball into the ocean that is the human mind. Without chasing the metaphor for too long, we are plunged into a drama that eventually destroys what semblance of family the Karamazovs have pieced together over the years. Courtesy of Dostoevsky’s masterful psychological insights, the murder tale that frames The Brothers Karamazov unfolds through dialogues that occur both with other characters and within the minds of the Karamazov men. Patterns or traits begin to emerge that are distinctly “Karamazovian:” passion, a tendency to overreact, dueling sides of one personality, and a keen sense of self-awareness.
To be a Karamazov is to be a walking contradiction. These men have no “middle setting”—the switch is either on or off, zero or sixty, all or nothing. Beginning with the patriarch Fyodor, the Karamazov men are walking contradictions, a volatile mixture of belief and doubt, passion and restraint, denial and excess, sin and redemption. As a popular song puts it, the Karamazovs feel it all.
Fyodor, the head of the family, is a shameless rascal, but his degeneracy is betrayed by moments of good character. The onset of Smerdyakov’s epilepsy triggers a concern for the child that surprises the narrator and even himself—“Formerly he had looked on him somehow indifferently…[but] when he learned of the illness, he decidedly began to worry about him, called a doctor in, [and] began treating him” (Dostoevsky, 124). The callous façade slips a bit more when Alyosha drops in on his father after leaving the monastery. Fyodor, in a rage over the loss of “the looks I had then” and Dmitri’s apparent theft of the delectable Grushenka (for “I was much better looking than he is at twenty-eight,” according to Fyodor), rudely dismisses Alexei and is answered with a kiss from his youngest son (175). The kiss, done for no reason at all, stuns the old lecher, whose suppressed, decayed humanitas responds desperately to his son’s unconditional love; “’Listen,’ he called after him, ‘come sometime soon, do you hear? For fish soup, I’ll make fish soup, a special one, not like today. You must come! Listen come tomorrow. I’ll see you tomorrow!’” (175-76). The old man is not repentant of his sins, but he is at least capable of caring, of being rendered vulnerable by the love of others.
Indeed, the elder Karamazov is very far from feeling contrite about his lifestyle. He never apologizes for his decadence, never excuses his endless womanizing, and never explains his disregard for the upbringing of his legitimate sons. He is, however, completely conscious of his actions and decisions, and tells Alexei that he doesn’t desire the Christian reward of heaven, telling him, “it’s even unfitting for a decent man to go to your paradise, if there really is such a place. I say a man falls asleep and doesn’t wake up, and that’s all; remember me in your prayers if you want to, and if not, the devil take you. That’s my philosophy” (173). His eternal quest for self-gratification is calculated, its effects intentional.
Fyodor Pavlovich’s unrestrained hedonism filters down to his sons by varying degrees; more importantly, so does his self-awareness. Each of the Karamazov boys manifest the “sensualism” of their father, but each approaches it differently. The key difference between Fyodor and his sons is the shame and revulsion that each they feel, and his apparent lack thereof. Each brother eventually comes face to face with this familial “sensualism” and is forced to tackle it head on.
The oldest, Dmitri, sees no escape from it, and is revolted by the passions that boil his blood. His attempts to channel those passions into proper love with Katerina are ruined by that ruinous trait. Unlike Fyodor, he is racked by guilt; he is unable to escape it, and disgust emerges in his frenzied rants to Alyosha. Meeting Alyosha while deep in a scandal involving himself, Katerina, Grushenka, Dmitri declares, “You know me by now: an scoundrel, an avowed scoundrel! But know that whatever I have done before or now or may do later—nothing, nothing can compare in baseness with the dishonor I am carrying” (156). He compares himself and his family to insects, lamenting, “All of us Karamazovs are like that, and in you, an angel, the same insect lives and stirs up storms in your blood. Storms, because sensuality is a storm, more than a storm!” (108). Dmitri greets the murder of his father almost gratefully, and sees in the suffering promised therein a chance to redeem himself, to cleanse himself of his passions.
At the end of his interrogation, exhausted both physically and emotionally, Dmitri falls into a sleep tormented by a dream of a starving, freezing baby, one that will die under Dmitri’s uncaring eye. But that was the old Dmitri—the new Mitya, purified by his cathartic confessions, “feels a tenderness such as he has never known before surging up in his heart, he wants to weep, he wants to do something for them all…and it must be done at once, at once, without delay and despite everything, with all his Karamazov unrestraint.” (508). He decides immediately to throw himself fully into helping others without premeditation. This odd mixture of sensual gratification and moral strength defines all of the Karamazov brothers in a way that never touches the unredeemable Fyodor.
The middle son, Ivan, displays the starkest split between the two dissident sides of the Karamazovian personality. Ivan is a cold man, possessing an intellect so sharp that he distances himself from the world. Capable of measured debate and unwilling to render himself vulnerable, Ivan’s emotions reveal themselves in his stance on the existence of God. Reasoning that a supposedly good deity would never allow the suffering of innocent children—for “one can love children even up close, even dirty or homely children”—Ivan doubts the existence of God, or at least a benevolent God (237). Encased in his ivory tower of intelligence, he can disdain the vital emotional strings that connect God to humanity as weak and foolish. But even intellectuals do not live in a vacuum, and the murder of Fyodor makes that painfully clear.
The bastard son Smerdyakov is the true murderer of Fyodor, but Ivan (and Dmitri too) is racked with guilt in the weeks and months following the crime. Both brothers feel as if they tacitly wished for the death, that even if the thought was not spoken out loud, it was spoken in the heart. Smerdyakov explains to Ivan, “As for killing—you, personally, could never have done it, sir, and you didn’t want to do it either; but as for wanting it someone else to kill—that you did want” (615). This partly explains Dmitri’s almost joyous confession, but in Ivan this realization shatters the logic that protects his vulnerable emotions. Smerdyakov drops another bomb on Ivan when he confesses that while he was in fact Fyodor’s killer, he could not have done it without the intellectual ammunition Ivan gave him: “It was true what you taught me, sir…if there’s no infinite God, then there’s no virtue either, and no need of it at all. It was true. That’s how I reasoned” (632). Much to his horror, Ivan’s path through the world intersects and affects the paths of others, and this sudden understanding unhinges him. Brought to the trial of Dmitri following the terrifying argument the a hallucination of the devil, Ivan madly blurts from the witness stand, “I’m not mad, I’m simply a murderer! One really cannot expect eloquence from a murderer…” (686). Where Dmitri found release from his destructive passions in suffering Ivan finds pain and madness. His attempt to distance his mind from his emotions fails in a miserable flurry of pain and insanity.
Alexei Fyodorovich is Fyodor’s youngest son. An extremely pure and gentle person, he is loved by everyone who knows him. Alyosha is the most grounded of the Karamazovs thanks to the beatific, loving Zosima. Zosima senses a kindred spirit in Alexei, one that must be tempered by the painful fires and temptations of the world outside the monastery. This bothers the youngest Karamazov, who is not naïve but extremely aware of his own character. From childhood Alyosha has possessed a “wild, frantic modesty and chastity. He could not bear to hear certain words and certain conversations about women” (20). This strange quality is an effort to deny that part of his personality innately influenced by his father’s blood. When Dmitri confronts him about his blushing, he confesses, “I blushed not at your words, and not at your deeds, but because I’m the same as you.” (109). If Alyosha did not understand what being a Karamazov means before, Ratikin is more than glad to spell it out for him—“The whole question of you Karamazovs comes down to this: you’re sensualists” (80). Zosima, the monastery, and the sheltered life he lives protect Alyosha from the vociferous passions that run through his blood.
When Zosima instructs Alexei to leave the monastery, he intends for the young man to find his true self in the push and pull of everyday life, the enticements of women and the anger of men, the joys of children and the sorrow of their deaths. His death pushes Alyosha further from the monastery and the fanatics that deny the normal impulses of humanity. Only through Zosima’s concept of active love does Alyosha channel his passions to improve the world around him; the loving kiss of Fyodor (175) and the surprising emergence of Grushenka’s caring side (353) are results of the acceptance and love of Zosima’s teachings.
Despite all this, defining the Karamazovs remains defiantly tricky. By the end of The Brothers Karamazov we are left grasping for words that will sufficiently describe the family: manic, epic self-discipline, epic self-indulgence, the list could continue forever. It is impossible to fully describe the “Karamazovian” character. Instead, we must understand the ongoing battle between the “insect” of passion burrowed deep inside the minds of all the Karamazovs and the guilt the brothers feel; the weight of the family name; the shame of being notorious because of the family patriarch; and the infamy that accompanies any and all ventures, whether romantic, business, or ecclesiastical. To be a Karamazov is to suffer, to love the world and hate oneself without equal abandon, to experience the inevitable pain and torment that accompanies the epiphanies each of the brothers go through. Only through these trials do the Karamazov brothers redeem and accept the passions and emotions that society has deemed unhealthy and sinful.