The Brothers Karamazov
Book One, Chapters 1-3
by Dennis Abrams
“From the Author”: The book’s ‘hero’ (at least according to the ‘author’) is Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, “…I can foresee the inevitable questions, such as What is notable about your Alexei Fyodorovich that you should choose him for hero?…Why should I…the reader, spend my time studying the facts of his life?” The ‘author’ notes, “To me he is noteworthy, but I decidedly doubt that I shall succeed in proving it to the reader.” One biography, two novels, “The main novel is the second one — about the activities of my hero in our time…As for the first novel, it already took place thirteen years ago and is even almost not a novel at all but just one moment from my hero’s early youth.” Book One: A Nice Little Family: Our hero, Alexei Fyodorovich is the third son “of a landowner from our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall speak of in its proper place.” Fyodor Pavlovich, who started with next to nothing, at his death was “discovered to have as much as a hundred thousand roubles in hard cash. At the same time he remained all his life one of the most muddleheaded madcaps in our district.” His two marriages and three sons: the eldest, Dmitri Fyodorovich by his first wife, and the other two, Ivan and Alexei, by his second. Fyodor’s first wife came from a rich aristocratic family, came with a dowry, and was beautiful, “Precisely how it happened that a girl with a dowry, a beautiful girl, too…could have married such a worthless ‘runt,’ as everyone used to call him, I cannot begin to explain.” Was she a member of the ‘romantic’ generation? Was it “the echo of foreign influences, the chafings of a mind imprisoned? Marrying Fyodor against her parent’s will, Adelaida Ivanovna eloped with Fyodor, who immediately “filched all her cash from her.” Her family’s intervention. Frequent fights between husband and wife, “but according to tradition it was not Fyodor Pavlovich who did the beating but Adelaida Ivanovna, a hot-tempered lady, bold, dark-skinned, impatient, and endowed with remarkable physical strength. Adelaida runs away to Petersburg with a “destitute seminarian,” leaving the three year old Mitya behind, and soon dies, “somehow suddenly, in some garret, of typhus according to one version, of starvation according to another.” Did Fyodor lift his hands to the sky with joy or weep and sob like a little child at the news? The unsuitability of Fyodor as a parent, “As a father he did precisely what was expected of him; that is, he totally and utterly abandoned his child by Adelaida Ivanovna, not out of malice towards him and not from any wounded matrimonial feelings, but simply because he totally forgot about him.” Mitya is sent to live in the servant’s cabin so as not to interrupt his father’s “debaucheries,” but catches the attention of Adelaida Ivanovna’s liberal cousin, Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov, who asks to take responsibility for him, and is sent to live with one of mother’s cousins in Moscow. After her death, he is passed from one house to another. Dmitri Fyodorovich’s conviction that he “had some property and would be independent when he came of age. Never finishing high school, he ended up in a military school, then in the Caucasus, fought a duel, was broken in the ranks, promoted again, and led a wild life. Dmitri’s father takes advantage of him. Shortly after sending Mitya off to Moscow, Fyodor Pavlovich marries for a second time. His wife, Sofia Ivanovna, a beautiful orphan, grew up in the rich of house of her “benefactress and tormenter,” the widow of General Vorokhov. Her suicide attempt, her elopement as a sixteen year old with Fyodor Pavlovich. Because of her humility and meekness, Fyodor “trampled with both feet on the ordinary decencies of marriage. Loose women would gather in the house right in front of his wife, and orgies took place.” Sofia’s slow breakdown, followed by terrible hysterical fits, “Nevertheless she bore Fyodor Pavlovich two sons, Ivan and Alexei, the first in the first year of marriage, the second three years later.” Her death. Ivan and Alexei follow in Dmitri’s footsteps to the servant’s cabin, where they are rescued three months after Sofia Ivanovna’s death by the general’s widow, but only after slapping Fyodor and jerking him three times by his forelock. After her death, the two boys are cared for by her principal heir, the provincial marshal of nobility for that province, Yefim Peetrovich Polenov. His love for Alexei. Ivan, who while growing up was “gloomy and withdrawn,” began “to show some sort of unusual and brilliant aptitude for learning.” His education. Problems receiving the money the general’s widow had put aside for him. Making his name with writing for newspapers and magazines. His article about the ecclesiastical courts with its “unexpected conclusion.” Unexpectedly, Ivan Fyodorovich returns home, “Generally considered, it was strange that so learned, so proud, and seemingly so prudent a young man should suddenly appear in such a scandalous house, before such a father, who had ignored him all his life, who did not know or remember him…[and who] was afraid all his life that his sons, Ivan and Alexei, too, would one day come and ask him for money.” Ivan and Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov become friends. “Only later did we learn that Ivan Fyodorovich had come partly at the4 request and on the behalf of his elder brother, Dmitri Fyodorovich, whom he met and saw for the first tome on this visit…” Ivan as mediator. “This nice little family…” The youngest brother, Alexei, who “at that time had been living for about a year in our monastery, and it seemed he was preparing to shut himself up in it for the rest of his life.”
Well…we got plunged immediately into the action, meeting Fyodor Pavlovich; learning about his character (or lack thereof), his two wives and three children, being told that he will have “a dark and tragic death…” If nothing else, Dostoevsky knows how to get the reader’s attention.
From Robin Feuer Miller:
“Any reader beginning The Brothers Karamazov for the first time will discover that Part I lays out, often in comic form, the questions, the implied answers, and the sheer drama of the rest of the novel. The early events and each idea that the characters express at the beginning rhyme with other parts of the novel. Indeed, the very rhyming of interconnectedness of the parts of The Brothers Karamazov becomes the reader’s own thread through the labyrinth of events and ideas that are to follow. This, then, is a novel of rhymes. Characters, fragments of plot, fragments of time — all echo and reverberate in unexpected ways and places. An evil deed can find its parallel in a good one; the secret fantasies of one character can find an echo in the theories of another. A stray dog running through the back alleys can be an instrument of damnation or of salvation.
Perhaps nothing contributes more to the intensity of the interlocking rhymes in this novel than the epigraph. Dostoevsky gave epigraphs to only two of his major novels: The Possessed (1871) and The Brothers Karamazov. Both are from the Bible (although The Possessed has an epigraph from Pushkin as well as an epigraph from Luke 8:32-37). As with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), these biblical epigraphs offer up a kind of ground thesis to the novel; each author is also making a virtuoso showing of the immense variety of uses to which such an epigraph can be put.
Dostoevsky takes his epigraph from John 12:34: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’ The Brothers Karamazov is a novel that seeks to affirm the existence of miracle and to scrutinize its complexities, the uses to which it can be put, and its spontaneous, even gratuitous manifestations; it is a novel about salvation and damnation. The epigraph, in the many guises we see it assumed throughout the novel, becomes a kind of standard-bearer for these weighty, metaphysical themes, themes the modern reader tends to avoid.”
One question I had was who, exactly, given the introduction “From the Author,” IS the author (or supposed to be the author) of this book. Joseph Frank discusses this:
“The Brothers Karamazov begins with a preface labeled ‘From the Author,’ and some question has arisen as to whether this ‘author’ is Dostoevsky himself or the fictional narrator of his story. This question raises the more general issue of his fictional narrator as such, who determines the perspective from which a good deal of the novel will be read. In fact, two narrators are provided: one who comes to the foreground and is indirectly characterized as a resident of the town personally acquainted with the Karamazov story, another who allows the characters to express themselves in lengthy monologues or in dramatic confrontations with hardly any commentary. Dostoevsky was well aware of this problem of narrative perspective, and the solution he adopts here is similar to his earlier choice for Demons. There we find the same two types of narration; one expository, and the other dramatic; but while the expository narrator in that novel participated in the dramatic action, in The Brothers Karamazov he is totally detached from the events. Since these took place thirteen years earlier, he serves only as a historian or chronicler, but one who indicates some personal acquaintance with the events at the time they occurred. Although he may disappear as a presence in the dramatic scenes, he is nonetheless important and exhibits a distinct physiognomy.”
More on this tomorrow.
Book One, Chapters Four and Five