“And as they nailed him up, the dancing harlots were singing songs to the psaltery.”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Two, Chapter Eight
by Dennis Abrams

“Scandal” “Miusov and Ivan Fyodorovich were already entering the Superior’s rooms when a sort of delicate process quickly transpired in Pyotr Alexandorvich, a genuinely decent and delicate man: he felt ashamed of his anger.” Miusov’s contempt for the “worthless” Fyodor Pavlovich, his anger at losing his composure, his decision to stop his court actions against the monastery. (They worth very little anyway.) The Father Superior’s two rooms, although more spacious and comfortable than the elders, “were not distinguished by any special comfort…the floors were not even painted…” Rakitin later recounted the menu: “a sturgeon soup with little fish pies, then boiled fish prepared in some particular and perfect way; then salmon cakes, ice cream and fruit compote, and finally a little custard resembling blancmange.” Rakitin “had connections everywhere and made spies everywhere. He had a restless and covetous heart…” Dinner with the Father Superior. Miusov apologizes for Fyodor’s absence, aware that the Father Superior knew of the earlier events. “I most sincerely regret our guest’s absence. Perhaps over our dinner he would have come to love us, and we him…” Prayers before dinner. “And at that moment, Fyodor Pavlovich cut his last caper.” The narrator points out that “it should be noted” that Fyodor had intended to leave and felt the “impossibility” of going to dinner at the Superiors as if nothing had happened. It is not that he was ashamed, but that it would have been improper. On the verge of leaving, “his eyes gleamed, and his lips even trembled. ‘Since I’ve started it, I may as well finish it.'” His innermost feeling was something like this: “There is no way to rehabilitate myself now, so why don’t I just spit all over them without any shame; tell them, ‘You’ll never make me ashamed, and that’s that!” Fyodor enters the Father Superior’s “They thought I was gone, and here I am.” Miusov can’t bear it. The Father Superior welcomes Fyodor. Fyodor start in, attacking Miusov, attacking Maximov by calling him “von Sohn,” a man killed in a house of “fornication”…”they killed him, and robbed him, and, despite his venerable age, stuffed him into a box, nailed it shut, and sent it from Petersburg to Moscow in a baggage car, with a label and everything. And as they nailed him, the dancing harlots were singing songs to the psaltery,” going on about his concern for Alexei, confession, confessing out loud, flagellation…” The narrator notes that on the subject of confession and flagellation, “Fyodor Pavlovich had heard the ringing of rumor’s bells..But the silly devil who had snatched up Fyodor Pavlovich and carried him on his own nerves further and further into the shameful deep prompted him to this former accusation, which Fyodor Pavlovich could not even begin to understand.” Miusov calls the accusation “vile,” the Father Superior says, “Of old it was said: ‘And they began to speak against me many things and evil things. And I heard it and said within myself: this is the medicine of Jesus, which he has sent me to heal my vain soul.’ And therefore we, too, humbly thank you, our precious guest.’ And he bowed deeply to Fyodor Pavlovich.” Fyodor continues to attack the monastery, their choice of wine, calls them bloodsuckers. Miusov runs out, Fyodor threatens to leave “And I won’t come back again, even if you beg me on bended knee…” and promises to give the monastery no more money. The Father Superior: “It is said, again: ‘Suffer with joy the dishonor which providentially befalleth thee, and be not troubled, neither hate him who dishonoreth thee.’ So shall we do.” Fyodor yells for Alyosha to leave the monastery. Fyodor and Ivan drive home in silence.

Now that didn’t go well at all.

More from Joseph Frank, regarding Dostoevsky’s use of the narrator:

“The Russian scholar V.E. Vetlovskaya writes that Dostoevsky deliberately blurred the lines between himself as author and his fictional narrator because this indistinction allowed him to express his own opinions in a veiled and seemingly naive fashion. He was writing what she calls a ‘philosophical-publicistic’ work, which advanced a definite tendency and advocated a specific moral-religious point of view — and one to which, as he well knew, many of his readers would have opposed. He thus tried to defuse negative reactions by creating a figure that evokes a ‘modernized’ version of the tone and attitude typical of the pious narrators of the hagiographical lives of Russian saints. His language constantly plays on associations that would recall such saints’ lives to the reader, and, other attributes of the narrator’s style, such as syntactical inversions that would be felt as archaisms, can also be traced to such an intent. The fumbling, tentative quality of his assertions, his uncertainty about details, his moralistic judgments and evaluations, his emotional involvement in the lives of the characters, his lack of literary sophistication, and the heavy-handedness of his expository technique — all can be seen as an up-to-date version of the pious, reverent, hesitant, hagiographical style of the Russian religious tradition. Such a narrator would be apt to produce a sense of trust in the reader by his very awkwardness and simplicity, and his constant appeal to the opinion of the community also imparts a chorus-like quality to the testimony that he offers. Dostoevsky thus uses him to insinuate his own point of view without arousing an instantly hostile response.”

And this from Robin Feuer Miller on the structure of Part One of Karamazov:

“Part I of The Brothers Karamazov contains three books, ‘The History of a Certain Family,’ “An Unfortunate Gathering,” and “The Sensualists.” Each of these titles reflects different narrative propensities of the figure whom Dostoevsky uses to get his story told — the narrator-chronicler. “The History of a Certain Family” alerts the reader immediately to the fact that the narrator-chronicler intends to proceed in an orderly fashion; his readers are to know something about the members of the Karamazov family before they actually encounter them — to use a favorite phrase of Dostoevsky’s in his notebooks — in a ‘field of action.’ “An Unfortunate Gathering” hints that the action of the novel will begin abruptly and scandalously — indeed, Dostoevsky and his many narrators have all had a penchant for scandal scenes. And finally, “The Sensualists” shows the reader that our narrator-chronicler, however fond he is of depicting ‘a certain family’ or a particular ‘unfortunate gathering’ also has a predilection for creating types, for discovering the generalization that lurks at the heart of the particular. One is reminded of the aphorism with which Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In that statement the general and the particular also coexist as categories of each other. All these hypotheses about the narrator-chronicler and his story, made simply by glancing at the table of contents of Dostoevsky’s hefty novel, are, to some degree, borne out by a reading of Part I.

But, of course, these expectations are not fulfilled without some twists. There often exists a tension between the title of a book or chapter and its content — often, but not always. The ‘not always’ is key: because the reader cannot predict what the narrator’s stance will be, he or she cannot make judgments precipitously. The chapter title, “Peasant women who have faith,” turns out to be sincere, but “A seminarian bent on a career” drips with irony and oxymoron. And what of the middle ground? What attitude does the narrator-chronicler imply by the three “Confession of an ardent heart” chapters, or by “The controversy?” Here irony and sympathetic sincerity intersect, and the reader must withhold judgment. Throughout this long novel, Dostoevsky uses his narrator-chronicler as a device to force us to make and remake judgments, and, eventually, to learn when to suspend them.”

Tuesday’s Reading:

Book Three, Chapters One and Two


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