The Brothers Karamazov
Book Two, Chapters 4-7
by Dennis Abrams
“A Lady of Little Faith” The visiting landowner and her ailing daughter, Lise. A note from Katerina Ivanovna for Alyosha, “Oh, it’s all about Dmitri Fyodorovich and…all these recent events.” Lise only feels “good” when she’s with Alyosha. Lise’s “brave and lofty words.” Her mother’s suffering, “I suffer from…lack of faith…the lift after death — it’s such a riddle! And on one, but one will solve it! Zosima’s belief in her anguish. The mother: “You see, I close my eyes and think: if everyone has faith, where does it come from?…I look around and see that for everyone else, almost everyone, it’s all the same, no one worries about it anymore, and I’m the only one who can’t beat it. It’s devastating, devastating!” Her love of mankind, her dream of becoming a sister of mercy, “No wounds, no festering sores could frighten me. I would bind them and cleanse them with my own hands, I would nurse the suffering, I am ready to kiss those sores…but could I survive such a life for long?…I close my eyes and ask myself: could you stand it for long on such a path?…In short, I work for pay and demand my pat at once, that is, praise and a return of love, for my love. Otherwise I’m unable to love anyone!” Zosima eases her concerns, “…I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment — I predict this to you — you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.” Lise’s teasing of Alyosha, who years earlier had taught her to read and promised they would remain friends forever. “So Be It! So Be It!” While Zosima is absent from his cell, the discussion continues between Ivan Fyodorovich, the two hieromonks, and Miusov — Fyodor Pavlovich sits quietly, taking pleasure in Miusov’s irritation. Ivan’s article about the ecclesiastical courts. Will the Church become the State, or the State become the Church? How would justice best be served: civil punishment or church excommunication? Zosima, entering the discussion, observes, “It is true, that now Christian society itself is not yet ready, and stands only on seven righteous men; but as they are never wanting, it abides firmly all the same, awaiting its complete transfiguration from society as still an almost pagan organization, into one universal and sovereign Church. And so be it, so be it, if only at the end of time, for this alone is destined to be fulfilled!” Miusov’s imposing silence, Rakitin (the seminarian). “Why Is Such a Man Alive!” Dmitri Fyodorovich arrives, “a young man of twenty-eight, of medium height and agreeable looks, appeared, however, much older than his years. He was muscular and one could tell that he possessed considerable physical strength; nonetheless something sickly, as it were, showed in his face.” His apologies, his bows, first to Zosima, than to his father. Are the final results of socialism and Christianity the same? Miusov’s anecdote: Ivan’s belief that “there is decidedly nothing in the whole world that would make men love their fellow men; that there exists no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that if there is and has been any love on earth up to now, it has come not from natural law but solely from people’s belief in their own immortality. Ivan Fyodorovich added …that that is what all natural law consists of, so that were mankind’s belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted…and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation.” The discussion continues; Zosima blesses Ivan. Fyodor attacks his son, accuses him of getting a noble girl to fall in love with him and become his fiancee, but is now dumping her in favor of “one of the local seductresses,” Grushenka. Dmitri accuses his father of using Grushenka to “ensnare him,” and of being in love with her himself. Fyodor screams that if Dmitri wasn’t his son, he’s challenge him to a duel; Dmitri says that instead of coming home with his fiancee to find cherish his father in his old age he finds “a depraved sensualist and despicable comedian,” the fight continues, culminating with Dmitri’s “Why is such a man alive! No, tell me, can he be allowed to go on dishonoring the earth with himself?” Fyodor accuses him of parricide; Zosima rises, steps towards Dmitri, and “kneeling in front of Dmitri Fyodorovich, the elder bowed down at his feat with a full, distinct, conscious, bow, and even touched the floor with his forehead.” “Forgive me! Forgive me, all of you!” Dmitri runs out, confusion reigns, the meeting breaks up. Will the guests still go have lunch with the Father Superior? “A Seminarist-Careerist” Alyosha with the elder in his bedroom — Zosima tells Alyosha to go to the Father Superior’s lunch to serve and be of use, “If demons raise their heads, recite a prayer,” adding that he is dying and that when he is dead, Alyosha must leave the monastery, “You will have much journeying before you.” Alyosha and Rakitin discuss the Karamazov family. Has Alyosha dreamt of murder? Would Dmitri put a knife into his father? The Karamazovs and sensuality. “So these three sensualists are now eying each other with knifes in their boots.” Is Dmitri giving his “fiancee” to Ivan so that he is free to have Grushenka? Does Grushenka want to pull Alyosha’s “little cassock off?” Alyosha’s crooked grin. Is Grushenka using both Fyodor and Dmitri? Does Ivan want Katerina Ivanovna’s dowry of sixty thousand roubles? Is Ivan’s theory “squalid?, “Mankind will find strength in itself to live for virtue, even without believing in the immortality of the soul. Find it in the love of liberty, equality, fraternity…” Is Grushenka a ‘loose woman?’ Why does Rakitin visit her? As Alyosha and Rakitin approach the Father Superior’s porch, Fyodor runs out, followed by Ivan, with Father Isidore shouting at them, and Fyodor shouting (and possibly swearing) back at him. Miusov leaves. Maximov is running. What happened?
Fascinating. Does everybody have the relationships straight? Dmitri is engaged to the wealthy and beautiful Katerina Ivanovna, but may be passing her on to his brother Ivan in favor of the “loose woman” Grushenka, with whom his father, Fyodor might also be in love. Also, crippled Lise seems to have feelings for Alyosha, who will be forced to leave the seminary when Zosima dies. Oh, and it seems that Dmitri wants his father dead. Am I missing anything?
From Joseph Frank, a terrific analysis of the chapters we just read:
“The action begins in Book 2 with the gathering of the Karamazovs in the monastery, and the threads of the main plot and subplots are skillfully exposed as the father and son shout furious insults at each other. The reader is also brought into the secluded world of the monastery, which Dostoevsky had never depicted before, and he contrasts the dignity and serenity of its inhabitants with the various types of egoistic self-concern exhibited by the secular characters. The grouping and succession of chapters is a part of Dostoevsky’s technique of conveying thematic motifs without direct authorial intervention. And so, after ‘the old buffoon’ (Feodor plays his role to the hilt) has begun his sacrilegious antics in the cell of Zosima, the narrative shifts to the profoundly moving faith of the peasants assembled to receive the elder’s spiritual counsel and blessing. The chapter ends on a comforting note of Christian love and solidarity operating among the Russian people.
The tonality of reverence is then replaced by amusing satirical comedy. Zosima turns from the suffering peasantry to the spoiled and wealthy Mme Khokhlakova and her crippled daughter Liza. This giddy lady is Dostoevsky’s diverting portrait of an affluent society matron with intellectual pretensions, who swings like a weather vane in response to every fashionable ideological gust. Perhaps because she is no position to cause any harm, she is treated with affectionate condescension. The tone is given by Zosima’s reply when she protests her overflowing ‘love for humanity’ and her occasional dreams of becoming a sister of mercy. ‘Sometimes, unawares,’ he observes, ‘you may do a good dead in reality.’ Not only do the self-indulgent lucubrations of Mme Khokhlakova provide an obvious antithesis to the devotion of the peasants, the exchange between Zosima and the burgling lady also prefigures one of the book’s deepest motifs.
For her chatterings anticipate, in a seriocomic version, Ivan Karamazov’s doubts concerning God and immortality, and Zosima’s response condenses the essence of what will soon be dramatized more seriously and powerfully. Mme Khokhlakova has picked up at second hand some of the fashionable atheism of the period, and wonders whether faith does not simply come from terror. What if, she asks with charming illogic, she discovers when she dies that ‘there’s nothing but burdocks growing on my grave’ (as Turgenev had written in Fathers and Children)? ‘How, how,’ she asks despairingly, ‘is one to prove it?’ To which Zosima replies that no proof is possible, but ‘If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then…no doubt can possibly enter your soul.’ The difference between such Christian love and a ‘rational love for humanity,’ which leaves the emotive roots of egoism untouched, is stressed in Zosima’s story of the doctor who confessed — as Ivan will — that ‘the more I detest men individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’
No other novelist can rival Dostoevsky’s ability to develop his themes; and reveal the moral-psychological sensibility of his characters, through discussions of seemingly abstract ideas. When Zosima returns to the fractious Karamazov assemblage, a discussion arises out of Ivan’s article on Church jurisdiction, already referred to, which enlarges on the hints already given about his character. Ivan had argued that the Christian Church should aspire to transform and absorb the4 state into itself, and should not be satisfied with a limited area of power; but this does not mean that the church should assume the prerogatives of a state, as in Roman Catholicism, which claims temporal power over humanity. Rather, the law of Christian love that rules in the Church should penetrate every area of secular existence, and the principles governing the relations among people would be based not on external force, but on the free and voluntary operation of the Christian moral conscience. Such a world would truly be the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, the total triumph of religious faith over secular reason, and Ivan’s eloquent exposition of this goal indicates how deeply he responds to this Christian ideal in its loftiest form.
Ivan’s emotive receptivity to this Orthodox-Slavophil-Christian ideal is only one aspect of his character; another — equally rigorous and uncompromising — is exhibited by his public declaration that the Christian law of love could not be detached from the Christian faith and that, without a belief in God and immortality, ‘the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law, and that egoism, even extending unto crime, must become not only lawful but recognized as the inevitable, the most rational, even honorable outcome of [this] position.’ Only Christian faith supports the application of the law of love in the world; otherwise, there is nothing to oppose selfishness and the depredations of vainglory. Ivan refuses to stop at any halfway house here, anymore than he had done on the issue of church and state, and his own inner conflict is mirrored by the absolute incompatibility between these alternatives. His rationalism prevents him from believing in Christ and immortality, but his moral sensibility will make it impossible for him to accept the appalling consequences that logically flow from such a lack of faith.
Zosima, the experienced reader of souls, sees through to the anguish of Ivan’s spiritual condition, and the dialogue between them highlights both the genuineness and the agonizing uncertainty of Ivan’s plight. When Zosima accuses him of believing neither in immortality nor in what he had written in defense of the supremacy of the Church, Ivan acknowledges the accusation, but adds, ‘I wasn’t altogether joking.’ Zosima pierces to the quick by warning Ivan that he is playing with the martyrdom of his own indecision and despair. Completely discomfited, Ivan fully exposes himself by asking Zosima, ‘strangely, looking at the elder with [an] inexplicable smile,’ whether the question of God ‘can be answered by him in the affirmative.’ Zosima’s response may be taken as an expression of Dostoevsky’s own attitude toward the whole generation of young Russians whom Ivan was meant to represent:
‘If it can’t be decided in the affirmative, it will never be decided in the negative. You know that in the peculiarity of your heart, and all its suffering is due to it. But thank the Creator who has given you a lofty heart capable of such suffering, ‘of thinking and seeking higher things, for our dwelling is in the heavens.’ God grant that your heart will attain the answer on earth, and may God bless your path.’
Ivan now reverently kisses the elder’s hand.
The presentation of Dimitry in Book 2 is less directly revelatory, but the outlines of his character come through nonetheless. For all his rowdiness and dissipation, there is a longing in him for ‘seemliness.’ He is the only ‘educated’ character who kisses Zosima’s hand as a matter of course, and he is capable, even in the midst of the furious altercation with his father, of sincerely acknowledging guilt. ‘Father, I don’t justify my action,’ he says of his assault on the pathetic Captain Snegiryov. ‘Yes, I confess it publicly, I behaved like a brute to the captain, and I regret it now, and I’m disgusted with myself for that brutal rage.’ Whipped up, however, by his father’s falsely pathetic taunts and reproaches about Katerina and Grushenka, Dimitry’s rage becomes uncontrollable. ‘Tell me, ‘ he thunders to the assembled audience, ‘can he be allowed to go on defiling the earth?’ It is immediately after this suggestion of parricide that Zosima — having noted both the terrible violence of Dimitry’s nature and his displays of conscience — bows down at his feet.
Alyosha is scarcely developed in this section and, after the opening page, remains in the background until a later stage. As Robin Feuer Miller has remarked, he functions as what Henry James called a ficelle, that is, a string tying together the actions of the other characters as he goes from one to the other. Book 2 is thematically rounded out by the one chapter devoted to Alyosha and his negative counterpart, the envious and self-serving Rakitin, a young novice in the monastery who has secretly and painless converted to atheism, science, and positivism. Rakitin is ‘a young man bent on a career,’ ready to sell his soul — in which he does not believe — for material success and social advancement. If Ivan represents the aspect of Populist youth that Dostoevsky saw as genuinely inspired by Christian ideals, Rakitin indicates how easily these ideals, when divorced from even a modicum of feeling for their original source, can be converted into a mask for meanness and mendacity.
Setting himself up as Ivan’s intellectual opponent, Rakitin declares that ‘humanity will find in itself the power to live for virtue even without believing in immortality. It will find it in love for freedom, for equality, for fraternity.’ But Rakitin is incapable of imagining that anyone can truly ‘live for virtue’ or act except from the most shamelessly selfish motives. Dostoevsky uses Rakitin’s disabused perspective as a foil to contrast the gross materialism of his ‘progressive’ point of view with the actual human and moral complexity of the situation in which his characters have become embroiled.”
Book Two, Chapter Eight