“In certain things in life one had to be on one’s guard, and that was difficult without a faithful man.”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Three, Chapters One and Two
by Dennis Abrams

“In the Servants’ Quarters” “The house of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov stood far from in the very center of town, yet not quite on the outskirts.” The house is rather “decrepit,” roomy and snug, and, “there were rats in it, but Fyodor Pavlovich was not altogether angry with them, ‘Still, it’s not so boring in the evenings when one is alone.'” The house is too large — it could hold five times as many masters and servants, but at that time, there was only Fyodor and Ivan, plus three servants in the cottage: Grigory, his wife Mara, and the young man Smerdyakov.” Grigory was a firm and unwavering man, his wife Marfa was constantly pestering him to leave Fyodor and move to Moscow to open a shop, but Grigory told her that to remain “was now their duty.” The weak side of Fyodor’s character, his fears, “in certain things in life one had to be on one’s guard, and that was difficult without a faithful man. And Grigory was a most faithful man.” Grigory to the rescue. Fyodor’s spiritual fears, “On those occasions it’s as if my soul were fluttering in my throat,” Grigory’s non-judgmental attitude towards his boss, his ability to calm his fears. Alyosha had the same skill, because “he lived there, saw everything, and condemned nothing.” Alyosha’s “natural, single-hearted attachment to [Fyodor], little though he deserved it.” Grigory’s hatred for Fyodor’s first wife, his love for his own, “He had never beaten her, save only once, and then slightly.” Grigory and Marfa’s lack of children of their own, his love for Fyodor’s children, their own son, born with six fingers, “a dragon,” — should he be baptized? His death. On the day they buried their six-fingered infant, Marfa hears a cry in the garden — “a local girl, a holy fool who roamed the streets and was known to the whole town as Stinking Lizaveta, had gotten into the bathhouse and just given birth to an infant. The infant was lying beside her, and she was dying beside him.” “Stinking Lizaveta” “This Stinking Lizaveta was a very short girl, ‘a wee bit under five feet,’ as many pious old ladies in our town touchingly recalled after her death.” She always slept on the ground and in the mud. “Her father was homeless and sickly…who had fits of heavy drinking…Lizaveta’s mother had long been dead. Eternally ill and angry, Ilya used to beat Lizaveta brutally whenever she came home. But she rarely came home, because she went begging all over town as a holy fool of God.” The town’s compassion for her. Her shift. One night, asleep on the ground, she is discovered by a bunch of drunken gentlemen who asked if such an animal could be considered a woman — Fyodor popped up, cutting capers and insisted that she could be regarded as a woman (it was around this time that he had learned of the death of his first wife, and had been “drinking and carousing so outrageously that some people in our town, even the most dissolute, cringed at the sight.” Fyodor is urged on. The drunks move on — did Fyodor? Five of six months later, the town is asking why Lizaveta was walking around pregnant and “who was the sinner? Who was the offender? Rumors spread that it was Fyodor. Only Grigory defended him, blaming Lizaveta “She herself is to blame, the low creature,” and insisting that the offender was “Karp with the Screw.” After Lizaveta’s death, Grigory and Marfa adopt her child, naming him Pavel, “as for his patronymic, as if by unspoken agreement everyone began calling him Fyodorovich.” Later on the child is given the last name Smerdyakov after his mother; when he grows up he becomes Fyodor’s cook.

Fyodor just becomes more and more loveable, don’t he? I was struck by the narrator’s snobbishness at the end of this chapter, talking about Smerdyakov:

“I ought to say a little more about him in particular, but I am ashamed to distract my reader’s attention for such a long time to such ordinary lackeys…”

More from Robin Feuer Miller:

“Dostoevsky, by creating his peculiar narrator-chronicler — that voice which also narrates The Idiot (1868) and The Possessed — had found a vehicle by which, even as he practiced occasional deceptions, he could persuade the reader of his narrator’s reliability. At the same time, the narrator-chronicler, by his fondness for making sociological and psychological pronouncements, by his irresistible desire to throw in hints of future events, and by his inability or even refusal to supply the facts of the matter at crucial moments, offered Dostoevsky a subtle means of manipulating his readers and making them duplicate indirectly some of the key experiences of his characters.

Yet behind this chatty, often digressive narrator lurks Dostoevsky, the conjurer who can convince us that all the actions and conversations in Books II and III took place in less than a single day. the action of Part I begins around 11:30 A.M. on a bright August day and ends sometime after nightfall. Dostoevsky, although he never wrote a play, was drawn to presenting vast chunks of his novels in sequential dramatic units. The scenes, linked for the most part by the movements of Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov (“Alyosha”), take place in the monastery, in a black alley and garden, at Katerina Ivanovna’s, and at a crossroads. The action begins and ends at the monastery, and along the way the humble settings of the small town take on a symbolic aura.

It is no wonder that Leonid Grossman, one of the major Russian critics of Dostoevsky, has called this novel a morality play. Fyodor Karamazov highlights this morality-play quality by urging Alyosha to bring his pillow and mattress home from the monastery. Alyosha, as he moves back and forth from the monastery to his father’s house, finds himself inhabiting a landscape that is as metaphoric as it is real. Two fathers — Fyodor Karamazov, his biological father, and Zosima, his spiritual father — compete for possession of his soul. He and his brothers undergo the trials typical of a protagonist in a morality play, so that the novel functions as a kind of polyphonic morality or mystery play. Yet even as we acknowledge the ‘morality play’ atmosphere, we become immersed in the many realistic, often comic details with which the novel brims.

Chapter 1 is entitled ‘Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov,’ yet the first words of the novel are ‘Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son…’ Thus, the narrator-chronicler sets up an immediate tension over the focus of the ensuing paragraphs. Is Fyodor being described for his own merits or because he is the father of this future hero, Alyosha? As the reader moves through the novel, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what is primary and what is variation, what is a main theme and what is a digression upon it.

Moreover, a novel that opens with a description of a third son who is in some ways a simpleton compared to his older brothers would seem to be a fairy tale. Before the reader has reached the second line of the novel, then, a series of conflicting expectations have been set up: we have moved from the epigraph from the Bible, to the apologetic, defensive, and chatty “From the Author,” to the expository “History of a Certain Family,” to the chapter title “Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov,” to the fairy-tale beginning. The reader, by the time he or she arrives at the first sentence, has undergone a series of perspective jolts, a bumpy carriage ride indeed, to borrow a metaphor that will figure near the end of the novel. Our narrator-chronicler or our author seems to want to play it all ways at once.”

More tomorrow.

Wednesday’s Reading:

Book Three, Chapters Three and Four


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One Response to “In certain things in life one had to be on one’s guard, and that was difficult without a faithful man.”

  1. Rick Delaney says:

    Thanks much for the Muller paragraphs. Very interesting thoughts. Papa Karamazov: he does have fears of his own (thus, having a “guard” in his house); and, the rats aren’t altogether worrisome to him. There’s a lot about him that is gray, not black and white. That’s one reason, in reply to your query yesterday about his joking/mocking/sincerity in front of the gathered Elders, I think he isn’t being completely facetious with them. I think much of the humor of those monastery quotes are made all the more so because he is trying to be formal, but, well, just ain’t able to be smooth and gracious. Ha!
    And it’s very interesting to me, as per Muller, about how Dost. is able to (or, at least tries to make us think he’s able to!) squeeze X amount of action into a single day. It can get very confusing, to me at least, about where we are chronologically at any given scene. I’ve already looked for and found a Brothers Karamazov timeline on the internet. I haven’t looked much at it–I don’t want to be spoonfed the facts. But, along those lines, I wonder if critics have commented on the aspect in the novel of “comings and goings”. Dost. must surely intend some effect upon us, the readers, with characters, esp. Alyosha, having to walk through the square to get to X; taking the short cut to reach Y; coming upon his brother as he is making his way to Z.

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