The Brothers Karamazov
Book Three, Chapter Five
by Dennis Abrams
“The Confession of an Ardent Heart. Heels Up'” “Now,’ said Alyosha, “I understand the first half of this business.” How Dmitri became Katerina Ivanovna’s fiancee: After she had accepted the five thousand roubles, Dmitri did not receive a word from her with one exception — an envelope, with no note, containing the ‘change’ from Dmitri’s money — two hundred and sixty roubles. Three weeks after he had “repaid” the money he had stolen, Katerina’s father died. Katerina was taken in by the general’s widow, who had recently lost her two closest heirs, and given eighty thousand roubles outright plus a promised inheritance. Katerina repays Dmitri, and three days later send another letter, offering to become his fiancee: “I love you madly, even if you do not love me — no matter, only be my husband. Don’t be afraid, I shan’t hinder you in any way, I’ll be your furniture, the rug you walk on…I want to love you eternally, I want to save you from yourself…” Dmitri’s feelings of unworthiness. Dmitri sends Ivan to deliver a letter to Katerina; Ivan falls in love with Katerina. “Don’t you see how she reveres him; how she respects him? Can she compare the two of us and still love a man like me, especially after all that’s happened here?” Dmitri insists that Katerina “loves her own virtue, not me.” Why should Katerina possibly prefer Dmitri? “Because a girl wants to violate her life and destiny, out of gratitude!…but destiny will be fulfilled, the worthy man will take his place, and the unworthy one will disappear down his back lane — his dirty back lane, his beloved, his befitting back lane, and there, in filth and stench, will perish of his own free will, and revel in it.” Dmitri and Katerina’s formal engagement. Dmitri asks Alyosha to go to Katerina and tell her “that I shall never come to her again, that I — tell her that I bow to her.” Dmitri’s ‘love’ for Grushenka, “A thunderstorm struck, a plague broke out, I got infected and am infected even now, and I know that everything is over and there will never be anything else.’ Grushenka’s “certain curve.” Her agreement to marry Dmitri. Dmitri confesses that Katerina had given him three thousand roubles to send to Agafya Ivanovna, but he instead spent it on Grushenka. How can he tell Katerina about that? Dmitri on Grushenka: “I’ll be her husband, I’ll have the honor of being her spouse, and if a lover comes, I’ll go to another room. I’ll clean her friends’ dirty galoshes. I’ll heat up the samovar, I’ll run errands…” Alyosha is certain that Katerina will understand everything. Dmitri urges Alyosha to go to their father to get the three thousand roubles to repay Katerina, knowing he’ll never give it to him. Fyodor has also offered Grushenka three thousand roubles to come visit him — Dmitri is on guard, watching his father’s house to see if she does. Dmitri says that if she does go to his father, “Maybe I won’t kill him, and maybe I will. I’m afraid that at that moment his face will suddenly become hateful to me. I hate his Adam’s apple his nose, his eyes, his shameless sneer. I feel a personal loathing. I’m afraid of that. I may not be able to help myself…” Alyosha’s certainty that “God will arrange it as he knows best, so that there is no horror.”
So…Katerina is willing to punish herself by being with Dmitri, and Dmitri is willing to punish himself by returning to his back alleys with Grushenka?
Since so far in our reading Alyosha’s character seems relatively clear, and Ivan’s is still largely unknown, I thought I’d share this look at Dmitri from Robin Feuer Miller:
“Although the narrator-chronicler proclaims Alyosha to be the hero; the drama of Part I revolves around Dmitri, whose arrival at the family meeting with Zosima the other characters are eagerly, often angrily expecting. The first thing he does on entering the room is to make a low bow to Zosima. By the end of Part I it is evident that the act of bowing has evolved from a relatively perfunctory social act to a full-fledged symbol of the complexities of Dmitri’s nature and the dilemmas of his moral situation. Since Dmitri yearns, above all, to be a man of honor, the bow is an apt gesture to attain symbolic status with regard to him. As we shall quickly see, such symbols adhere readily to Mitya; by the close of Part I back alleys, sums of money, and even a sword will all have become symbols expressive of his potential.
Dostoevsky deploys varied strategies to bring his characters to life. Alyosha takes shape from the narrator chronicler’s descriptions and as other characters tell him their ideas and their troubles. He often remains silent or borrows the words of others, makes them his own, then transmits them to someone else. It is the narrator-chronicler who gives most of the background information about Alyosha — even Alyosha’s private memory of his mother comes from the narrator’s perspective.
Yet the narrator-chronicler gives us only perfunctory descriptions of Mitya Instead, it is through dialogue, through the words of others and especially through his own words, that he springs to life. Fyodor’s screeching harangue in the chapter “Why is such a man alive?” offers one view of Mitya’s personality, as well as some vital plot information. It is Fyodor who first tells, though in skewed form, of the relationship between Katerina Ivanovna and Mitya and of the dreadful, dangerously incestuous triangles existing between Mitya, Fyodor, and Grushenka and between Ivan, Mitya, and Katerina Ivanovna. Moreover, Fyodor applies a kind of sexual imagery to describe this situation that strongly resembles the way in which Mitya will later talk about himself. These two sensaulists are initially the only two who recognize that Grushenka, the supposedly loose woman, is virtuous. Fyodor observes, ‘Dmitri Fyodorovich wants to open this fortress with a golden key.’ His metaphor neatly identifies Mitya’s sexual energy with his desperate desire for money, while at the same time managing to suggest Grushenka’s virtue.
It is also Fyodor who makes the first allusion to what will develop into the major subplot of the novel: he relates that Mitya got into argument with his father’s agent, Captain Snegiryov, in a tavern, seized him by the beard, and publicly insulted him. Dmitri’s involvement in what subsequently becomes the story of Ilyusha and his family is thus foreshadowed, as is Dmitri’s ready admission of guilt and repentance: ‘I behaved like a brute to that captain, and I regret it now, and I am disgusted with myself for it.’ Through this anecdote, we see Mitya as a man capable of both thoughtless, passionate violence and an equally quick repentance for it. Moreover, Mitya’s response to Fyodor’s diatribe brings out what will prove to be a critical theme for Mitya: the tension-fraught and often hazy boundary between a lie and the truth. ‘It’s all a lie! Outwardly it’s the truth, but inwardly, a lie!’
Yet even as Mitya regrets his brutal rage towards his father’s agent, he collapses into another fury, one directed at its true source — his father, not his father’s surrogate or proxy. ‘Why is such a man alive?’ Fyodor’s replay at last brings to the surface what had been simmering beneath it all along: ‘Listen, listen monks, to the parricide.’
In Book III, ‘The Sensualists,’ the landscape and landmarks of Skotoprigonevsk take on a markedly metaphysical hue. When Alyosha, on his way to Katerina Ivanovna’s, takes a ‘shortcut’ through the back alleys and meets Mitya, their meeting is obviously charged from the outset with symbolic overtones. These same back alleys have already dominated the first two chapters of Book III as the locale for both the rape, years before, of ‘Stinking Lizaveta’ and for her subsequent delivery of Smerdyakov. As Alyosha hurries along a ‘short cut by the back way,’ he wishes, without hope, that he could see Dmitri before the ‘fateful interview’ with Katerina Ivanovna. His sudden meeting with Dmitri is as unexpected as it is welcome. In this ‘deserted garden’ Dmitri launches into his three-part confession to Alyosha.
It is commonplace to discover in the three Karamazov brothers an allegory about spirit (Alyosha), mind (Ivan), and body or heart (Mitya). But this classification becomes woefully inadequate and thin once one takes more than a cursory glance at them. Mitya’s confession to Alyosha offers a dynamic case in point. At the outset of Mitya’s confession, we discover that he is undergoing spiritual torment as well as the more expected agonies of love. His confession also sets up a paradigm for action in the novel. Just as in chapter 3 of Book II the peasant women came to Zosima to confess, so here Alyosha, beginning already to follow in the footsteps of his elder, receives the confessions of his brother.
Mitya’s confession, as Belknap has pointed out, likewise shows his considerable skill as a narrator and demonstrates, extremely aptly, that he is a character of numerous potentials — a character poised on the brink, where any of several modes of action are equally possible. Dmitri adroitly portrays himself; at the same time Dostoevsky maneuvers behind him, laying the groundwork for his mystery-thriller. Readers are asked to read this novel as they would a nineteenth-century ‘penny dreadful’ or a twentieth-century murder mystery: they must sift and sort and watch for clues to a dreadful, impending action that has not yet occurred. Dostoevsky habitually casts his readers into several roles at once. They must be avidly devoted to following a plot, interested in philosophical and religious questions, and willing, like the readers of the modern novel, to stand apart from the narrator and make their own sense of the fictional world before them.
Dmitri shrewdly prefaces his own achingly personal confession with a literary preamble in which he quotes many of Dostoevsky’s favorite writers, most notably, the nineteenth-century Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov and the German writer Frederich Schiller. The brothers sit together in a gazebo in ‘the most secluded corner’ of a ‘deserted garden,’ and the word secret dominates the chapter. ‘why do I whisper? Devil take it!’ cried Dmitri Fyodorivch at the top of his voice. ‘You see what silly tricks nature plays on one. I am here in secret, and I am guarding a secret. I’ll explain later on, but knowing it’s a secret, I began to speak secretly and to whisper like a fool, when there’s no need!”
Mitya has, even in his agitation, the sense that he is a narrator with a good story to tell. ‘I will explain everything, as they way, ‘the story will be continued’…Have you ever felt, have you ever dreamt of falling down a precipice into a pit? That’s just how I’m falling, but not in a dream.’ Mitya here echoes the rhythms of the epigraph: his sense of plunging into the pit evokes the dying of the seed.
But even as he evokes the precipi8ce, he is, like any good author, acutely aware of the happy coincidence between the setting for the confession and that which he is about to confess. If we as readers have become faintly aware that the back alleys and deserted gardens have taken on a whiff of the symbolic, Mitya is one step ahead of us. ‘And you ere going by the back way! Oh gods, I thank you for sending him the back way.’ Just as Fyodor Pavlovich had earlier heralded Alyosha’s role in the novel comically, Mitya states it seriously: ‘You are an angel on earth. You will hear and judge and forgive.’
Throughout his career, Dostoevsky was both attracted and repelled by the act of confession — attracted by its moments of rare and precious authenticity, repelled by the many self-justificatory and arrogant uses to which it could be put. Indeed, virtually every work of fiction Dostoevsky wrote contains some grain of his fascination with the act of confession. In The Brothers Karamazov the reader can discern a compendium of Dostoevsky’s many responses to the confessional act. Early on the narrator-chronicler describes the custom of constant confession to a holy elder. He also cites the keen criticisms that had been leveled against this practice. Here Mitya’s lengthy literary preface to his own confession is impressive yet risky, for it may suggest a Stavrogin-like arrogance (The Possessed) that could undermine its sincerity. Yet Mitya himself is sharply aware of the dangers of what he is attempting, ‘if only I’m not lying. I pray God I’m not lying now and showing off.’
Dmitri begins with a deliberate effort to create an atmosphere of secrecy. He ends the first part of his confession with a spiritual declaration of his understanding of the human condition that also invokes the idea of a secret — ‘everything in the world is a riddle.’ The frequently quoted passage gives evidence of one of those tangled skeins where meaning overlaps meaning, and Mitya’s words will eventually take on a poetic resonance, with uncanny reverberations throughout the novel.
Indeed, one could offer up a reading of The Brothers Karamazov that only focuses on such significant nodules in the text: Ivan’s recitation to Alyosha of his ‘poem’ of the Grand Inquisitor, Alyosha’s response, Grushenka’s story of the onion, Zosima’s autobiography as told to Alyosha, Alyosha’s vision of Cana of Galilee, and Alyosha’s words to the boys at the end of the novel. Notice, too, that these events share certain features: Alyosha i s always present; in each incident a story is told — that is, the narrated event is somehow separated from the mediated flow of the narrator-chronicler’s voice; and in each incident words are important — the effect of one person’s words upon another. The seeds of the epigraph find another manifestation as words in the novel.
Mitya expresses a desire that subsequently becomes primary for Ivan and Alyosha, as well as Zosima: he wishes to cling forever to Mother Earth but does not know how to. (Dostoevsky was one of the founders of the pochvennichestvo movement. thus, when his characters express the desire to kiss the earth and water it with their tears, they are echoing a fundamental belief of their creator.) Mitya closes the first part of his confession with a poetic recapitulation of its major themes. The atmosphere of secrecy with which he began now deepens into a metaphysical and Manichean statement:
‘Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.’
The pit into which he falls will become the unlikely locale for his redemption. ‘For when I do leap into the abyss, I go headlong with my heels up, and am pleased to be falling in that degrading attitude, and consider it something beautiful. And in the very depths of that degradation I begin a hymn of praise.’ Mitya’s flowery phrases foreshadow precisely what he will later do.
What is the effect of having Mitya’s artistic, spiritual, veiled confession precede his more substantive one? Do his general observations about the human condition make us less shocked by what follows and more disposed to justify his behavior? At the beginning of the second part of his confession — in ‘anecdote’ — Mitya embellishes on the back alley motif: locale modulates into moral location. ‘But I always like side paths, little dark back alleys behind the main road — there one finds adventures and surprises and precious metal in the dirt.’ Once again, Mitya the artist leaves the reader little room to make his or her own analysis. ‘I am speaking figuratively, brother. In the town I was in, there no such back alleys in the literal sense, but morally there were.’ What is left for readers to do when the character makes what seems to be the very associations they themselves would like to make? We are cast aside from analysis; instead, we simply become witnesses of a struggle. Yet perhaps the simple matter of bearing witness will become crucial for character and reader alike.
Moreover, the reader must begin to differentiate between the effects that the same truth has coming from the mouths of different characters. In Book II the unsavory Rakitin had called Alyosha a ”thorough Karamazov’ and ‘a sensualist.’ Now Mitya, whom we are predisposed to like and trust, is telling Alyosha the same thing, and Alyosha, as we have seen, agreed with him. this cluster of repetitions, of ideas and words that travel in a complex course of their own, regardless of who voices them, contributes to the ‘fantastic realism’ of the novel and to the sense the reader has of entering a fully embodied-world. Later, these verbal chains become more complex: the ideas of Ivan and Zosima, for example, find expression in characters who have never met either of these men; words become mediated and remediated — they float and settle like gossamer on the wind, like spores, or seeds. These words and ideas take on different aspects depending on who utters them.
At last Mitya begins to tell Alyosha his own story. We have already read descriptions of Mitya by the narrator and by other characters. Now the narratively astute Mitya describes himself. He has already given his view of the human condition; now we glimpse his own. He recalls that, as a lieutenant in a small town, he had managed to learn that his colonel, Katerina Ivanovna’s father, had appropriated 4,500 roubles of government money. His account reads like a short story; like a short story, its artistic success depends on the narrator’s ability to telescope the complexities and potentials of a character’s whole life into a single incident. Mitya achieves this by keeping his promise to tell Alyosha ‘the whole truth just as it happened.
We witness at firsthand the struggle between God and the devil in Mitya’s heart. Mitya crisply presents the amorphous conflict in terms of three potential scenarios that occur to him during his moment of crisis. Katerina Ivanovna comes to his room, ready to offer herself in exchange for the 4,500 roubles which he had hinted to Katerina’s half-sister Agatha he might be willing to give Katerina if she would come to him ‘secretly.’ Mitya reveals that his first idea was a — Karamazov one.’ He nearly swoons with the desire to possess her on the spot, although he knows that he could go to her with a proposal of marriage the next day. ‘It seems as if there could be no resisting it; as though I should act like a bug, like a venomous spider, without a spark of pity.’ But even as he contemplates this option, he realizes that she would, that next day, spurn him. This realization awakens both his spite and his second plan for action. The Karamazov idea modulates into the tradesman’s idea: he imagines spurning her, and saying carelessly and contemptuously: ‘Two hundred if you like, with all my heart. But four thousand is not a sum to throw away on such frivolity.’ Sensuality governs this idea as profoundly as it does the first, for Mitya realizes that the ecstasy of that moment of delicious ‘infernal revenge’ would be worth a lifetime of regret.
But the third scenario, the course of action that Mitya actually takes, comes upon us suddenly. Mitya describes it purely dramatically; he offers no motivation of explanation, simply the most penetrating and riveting description. Likewise at other crucial moments of action throughout the novel motivations and explanations are pared away. Possible causes compete in unnervingly fine balance with each other.
Mitya’s description works poetically: we understand his action not by analyzing his motive but rather through our willingness, along with his and Katerina Ivanovna’s, to make symbolic associations. This is one of those passages in which we can see how much Freud learned or confirmed his own theories by reading Dostoevsky. At the moment of decision Mitya puts his forehead against the frozen pane (‘the ice burned my forehead like fire’), then takes 5,000 roubles out of a book (he had received 6,000 roubles from his father as a final settlement), hands it to her, and makes her a deep bow. She gently returns him ‘a Russian bow, with her forehead to the floor,’ and runs away. He then draws his sword. ‘I drew it and nearly stabbed myself with it on the spot…Can you understand that one might kill oneself with delight? But I didn’t stab myself. I only kissed my sword and put it back in the scabbard — which there was no need to have told you, by the way.’ it seems nearly an offense to art and to aesthetic pleasure to gloss such a passage, for it speaks so eloquently for itself. Suffice it to say, we have at least encountered those first two bows between Mitya and Katerina Ivanovna that hover behind and give significance to the multitude of bows that populate Part I. Now Mitya’s desire to bow and to bow out to Katerina suggests a more resonant closure to their relationship than it had before.
Yet even as he confesses to Alyosha, Mitya falls prey to an even more insidious form of sensuality, the sensuality lurking in disclosure. ‘And I fancy that in telling you about my inner conflict I have laid it on rather thick to glorify myself.’ Finally, although Mitya has settled upon one course of action — he cannot be insect, shopman, and man of honor all at once — because of the vividness and persuasiveness of his narration, all three still seem to to exist simultaneously, particularly as they recede from the front of the reader’s consciousness. He claims to have told ‘the whole truth just as it happened.'[ The whole truth includes what did not happen as well as what did — that is, the potential as well as the actual. The border generated between the two is key: the specters of the insect and the shopman inform the action of the man of honor.
Mitya’s genuine potential for taking any of these alternatives give him the air of having taken all three. So he remains, perhaps more so than before his confession, a character on the brink of calamity, a character who might behave abominably or honorably or, somehow, both. (This passage calls to mind Crime and Punishment, in which Dostoevsky so exhaustively rehearsed all the possible motives for Raskolnikov’s crime until they came to exist in a perfectly balanced competition with each other. In the course of writing that novel, Dostoevsky at first intended one particular motive to dominate, but as he himself increasingly could not decide which one should be uppermost, he threw up his hands and let the ultimate truth consist in that very multiplicity of motivation that he had initially hoped to move beyond. Moreover, Mitya’s actual course of action, honorable though it may have been, may be the most sensual of all.”
More to come…
The Weekend’s Reading:
Book Three, Chapters 6-10
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.