“Schoolchildren are merciless people; separately they’re God’s angels, but together, especially in school, they’re often merciless.”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Four, Chapters 6-7; Book Five, Chapter 1
by Dennis Abrams

“Strain in the Cottage” “He was indeed in real grief, of a kind he had seldom experienced before.” Had Alyosha gone “and put his foot in it?” “Though I did it all sincerely, I must be smarter in the future.” Alyosha, going on Katerina Ivanovna’s errand realizes that the boy who bit his finger must be the captain’s son.” Alyosha’s first stop is at Dmitri’s — he hasn’t been there in three days. The captain’s house: A big Russian stove, a clothesline, pillows, a simple peasant table, three windows “each with four small, green, mildewed panes..very dim and tightly shut, so that the room was rather stuffy and none too bright.” A lady with a very thin and yellow face, whose “sunken cheeks betrayed at first glance her sickly condition,” yet with a “terribly haughty look.” A young girl with a rather homely face and thin reddish hair, eying Alyosha with disgust. Another young girl, about twenty years old, “hunchbacked and crippled, with withered legs,” yet with “remarkably beautiful and kind eyes.” And a gentleman about 45 years old, “small, lean, weakly built, with reddish hair, and a thin red beard rather like an old whiskbroom.” The captain’s insolence and ‘obvious cowardice.” Alyosha introduces himself. Taking a seat. “‘Yessir’ is acquired in humiliation.'” The captain learns about Alyosha’s finger, offers to whip his son, but then, “And did you think I’d whip him, sir? That I’d take Ilyushechka and whip him right now, in front of you, for your full satisfaction? How soon would you like it done, sir?…but before I go whipping Ilyushechka maybe you’d like me to chop off these four fingers…Four fingers, I think should be enough for you, sir, to satisfy your thirst for revenge…” Alyosha understands, and tells the captain that Dmitri repents of his act, and would it be enough for him to ask for forgiveness in front of everyone? Would Dmitri go down on his knees and beg for forgiveness? The girl at the window tells her father to stop clowning. Alyosha is introduced to the family. The mother discusses the smell of the room and bursts into tears. The captain takes Alyosha for a walk. “And in the Fresh Air.” “The air is fresh, sir, and in my castle it is indeed not clean, not in any sense. Let’s walk slowly, sir. I should very much like to enlist your interest, sir.” “My beard is nicknames a whiskbroom, mostly by the schoolboys, sir.” Ilyusha’s face on seeing his father’s humiliation by Dmitri, his pleas to stop, “I remember his face at that moment, I have not forgotten it, sir, and I will not forget it…” “‘I swear to you,’ exclaimed Alyosha, ‘that my brother will express his repentance in the most sincere, the fullest manner, even if it means going down on his knees in that very square…I will make him, or he is no brother of mine!” “Aha, so it’s still in the planning stage” Why Snegiryov did not challenge Dmitri to a duel — his family. “…what if he kills me on the spot — well, what then? Then what will happen to them all, sir? Still worse, if he didn’t kill me but just cripples me: work would be impossible, but there would still be a mouth to feed, and who will feed my mouth then, who will feed them all sir?” The impossibility of taking Dmitri to court. Ilyusha’s anger, “he attacks everyone, he’s bitter because of you; they say the other day he stabbed a boy…” Alyosha advises Snegiryov to take Ilyusha out of school for a time. The captain recounts his conversation with Ilyusha: Ilyusha pleads with his ‘papa’ not to make peace with Dmitri, not to take money from him, to challenge him to a duel, and swearing that when he grows up “I’ll challenge him myself, and I’ll kill him.” A discussion of revenge. “papa, is it true that the rich are stronger than anybody in the world?…I’ll get rich, I’ll become an officer, and I’ll beat everybody, and the tsar will reward me. Then I’ll come back and nobody will dare…” Ilyusha asks his father if they could “move to another town, a good one…a town where they don’t know about us.” Ilyusha’s dream of a horse and cart. His tears on the rock. Alyosha tells the captain about Katerina and her insult from Dmitri, and her wish to help him as a sister. Everything the captain could do with the two hundred roubles. At the last minute, the captain refuses the money, crumpling the roubles and throwing them to the ground, “Report to those who sent you that the whiskbroom does not sell his honor sir!…And what I would tell my boy, if I took money from you for our disgrace?” Alyosha picked up the money, smooths the roubles out, and goes to report to Katerina Ivanovna. “A Betrothal” “Madame Khokhlakov was again the first to meet Alyosha.” Katerina’s hysterics and fainting spell, her “terrible, horrible weakness,” her delirium, her fever — Dr. Herzenstube has been called for, her aunts have arrived. “Now this is serious, serious!” Alyosha goes to sit with Lise. Lise’s regrets at having laughed at Alyosha the day before. Talking about the pine tree. Alyosha explains about the two hundred roubles, and eases her concerns by telling her that he is certain that he’ll take the money the next day — “he’s a cowardly man, and has a weak character…First, he was offended because he had been too glad of the money in front of me, and hadn’t concealed it from me…But above all he was offended because he had accepted me too quickly as a friend and given in to me too soon; first he attacked me, tried to frighten me, then suddenly, as soon as he saw the money, he began embracing me. Because he did embrace me, and kept touching me with his hands. That is precisely why he came to feel such humiliation…Although he is proud of himself now, even today he’ll start thinking about the help he has lost. During the night the thought will become stronger still, he will dream about it, and by tomorrow morning he will perhaps be ready to run to me and ask forgiveness. And in that moment I shall appear: ‘Here, I’ll say, ‘you are a proud man, you’ve proved it, take the money now, forgive us’ And this time he will take it!” The captain must be convinced that he is on an ‘equal footing’ with us.’ Lise asks “isn’t there some contempt for him, the wretched man…that we’re examining his soul like this, as if we were looking down on him?” Alyosha disagrees: ‘What contempt can there be if we ourselves are just the same as he is, if everyone is just the same as he is?…You know, Lise, my elder said once that most people need to be looked after like children, and some like the sick in hospitals…” “Ah, Alexei Fyodorovich, my darling, let’s look after people that way!” Lise kisses Alyosha. Their betrothal. Lise thinks like a martyr. Is Lise’s mother listening outside the door? Would Lise listen outside Alyosha’s door and read his mail? Alyosha allows that his brothers and father are destroying each other, “the earthly force of the Karamazovs” Alyosha kisses Lise and leaves; Lise’s mother is waiting for him, and urges him not to “take it into your head to dream…Foolishness, foolishness, and more foolishness,” and threatens to no longer receive Alyosha, and to go away and take Lise with her. But it will be a year and a half until they marry? Madame Khokhlakov’s unhappiness. Alyosha refuses to show her Lise’s letter.

1. I like the way in which Dostoevsky links disparate characters: both Snegiryov and Katerina Ivanovna are both being attended to by Dr. Herzenstube, that both Snegiryov and Fyodor Karamazov can be accused of “buffoonery.”

2. Are Lise and Alyosha being condescending in their dissection of the soul of Snegiryov? (Although I do think that Alyosha’s sympathetic analysis was pretty accurate.)

3. Why is Lise’s mother so seemingly opposed to her daughter’s betrothal to Alyosha? Is it just because she doesn’t think her health will allow it or that she won’t still be alive? Or is it something more?

And finally, from Joseph Frank:

“Two chapters of Book 4 are devoted to the Snegiryov’s, a family that, after the disappearance from the monastery world upon the death of Father Zosima, will provide Dostoevsky with his major contract to the world of the Karamazovs. The Snegiryov family is familiar to all readers of Dostoevsky. They are the equivalent of the Marmeladovs in Crime and Punishment and of all the insulted and injured he had depicted since the beginning of his literary career. Captain Snegiryov is a buffoon type like Feodor, but one whose masochistic ironies conceal a deeply wounded sensibility that has not turned resentful or revengeful. Far from having neglected his family, the cashiered captain has done his best, under impossible conditions, to provide them with love and care. His little son Ilyusha, who bites Alyosha’s finger to revenge his father’s public humiliation by Dimitry, also sturdily defends his father against the insults of his jeering classmates, and even Ilyusha’s sister Varvara — a ‘progressive’ student with ‘rational’ ideas, home from her Petersburg studies –sacrifices herself unselfishly, if resentfully, to care for her hapless kinfolk.

The adolescent Ilyusha will later, along with his classmates, allow Dostoevsky to fulfill his long-cherished desire to depict the relationship between a charismatic Christian figure and a group of children. The scene in which Alyosha visits the miserable hovel of the Snegiryovs, entitled ‘Laceration in the Cottage,’ is placed immediately after Katerina Ivanovna’s ‘Laceration in the Drawing-room.’ The laceration in the drawing-room is the result of self-will and pride, which perverts suffering into an instrument of domination; the laceration in the cottage, when the captain hysterically tramples on the badly needed money offered by Alyosha, is a pathetic effort to maintain a last, remaining shred of self-respect and to justify Ilyusha’s desperate faith in his father’s honor and dignity.

by the time he completed Book 4, Dostoevsky had presented all his characters, clearly indicated the future course of the main plot action, and raised his primary ideological issue of reason and faith in a fascinating variety of scenes and characters. In Books 5, 6, and 7, this theme comes to the foreground and is treated directly in some of the greatest pages in the history of the novel.”

1. It occurs to me that the Snegiryovs are very much like characters in Dickens.

2. We will be coming up to the famous “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” this week — I’m going to go slowly in the reading this week so that we get to this section for next weekend’s reading. I will, though, have to start posting excerpts from essays, etc., early, so that they’ll be available — I’ll give you warning in a header if there are going to be any ‘spoilers’ — although it’s not really that kind of reading. We’ll be looking at interpretations from, among others, Joseph Frank, Robin Feuer Miller, Nabokov, George Steiner, Victor Terras, and, perhaps most intriguingly, at least from my point of view Colin Wilson, who sees in Ivan the culmination of Dostoevsky’s examination of ‘The Outsider.” In the meantime, a brief introduction from Frank of what is to come:

“The two set pieces of book 5, Ivan’s ‘rebellion’ and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, reach ideological heights for which there are few equals. In the nineteenth century one can think only perhaps of Balzac’s Seraphita and Louis Lambert, George Sand’s Spiridion, or possibly Flaubert’s La tentation de Saint Antoine. These inspired pages take their place in a Western literary tradition that begins with Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and the book of Job. They also continue the Romantic titanism of the first half of the nineteenth century, represented by such writers as Goethe, Leopardi, Byron, and Shelley. The Czech critic Vaclav Cerny, in a penetrating book, saw Dostoevsky (along with Nietzsche) as the culmination of this Romantic tradition of protest against God on behalf of a suffering humanity.”

And from Robin Feuer Miller:

“The next section of The Brothers Karamazov, Book V, (‘Pro and Contra’) presented Dostoevsky with special conflicts between his tasks as an artist and as a believing Christian, for it is here that Ivan, through his magnificent poem in prose, The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor puts forth the terms of his rebellion against God and His working of the world. it is this section of the novel that has most consistently gripped Dostoevsky’s readers, and that Dostoevsky himself knew was the heart of the matter. On 10, May 1879 he wrote from Staraya to his editor, N.A. Lyubimov:

‘This fifth book is in my view the culminating point of the novel and must be finished with particular care. Its meaning, as you will see from the text I sent, is the depiction of extreme blasphemy and the kernel of the idea of destruction in our time, in Russia…My hero chooses a theme I consider irrefutable: the absurdity of all historical reality. I don’t know whether I executed it well but I know the figure of my hero is a real one to the utmmost degree…Everything my hero says in the text I sent you is based on reality. All the anecdotes about children took place, existed, were published in the press…I invented nothing…My hero’s blasphemy will be triumphantly refusted in the next (June) issue, on which I am now working with fear, trembling, and veneration.’

The paradoxes embedded in his letter virtually leap off the page: he considers the argument upon which Ivan bases his rebellion to be irrefutable, yet he set out to refute it. It is usual, when reading The Brothers Karamazov, to discover the indirect means Dostoevsky brings to bear in this monumental task of refuting Ivan’s arguments, both in the words of Zosima’s last exhortations and in the rapidly ensuing events of the novel. Yet a close reading of Book V suggests yet another way Dostoevsky refutes Ivan’s argument: he uses the words and emotions of Ivan himself. By the end of The Brothers Karamazov, the reader may decide that Ivan has undergone or is at least in the midst of a genuine spiritual conversion. For we can argue that it is Ivan himself who offers up the most compelling counterpoint to his own objections. The dialogic nature of this novel expresses itself powerfully through the competing and conflicting ideas and actions of its characters, but even more compelling are the dialogisms and polyphonies that exist within single characters, and within single thoughts. The words of Xenos Clark, an obscure American philosopher, so aptly quoted by William James, spring to mind — ‘The truth is that we travel on a journey that was accomplished before we set out.'”

Monday’s Reading:

Book Five, Chapter Two

Enjoy.

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