“He’s a sickly, epileptic, feebleminded chicken, who could be thrashed by an eight-year-old boy.”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book IX, Chapter Five
by Dennis Abrams

“The Third Torment” “Though Mitya began speaking sternly, he apparently was trying all the more not to forget or skip over the least detail in his account.” Dmitri relates how he went to the window, his hatred of his father as he saw him leaning out the window, taking the pestle out of his pocket, and then…”Whether it was someone’s tears, or God heard my mother’s prayers, or a bright spirit kissed me at that moment, I don’t know — but the devil was overcome.” Dmitri tells his questioners that he ran off without entering his father’s house. The door to the garden was closed when Dmitri came and went, open when the investigators arrived. The prosecutor states that “It is perfectly clear to us. The murder obviously took place in the room and not through the window, which is positively clear from the investigation carried out, from the position of the body, and everything else. There can be no doubt of that circumstance.” Dmitri argues that that is impossible. Dmitri explains about the signals, known only to himself, Smerdyakov and his father. “You don’t know with whom you’re dealing! You’re dealing with a suspect who gives evidence against himself, who gives evidence that does him harm! Yes, sirs, for I am a knight of honor and you are not!” The prosecutor admits that Smerdyakov is a suspect; Dmitri states that it is impossible for him to be a murderer: “He’s a sickly, epileptic, feebleminded chicken, who could be thrashed by an eight-year old boy. What sort of character is that?…Anyway, why would he kill the old man? You see, he may be his son, his natural son, do you know that?” “We have heard that legend. But after all, you, too are your father’s son, and yet you told everyone you wanted to kill him. “A rock through my own window! And a low one, a nasty one!” Smerdyakov and his falling sickness. “Well, in that case the devil killed my father!” Dmitri tells the prosecutor how he attacked Grigory, how he jumped back down to look at him, without telling them that he “had jumped down out of pity, and that standing over the murdered man he had even uttered a few pathetic words.” The prosecutor is pleased that he had irritated Dmitri with questions and had forced him to give himself away. Why didn’t Dmitri notice the blood him? Or the blood on the money? Dmitri refuses to tell where he got the money — “The answer to the question of where I got this money contains such a disgrace for me as could not be compared even with killing and robbing my father, if I had killed him and robbed him. that is why I cannot speak. Because of the disgrace.” How much money did he have? The prosecutor orders that Dmitri be strip-searched.

So…if Dmitri claims that he didn’t rob his father to get the money, and that the way he got the money is a bigger disgrace than if he had killed and robbed his own father…where did he get the money???

From Joseph Frank:

“Dimitry too…undergoes a decisive transformation, and his ‘spiritual purification’ is completed during the several hours of the preliminary investigation to which Book 9 is devoted. The titles of the chapters (3,4, and 5) devoted to the questioning of Dimitry are “A Soul’s Journey through Torments,” and three such torments (mitarstva) are enumerated. A Russian reader would recognize this structure as an allusion to the Orthodox belief that the soul after death, as it ascends from earth to heaven, is subject to trials by various evil spirits. In a notebook entry of 1877, Dostoevsky mentions wishing to write about the sorokovina (a memorial service held on the fortieth day after death) in the form of ‘a book of pilgrimages’ that would describe the trials of such a soul. This idea is now secularized and applied to the ‘torments’ that Dimitry experiences as, in effect, he bares his soul under the pressure of the pitiless questioning. But the ordeal leads him to a much more severe self-examination than he had ever known before, and culminates not only in an overwhelming feeling of pity for human suffering as a whole, but also a desire to suffer himself for all his past misdeeds.”

And this, which I found extremely helpful, from Robin Feuer Miller:

“Book IX opens with a comic rehashing of recent events. At eleven o’clock in the evening, the young official Perkhotin rushes to Madame Khokhlakova to discover what has really happened. She gtives an account, reminiscent of Fyodor’s disquisition about the hooks in hell, that offers a parodic rehashing of the novel’s major themes. ‘If he hasn’t murdered me, but only his father, it’s only because the finger of God preserved me [and because] I put the holy icon…on his neck…I don’t believe in miracles…but this unmistakable miracle…shakes me…Have you heard about Father Zosima?’

As the mystery plot of the novel intensifies, Dostoevsky increasingly asks the reader to take on the task of weighing the significance of the many facts that come to light and, perhaps, into dispute. Such facts as whether or not the garden gate was open, why Mitya paused in his flight to wipe Grigory’s head with his handkerchief, where Mitya got his money, how much money he actual had — all these crucial pieces of evidence must form a whole in order to solve the riddle. And an inquisitive, involved, careful reader will probably at this point turn back to such key chapters as ‘In the dark’ and ‘A sudden resolution.’

But by the time readers reach the chapters (3,4, and 5) devoted to the three torments of Mitya’s soul, they come face to face with a metaphysical riddle superimposed on a mystery plot. What are Mitya’s three torments? These three chapters form, on a first reading, or even a second, a continuous unit. Neither Dostoevsky nor the narrator-chronicler, nor even Mitya himself, gives us a clue about what each of these torments is. As we did in reading Book VIII, it becomes useful to turn back to Book III, to those chapters where MItya made his three-part confession to Alyosha. These chapters hold a clue to Mitya’s three torments in Book IX.

Both these tripartite sections begin in the third chapters of their respective books. Moreover, chapter 2 of Book III gave us the story of ‘Shrinking Lizaveta’ and chapter 2 of Book IX recapitulates the themes of that story indirectly: Mitya climbs the garden fence in the identical place where Lizaveta had so many years before when she was giving birth to Smerdyakov. And again Marfa Ignatyeva hears groans, ‘Good Lord! Just as it was with Lizaveta Smerdyashchaya,’ she thought.’

What correspondences and contrasts can we find between Mitya’s three-part confession and his three-part torment? (According to Russian Orthodoxy, a soul suffers 40 days of torment after death before it can reach its destination and a resolution.) First and foremost, in Book III Mitya had unburdened his heart to Alyosha, an interlocutor who believes in and loves him. In Book IX, Mitya suffers the torment overreaching all three parts, of confessing to those who do not believe him, who do not love him. Alyosha is a messenger, an agent, of God: the Book IX interlocutors represent temporal justice with all its limitations.

Mitya’s first torment is the horror and despair he feels in believing that he has murdered Grigory. Upon learning that Grigory is alive, Mitya prays, ‘Lord, I think thee for the miracle Thou hast wrought for me, a sinner and an evil doer.’ We learn that Mitya understands that Grigory has been a true, if not a biological father to him. ‘He used to wash me in the tub…he was like a father to me!’ To have killed him, Mitya knows, would have been an act of virtual parricide. In Mitya’s earlier confession in verse he had quoted Schiller, and the chapter had closed with Mitya’s statement about God and the devil fighting within the heart of man. He had then turned abruptly ‘to facts.’ Here in Book IX Mitya literally lays open to view the battle that has been going on in his own heart. He tells his interlocutors that he knows there are ‘terrible facts’ against him. the chapter closes with a similar turning away from lofty statements to the facts of the matter. ‘To business, gentlemen, to business, don’t rummage in my soul…only ask me about facts.’

Mitya’s second torment revolves around, as he see it, his desperate quest to redeem his lost honor by obtaining 3,000 roubles. He tells his questioners that he need to ‘pay a debt of honor, but to whom I won’t say.’ The second part of his confession to Alyosha had also focused on the question of honor, and by the end of it, of course, he had played the role of the man of honor by giving Katerina Ivanovna the money, and she had departed in his debt. Mitya, as he had earlier, recounts numerous scenarios. The difficulty is that now, instead of being merely ideas, he has actually in desperation just enacted all the scenarios he must now describe. In another reversal, all have involved an attempt to pay his debt to Katerina Ivanovna. Thus, although both chapters revolved around the mutually interacting themes of honor and the paying of debts, the events in Book IX are the reversal of those in Book III.

In Book IX, Mitya twice quotes a line from Dostoevsky’s favorite poem by Fyodor Tiutchev, ‘Silentium.’ The most famous line of this poem, which Mitya does not in fact quote but which Dostoevsky’s contemporary readers would have known by heart, is ‘The thought once uttered is lie.’ [MY NOTE: This reminds me of Nietzche’s famous warning that we find words only for what is already dead in our heart.] And indeed, throughout all of Book IX words play terrible tricks on Mitya. His propensity to spout possible scenarios combines with his anger and impatience to create an entangling web. He himself observes, ‘Oh, you know how one says the wrong thing without meaning it.’ Mitya’ uttered words are a dense mixture of lies and truth, and although the informed reader may be able to sort them out, the prosecutors, and later the jury, will not.

In Book III the third part of Mitya’s confession (chapter 5) had abruptly, with a corresponding shift in genre, opened into the present. ‘You understand the first half. That half is a drama…The second half is a tragedy, and it is being acted here.’ The same sudden opening into the novelistic present occurs in chapter 5 of Book IX, ‘The third torment.’ Mitya’s account reaches the moment of the murder. First, with words, Mitya says, ‘I murdered him’; then he gives his real account. ‘Whether it was someone’s tears, or my mother prayed to God, or a good angel kissed me at that instant, I don’t know. But the devil was conquered.’ Zosima’s mysterious visitor, despite his overriding resemblance to Ivan, bears a powerful resemblance to Mitya here. He confesses that he had come perilously close to killing Zosima…’The Lord vanquished the devil in my heart,’ says the mysterious visitor. Even at this crucial moment in Mitya’s life, moreover, he is ironically aware, just as he was in Book III, of both his own narrative abilities and the creative potential of the moment he is describing. ‘A poem! In verse!’

By this time in our reading of the novel nearly every word of Mitya’s statement exists in an envelope of meaning: his words possess an aura of special significance based on all that has gone before. Thus his statement constitutes one of those intense spiritual nodules in the text which can only be perceived in the context of the symbols and mythologies that have gradually developed up to this point. ‘Someone’s tears,’ suggests the interconnectedness of events, Zosima’s great ocean, the tears of the grieving peasant mother, and so on. ‘My mother prayed to God,’ ‘a good angel kissed me,’ ‘the devil was conquered’ — each of these phrases resonates through the entire novel. To unravel the many reverberations present in this rich tangle of phrases would be to restate the entire novel. Suffice it to say, each of Mitya’s words possesses tremendous significance for the novel as a whole.”

Tuesday’s Reading:
Book IX, Chapters Six and Seven


This entry was posted in Discussion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “He’s a sickly, epileptic, feebleminded chicken, who could be thrashed by an eight-year-old boy.”

  1. Minnikin says:

    Robin Feuer Miller’s analysis is excellent – it really made sense of/clarified some of the areas that I found confusing (her summary of ‘the torments’ and the links between this and the earlier ‘confessions’ [Book 9 and 3, respectively] were particularly helpful).

    I know you have been quoting a lot from her with regard to Brothers Karamazov [I will have to reread them ‘with new eyes’…] What’s the source? Have they been published or are they available online?

    • I agree with you on Miller’s analysis — she’s very good at making connections within the text (Book Three and Book Nine for example) that I don’t always make on my own, as well as helping to explain things (again the three torments) that left me slightly unsure. I’ve been stealing left and right from her book, “The Brothers Karamazov: Worlds of the Novel.” And I suspect I’ll be quoting from her again and again as we continue working our way through the text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s