The Brothers Karamazov
Book X, Chapters One and Two
by Dennis Abrams
“Kolya Krasotkin” “The beginning of November.” Winter, frost and ice. The home of the widow of the official Krasotkin and her son, Kolya. She had lost her husband when she was just eighteen and “since the very day of his death, she had devoted herself entirely to the upbringing of her treasure, her boy Kolya, and though she had loved him to distraction all those fourteen years, she had of course endured incomparably more suffering than joy on account of him, trembling and dying of fear almost every day lest he become ill, catch cold, be naughty, climb on a chair and fall off, and so on and so forth.” Kolya as mama’s boy and as a brave boy. His teacher, Dardanelov. A good student, but “although he looked down on everyone and turned up his nose at them, the boy was still a good friend and not overly conceited.” His love of mischief, his dislike of “sentimental slop.” Reluctance to let his mother know how much he loved her. His extensive reading. The dare to lie face down in the railroad tracks and let a train run over him. His faint, saved at the last moment, “his reputation as a ‘desperado’ was finally established forever.” Afterwards a slight illness, accompanied by “terribly joyful spirits.” Word of the incident spread through town; his mother begged with the authorities on his behalf, Dardanelov, who is interested in Kolya’s mother speaks for him, “and the case was set aside, as if nothing happened.” Dardanelov’s love for Kolya; Kolya’s embarrassment at his teacher’s interest in his mother. “After the incident on the railway, a certain change took place in Kolya’s relations with his mother.” After learning what happened, [his mother] almost went out of her mind with horror. She had such terrible hysterical fits,…that Kolya, now seriously frightened, gave her his solemn word of honor that such pranks would never be repeated…and he swore by his father’s memory…and the ‘manly’ Kolya himself burst into tears like a six-year-old boy, from ‘feelings,’ and all that day both mother and son kept falling into each other’s arms, sobbing and shaking.” A month and a half later, another prank, “But of that another time.” “Incidentally, I have forgotten even to mention that Kolya Krasotkin was the same one whom the boy Ilyusha, already known to the reader, son of the retired captain Snegiryov, stabbed in the thigh with a penknife…” “Kids” “And so on that cold and wintery November morning, the boy Kolya Krasotkin was sitting at home.” His loving and well-trained dog, Perezvon. All the adults gone, Kolya is called on to watch the two “kids” who rent the apartment in the widow’s house, eight year old Nastya, and the seven-year-old boy, Kostya. Do midwives find little babies in the vegetable garden, between the cabbage rows? The little cannon. The maid, Agafya returns, and Kolya, after some pleasant banter, prepared to go out.
Dare I say that those were two of the most charming chapters of Dostoevsky that I think we’ve read? Dostoevsky’s love of children, and his pain at the death of his own child coming out? Whatever the case, after the intensity of Dmitri’s interrogation and dream, it was a welcome relief.
And wasn’t it a brilliant stroke for the narrator-chronicler to wait until the end of the first chapter before remembering (you can almost see him slapping his forehead) that he had forgotten to tell us that Kolya was the kid that Ilyusha had stabbed with the penknife?
Backtracking a bit, from Joseph Frank:
“As the circumstantial evidence piles up against Dimitry, and the rashness and intemperance of his earlier statements and actions against his father are thrown back in his face, he sees himself at last through the eyes of those he calls ‘blind moles and scoffers,’ and struggles to define himself against the image they have been constructing. At the core of his character are concern and anguish over others — over Grushenka to be sure, but also a terrible sense of remorse over Grigory. It is this realization that now pierces through, even as he flares up against his questioners and displays all the storminess and irascibility of his temperament. The climax of this development comes after Dimitry has been reduced to despair and is at the end of his considerable physical tether: ‘His eyes were closing with fatigue.’ He had declared publicly to Grushenka once more that he was innocent, and she had accepted his word after crossing herself before the icon. ‘He’ll never deceive you against his conscience,’ she affirms to his questioners, ‘He’s telling the whole truth, you may believe it.’ But such utterances of faith are futile, and Dimitry finally sinks into a deep sleep on a chest in the room. Like Alyosha, he then dreams a dream crystallizing the moral conversion that has taken place within him as a result of all his ‘torments.’
Dimitry’s dream, ‘utterly out of keeping with the place and time,’ visualizes him driving somewhere in the steppes during a snowstorm. In the distance he could see the ruins of a burned-down village, and as his carriage approaches he meets a line of women standing along the road, ‘all thin and wan,’ and especially one, ‘a tall, bony woman’ looking much older than her years and carrying a crying baby. ‘Her breasts must have been so dry that there was not a drop of milk in them.’ Dimitry asks the driver why the baby was crying, and the peasant assumes he is referring to the immediate situation: ‘They’re poor people burned out. They have no bread.’ But Dimitry is really asking the same question that had been posed so vehemently by Ivan and led to his attack on God. ‘Why are people poor?’ Dimitry queries. ‘Why is the babe poor? Why is the steppe barren?…Why don’t they sing songs of joy? Why are they dark from black misery? Why don’t they feed the babe?’
No answer is given to these questions, which Dimitry himself felt ‘were unreasonable and senseless,’ but his response is a sudden upsurge of emotion that marks the completion of his moral-spiritual transformation. ‘And he felt that a passion of pity, such as he had never known before, was rising in his heart, and he wanted to cry that he wanted to do something for them all…that no one should shed tears from that moment, and he wanted to do it at once, regardless of all obstacles, with all the Karamazov recklessness.’ Quite appropriately, he also hears, ‘the voice of Grushenka,’ full of emotion, saying, ‘I won’t leave you now for the rest of your life.’ On waking, he finds that someone has put a pillow under his head, and he is moved ‘with a sort of ecstatic gratitude,’ by this little gesture of concern.
Dimitry’s dream objectifies the transformation that has taken place in his conscience as a result of his own suffering, bringing us a new awareness of the wretchedness of others. Such human distress, though of a different nature, h ad led to Ivan’s upsurge of rebellion against God, but with Dimitry it leads to a passionate desire to throw himself into alleviating the world’s miseries instead of, as in the past, increasing their number by giving free rein to all his impulses and appetites. Just before departing under escort back to the town, he describes the new realization to which he has come. In the past, ‘I’ve sworn to amend every day of my life, beating my breast, and every day I’ve done the same filthy things.’ But now, under the blows of fate, he has undergone a decisive change. “I accept the torment of accusation, and my public shame, and I want to suffer and by suffering I shall be purified.’ Once more he declares himself not guilty of his father’s blood, but adds: ‘I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I meant to kill him and perhaps I might really have killed him.’
The preliminary investigation thus ends with Dimitry acknowledging his moral guilt but insisting, as far as legal guilt is concerned, that ‘I’ll fight it out with you to the end, and then God will decide.’ Both Alyosha and Dimitry have chosen to follow Zosima’s path of love and Christian faith, each in his own way. It will be the turn of Ivan to follow the same route, but one that, in his case, leads to a tormenting, brilliantly depicted, more severe inner struggle and total mental breakdown.
Dostoevsky interrupts the narrative course of Dimitry’s fate after his arrest and shifts to a thematic motif introduced earlier, realizing one of his long-held literary ambitions — to present, on a larger canvas than in The Idiot, the interaction between an idealistic Christian character and a group of children. Alyosha becomes the spiritual guide of the boys introduced earlier as the classmates of Ilyusha Snegiryov. the chapters of Book 10 center on the relations of the gravely ill Ilyusha, Alyosha, and the group of boys.
Kolya Krasotkin is the most daring and independent of the lot, a future leader, who in the past had taken Ilyusha under his wing. Kolya is portrayed as a prideful youth, haughtily insisting on his independence from the others, intelligent and self-assured, ready to take unusual risks to prove his superiority…and scornful of any sort of ‘sheepish sentimentality.’ His poor, widowed mother, who slavishly devotes her life to him, would tearfully ‘reproach him with is coldness,’ but he was not really cold-hearted, only resistant to displays of emotion that might suggest any weakness, any loss of self-control. Despite this assumed facade of strength, he breaks down when his mother goes into hysterics on learning of the train episode, and he ‘sobbed like a boy of six.'”
“Although Mitya’s epiphanic vision of the babe occurs in August, it had been set in a dream landscape ‘early in November.’ The next book of the novel, Book X, ‘The Boys,’ opens with the words, ‘It was the beginning of November.’ The month of November plays a key role in many of Dostoevsky’s fictional works, from The Double to The Brothers Karamazov, and has a mysterious link with the phenomenon of spiritual crisis — as indeed it does in this book for Mitya, for Ivan in Book XI, and for Kolya Krasotkin here in Book X. In this book God and the devil stage a battle (in Dostoevsky’s terms and in Mitya’s as well) in Kolya’s heart, and by the end of the book he will have passed through his own spiritual gauntlet. Curiously, Mitya actually has his dream in August — the time of Alyosha’s epiphany — but because it is set in November it is linked with Ivan’s and Kolya’s crises, which both occur in November.
Book X is my own favorite in the novel. Here we see the weightier, more theologically and philosophically difficult problems of the novel transpose themselves into a new mode of expression. Kolya, Krasotkin, Ilyusha Snegiryov, and the other boys double, reenact, enlarge upon, and rework many of the novel’s major themes while also illustrating, in a convincing yet simple fashion, what Zosima had meant when he uttered the seeming platitude, ‘All is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.’ Here our earth is a small village, nevertheless, the chains of movement are unexpected.
At the beginning of Part IV, the last part of the novel, the narrator-chronicler steps back from his dramatic plot, regroups his forces, and presents us with a whole sheaf of new introductory material. Is this new direction a digression or a working out of the central themes of the novel? Certainly Dostoevsky had been chastised in the past by his critics for putting too many episodes and plots into his novels. And he had replied with uncharacteristic defensiveness and apologies. Nearly 10 years earlier he had admitted to his friend, the critic and journalist Nikolai Strakhov, ‘I am utterly incapable (something I never learned) of controlling my material. Many separate novels and novellas get squeezed into a single one so that there is no proportion and no harmony.’
But clearly Dostoevsky did not really mean to change his ways. Indeed, this connectedness through diffusion lies at the heart of both his artistic and theological vision. AS we have seen, the bedrock of Dostoevsky’s creativity is his perception of the multiplicity embedded in a unity in which, to use Bakhtin’s phraseology, dialogism or polyphony exists at the most primary level. the atoms of Dostoevsky’s art contain, like real atoms, both a positive and a negative charge (God and the devil, good and evil, a beautiful and a disfigured image) to complete their quivering, precarious ‘neutrality.’
Just as the story of Zosima’s past doubles aspects of the lives of Alyosha, Ivan, and Mitya, so does the story of the boys reflect that of the Karamazov brothers, even as it is, in terms of the mechanisms of the plot, a direct result or ramification of the brothers’ actions. As the next generation the boys point the way to the future in the same way that Zosima forms a link to the past (even though he was both prophet and prophecy of the future). But all three groups are responsible for each other and are linked — both literally, through the plot, and figuratively, through a shared metaphoric perception of life and death.
Kolya combines occasional echoes of Mitya with a powerful resemblance to Ivan. At the same time, however, he is a true child. Through this charming boy, who exists as a full-fledged creation in his own right, Dostoevsky thus offers a new refraction of Mitya, Ivan, and the Grand Inquisitor.”
More to come…
The Weekend’s Reading:
Book X, Chapters 3-5
And enjoy your weekend.