The Brothers Karamazov
Book X, Chapters 3-6
by Dennis Abrams
I’m going to skip a synopsis of the plot of this weekend’s reading (Kolya’s talk with Smurov, the story of the “murder” of Zhuchka, the walk through the market, Kolya’s need to meet Alyosha, his story of being Ilyusha’s protector before, afraid that Ilyusha was rebelling against him, he withdrew his friendship, leading to Ilyusha’s despair, Kolya’s appearance at Ilyusha’s bedside, Ilyusha’s half-idiot mother, the reemergence of Zhuchka, the gift of the cannon, the appearance of the doctor sent by Madame Khokhlakov, Kolya’s conversation with Alyosha, insecure and trying to prove himself and make Alyosha like him), and just say this. What a charming section! Kolya seems to be to an extraordinarily accurate and loving portrait of an intellectually precocious teen, teetering between childhood and young manhood, unsure of himself yet trying to prove otherwise…
Do you get the feeling that Kolya’s relationship with Alyosha is going to mirror Alyosha’s with Zosima?
There is, obviously, a lot more going on in this section than meets the eye. From Miller:
“As readers, we have by now become sensitive to the many parodies that exist in this novel. The ones we have seen so far have often been wickedly or darkly humorous. An unsavory character like Fyodor, Smerdyakov, or Rakitin spews out a ‘problem’ or a ‘paradox’ that then receives a serious, genuinely problematic or paradoxical treatment. But now, having passed through the novel’s dense metaphysical and philosophical core, the reader suddenly comes face to face with a new kind of parody, a delightful, though serious one. In fact, in our enjoyment of Kolya’s antics it is easy to miss the dark seriousness lurking behind them and the dreadful significance his deeds have for the insulted and injured Ilyusha.
Like Ivan, Kolya actively seeks knowledge in order to impress his peers. Like Ivan, Kolya has affection for children; we see him as a responsible babysitter, a ‘protector’ of children. Kolya resembles the Grand Inquisitor in many of the ways that Ivan himself does. Kolya possesses secret knowledge — whether about the identities of the founders of Troy or the identity of a mangy, shaggy dog — that secures his power over his ‘flock’ even as it isolates him and causes him suffering.
The events of Book X occur over the space if a single morning, a morning that proves to be a turning point in the lives of both Kolya and Ilyusha. Along the way, Kolya offers up a multifaceted confession to Alyosha, much as Mitya and Ivan had done before him (and as the mysterious visitor had with Zosima). Moreover, Alyosha, whom the reader h as not seen for two books, two months, and many pages, has changed, the narrator-chronicler is quick to assure us. The epiphanic rapture he experienced in his vision of Cana of Galilee and its aftermath in the garden seem to have remained with him. He is no longer dressed as a novice, and his good-humored face also bespeaks an increased gentleness and serenity.
As they do with both Mitya and Ivan, women find Kolya charming. He also shares the brothers’ predilection for literary language and for making generalizations about children, Russians, religion, and the workings of the human heart. He, like them, finds himself irresistibly drawn to and fond of Alyosha. Both Mitya and Ivan have struggled and continue to struggle mightily with the warring factions in the hearts. A war rages within Kolya, too.
Many critics have taken note of Kolya’s quite striking affinities with Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor. Before passing on to these, I would like to glance at some refractions of Mitya in Kolya. Mitya sets in motion one of the darkest, most tragic plots of the novel by pulling Captain Snegiryov’s beard and humiliating him in front of Ilyusha and the boys. This public act of insult precipitates the stone throwing and Ilyusha’s injury. Stones, like seeds, like psychology, like miracles, like virtually every indirect repository of meaning in the novel, become an image, as we have seen, that possesses both a negative and positive charge. These stones wound; others will heal. Jesus refused to change the stones into bread because he would not purchase man’s belief that way. But within this novel stones produce a nourishment of their own.
Kolya, like Mitya, purposefully commits an act of insult involving a beard. ‘The peasant’s beard’s frozen,’ Kolya cried in a loud provocative voice as he passed him,’ He also shares Mitya’s propensity for being a deliberative narrator, capable of exaggerating his misfortune in order to please his audience. ‘What would a schoolboy be if he were not whipped? And if I were to tell him we are not, he’d be disappointed…One has to know how to talk to the peasants.’
Moreover, like Mitya, Kolya is, in his childish way, given to public brawling and has provoked more anger against himself than he realizes. ‘He had been in so many rows on the street that he could hardly remember them all.’ Mitya, on the road to Mokroe, had, like Zosima before him, stunned and embarrassed a peasant by asking for his forgiveness. Kolya’s third encounter in the marketplace, on his way to Ilyusha, resonates with this incident. Mitya’s asking of forgiveness had occurred spontaneously as he was on his way to Mokroe to stir up trouble: Kolya tells young Smurov that he likes ‘to stir up fools in every class of society.’ He then sees a drunken peasant and starts to mock him. The peasant replies, ‘Well, God forgive you.’ And Kolya finds himself asking, ‘Do you forgive me, too?’ ‘I quite forgive you. Go along.’ Dostoevsky deftly sounds the same theme in two very different keys. The metaphysical lofty moment in the dark on the road to Mokroe gives way to the world of mischievous boys, impatient adults, and the bustle of the marketplace. But the fundamental notes and rhythms are the same.
Like Mitya, Kolya is a skillful and incisive narrator. Mitya, in his confession to Alyosha, had told us his story and analyzed his own psychological motivations as well as the narrator-chronicler or even Dostoevsky himself could have done. Kolya offers Alyosha a similarly powerful narration; at least we hear the full account of his relationship with Ilyusha.
Moreover, Kolya, like Mitya, precipitates unhappiness and tragedy by a vitally significant act of withholding. Mitya had withheld the remaining portion of the money he owned Katerina Ivanovna and had kept it secretly in a bag around his neck. Kolya withholds the dog Zhuchka from Ilyusha. Each act of holding back emanates from a destructive attraction to self-dramatization. Each character awaits the perfect moment to reveal his secret; each waits too long. However perceptive Mitya and Kolya are as narrators of their respective stories, they each, through the vanity of showmanship, commit a serious error in timing.
But this vanity, Alyosha realizes, is no small matter. Mitya fears losing his honor, Kolya fears being ridiculous. Both are vain. The devil and God battle in each of their hearts, and Alyosha intones the presence of the devil in a literal way that serves also to forecast his appearance to Ivan in Book XI. “‘The devil has taken the form of that vanity and entered into the whole generation, it’s simply the devil, added Alyosha, without a trace of the smile that Kolya, staring at him, expected to see. ‘You are like everyone else.'” Both Mitya and Kolya are deeply guilty before the Snegiryov family; each has caused Ilyusha to suffer. For each, genuine tears and repentance finally come. Mitya dreams of the babe, for whom he will undertake imprisonment; Kolya at last weeps, without shame, for the dying Ilyusha. Dostoevsky has instilled and recast much of his huge novel into his seemingly direct account of the unfolding of events on a single November morning the day before Mitya’s trial is to begin.
After endowing Kolya with all these resemblances to Mitya, it is a stunning achievement on the part of Dostoevsky, a true sleight of hand, that Kolya should have even more links to Ivan than he does to Mitya. Like Ivan, Kolya frequently displays a tendency toward inflated language; he loves to make generalizations, to quote writers like Belinsky and Voltaire even if, unlike Ivan he has not read them. Kolya also seeks to reject God’s world, even as he proclaims his love for mankind in general. Despite his proclamations of love for man, he has offended against particular men, specifically against Ilyusha.
Both Ivan and Kolya had longed ‘to make Alyosha’s acquaintance.’ Each doubter is irresistibly drawn to the angelic believer and wants to show himself at his best. Each proclaims to Alyosha with pride, and as a kind of bedrock to his being, his love of children. ‘I am always fond of children,’ says Kolya. Yet of more immediate importance to the world of this novel, and thus more harrowing than Ivan’s litany of the tortures inflicted on children, is the fact that the appealing Kolya is in fact himself a torturer of children, for he inflicts unjustified suffering on Ilyusha.
Ivan had smilingly observed to Alyosha that every Russian school boy loves to discuss the eternal questions. Kolya is himself that school boy, yet he also loves to talk — in a scene that has both a delicious and a poignant irony for the reader — about Russian schoolboys. He converses with Alyosha, and gradually, as it had been with Ivan, Kolya realizes that ‘our talk has been like a declaration of love.’ Their encounter ends not with a kiss but with an affectionate pressing of hands.
Like Ivan, Kolya has a theory he wishes to work out and to verify. But whereas Ivan’s theories are about the right to commit and punish crime, Kolya’s theory is about Alyosha. His language is familiar: ‘Karamazov’s a riddle to me…I have a theory about him which I must work out and verify.’ Both Ivan and Kolya like to explain things in the current fashionable language of discourse, which favors phrases like ‘the laws of nature.’ We have already seen that Kolya’s encounters with the peasants in the marketplace recapitulate Mitya’s experience, but typical of Dostoevsky’s economy as a writer, they foreshadow Ivan’s experience as well. In Book XI Ivan too will encounter a peasant who combines elements of the three peasants with whom Kolya speaks; Ivan’s peasant will be freezing (like the peasant with the frozen beard), angry, and drunk.
Ivan, as we have seen, narrated his poem to Alyosha, who had given back to him the glowing kiss that his fictional Jesus had planted upon his Grand Inquisitor’s lips. The story Kolya tells to Alyosha is no exalted poem, it is more in the spirit of Mitya’s narrative, though Kolya, like Ivan, tests out his ideas in the course of it. And Kolya and Alyosha do have a discussion about art — not poetry, as Ivan and Alyosha did, but about theatrical performances. Alyosha praises Kolya for not hesitating to ‘play horsey’ with the younger children. Alyosha’s views on art here echo those of Plato, Rousseau, and even Dostoevsky’s old adversary, Nikolai Chernyshevsky. ‘Sometimes [children’s] games are much better than performances in the theatre…to these games the young people are the actors themselves.’ Moreover, in the narrative about Ilyusha that Kolya gives, he himself is the leading actor. Ivan’s poem rendered a hypothetical story; Kolya becomes a literal Grand Inquisitor and himself enacts, within his own childish world, a scenario not unlike that of Ivan’s literary creation.
As Book XI unfolds, we will be asked to consider the difficult question of the extent to which Ivan is guilty as the inciter of evil action. Smerdyakov has been both a petty devil to him, in the role of instigator of evil, and his lackey, his willing evil agent. Here we learn that Smerdyakov has acted in the former capacity for Ilyusha as well. Yet is is Kolya who incites an act of murder, though only of a goose. He tempts a peasant (an errand boy of twenty0 to prove a silly theory (‘If that cart were to move on a little, would it break the goose’s neck or not?’); he insigates an evil action, thus entering into the dark realm inhabited by Smerdyakov and Ivan. ‘I winked at the lad, he tugged at the bridle, and crack! The goose’s neck was broken in half.’ As Ivan will do in Book XII, Kolya then tells how he and the peasant appeared before a judge. He reiterates the angry words of blame: ‘And the fellow kept blubbering like a woman. ‘It wasn’t me,’ he said, ‘it was he who egged me on.’ and he pointed to me. I answered with the utmost composure that I hadn’t egged him on, that I simply stated the general proposition, had spoken hypothetically.’….
…Kolya’s judge merely smiles at the prank; he promises to complain to Kolya’s mother, but never does so…As a curious footnote…we also learn that Ivan and Kolya are the two characters in The Brothers Karamazov for whom the railroads — always a source of negative imagery in Dostoevsky’s work — play a role. Kolya had gained power and authority over the boys partly through his mad courage in lying on the railroad tracks as a train passed over him. And Ivan had taken the train to Moscow just before his father’s murder. ‘I am a scoundrel,’ he had whispered to himself. Kolya comes to the same realization. ‘I am a scoundrel in lots of ways, Karamazov.’
Three of Kolya’s most significant actions — lying under the train, inciting the murder of the goose, and attempting to create a miracle by bringing back to life at the right moment the ‘dead’ dog Zhuchka — parody and reflect Ivan’s actions and ideas. This doubling is particularly subtle and convincing because Ivan and Kolya, despite their uncanny resemblance to each other, have never met.
The use to which Kolya would put his ‘secret knowledge’ also connects him with Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor. Indeed, his resemblances to the Inquisitor are at least as numerous as his resemblances to Ivan. Kolya, we see, is a liar — a charming liar, but a liar nevertheless. His considerable rhetorical power combines with his lies in a manner reminiscent of the Grand Inquisitor. At the beginning of the novel we were reminded by Fyodor that the devil is the father of lies; Kolya within the mundane confines of his village sphere and life as a child, has succumbed to the devil’s three temptations just as has the lofty, fictional Grand Inquisitor of Seville. Like him, Kolya lies to the children to maintain his authority over them and to create his own aura of miracle and mystery.
Kolya wields his authority over the children through the wonder of the toy cannon, through his secret knowledge of the founders of Troy, and through his charisma. Throughout Book X, Kolya is attempting to orchestrate — at the expedient time, as he mistakenly conceives it — his own miracle. When Jesus appeared on the scene in Ivan’s poem, he had raised up a dead child. Kolya, too, tries to create a raising of the dead. Early on he tells Snurov, ‘Zhuchka doesn’t exist. Zhuchka is lost in the mists of obscurity.’ Smurov wishes they could pretend that Kolya’s new dog Perezvon is Zhuchka (which, of course, he is) and Kolya, even as he is lying about Perezvon’s identity, confidently and condescendingly exhorts, ‘Boy, shun a lie, that’s one thing; even with a good object, that’s another.’
Throughout, Kolya proudly displays Perezvon’s tricks. The one of which he is proudest is Perezvon’s talent for playing dead. ‘Be dead be dead’ runs as a kind of refrain through these pages, and Kolya is the ‘only one’ who can raise him. Kolya, moreover, pretends that the real Zhuchka is dead and brings him to life by an act of will in an effort to impress, forgive, and heal Ilyusha…
The Grand Inquisitor reverberates in other ways through Book X. Jesus refuses to turn the stones into bread. We have already seen how the boys throw stones at each other; yet more destructive even than the stone throwing is the bread throwing. Smerdyakov, in his guise as tempting devil, teaches Ilyusha to put a pin in bread and to toss it to dogs. it is Ilyusha’s fear that he has murdered Zhuchka that first propels him to despair. Smerdyakov thus literalizes the devil’s temptation, for, as Jesus realizes, stones turned into bread to buy men’s faith would offer men no real nourishment — such bread would be equivalent to bread with a pin in it.
Moreover, when Ilyusha confesses his sin to the child inquisitor Kolya, his intermediary before God, Kolya does precisely what Ivan’s article had advocated and what Zosima, with his loving heart, had argued so passionately against: he ‘excommunicates’ Ilyusha, he casts him out from the brotherhood of boys. As Zosima had predicted, being cut off has terrible results: Ilyusha’s despair bears fruit. He stabs Kolya with the penknife; he bites Alyosha; he cries out in anger, ‘I will throw bread with pins to all the dogs — all — all of them.’
Just as Ivan’s narrative, his poem of rebellion and rejection had seemed to be, as Alyosha predicted, indirectly in praise of Jesus rather than in blame of him, so too does Kolya’s narrative to Alyosha work at cross-purposes to itself. He sets out to justify his course of action, but the sheer power of Ilyusha’s grief, despair, and victimization, as Kolya describes it, subverts his own account. Ilyusha’s tears pierce our hearts, and when we learn from Alyosha that Ilyusha had three times repeated, tearfully, ‘It’s because I killed Zhuchka, dad, that I am ill now. God is punishing me for it,’ we realize with immediacy, rather than in theory, that it is folly to claim, as many in the monastery had upon Zosima’s death, that one can see the finger of God in a particular event.
Moreover, throughout much of Kolya’s narrative Alyosha remains silent. ‘Alyosha had looked serious and had not said a word all the time…Alyosha was still silent.’ Alyosha’s silence echoes that of Jesus, as well as his own silence during most of Ivan’s narrative. When Alyosha finally does speak to Kolya, he says, with a faint smile, ‘I don’t agree.’ Ivan and Kolya both, as we have already seen, end their narratives with assertions of their love for Alyosha.”
Wow. The connections, the spiderwebs of connectedness, the mirroring and rhyming that she’s able to see, which seems obvious once she points it out…very impressive.
Book X, Chapter Seven; Book XI, Chapter One