The Brothers Karamazov
Book XI, Chapters Four and Five
by Dennis Abrams
“A Hymn and a Secret” “It was already quite late (and how long is a November day?) when Alyosha rang at the prison gate.” Dmitri’s few visitors: Grushenka, Alyosha, and Rakitin. As Alyosha enters, Rakitin is leaving; Rakitin’s anger. Dmitri denies being friends with Rakitin, “Why would I be, the swine! He considers me…a scoundrel. And he doesn’t understand jokes — that’s the main problem with them.” Ideas, ethics, science, and Carl Bernard. Is Dmitri merely a victim of his environment? Rakitin haves Ivan. Dmitri feels sorry for God. The new man, the little tails, “not at all because I have a soul or am some sort of image and likeness…” “Chemistry’s coming!” Rakitin: “‘Didn’t you know?’ he said. And he laughed. ‘Everything is permitted to the intelligent man,’ he said. ‘The intelligent man knows how to catch crayfish, but you killed and fouled it up,’ he said, ‘and now you’re rotting in prison!” Rakitin the swindler: His plan to marry Madame Khokhlakov, take her to Petersburg, and use her money to buy a stone house and start a newspaper. “If I get the capital away from the foolish woman, then I can be of civic use.” “For the Recovery of my Object’s Ailing Little Foot.” The new man risen inside of Dmitri, “He was shut up inside me, but if it weren’t for this thunderbolt, he never would have appeared…what do I care if I spend twenty years pounding out iron ore in the mines, I’m not afraid of that all, but I’m afraid of something else now: that this risen man not depart from me! Even there, in the mines, underground, you can find a human heart in the convict and murderer standing next to you, and you can be close to him…You can revive and resurrect the frozen heart in this convict…It is for the ‘wee one’ that I will go. Because everyone is guilty for everyone else…And I’ll go for all of them, because there must be someone who will go for all of them.” Life underground. Dmitri claims that Ivan hides his idea. Dmitri’s tormented by God, “What if he doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin is right…that it is an artificial idea of mankind?” If so, is everything permitted? Is it possible to love mankind without loving God? Dmitri and Katerina Ivanovna: “god save you,d ear boy, from ever asking forgiveness for your guilt from a woman you love.” Will Dmitri be allowed to marry Grushenka? Dmitri’s secret: Ivan’s plan for Dmitri to escape to America with Grushenka, where, according to Ivan, “a man with ‘good inclinations’ can be of more use in America than underground.” “Well, and where will our underground hymn take place?” Ivan insists on Dmitri’s escape. Alyosha advises Dmitri to wait and decide until after sentencing. Dmitri says that Ivan believes he killed Fyodor; Alyosha cries out, “Never for a single moment have I believed that you are the murderer.” Dmitri tells Alyosha to “love Ivan.” “Not You! Not You!” “On the way to Ivan he had to pass by the house where Katerina Ivanovna was staying.” Ivan is just leaving as Alyosha enters, but decides to go back upstairs with Alyosha. Alyosha passes on Dmitri’s message to Katerina: “…spare yourself and not give any evidence in court…of what happened between you…at the time of your first acquaintance…in the town…” Katerina tells Ivan (calling him ‘my dear’) that it was he who convinced her that Dmitri is a parricide. Ivan abruptly leaves, Katerina urges Alyosha to go after him, “Don’t leave him alone for a minute. He’s mad. Did you know he’s gone mad? He has a fever, a nervous fever!” How does one lose one’s mind? Alyosha delivers Lise’s letter to Ivan. “Ah, it’s from that little demon!’ he laughed maliciously, and, without unsealing the envelope, he suddenly tor it into several pieces and tossed them to the wind…’She’s not yet sixteen, I believe, and already offering herself!'” Will Katerina be Dmitri’s savior or destroyer? Katerina loves Ivan, Ivan “does not fancy” Katerina, but won’t break it off until “they pass sentence on the murderer. If I break with her now, she’ll take vengeance on me by destroying the scoundrel in court tomorrow, because she hates him and she knows she hates him. There are nothing but lies here, lie upon lie!” Ivan states that Katerina has a document that “mathematically” proves that he killed Fyodor Pavlovich. Alyosha, in a near whisper tells Ivan, “I know one thing, It was not you who killed father, not you!…you’ve told yourself several times that you were the murderer…the murderer was not you, do you hear, it was not you! God has sent me to tell you that.” Ivan’s stunned reaction — how did Alyosha know this? Was he in the room with him? Did the devil tell Alyosha? Ivan announces that he can’t bear prophets, epileptics, and messengers from God especially, and is breaking with Alyosha, for, “I suppose, forever.” Standing at the crossroads. Alyosha goes to his rented room; Ivan almost goes to his apartment, but at the last minute decides to pay a call on Smerdyakov.
It’s pretty amazing to me to watch how the pieces come together. All the ideas, themes, motifs…
1. I’d guess that if Dmitri is willing to go to Siberia for ‘the wee one’, “And I’ll go for all of them, because there must be someone who will go for all of them,” that we have to see Dmitri as a Christ figure?
2. And, when Ivan tells Alyosha at the crossroads, “your way home is on this lane,” isn’t he echoing Rakitin’s words to Alyosha that night when they were both leaving Grushenka’s?
“The title of chapter 4, ‘A hymn and a secret,’ recalls Dmitri’s first confession to Alyosha in Book III. Even after so much has occurred, Dmitri remains just as concerned about his metaphysical fate; practical considerations continue to be secondary to him. On the day before his trial he explains to Alyosha, ‘It’s all over with me.’ Yet his impending trial, with its probable conviction, does not particularly concern him, the loss of God does.
Here Dostoevsky takes on his favorite old journalistic polemic with the socialists and with social Darwinism, but this time he endows his argument with a new twist — better yet, with a new flick of the tail. Devils and the demonic have already been making their presence felt throughout Book XI, now it is the theories of the nineteenth-century physiologist Claude Bernard, as espoused by Rakitin, that seek to conquer the battlefield that is Mitya’s heart. But Dostoevsky humorously has Mitya recast Bernard’s arguments into a framework that fits the increasing presence of the demonic in the novel; ‘Imagine: inside, in the nerves…(damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves…when they quiver, then an image appears…–devil take the moment!…That’s why I see and then think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul…I’m sorry to lose God! It’s chemistry, brother, chemistry.’ In this scheme, guilt and responsibility are reduced to mere chemical reactions.
Moreover, Mitya tells Alyosha that Rakitin, true socialist that he has now become, plans to prove in his forthcoming article that Mitya ‘couldn’t help murdering his father, he was corrupted by his environment…He is going to put in a tinge of socialism.’ The scene reels with comedy, yet through it Dostoevsky once again underscores his old quarrels with the socialists. He had long believe that the logical outcome of their system, particularly when it excluded God, could be expressed in Ivan’s tag phrase: ‘everything is permitted.’
The hymn that Mitya at last sounds forth to Alyosha expresses Mitya’s epiphanic dream of the babe as well as the novel’s epigraph. The seed has taken root in Mitya: the ‘new man’ hidden within him has ‘come to the surface’ because of the cruel burden that has been placed upon him. And as a ‘new man,’ Mitya dreams, in messianic fashion, of putting this same mechanism into motion in others — in his future convicts in Siberia.
Dostoevsky here draws on his euphoric letter to his brother on the eve of his own departure to Siberia over 30 years earlier. He had written a letter full of hope:
‘Brother, I have not lost courage and I do not feel dispirited. Life is life everywhere, life is within ourselves and not in externals. There will be people around me, and to be a man among men, to remain so forever, and not to lose hope and give up, however hard things may be — that is what life is, that is its purpose…Never before have such rich and healthy reserves of spiritual life been seething in me as now. But will my body stand the ordeal? — that I do not know…Life is a gift, life is happiness, each minute could be an eternity of bliss.’
Mitya’s optimism springs from the same lofty, idealistic cadences as he imagines Siberia. ‘One may resurrect and revive a frozen heart in that convict…one may bring forth an angel…There are so many of them, and we are all responsible for them…It’s for the babe I’m going. Because we are all responsible for all. For all the ‘babes,’ for there are big children as well as little children. Rakitin’s social Darwinism removes guilt and responsibility as vital terms in any equation describing human life; Mitya here restores both terms. In seeking to embrace responsibility ‘for all,’ he is willing to accept guilt as well.
But his ‘secret,’ his plan for a possible escape to America, counterbalances his hymn. (In Dostoevsky’s canon, going to America always stands for a negative, godless, vain solution to complex problems.( [MY NOTE: Remember, for example, in Crime and Punishment, just before he commits suicide by shooting himself in the right temple, Svidrigailov tells the guard, “If they start asking you, just tell them he went to America.”] Could Mitya embrace guilt and responsibility in the role of escaped convict? When Mitya first confessed to Alyosha, he was at a literal as well as figurative crossroad in his life; once again, in Book XI, two alternatives loom before him. As in Book III, his love for Grushenka and his desire to act in an ethical and moral way seem to be at odds with each other. ‘Sign me with the cross,’ he begs Alyosha, ‘for the cross I have to bear tomorrow.’ He has found himself in a metaphysical crossroad once again. As before, he is fortified by Alyosha, who now passionately asserts his belief that Mitya is not guilty of the murder.
The interrelationship between guilt and responsibility becomes far more complex in chapter 5, when Alyosha finally manages to catch up with Ivan. The tenor of Book XI changes quickly as they stand — also at a key crossing for each of them — beneath the lamppost after leaving Katerina Ivanovna’s. Dostoevsky gives this scene a painterly quality: a Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro prevails. Alyosha seeks to inject light into the increasing darkness of Ivan’s despair and encroaching madness. The lamppost illuminates the darkness and their pale faces; it shows any viewer as much about the bleakness of the dark as about the power of light.
Ivan’s soul hangs in the balance. the devil (‘Do you know he visits me?’ and God (through his emissary Alyosha — ‘God has sent me’) wage a battle over it, just as darkness competes with the light in this scene. the question at hand, as in the preceding chapters, is one about guilt. ‘You have accused yourself and have confessed to yourself that you are the murderer and no one else. but you didn’t do it, you are mistaken; you are not the murder.’ Alyosha has taken upon himself the responsibility of convincing Ivan that he is not guilty. He has thus, on this crucial day before the trial, shown each of his brothers, accused as they are in different ways — one by society, one by himself — that he believes in their innocence. He has become, literally, his brothers’ keeper.”
Book XI, Chapters Six and Seven