The Brothers Karamazov
Book XII, Chapters 1-2
by Dennis Abrams
“The Fatal Day” “The day after the events just described, at ten-o’clock-in-the-morning, our district court opened its session and the trial of Dmitri Karamazov began.” The narrator-chronicler begins by telling the reader that he is “far from considering myself capable of recounting all the events that took place in court, not only with the proper fullness, but even in the proper order..” The narrator-chronicler’s surprise at the wide-interest in the case — for two months it’s been the talk of the town, of the area, even as far as Moscow and St. Petersburg. “All the tickets were snapped up.” The ‘hysterical greedy, almost morbid curiosity” of the ladies. Their belief in Mitya’s acquittal. Their interest in the two “rivals” — Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka. Stories about Katerina, her passion for Mitya, her pride, her aristocratic connections. Did she intend to ask the government to allow her to follow Mitya to Siberia and marry him in the mines? Grushenka, “the destroyer of Fyodor Pavlovich and his unfortunate son.” The male contingent was aroused against the defendant. The defense attorney, the famous Fetyukovich. The prosecutor, the vain Ippolit Kirillovich; his seriousness. The judge, “an educated and humane man, with a practical knowledge of his task, and with the most modern ideas…His chief goal in life was to be a progressive man.” His passionate concern with the phenomenon of the Karamazov case. The courtroom. The bloodstained evidence. The presiding judge’s “hemorrhodial face.” The prosecutor’s “almost green face…” The twelve jurors: four local officials, two merchants, and six local peasants and tradesmen. Society’s question: “Can it be that the fatal decision in such a subtle, complex and psychological case is to be turned over to a bunch of officials, and even to peasants?” Dmitri makes his appearance in court dressed as a dandy, “in a fresh new frock coat…wearing new black kid gloves and an elegant shirt.” The birdlike physiognomy of the famous Fetyukovich. Four witnesses not present: Miusov, who was in Paris, but whose testimony had already been taken; Madame Khokhlakov and Maximov “for reasons of health, and Smerdyakov, on account of his sudden death.” Dmitri’s outburst on hearing the news about Smerdyakov: “The dog died like a dog.” Dmitri enters his plea: “I plead guilty to drunkenness and depravity, to idleness and debauchery. I intended to become an honest man ever after, precisely at the moment when fate cut me down! but the death of the old man, my enemy and my father — I am not guilty! Of robbing him — no, no, not guilty, and I could not be guilty. Dmitri Karamazov is a scoundrel, but not a thief!” The witnesses are brought up one by one. “Dangerous Witnesses” The narrator-chronicler notes tat he will not be describing the examinations and cross examinations step-by-step: he’ll save that for the final speeches of the defense attorney and prosecutor. The remarkable strength of the prosecutor’s case. “Everyone realized this at the first at the first moment when, in this dread courtroom, the facts were focused and began falling together, and all the horror and blood began gradually to emerge.” The ladies belief in Dmitri’s guilt, but also in his acquittal, “because of humaneness, because of the new ideas, because of the new feelings that are going around nowadays.” The men are interested in the struggle between the prosecutor and the renowned Fetyukovich. What was Fetyukovich’s strategy? Grigory Vasiletich’s testimony. His confirmation of the open garden gate, his admission that he, nor anyone else, had ever seen the envelope with the 3000 roubles. What was in Grigory’s balm or infusion? — the equivalent of two tumblers of vodka. Was he awake when he saw the open garden gate? “‘I am a subordinate man,’ Grigory suddenly said, loudly and distinctly. ‘If the authorites see fit to deride men, then I must endure it.'” Grigory is not a poodle, Mitya is. Rakitin’s testimony. Had he written a pamphlet, “The Life of the Elder, Father Zosima, Fallen Asleep in God?” Was he a close friend with Grushenka? Why did he take the twenty-five rouble reward from her, and why, if it was a joke, hadn’t he returned it? Captain Snergiryov’s testimony. Ilyusha had asked him not to tell the court about the insult he had received from Mitya. A father’s sobs. Trifon Borisovich’s testimony: How could he be sure how much money Dmitri had spent on his first visit? The pocketed one hundred roubles and the peasant witnesses. The testimony of the two Poles: Fetyukovich catches them in lies, the fact of their cheating Dmitri in cards is revealed. Fetyukovich’s success in “morally tainting” each of the most dangerous witnesses, but observers wondered what was his point: “..they waited, seeing by the assurance of ‘the great magician’ that he was calm: ‘such a man’ would not have come from Petersburg for nothing, nor we he such as to go back with nothing.”
I was struck, reasons of which I’m not quite sure, how familiar the courtroom tactics were — it seems that the famous (always famous, or renowned) Fetyukovich’s methods would not be out of place in any current courtroom — at least as presented on television.
And I also laughed at the narrator-chronicler’s (sly?) aside, “I keep thinking that if one were to recall everything and explain everything as one ought, it would fill a whole book, even quite a large one.”
“Just a few words about Book XII, ‘A miscarriage of justice.’ Before the trial even begins, we have already been members of the jury in a more fundamental trial, a trial of all the protagonists. Sentence may already have been passed. Each brother has, in his own way, recognized his own guilt, his own responsibility. Book XII, rather than constituting the genuine trial of any of the brothers, stands as the most extended and satiric scandal scene Dostoevsky ever wrote. ‘All Russia’ watches this spectacle. The Karamazov family squabbles, which erupted in the monastery in the first public scandal of the novel, became fodder for the newspapers of an entire country. Dostoevsky has imperceptibly and deftly expanded the canvas of his novel’s action. the title, ‘A miscarriage of justice,’ sets the tone for what is to follow. Ironically, this longest book of the novel is the least central to its main plot. Instead, it is the epilogue, which in most novels functions as a kind of afterword, that advances the plot in significant ways.
Just as Dostoevsky consulted doctors for the depiction of Ivan’s symptoms of encroaching brain fever, so did he consult two prosecutors while he worked on the scenes of Mitya’s trial. Ever ready to engage in journalistic polemic, he also used Book XII to express his dissatisfaction with the legal reforms that had taken place in Russia during the 1860s. ‘Both the lawyer and the prosecutor are presented by me in part as types of our contemporary court (though not based on anyone specifically) with their morality, liberalism, and view of their task.’ In fact, V.D. Spasovich, one of the most famous lawyers in Russia and a professor of law at the University of St. Petersburg, was, despite Dostoevsky’s denials, the prototype of Fetyukovich (blockhead).
Thus far, the novel has probed the religious and moral dimensions of guilt, crime, and punishment. Now at the end, in Book XII, Dostoevsky compresses all these questions into the temporal confines of an ongoing trial in the hope that his readers, even as they smile, will see the inherent limitation of a trial as a mode of arriving at ‘the truth,’ Like Dickens, Dostoevsky criticized much about the law and the prevailing judicial system in virtually all his novels.
Mitya has many judges. The ladies, though the vast majority of them believe in his guilt, are ‘in favor of his being acquitted.’ Their husbands, for the most part, are ‘biased against the prisoner.’ But the most important judges are Mitya’s brothers, Katerina Ivanovna, Rakitin, Grigory, the kind old Dr. Herzenstube who had known Mitya since childhood, Grushenka, Fetyukovich (the defense attorney), Ippolit Kirillovich (the prosecutor), the three trial judges, the jury, the narrator-chronicler, and, of course, the reader. The verdicts these many judges are varied. Moreover, each judges Mitya within a different context and from a different vantage point, ranging from the romantic interest of the ladies, the desire of the men to see a contest between the prosecutor and the defense attorney, and the psychological interest of the prosecution, to the social interests of the president of the court and the political interpretations of Rakitin.”
Book XII, Chapters Three and Four