The Brothers Karamazov
Book XII, Chapters 10-11
by Dennis Abrams
I’m going to leave the synopsis for these chapters to the discussions by Miller and Frank (who cover pretty much everything I planned to discuss), but there’s one thing I’d like to mention:
I was struck by the way that Dostoevsky disparages novels and the art of the novel, “In reality a thousand things can flash by, which escape the observations of the subtlest novelist.” Throughout our examination of Dostoevsky, we have seen the way in which he forces us to question the reality of what is being told to us — this seems to me the most blatant attempt to point the essential…untrustworthiness of what we’re reading, and that we as readers have to resolve for ourselves the truth of the matter. Thoughts?
“The blend of fact and fancy in the case for the defense is a different one. As Fetyukovich begins his speech, we can agree with his initial premise: ‘There is an overwhelming chain of evidence against the defendant, and at the same time not one fact that will stand criticism if it is examined separately.’ Moreover, in attacking the prosecutor, Fetyukovich utters a truth that has been axiomatic throughout the novel. “But profound as psychology is, it’s a knife that cuts both ways.’ He praises the prosecutor’s canny citation of the ‘broad Karamazov nature,’ and ‘the two extreme abysses which a Karamazov can contemplate at once,’ and the uses his own psychological knife to carve out a completely different hypothesis about Mitya — that he did not steal the money, that he did keep 1500 roubles sewn up in a bag, and, in the first part of the argument at least, that he did not commit the murder.
His analysis of Smerdyakov, in which he scrutinizes the agonizing difference between despair and penitence, is the most accurate that we have had so far. He suggests that in Smerdyakov’s guilty suicide we see only the former. Moreover, he paints an accurate portrait of Mitya’s character and shows him to be a man undone by his tendency — as in the drunken letter to Katerina Ivanovna — to crate vivid scenarios. Dostoevsky seems to agree with Fetyukovich here that Mitya’s fate lies hidden in his character. This view of character as fate — as opposed to the classical notion of fate being determined by the gods — is a profoundly Shakespearean one. As we know, Dostoevsky, like both his fictional prosecutor and defense attorney, knew his Shakespeare well.
In fact, Fetyukovich’s view of the real events lying behind Fyodor’s murder comes closest to Dostoevsky’s own, until the crucial moment when Fetyukovich’s argument veers sharply away and gives itself up to an absurd self-destructiveness. We know by now that Dostoevsky typically gives some of his own views to characters whose ideas he ultimately ridicules and repudiates. Fetyukovich becomes a true blockhead, for at the moment when he should have concluded his argument, he launches instead into a theoretical justification for negating filial bonds. ‘Filial love for an unworthy father is an absurdity.’ He then denies the mystical bond that exists only on faith between parents and children; he argues that parental love must be earned, that its bases are ‘rational, responsible, and strictly humanitarian.’
His argument reads as a dangerously reductive version of Ivan’s ideas. Moreover, he suddenly retraces the events of the fateful night of the murder and suggests, that if, even though he does not believe it, Mitya did in fact kill Fyodor, the act was an unpremeditated gesture of ‘indignant disgust;’ and that he had not meant to kill his father. ‘Such a murder,’ Fetyukovich concludes preposterously, ‘is not a murder. Such a murder is not parridice.’ Fetyukovich has effectively unraveled his own defense. Earlier he had ridiculed the prosecutor for claiming to argue in Mitya’s defense; here Fetyukovich foolishly and unwittingly wins the case for the prosecution.”
“The famous defense attorney Fetyukovich, the star of the Petersburg bar, now offers a masterly defense of Dimitry in terms that the reader recongizes as accurate. His defense not only discredits the psychological inferences drawn by Ippolit Kirillovich, he also understands that Dimitry could act under the influence of love, honor, and pity, as well as out of the rage and jealousy considered his sole motivations by the prosecutor. Dostoevsky’s main criticism of the legal profession in his journalism, however, had been that defense lawyers, carried away by their task, often lost sight of the larger moral implications of their arguments, and this is exactly what occurs here. Fetyukovich goes too far, swept beyond the bounds of the morally legitimate by the desire to defend his client (who in this case at least was innocent.)
Fetyukovich treads on dangerous ground when he raises the question of whether the murder of such a reprehensible father as Feodor Pavlovich could be condemned. While insisting that Dimitry is innocent, he nonetheless argues that such a murder could well be justified, driving home the point with examples taken from a tirade by the villainous Karl Moor in Schiller’s The Robbers. The indignant narrator now labels him ‘an adulterer of thought’ (the chapter’s title), and it is here that the defense plea intersects with the novel’s deepest moral-philosophical motifs.; ‘Filial love for an unworthy father,’ Fetyukovich insists, ‘is an absurdity, an impossibility. Love cannot be created from nothing: only God can create something from nothing.’ If fathers wish to be loved by their children, they should earn such love by their deeds. Love for a father should rest on a ‘rational, responsible, and strictly humanitarian basis’ it should not derive from a ‘mustical meaning which I cannot comprehend with my intellect, but only accept by faith, or better, on faith, like many other things which I do not understand, but which religion leads me to believe.’ The courtroom audience, as the narrator notes sarcastically, went wild over this denunciation of a filial love based solely on faith. ‘Even persons of high position, old men with stars on their breasts, sitting on specially reserved seats behind the judges, applauded the orator and waved their handkerchiefs.’
Fetyukovich is here making the same argument against unconditional filial love, based only on faith, that Ivan had made against a God-father who incomprehensibly permits the undeserved suffering of his children. But the lawyer goes still further when he suggests that, even if Dimitry had entered the house — which he denied having done — with no intent to kill, he might have struck Feodor Pavlovich precisely because ‘The mere sight of the father who hated him from his childhood, had been his enemy, his persecutor, and how his unnatural rival, was enough.’ His feeling of hatred would have been so strong that he might have dealt him a blow, ‘not knowing that he would kill him’ and not intending at all to do so. But if he had killed him,’ the murder of such a father,’ Fetyukovich insists, ‘cannot be considered parricide…can only be reckoned a parricide by prejudice.’
Fetyukovich undermines his own case, however, by raising doubts as to whether he himself believed in the innocence of his client. And we know that the terms of Fetyukovich’s argument recall those that Ivan had made against the God-father. But in asking the reader to accept Ivan’s attack on God and Dimitry’s hatred of Feodor Pavlovich as equally impious assaults on the sacrosanct principle of fatherhood, Dostoevsky was taking a considerable artistic-ideological risk. Indeed, if there is some question among interpreters as to whether Dostoevsky ever truly succeeded in blunting the force of Ivan’s rebellion, an even stronger doubt arises over his effort to merge the levels of this same thematic motif. God, after all, bestowed on man the immense gift of freedom, however badly this gift may have been abused and misused, and while he can be held implicitly responsible for all the honors that have ensued, they occurred, as even Ivan conceded in his Legend, because he refused to enslave the dignity of the human conscience.
It is entirely different, however, to substitute Feodor Pavlovich for God and to ask readers to accept a refusal to love him unconditionally as an equivalent violation of the sacred principle of fatherhood. The stark realism with which his cynicism and debauchery are displayed, and his complete lack of any redeeming features, undermine the parallel that Dostoevsky was trying to establish. Readers, in this case, are likely to ally themselves with Fetyukovich’s insistence that mundane filial-paternal love should involve reciprocity and mutual responsibility. Nonetheless, just as Dostoevsky had not softened the asperities of Ivan’s attack on the shortcomings of both God and Christ, so here too he dares to proffer the protection of the sacrosanct principle of fatherhood, unassailable by reason and justified by faith alone, even to so odious a specimen as Feodor Pavlovich. One cannot help wondering whether the extremity of this effort was not a forlorn response to the nerve-racking situation that all of Russia was then living through, as one attempt after another was made on the life of the Tsar-Father.
After appealing to reason to defend a crime that Dimitry had not committed, Fetyukovich then concludes by evoking a totally opposite principle — that of Christian mercy. As he goes on, Fetyukovich’s eloquent words continue to ask for mercy in a manner implying Dimitry’s guilt. ‘Let other nations think of retribution and the letter of the law, we will cling to the spirit and the meaning — the salvation and reformation of the lost.’ The argument is thus a tissue of contradictions, more an apologia for the crime than a clear-cut defense of Dimitry’s innocence.
These concluding words excite a demonstration from the audience that was like ‘an irresistible storm.’ Everyone wept, and even ‘two important personages shed tears’ at this combination of rationalism and an appeal to a sentimental humanitarianism deriving from Christian principles. When Ippolit Kirillovich rose to protest, ‘shaking with emotion…people positively looked at him with hatred.’ In his articles, Dostoevsky had often criticized the abuse of the Gospels by defense lawyers, and Ippolit Kirillovich charges Fetyukovich with such malpractice by his reference to Christ as ‘the crucified lover of humanity…in opposition to all of Orthodox Russia, which calls to Him, ‘for thou art our God.” ‘Religion and the Gospels,’ Ippolit Kirillovich cries, ‘are corrected — that’s all mysticism, we are told, and ours is the only true Christianity which has been subjected to the analysis of reason and common sense.’
As for me, I have to say that my sympathies lie both with Ivan’s argument as well as that of Ippolit Fetyukovich. And, to be honest, I’m not all together certain that Dostoevsky didn’t, at least in part, agree with them as well.
I’m going to take the rest of the week of, so…
The Weekend’s Reading
Book XII, Chapter 14, and the Epilogue.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend. I’ll be posting again Monday morning.