The Brothers Karamazov
Book XII, Chapter 14; Epilogue
by Dennis Abrams
So, we’ve come to the end of The Brothers Karamazov and of our journey through the major novels of Dostoevsky — I hope it’s meant as much to you as it has to me. The kind of close reading we’ve given the books has altered my conceptions about Dostoevsky, showing me how much more complex his novels are, how intricately his themes, ideas, and images are woven throughout the text. I’ll have thing to say about the experience throughout the week, but I thought I’d begin with Robin Feuer Miller, who has helped me so much in my reading of Karamazov by showing me just how much more there is to the book than I had ever imagined.
‘A radiant fellowship of the fallen.’ — Joshua Chamberlain
‘In the dream of the heart/Let the healing fountain start.’ — W.H. Auden
It is my hope that readers, having read the novel — and the introduction to it — up to this point, can simply sit down to a well-earned reading of the epilogue in which its varied levels of meaning, its rhymes, and its symbols can interact in the pleasurable, yet serious jouissance [in the sense, I think of an almost sensual satisfaction or enjoyment] that is perhaps the greatest satisfaction to be derived from the experience of reading. Usually the epilogue to a novel serves to separate the reader from the characters, to distance him from the action, and to provide a more or less neutral buffer zone between the world of the novel and the real world that the reader will reenter upon putting down the book. This epilogue completes none of these tasks; its purposes are entirely different. We are drawn more deeply than ever into the action, we are implicated in it, and the zone we enter here is highly charged and anything but neutral.
The theme of memory juts like a vein of golden ore through the epilogue. Alyosha, in his familiar role, moves from Katerina Ivanovna’s house to the hospital to Ilyusha’s funeral. In each of the three chapters he gives crucial and loving advice, predicated on the belief, derived from Zosima, that memory can shape the future course of a life. He thus begs Katerina Ivanovna to visit Mitya. ‘Your eyes ought to meet. How will you live all your life, if you don’t make up your mind to do it now?’ He wholly sanctions the plan for Mitya’s escape and offers him a genuine reassurance that is not a rationalization. Along the way, he invokes again the sustaining power of memory: ‘If you had murdered our father it would grieve me that you should reject your cross. But you are innocent, and such a cross is too much for you. You wanted to make yourself another man by suffering. I say, only remember that other man always, all your life and wherever you escape to; and that will be enough for you.’
By the third and final chapter of the epilogue the theme of memory and the vital, ongoing symbols of the novel simultaneously reach their apotheosis. Numbers important to Christian belief also play a role. This epilogue follows 12 earlier books. There are ‘about twelve’ boys; the 12 followers of Alyosha recall the 12 apostles of Jesus. At least there is a death in which, to everyone’s surprise — as opposed to their expectation — the corpse does not stink. ‘Strange to say there was practically no smell from the corpse.’ And like Markel, so many years before, the dying Ilyusha had thought of the birds.
It is a curious yet meaningful fact that this, the last chapter of fiction Dostoevsky wrote before his death, even as it ties together the many disparate threads of his huge novel — and thus illustrates Zosima’s aphorism about all things being connected — should also have a startling resonance with the first story Dostoevsky ever wrote, Poor Folks. There, too, a heartbroken father, like Snegiryov (and like Dostoevsky himself over the death of his son), weeps and, oblivious to the cold weather, loses his hat. As Dostoevsky describes Snegiryov’s grief, the abundance of heartrending detail again gives the scene its painful immediacy: the crumpled flowers, Ilyusha’s empty bed, his little boots.
Alyosha’s words strikingly recall those of Zosima to the peasant woman: ‘Let them weep,’ he says. Alyosha and the boys feed the birds at sunset. Dostoevsky has carefully set the scene for the final tour de force of his novel. Just as The Idiot depicts near its end a powerfully conceived verbal icon — a negative one: Myshkin and Rogozhin lie face to face beside the dead Nastasia Filippovna — here, too, we suddenly find ourselves confronted by a haunting icon, one whose terms are, despite the sadness of events, hauntingly optimistic.
Alyosha remembers all that Snegiryov had told him, ‘the whole picture,’ and he spontaneously delivers a message to the boys. ‘Let us make a compact, here at Ilyusha’s stone, that we will never forget, first, Ilyushechka, and second, one another.’ Alyosha, recalling Jesus with Peter and the apostles, founds his living church, his brotherhood of children by a rock. And their brotherhood is cemented by the very mortar that Ivan had earlier so eloquently refused to accept — the unjustified suffering of a child. ‘And…whatever happens to us later in life…let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones, do you remember, by the bridge.’ Those stones and the stone at which Alyosha and the boys stand become a physically embodied spiritual sustenance. For Alyosha and the boys, the stones, as it were, become bread. The boys are all guilty; they have contributed to Ilyusha’s suffering. Yet they accept themselves and their brotherhood, though their edifice does stand upon a child’s tears.
In the terms the novel puts forth, a kind of miracle has been wrought, for we, too, forgive these boys, even as Ivan’s words about the mother of a tortured child ring in our ears. ‘The truth is not worth such a price…Let her forgive him for herself…But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive.’ Although Alyosha would not consent then to be ‘the architect’ of such an edifice, he now finds himself in that role: he is the architect, the builder, of precisely such an edifice, to which we, he, and the boys do mutually consent.
In these last magnificent pages, as the boys make their compact founded on memory, words denoting memory and remembrance occur some 30 times. Memories and the very words used to express them become, literally, the seeds that, having died, bear fruit. Alyosha’s words echo those of Zosima, those of Grushenka, and, indirectly, even those of the devil when he spoke about faith. Alyosha affirms, ‘If one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometimes be the means of saving us.’ He then bids the boys to remember this moment when they are all remembering Ilyusha and his stone. He forges here a unit of memory that is simultaneously a recollection, and the recollection of a recollection, and which will operate for them in the future as an even more densely layered and sustaining recollection and meta-recollection. An attempt to describe the components of this moment comes dangerously close to linguistic gibberish. In this way, though, the novel resists efforts to reduce it to succinct paraphrase and affirms the value of life over theories about life.”