The Brothers Karamazov
More on the Epilogue
by Dennis Abrams
For all of Dostoevsky’s strengths as a novelist, I’m still not sure that he’s able to portray a fully convincing female characters, at least among his heroines. Is Katerina Ivanovna believable, or even, to the degree that his male characters are, understandable? I’ll grant that his supporting female characters, like Madame Khokhlakov or even Ilyusha’s mother in Karamazov are memorable, as, let’s say, the pawnbroker in C&P, or Stavrogin’s mother in Demons, but it seems that his heroines; Sofya, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya Epanchin, Lizaveta Nikolaevna, and Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka and Lise, fall into one of three categories: they’re either punishing themselves, punishing others, or doing both at the same time. Thoughts?
From Joseph Frank:
“The jury retires, and while the courtroom waits for its decision, the narrator sets down snatches of conversation among the public. Everyone, it seems, was convinced of an acquittal despite the weight of the evidence. Many believed he would get off because, as one official said, ‘suppose he did murder him — there are fathers and there are fathers!” These choral voices seem to justify Ippolit Kirillovich’s opening statement that murder is now taken as a matter of course in Russia. Like the public, Fetyukovich was now convinced that he had won the case, but after an hour’s deliberation the jury returned to find Dimitry guilty on all counts and, even worse, made no recommendation for mercy. During the indescribable hubbub in the courtroom, the narrator recalls one exclamation: ‘Well, our peasants have stood firm!’
The culmination of this central plot action thus creates a mixed impression — one both negative and positive. An obvious ‘miscarriage of justice’ (the title of Book 12) has occurred on the highest level, though Dimitry has inwardly accepted the justice of suffering for his parricidal impulses. but, ‘the peasants have stood firm’ against justifying the murder of a father for any reason, thus upholding the ‘mystic’ sanctity of the moral religious law that Dimitry had violated in thought if not in deed.
The epilogue is composed of two episodes, one detailing the relations between Ivan, Katerina, and Dimitry, the other between Alyosha and the group of boys who had clustered around the beside of the ailing Ilyusha. Ivan’s future remains unknown, though he is left in the care of Katerina, and this uncertainty was no doubt intended to sustain interest for the next volume. Dimitry has fallen ill with a ‘nervous fever’ and is waiting to be sent to Siberia; whether he will escape along the way is left in doubt. Dimitry has concluded that he is too weak to bear the burden that, in a moment of rapture, he had believed he could assume: ‘I am not able to resign myself. I wanted to sing a ‘hymn;’ but if a guard speaks to me, I haven’t the strength to bear it.’ Alyosha agrees that ‘you are not ready, and such a cross is not for you,’ that is, the cross of an imitatio Christi, the acceptance of punishment by an innocent as expiation for the sins and injustices of others. Dimitry had wished to make himself ‘another may by suffering,’ and had in fact gone a long way toward becoming that ‘other man’ spiritually. Alyosha assures him that if ‘you only remember the other man always, all your life and wherever you escape to…that will be enough for you.’ The disciple of Zosima is prepared to break the letter of the law by conniving in Dimitry’s possible escape so as to avert an obvious injustice and a human tragedy.
The book ends with the funeral of little Ilyusha. No one but Dickens can rival Dostoevsky’s well-known ‘philanthropic’ manner here, as he depicts the anguish and despair of the desolate Captain Snegiryov and his afflicted family. Twelve of Ilyusha’s schoolmates, gathered around his bier, were soon joined by Alyosha, and this symbolic number provides a Christological aura to the pathos of the scene. Kolya, foremost among the boys as usual, exclaims about Dimitry: ‘So he will perish an innocent victim for the truth — though ruined his is happy!’ Astonished at this reaction, Alyosha objects, ‘but not in such a cause, and with much disgrace and such horror.’ Kolya agrees, but then continues, ‘I would like to die for all humanity, and as for disgrace, I don’t care about that…I respect your brother!’ Dostoevsky had emphasized this desire to ‘die for humanity,’ to sacrifice oneself for ‘the truth,’ as typical of the new generation of the 1870s, and perhaps we catch a glimpse here of what he intended the future to hold for both Kolya and Alyosha.
the boys pass the stone under which Ilyusha had wished to be buried, and here Alyosha, addressing them as ‘my dear, dear, children,’ explains that he will soon part from them. But he asks them to make a pack never to forget Ilyusha or one another, ‘whatever happens to us later in life.’ He urges them to remember ‘how good it was once here when we were all together united by a good and kind feeling.’ Alyosha then proclaims, ‘there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood and home.’ A ‘good and sacred memory’ of this kind is the best protection against the evil that may arrive, and will remain so no matter how badly some among them may go astray.
Alyosha’s words grip the hearts of his young listeners, and when the boys promise to remember, shouting at the same time, ‘Karamazov,we love you,’ Alyosha adds, ‘And may the dear boy’s memory live eternally!’ The mention of eternity impels Kolya to ask whether ‘It is true what’s taught in religion,’ that a bodily resurrection will occur and we ‘shall live and see each other again, all, Ilyushechka too!’ Alyosha answers, ‘half laughing, half ecstatic’: ‘Certainly we shall all arise again, certainly we shall all see each other.’ The tragedy of the Snergiryovs thus vanishes into ‘a sacred memory’ that will guard against evil in the future; and death is overcome by the Christian hope of resurrection — when, as Alyosha promises, ‘we shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened.’ The book ends on this boyish note of innocence and optimism, providing a welcome relief, similar to the epilogues of eighteenth-century plays, to all the tragic tensions that have gone before. And just as those earlier examples pointed to the moral of the story, so Dostoevsky reaffirms, in a naively acceptable and touching form, the basic beliefs and moral-religious convictions he has sought to champion so peerlessly all through his greatest novel.”
More to come…