The History of "The Brothers Karamazov"

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Submitted: August 21, 2017

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Submitted: August 21, 2017



On some level, every work of art is like a (literal) dream of the creator. Like many of humanity’s most powerful and universal dreams, works of art (are created by individuals who) often unwittingly draw inspiration from the subconscious and its contents, which include repressed experiences and traumas from childhood, infancy, birth, and the pre-birth experience. In addition to the repressed and subconscious, many artists and writers also resort to the semi-autobiographical, by incorporating conscious memories or facts about their early lives. Finally yet importantly, the work of art can also be a revelatory commentary or reflection of the artist’s or writer’s society; and depending on the acuity, talent, and genius of the artist, this creative personification of a culture or nation can prove to be accurate and relevant for decades, if not centuries, to come. It is this fruitful interplay between the personal subconscious and collective unconscious that can give birth to a truly great work of art. One notable example is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The character of the father, Fyodor Karamazov, is in many respects modeled on Dostoyevsky’s own father. Quoting Janko Lavrin regarding Dostoyevsky’s father, Alice Miller wrote, ‘that after his wife’s death, he “led the life of a wastrel, drunkard, and tyrant. He treated his serfs with such cruelty that in 1839 they murdered him most brutally.”’ (Lavrin 9). Since mistreatment of serfs tended to be the norm in Russia, Alice Miller soundly conjectures that Dostoyevsky’s father must have been abusive with his own sons if he treated his own serfs so atrociously that they ultimately killed him. Seemingly siding with the abusive father, Richard Peace adopts a less empathetic and enlightened view regarding Dostoyevsky in relation to his father: “The sons did not get on well with their father, and any feelings of guilt bred in their minds by the consciousness of this hostility must surely have been further nourished by the way in which they acted after his death.” Peace relates that, “Dostoyevsky’s father was killed by his own peasants in dubious circumstances,” and is struck by the “fact that the murder was hushed up and none of those guilty was sent to Siberia.” (Peace 218). In The Brothers Karamazov English translation by David McDuff, the first sentence of Book I (“The Story of a Certain Little Family”) describes the character of the father, “Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov” as being “noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death . . . .” (Dostoyevsky; McDuff, 15). Similarly, a Constance Garnett translation describes him as “a landowner in our district who became a celebrity (and is remembered to this day) because of the tragic and mysterious end he met exactly thirteen years ago . . . .” (Dostoevsky; Garnett, 3).

It is possible that The Brothers Karamazov, on some level, functions as an allegorical history of Dostoyevsky’s childhood. Therefore, it is also possible that many of the characters symbolize aspects of Dostoyevsky’s own psyche and family background. Fyodor Karamazov is the selfish, irresponsible, wicked, abandoning, and neglectful “dissolute old father”. (Beckett 506). Alyosha represents Dostoyevsky’s original child-like innocence, faith in humanity, and hope for the future before Dostoyevsky’s (early) years of childhood abuse and trauma had ultimately taken such a toll on him. Alyosha embodies both Dostoyevsky’s idealized and unblemished “soul” (Peace 229) and his resistance to blaming the abusive parent, a resistance that is supported by the taboos and conventions of society. Dmitri represents Dostoyevsky’s repressed rage against his father. Through the character of Dmitri, Dostoyevsky manages to give artistic expression to his vital “emotions” (Peace 229) and suppressed indignation against his own father. Nevertheless, if the majority of society is unable to recognize, accept, and therapeutically engage this rage, Dmitri’s fate in the novel should come as no surprise. He is described as being “recklessly emotional” (Beckett 506) and is wrongfully convicted of his father’s murder. Yet a profound sensitivity also characterizes Dmitri: “[A] preoccupation with man lies at the heart of Dmitri’s attitude to life”, and he is “humanistic” (Peace 222) and “romantic” (Crane 15) at heart. Ivan represents Dostoyevsky’s “intellect” (Peace 229), which comprises his intellectualizations, philosophising, evasions, and knowledge. Ivan is also emblematic of both Dostoyevsky’s flight from and fear of the truth and his attempts to confront unpleasant truths, although Dostoyevsky’s attempts were seldom in relation to his own childhood. Smerdyakov represents Dostoyevsky’s shadow (or one of its faces), as well as the evil of the childhood traumas Dostoyevsky endured. This apparently illegitimate and marginalized shadow self encompasses the disowned elements of Dostoyevsky’s subconscious and personality (i.e. his repression, blind spots, etc.). Smerdyakov is described as personifying the role of “the physical” (Crane 15); and a simplistic characterization would paint him as a banal, pitiful, and anti-poetic human being. Smerdyakov even “regards verse” as “absolute nonsense”, and remarks that “[v]erses are not practical”. (Dostoyevsky quoted by Peace 225). When one considers the importance of these characters, one may arrive at the conclusion that the protagonist of The Brothers Karamazov “is a brotherhood” (Peace 229) or (the human) family. “In Ivan, in Dmitry, in the old Karamazov, the novelist embodied his own mental conflict, his emotional disorder, his carnality. Through these characters, and that of Smerdyakov, he could give his own dark impulses their freedom, because they were disguised, like the elements that rise to consciousness in the dream.” (Yarmolinsky 389).

The Brothers Karamazov . . . was first serialized in The Russian Herald in 1879-80.” Dostoyevsky died “in early 1881”, not long after he completed the novel. (Busch 115). The Brothers Karamazov was the last work of fiction Dostoyevsky created, and it was his last chance to commit to writing examples of the deplorable suffering experienced by children, and to symbolically and artistically represent the suffering of his own childhood self and his true feelings about abuse and violence against children (as expressed by the character of Ivan). Regarding Dostoyevsky’s family background, he was the “son of an impoverished nobleman of Lithuanian origin . . . . Doctor [Elder] Dostoyevsky, authoritarian and morose, believed in old-fashioned discipline and strict religious upbringing, and Fyodor [Dostoyevsky]’s childhood was a rather depressing one.” (Slonim, v). The remarkable chapter “Rebellion” [Chap. 4, Book 5] presents an unflinching examination of sadistic child abuse and murder as perceived by Ivan. Although he may not be referring to corporal punishment or physical abuse of children, Ivan compares Russians to those he views as “foreigners” or barbarians by saying, “You know we prefer beating—rods and scourges—that’s our national institution.” (Dostoyevsky; Garnett, 284). Another of Ivan’s observations anticipates those of Alice Miller’s: “ . . . [I]t is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans; but they are very fond of tormenting children, even fond of children themselves in that sense.” (Dostoyevsky; Garnett, 286, 287). Taking the side of a physically abused “seven-year-old” girl, in early 1876, Dostoyevsky once wrote in The Diary of a Writer, “Children’s hearts are full of innocent, almost unconscious, love, and such blows evoke in them a sorrowful astonishment and tears which God beholds and will count.” [Dostoievsky 1: 233 (“1873-1881”)]. In The Notebooks for The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky composed a fragmentary sketch and characterization of Ivan and Alyosha’s conversation: “If you were creating the world, would you have built it on the single tear of a child. Somewhere in an inn they talked about such nonsense. That is possible only in Russia.” (73). One can only imagine how many tears Dostoevsky himself may have shed in his childhood. Also in The Notebooks (for Book Five), Ivan’s repudiation of an absurd and illusory dogma is presented succinctly, movingly, and profoundly: “I cannot admit that the future harmony is worth the price. And if it is worth that, then I don’t want to admit it. I have too much pity for little children, and I ask that I am freed beforehand from that harmony, I am giving back my ticket.” (62).

In 1981, Richard Crane published the Brothers Karamazov play. Looking back at myriad performances of the play, he recalled when it was presented “in the National Theatre of Romania in 1991, just a year after the execution of their own depraved father-figure,” and that this “play with its rich absurd humour and its hymn to a new liberated ‘fatherless’ state, was suddenly Romanian to the core.” (Crane 16). The atrocious Ceausescu, who was very abused and uneducated, was the worst leader Romania ever had; and he wrought devastation on Romania’s economy, agriculture, tourism, quality of life, beauty, etc. In addition, his perverse communist regime birthed aftershocks that have continued for decades in the form of corruption, injustice, persecution, and perfidy in the realms of business, law enforcement, government, the legal system, and society in general. Regarding Crane’s Brothers Karamazov, one of the best adaptations from novel to play can be found in the following sentences that the prosecutor speaks at the trial: “. . . [W]e are racing towards Sodom, to the lure of the marketplace where murder and misery may be bought and sold. The world has proclaimed freedom. What is this freedom but slavery to the senses, despair and suicide?” (Crane 74). In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote, “. . . [O]ur fateful troika is racing headlong, perhaps to its destruction. And all over Russia hands have long been held out and voices have been calling to halt its wild, impudent course. And if so far the other nations still stand aside for the troika galloping at breakneck speed, it is not at all, perhaps, out of respect, as the poet would have it, but simply from horror—mark that—from horror, and perhaps from loathing for her.” (Dostoevsky; Pevear, 722). Perhaps the Russia of Dostoyevsky’s time has not changed as much as one would be inclined to believe. In 1877, Dostoyevsky wrote that if it were “a punishable offense for fathers to treat their children indolently, incompetently and heartlessly” then “it would be necessary to condemn half of Russia”, if not “far more than that”. He also bravely noted that “[n]ine-tenths of Russia practices” “flog[ging] children with rods”. (Dostoievsky 2: 766). Russia needs to “repair the troika” (Dostoevsky, Notebooks, 243) by improving child rearing [i.e. reducing (physical) abuse, corporal punishment, etc.] and creating a more democratic, just, healthy, and tolerant society. Without merely imitating or emulating the West, Russia (like many other nations) still has the capacity to become genuinely enlightened and utopian. Of course, this evolution is dependent on an earnest (and perhaps more ‘populist’) desire for truth, humanism, and social and political change. And as always, the most virulent obstacles comprise silence, (internalized and external) oppression, and resistance to and fear of truths and alternatives.

One of the most rarefied and prescient chapters of The Brothers Karamazov is “The Grand Inquisitor”. Speaking to Jesus, whom he has imprisoned, the Grand Inquisitor says, “[L]et me tell You that now, today, people are more persuaded than ever that they are completely free, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.” (Dostoevsky; Matlaw, 125). Millions of people are slaves to the evils of puritanism, heterosexualization, and the hypocritically pious and insidious, possibly Judeo-Christian, idea that sex or lovemaking has to involve penetration or insertion. Oppression comes in many forms, some of which may be unrecognized by the vast majority of capitalists and communists alike. Nevertheless, a “socialist Christian” (Dostoevsky; Pevear, 67) or polytheist may be more inclined to embrace a marginalized yet ethical, upright, and honourable code than a cynical secularist would. A person who is not dependent on a limiting, reactionary, and/or self-defeating zeitgeist or (cultural) paradigm in order to affirm their superficial sense of identity, likewise would not need to preach and promulgate—or remain apathetic regarding—a destructive way of life. They would have no need to manipulate, influence, or coerce people into approving or following an example that is harmful or degrading. “Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.” (Rand, Ayn).  The rights of human beings consist of health, dignity, love, compassion, respect, life, truth, freedom of choice, and the freedom to identify and defy oppression, hypocrisy, and destructiveness.

Dostoyevsky often had a tendency to explore the dark and unconscious side of human behavior and motivations. In the category of worst-case scenarios, this may be one of his prophecies regarding the future of humanity: “. . . [T]here is a contaminated spirit, at times, the spirit of the whole nation, which is frequently accompanied by such a degree of blindness that no facts can cure, no matter how persistently these point to the straight road. On the contrary, this kind of blindness remodels facts to its own taste and assimilates them with its own contaminated spirit; and it even happens that a whole nation would rather deliberately die, that is, holding onto its blindness, than be cured, refusing the cure.” (Dostoievsky 2: 561).


Works Cited

Lavrin, Janko. Fyodor M. Dostojevskij. 9. Quoted in The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness. By Alice Miller. New York: Doubleday, 1990. 60. Print.

Peace, Richard. “Parricide: ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.” Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels. London: Cambridge University Press, 1971. 218, 222, 225, 229. Print.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. David McDuff. London: Penguin, 2003. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Modern Library, 1984. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Beckett, Lucy. “Russia II: The Brothers Karamazov to Solzhenitsyn.” In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006. 506. Print.

Crane, Richard. Introduction. Russian Plays. London: Oberon Books, 2011. 15, 16. Print.

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. ‘“Hurrah for Karamazov!”’ Dostoevsky: His Life and Art. New Jersey: S. G. Phillips, 1957. 389. Print.

Busch, R. L. “The Brothers Karamazov.” Humor in the Major Novels of F. M. Dostoevsky. Columbus: Slavica, 1987. 115. Print.

Slonim, Marc. Introduction. The Brothers Karamazov. By Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. v. Print.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. 284, 286, 287. Print.

Dostoievsky, Feodor M. The Diary of a Writer. Trans. Boris Brasol. 2 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1973. 233, 561, 766. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Notebooks for The Brothers Karamazov. Ed. and Trans. Edward Wasiolek. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971. 62, 73, 243. Print.

Crane, Richard. “Brothers Karamazov.” Russian Plays. London: Oberon Books, 2011. 74. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. 67, 722. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “The Grand Inquisitor.” Notes From Underground and The Grand Inquisitor. Trans. Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1960. 125. Print.

Rand, Ayn. The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. New York: Penguin, 1988. Google Books. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.




© Copyright 2017 Saul Przybyszewski. All rights reserved.

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