The Brothers Karamazov “But then there are the children…” (Thoughts on Part 2)

I have never lived in a hermitage such as Dostoevsky describes, a secluded religious retreat with little more than a cot, table and a few decorative icons. But it appeals to every part of my being: the simplicity, the quiet, the solitude. However, I could not pray on my knees for an entire day, and I wonder if two pounds of bread for three days would be enough sustenance for this greedy girl.

As Alyosha leaves Father Zosima’s cell, he is reminded by Father Paissey that “…the science of this world, having united itself into a great force, has, especially in the past century, examined everything heavenly that has been bequeathed to us in sacred books, and, after hard analysis, the learned ones of this world have absolutely nothing left of what was once holy.” Perhaps, Alyosha wonders, the advice that Father Paissey gives him is exactly what Zosima has bequeathed to him on his deathbed.

For Part II continues with almost endless examples of how our world has “nothing left of what was once holy”. Alyosha sees schoolchildren with rocks in their pockets, taunting and throwing them at a boy named Ilyushechka. He apparently had defended his father, whom his classmates had nicknamed Whiskbroom for his beard, which Ivan used to pull him out of a bar and beat him in the street. Now, knowing that Alyosha is Ivan’s brother, Ilyushechka throws rocks at Alyosha, too.

Katerina gives Alyosha two hundred crisp double notes to take to this home, concerned for the family’s well-being after their father suffered at Ivan’s hand. At first, the father is most grateful for the money; he goes into detail how necessary it is for his family’s well-being. But when Alyosha tells him there can be even more, the father’s pride interferes. He trods upon the bills, and tells Alyosha almost ecstatically that he will not take them. Alyosha leaves with the two bills and a terrible bite on his finger from the son.

“We are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves?” Ivan asks. How is this possible, when man is so despicable? Ivan goes on to enumerate countless horrors done by man: girls being whipped by their fathers, babies being tossed into the air and caught on bayonets, a five year old locked in an outhouse overnight by her mother, a young shepherd forced to tend for the sheep without food or many clothes, and when he grows up he becomes a monster.

It does not seem to me, as I read Dostoevsky, that the condition of our world has changed very much over time. Consider this quote from the talks and homilies of the Elder Zosima near the end of Part II:

The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says, “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest of men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” — this is the current teaching of the world.

It was true then. It is true today. We have not fully discovered the solution which Zosima proposes:

Obedience, fasting and prayer are laughed at, yet they alone constitute the way to real and true freedom: I cut away my superfluous and unnecessary needs, through obedience I humble and chasten my vain and proud will, and thereby, with God’s help, attain freedom of spirit, and with that, spiritual rejoicing!

Amen and amen.

I am reading this with Arti, of Ripple Effects. Please do join the read-along if you wish. Part III will be discussed on July 3; Part IV and the Epilogue is scheduled for July 24.

The Brothers Karamazov: “Seek Happiness in Sorrow” (Thoughts on Part 1)

Contemplator by Ivan Kramskoy

Dmitri Karamazov, in his confession to his saintly little brother, represents what I know of the Prodigal Son.

“I threw fistfuls of money around—music, noise, gypsy women…I loved depravity, I loved the shame of depravity. I loved cruelty: am I not a bedbug, an evil insect? In short—a Karamazov!”

But Smerdyakov, son of Stinking Lizaveta, is not a Karamazov. Born in the garden’s bathhouse, he is taken in by Fyodor Pavlovich’s servants Grigory Vasilievich and Marfa Ignatievna.

We are told that Smerdyakov resembles the Contemplator, pictured above. “…perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both.”

In Part 1 of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky is giving us impressions of his characters. They are buffoons, like the father, or squandering sons, like Dmitri, or suspiciously silent like Smerdyakov. But, Alyosha? Alyosha believes that his father “is not just a buffoon.” He never remembers an offense. Alyosha is brave and fearless; he determines to live in a monastery under the care of his elder, Zosima, because it “presented him all at once with the whole ideal way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light.”

Another story within the novel involves romance. Both Fyodor Pavlovian and his eldest son, Dmitri, profess to love the same woman: Grushenka. Yet Dmitri is also involved with Katerina Ivanova, with whom he is engaged and from whom, to his great shame, he has taken three thousand roubles. He begs Alyosha to tell her that ‘he bows at her feet.’

The novel is full of scripture, although one wouldn’t necessarily recognize it if one was not familiar with the Bible. Clearly, Dostoevsky wants us to consider scripture, and faith, and purpose as he writes his novel. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Part 1:

“There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love? Only take care that you repent without ceasing and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it: even with your sin and in your sin he loves you. And there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men.”

“If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgement of one’s own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s society — that is, of the Church — will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself — that is, before the Church.”

“Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed and with everyone watching…Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”

“Can there be beauty in Sodom? Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that’s just where beauty lies—did you know that secret?”

“Again I say, do not be proud. Do not be proud before the lowly, do not be proud before the great either. And do not hate those who reject you, disgrace you, revile you, and slander you. Do not hate atheists, teachers of evil, materialists, not even those among them who are wicked, not those who are good, for many of them are good, especially in our time. Remember them thus in your prayers: save, Lord, those whom there is no one to pray for, save also those who do not want to pray to you. And add at once: it is not in my pride that I pray for it, Lord, for I myself am more vile than all…”

It is hard to believe that I read this novel eleven years ago. For it falls on me entirely afresh, and I now eagerly embark on Part II.