The Brothers Karamazov

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Avrahm Yarmolinsky, 1949

Avrahm Yarmolinsky: Introduction to The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts & Epilog. By Fyodor Dostoevsky. Translation by Constance Garnett, revised, with an introduction by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. Illustrated with lithographs by Fritz Eichenberg. New York: The Heritage Press, 1949.


Of the nineteenth century novelists, none have worn so well as the Russians, but whereas the passage of time has given Turgenev a slightly old-fashioned air, and has neither subtracted from nor yet added to the excellences of Tolstoy, it has only served to bring out the profundity and imaginative power of Dostoevsky’s work. Within the last two or three decades his reputation has climbed to dizzying heights. For one thing, the malaise through which our civilization is passing has brought us closer to a man who, we must admit, foresaw pretty clearly the progress of our spiritual disease, even though he would have medicined us with a religion which we cannot swallow. Further, a better and more widely diffused knowledge of mental processes has made this generation more appreciative of the first novelist to have such an astonishing insight into human motives and into all the contradictions and confusions of the mind. His present extraordinary vogue may suffer an eclipse abroad, for causes not necessarily the same as those that have weakened his influence at home, where both his convictions and his perplexities are out of harmony with the practical temper of the times. Yet his greatness as a novelist is one of the few certainties in an uncertain world.


Dostoevsky’s crowning achievement was “The Brothers Karamazov.” Few novels of any time and any country have been so heartily praised in our own day, and by connoisseurs so diverse. Marcel Proust, himself a master builder in the field of fiction, allowed it a mysterious beauty, a sculptural grandeur. Arnold Bennett classed it as “one of the supreme marvels of the world.” Sigmund Freud, who brings to his judgment of literature the acumen of a pioneer psychologist, does not hesitate to call it “the most magnificent novel ever written.” Translated into practically every civilized language, broadcast in inexpensive editions, the book is finding its way to a widening circle of readers. And yet, though it carries the thrills of a detective story, the elementary interest of melodrama and romance, the persuasiveness of realistic fiction, it will always be, to some degree, caviar to the general. Its psychological subtleties, its passionate philosophizing, will inevitably limit its deepest appeal to the mature and the discriminating.


“The Brothers Karamazov” was at once the culmination and the close of Dostoevsky’s career: when he put finis to it, in November, 1880, he had only two months to live. He had been occupied with the actual writing of it for three years, but some of its elements had been present in his mind before he set pen to paper, and indeed are discoverable in his earliest writings. As though he feared that the sands were running out for him, he gave more of himself to the book than to any previous work. He put into it the affirmation which was the difficult yield of so many doubts; he put into it the doubts, too, along with his understanding of character, his intimate knowledge of the obscure ways of the human soul, his sense of life, with its burden of mystery, terror and pity, and its core of pure joy. The book bears witness to the strength of a creative power miraculously preserved in a body racked by disease and distress by the accumulated fatigues of nearly sixty lacerating years.


It is far from obvious precisely how Dostoevsky’s personal fortunes shaped his novels, and particularly “The Brothers Karamazov,” yet a glance at the more significant among the author’s experiences and private opinions, and at the influences that worked upon him, may contribute something to the appreciation of the book.


Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in 1821 in the pious old city of Moscow, where he spent his childhood and early youth. He was the son of an army doctor, a stern, moody, irascible man, who belonged to the gentry, and the growing family led a shabby-genteel existence in a corner of the charity hospital where he served. A religious atmosphere prevailed in the home, and the memory of childhood pilgrimages to a neighboring monastery must have fed the imagination of the man who wrote the scenes from monastic life in “The Brothers Karamazov.” From the first, Dostoevsky’s taste for reading was encouraged by his parents, who were not without literary interests, and who were at pains to give him a good schooling. As a boy he spent several summers on his father’s modest property in the provinces, but the spacious manorial setting in which Turgenev and Tolstoy, his two famous contemporaries, grew up, was alien to him. His mind was at home in the city, and practically all his characters have the urban stamp upon them.


His mother died just before he left Moscow, at the age of sixteen, to attend a military engineering school in what was then St. Petersburg. There, his unaccustomed surroundings, the severity of the discipline, the roughness and vulgarity of his schoolmates, the uncongenial character of his studies, his humiliating poverty (his tuition had been paid by a well-to-do relative), combined to make a brooding solitary of the proud, dreamy, high-strung boy. He was in his second year at school when news reached him that his father had been murdered. The doctor had retired to his country place and given himself up to drink, and the killing was no doubt an act of vengeance on a brutal master perpetrated by his own serfs. The psychoanalytic view of the matter is that the effect of the tragedy on Dostoevsky, who allegedly harbored a strong unconscious death-wish against his father, was a shattering one, and indeed, brought out his latent tendency to epilepsy. Posthumous psychoanalysis is admittedly guess-work, but it is at least noteworthy that Dostoevsky’s last and greatest novel revolves around the murder of a repulsive old sot by his servant, who is also his bastard, while two other sons of his commit the crime of parricide in their minds, and that one of the major themes is the problem of moral responsibility for a crime which is a wish rather than an act.


The profession of engineering held no attractions for the young man, and within a year of graduation he retired from the service, determined to make his living by his pen, even if he had to starve for it. From then on almost to the end of his days he lived in the grip of crushing poverty, enduring for a while a kind of literary peonage, and always writing desperately against time. He broke into print at the age of twenty-four with “Poor Folk,” a short novel, which had an immediate and dazzling success. He followed it up with a story called “The Double,” a striking and penetrating study of the split personality, a theme which was to haunt his mind and to recur again in his last work. He was hailed as a prodigy by Belinsky, and was welcomed into the circle over which this influential critic presided. Here Dostoevsky was exposed to liberal and even radical views, and more particularly to the ideas of the Westernists, who wished to see Russia follow the lead of Europe. A break soon took place between him and his newfound friends, partly owing to his touchiness and arrogance – his success had gone to his head – and partly to intellectual incompatibility. His fame seemed to be withering as rapidly as it had bloomed, the stories he was now writing being coldly received; his earnings were of the meagrest; and to add to his harassments, he was ill: he had various nervous symptoms and seems to have already become subject to epileptic seizures.


Although living under the iron rule of a paternalistic autocrat, a handful of young Russian intellectuals were sensitive to the movement that prepared the revolutions of 1848 abroad. Dostoevsky was one of these young men: he followed eagerly the events in Europe, he read the books of the French socialists, and he attended Friday night gatherings at which opinions directed against church and state were aired. At the same time, paradoxically enough, he seems to have entertained some nationalistic and pietistic notions which were then being popularized by the Slavophils. At all events, it is highly doubtful whether he subscribed to the more subversive views of his companions; he was certainly no atheist, and a socialist of only the mildest variety; if he uttered some wild words it was because he was carried away by a generous impulse toward social justice. The result of it all was that on the morning of Holy Saturday in i849 he, as well as dozens of other young men who had attended the Fridays, was arrested and thrust into prison. Charged with having attended the meetings and with having read aloud a seditious letter, he was condemned, and sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia, to be followed by service in the ranks. But together with the other prisoners, he was taken to a public square, where a sentence of capital punishment was read aloud, and the preliminaries to execution by shooting were carried out. For some interminable minutes Dostoevsky believed that he was about to die. Suddenly, in accordance with the grim comedy prearranged by the czar, who had a taste for theatricals, the true sentence was announced.


Dostoevsky endured four years of penal servitude in a foul prison, shaven and fettered like the common criminals who were his constant companions, without the merest decencies of existence, without privacy, without any book but the New Testament, without a word from home. Furthermore, he now came to recognize for the first time that he was an epileptic. On his release he became a private in a Siberian regiment largely recruited from ex-convicts and stationed in a miserable frontier town thousands of miles from civilization. He accepted his punishment as though he deserved it, and did not shrink from his brutish fellows. He was later to assert that his intimate contact with the common people had opened his eyes to the ancient treasure of the Russian folk: their Orthodox faith and their childlike confidence in the czar. His experiences no doubt helped to stimulate his preoccupation with crime, which was to him a token of man’s spiritual nature. His exile lasted ten years in all, and when he returned to Petersburg in 1859, he was not only toughened in soul and body, but a firmer adherent of the Russian Christ and a loyal subject of his emperor. He was moreover a married man, having allied himself with a widow, a delicate and destitute gentlewoman, for whom he had conceived a passion not unmixed with pity.


Dostoevsky, now approaching forty, had to start again at the bottom. He had brought from Siberia two rather mediocre tales, which he had difficulty in placing. The problem of how to earn enough to support himself, his wife, and his stepson was acute. The rôle of a publicist had always fascinated him, and now, with the quickening of Russia’s intellectual and political life, prior to the great reforms of the sixties, it seemed more attractive than ever. Although he knew that fiction was his métier, he had a strong impulse to make his influence felt in a more direct fashion. With his brother Mikhail, who was himself something of a litterateur and who had besides a head for business, he launched a monthly review. It was a conservative periodical waging war against the nihilists, and just tinged with liberalism to suit the times. Through a misunderstanding it was suppressed in 1863, and was resumed shortly under another name. It was to these magazines that Dostoevsky contributed, besides some miscellaneous papers, an inferior novel, and a remarkable chronicle of his prison days, as well as “Notes From the Underground,” that disturbing mixture of controversy and confession which, both in its probing of a sick soul and its implied aspiration toward spiritual health, is the true preamble to his great novels.


During these years his personal life was an agitated one. There was a peaceful interval when he fulfilled his long cherished dream of visiting Western Europe. The trip confirmed him in the prejudices he took with him against the West and also in his faith in Russia’s manifest destiny. He went abroad unaccompanied by his wife. His marriage had turned out badly. The two seem to have been bound to each other by the double ties of love and hate, which he was to represent in his novels so often as the basis of the passional relation. His devotion to her did not prevent him from having a brief liaison with a young student, who took the initiative in terminating their intimacy. In 1863, while his wife lay desperately ill with consumption, he went abroad for the second time, ostensibly to be treated for epilepsy, actually to be with his fickle mistress, and it was on this trip that he contracted the gambling fever which was to be the curse of his existence for years. The following spring his wife died, and a few months later his brother Mikhail, too, passed away suddenly, leaving a mass of debts incurred in connection with the magazine, and a family without visible means of support. Dostoevsky took over the magazine, sank in it his share of his aunt’s fortune, only to see the review fail within a few months, and to find himself, an ailing, middle-aged man, deep in debt, with his own stepson and his brother’s family on his hands, and no one and nothing to live for.


And yet he sometimes felt, strangely enough, that his life was just beginning, and indeed, his best work was still to come. One evening in Wiesbaden, in September, 1865, after he had lost everything at roulette, the main outline of his first important novel, “Crime and Punishment,” suddenly crystallized in his brain. In this “psychological account of a crime,” as Dostoevsky himself described his superb work, the author expresses his fascinated horror at a mind which allows itself to be guided by reason alone, and which in its aberration dares to set itself beyond good and evil. Ideas of this order recur.He was forced to interrupt the writing of the novel and to dash off another story in order to fulfill an onerous contract into which he had entered in a moment of utter penury. In this short novel, “The Gambler,” he drew upon his experiences at the tables and also upon his unhappy liaison. He had to work at record speed and so resorted to the services of a stenographer, probably an unprecedented occurrence in the history of Russian letters. The girl – she was only twenty – was not the first to whom he proposed after becoming a widower, but she was the first to accept him. His marriage, early in 1867, to this steadfast, brave, humdrum young person, won him a loving wife, a devoted helpmate, and a capable manager of his affairs. A few weeks after the wedding the couple went abroad, partly to escape creditors, but more particularly to save their union, seemingly so incongruous, from the attacks upon it made by his relatives.


The couple stayed abroad, chiefly in Germany, four years, and at times this second exile seemed to him worse than his Siberian captivity. They were constantly in want, often not knowing where the next meal was to come from, and reduced to pawning even their necessaries. His periodic and disastrous gambling fits contributed not a little to their misery. Two children were born to them here, but the parents knew the sorrow of leaving their firstborn in a foreign cemetery. Dostoevsky’s seizures, though less frequent, persisted. His homesickness was made acute by his hatred of the alien scene, but more by the feeling that he was losing touch with his country and so with the source of his art and the springs of life itself. Under these harassing circumstances, Dostoevsky wrote “The Idiot,” a work of great originality and power, in which for the first time he made the attempt, repeated in “The Brothers Karamazov,” to depict the perfect Christian confronting the world, the flesh, and the devil. He also began “The Possessed,” a huge novel which savagely attacks the revolutionary movement, then still in its infancy, and which is further concerned with the tragedy of a rootless soul, unable to lay hold of anything on earth or in heaven which gives validity to life, – another motif which Dostoevsky resumes in his last novel.


“The Possessed” was finished in 1872, when he was again settled in Petersburg. In his last decade his life was uneventful and less irregular than it had ever been before. There were still creditors to satisfy, his health was worse, and what with the needs of a growing family, he had to drive his pen harder and faster than ever, but thanks to the business sense of his energetic wife, toward the end he knew relative security and ease. The winters were spent in the capital and the summers in a provincial town, which Dostoevsky used as the setting for “The Brothers Karamazov.” The great sorrow of these latter years was the loss of his youngest child, Alyosha – only two of his four children survived – and there are echoes of it in that moving passage of his last novel in which the peasant woman bereaved of her child pours out her heart to the elder Zosima.


He occupied himself alternately with journalism and fiction, giving almost equal time to each. For a while he edited a conservative weekly, to which he contributed, besides comment on foreign politics, informal miscellaneous feuilletons dealing with matters of current interest, which he called “A Writer’s Diary.” He gave up the burdensome editorial task to write “A Raw Youth,” which first appeared in 1875, serially, like all his novels. This sprawling narrative, which is the least integrated of Dostoevsky’s works, has for one of its dominant themes the father-son relation which is touched upon again in “The Brothers Karamazov.” Both the assent to life arrived at by the adolescent hero, who had been possessed by a withering cerebral dream, and the inner peace found by his father, the divided soul, announce Dostoevsky’s final work. Having completed “A Raw Youth,” he resumed his “Writer’s Diary,” this time as a monthly miscellany, of which he was the publisher and to which he was the sole contributor. He made this the vehicle for the expression of his belief in the messianic destiny of his country, and of other views as vehement as they were contradictory. His forensic writings, added to his novels, won him a wide reputation even among those who were hostile to his nationalistic and pietistic opinions, and he was looked to for spiritual guidance by many, so that the speech which he delivered at the unveiling of a statue of Pushkin in Moscow was the occasion of a public ovation approximating that tendered the aged Voltaire aft his final visit to Paris. The Pushkin festival occurred in the summer of 1880.


The most obvious claim that this book makes upon the reader’s attention is its excellence as a crime novel. Dostoevsky was not averse to using the tricks of his trade, and in this story of parricide he contrived suspense and surprise with extraordinary skill. It owes much of its effectiveness to its dramatic quality. It exhibits the tempo and tension of high tragedy: there are prolixities and interpolations, but the main action is crowded into a few days; the protagonists are observed not in the sober light of common day but in the flash of the thunderbolt; a sense of impending catastrophe broods over the scenes.


The characters – there are some fifty men and women in the book – are drawn with that understanding of emotional ambivalence and the rôle of the unconscious which distinguishes Dostoevsky’s art. They are not transcripts of ordinary humanity. Their ecstasies and agonies are too intense, their soul-searchings too keen, their tossings between good and evil, between love and hatred, too abrupt, their impulses too perverse. Yet they have a compelling reality. The inwardness and authority with which Dostoevsky portrayed the Karamazovs may be due to the fact that they are projections of the several elements at war within his own breast. They are creatures of flesh and blood, endowed with a distinct life of their own, but they may also be taken as symbols. The old man Karamazov seems to be the pattern of the sensualist in all his unredeemable animalism; his bastard, Smerdyakov, the moral idiot, being the evil growth of his blind lust. It is with the three legitimate sons that we reach the human plane, and the violent Dmitri, the subtle Ivan, the gentle A1yosha, appear respectively as the body, the mind, and the spiritual member. It belongs to the substance of Dostoevsky’s thinking that he should represent the body as striving toward union with the spirit, the intellect as cruelly divided against itself and fundamentally inimical to life.


The book derives further significance from the fact that it is concerned with ideas. The crime novel is also a philosophical novel, but that does not mean that the author engages in dry abstract disquisitions. With Dostoevsky, intellection has the force and heat of emotion. The ideas either grow naturally out of the situations, or are formulated in the course of those absorbing arguments which are among the high points of the narrative. They revolve around the whole complex of problems that cluster about morality and religion. “The Brothers Karamazov” may be viewed as a vast parable, or, better still, as a religious disputation, such as is carried on, with a difference, in the Book of Job. Ivan, the dialectician, upholds the negative: if God can allow the suffering of the innocent, of children, above all, even though this be the price of some future beatitude, then the world is meaningless and unacceptable. His blasphemies go further. In his fantasy, “The Grand Inquisitor,” he shows the Catholic Church at the height of its power serving not Christ, but the Evil One who tempted Him in the desert; the church is using the means that Christ had spurned, in order to make men happy and save them from His terrible gift of freedom. It is Ivan’s tragedy that he cannot wholeheartedly side with Christ against Satan and the Grand Inquisitor. To understand Dostoevsky’s intention here one must remember that among his favorite ideas was the dubious notion that Catholicism, in arrogating to itself temporal power, had betrayed Christ, and so become the mother of socialism. The latter Dostoevsky abhorred as a crass destructive doctrine which set the nourishment of man’s body above the well-being of his soul, and which would result in the establishment of a sane, safe, social order, orphaned of God. Ivan’s own fate, no less than Dmitri’s regeneration, the serene faith which guides Alyosha, and the saintly life and Orthodox teachings of his master, Zosima, all indirectly refute Ivan’s argument and proclaim a religious acceptance of life. The reader must decide for himself who wins the debate. As for Dostoevsky, he was, consciously at least, on the side of the angels, as the final scene emphatically attests.


Often after completing a novel, Dostoevsky was left with a feeling of the inadequacy of what he had set down. Some such feeling must have haunted him when he finished his last work, for the end of the book was by no means the end of the story of the Karamazovs. Indeed, the novel closes before he has fairly launched the youngest brother, the novice, on his career in the world. As is indicated in the author’s foreword, which the present edition offers for the first time in English, “The Brothers Karamazov” was to have had a second part, with Alyosha as the hero. Dostoevsky did not live to write it, so that, in a sense, the novel is a tors4 not unlike that other Russian masterpiece, Gogol’s “Dead Souls.” Little is known of the author’s plans for the sequel. It is said that Alyosha was to have become involved with revolutionists and to have committed a political crime, – it will be recalled that during Dostoevsky’s last years the terrorists were increasingly active and, indeed, his own death antedated by one month the assassination of the czar. The possibilities of such a novel as this projected sequel fairly dazzle the imagination. But there is no need to speak of might-have-beens. The work as it stands is sufficient to engage profoundly the mind and the emotions of the reader, and to leave him shaken by a sense of the large potentialities of the soul.