Tragic and Comic Visions in The Brothers Karamazov


There is no writer who better demonstrates the contradictions and fluctuations of the creative mind than Dostoevski, and Dostoevski nowhere more astonishingly than in The Brothers Karamazov. Of the psychology of Dostoevski's works a great deal has been said—Nietzsche pronounced him the only psychologist from whom he learned anything—and of the ideas of The Brothers Karamazov much has been argued. In this essay I would like to discuss the various components of the novel—psychology, ideas, structure, fiction—only as they relate to the work as a creative act. For it is clear even upon a superficial first reading that this novel is like few other great works; it seems almost a novel in the making, a novel as it is being written, in the very process of being imagined.
Not that it is crudely improvised: like most of Dostoevski's novels, it is well planned, blocked out in a general pattern of point and counterpoint. The novel moves toward one clear statement about the transformation of suffering into joy, in preparation, as Dostoevski states in his preface, for the novel that is his real concern—a novel he did not live to write that was to be called The Life of a Great Sinner. The sadistic and disturbing novel we do have ends with the words, " 'Hurrah for Karamazov!' " The explicit novel—the daylight novel—is one of affirmation underscored not just by the juggling of sequences so that the young boys who are Alyosha's friends have the last word, but by the voice of the "narrator" throughout. Whenever the anonymous narrator speaks as a person, the novel sinks to a simplistic moral level that clearly seems the level Dostoevski wants, since he feels the necessity of bringing his novel back again and again to this level, no matter how far it has soared from it. When the narrator disappears, and the characters come alive—in long, rambling, and often hysterical speeches—the novel attains a vitality that wrenches its parts out of relationship to the whole. One can argue that this is also what the author "wants," but, if so, then this Dostoevski seems to be someone other than the author of the total work called The Brothers Karamazov.Structurally, the novel moves to a great trial scene, which is to try everyone, but this scene is the climax only of the external novel. The bewildering sense of incompleteness one feels after having read the novel is perhaps explained by the fact of the novel's being written (however it may have been planned) with a double of itself contained in its most brilliant pages, a kind of shadow or antinovel whose tragedy mocks the positive accomplishments of the larger, Christian work. Two visions—one existential and tragic, the other Christian and "comic"—are unequally balanced in this novel and do not in my opinion resolve themselves.
Though most readers are familiar with the plot of The Brothers Karamazov, its very length and intricacy necessitate summary. One can see how Dostoevski has imagined his work structurally: a series of statements, the best of them dramatized, are worked out, qualified, or refuted by what follows them. Book 1 is called "The History of a Family," and here the narrator—surely Dostoevski's voice—reports on the history of the bizarre Karamazov family, stressing by his technique the epic and realistic mode and never the poetical and imaginative, for this is not fiction but ratherhistory, and the Karamazovs are Russia. Dostoevski's style seems at first to be no style at all, but simply reporting. It is bare of all adornment, all fanciful description; nature is never imagined as the slightly distorted landscape viewed by man, but only as a stage backdrop against which man acts out his drama. There are no metaphors in Dostoevski's writing because his works as wholes are metaphors themselves.
Book 2, the "Unfortunate Gathering" in Father Zossima's cell, dramatizes the conflicts implicit in book 1. The gathering, which is Ivan's idea, is entirely improbable: Dostoevski brings together in this symbolic episode all significant characters and all significant philosophical conflicts, minor themes are introduced by implication, and the brothers Ivan and Mitya are confronted with the prophetic insight of Father Zossima. The fates of these two brothers are taken up in the next three books, "The Sensualists," in which Mitya explains his torment, and "Lacerations," in which the masochistic impulses of several characters, including Ivan, are dramatized, and "Pro and Contra." This book contains the famous "Grand Inquisitor" sequence, in which the complex and mysterious Ivan explains himself to his brother Alyosha. The anguish of rebellion against God's world can be seen to account for the various lacerations of the preceding books: something is wrong, something ruined in human nature, and Ivan is the only person articulate enough to explain it. Book 6, "The Russian Monk," is an answer to Ivan's questions, its very length and its repetitious piety addressed to the impatience of the young Ivan.
The conclusion of "The Russian Monk" contains Dostoevski's famous definition of hell as "the suffering of being unable to love"; it is clearly a diagnosis of the sorrows of the modern world. But book 7, "Alyosha," forces the reader (as it forces the young hero) into a realization of the mystery of the world and the futility of human wishes, in the rather grotesque episode in which the corpse of Father Zossima begins to decompose more rapidly than seems natural. Alyosha is then precipitated into the "world," represented by Grushenka, but is not conquered by it. The next two books deal with Mitya's drunken happiness and his arrest. Book 10, following, is a contrasting account of the relationships between boys of the village, the "new generation"; one of them is a young Ivan. Book 11, "Ivan," is in direct contrast to book 10, containing the interviews with the half brother, Smerdyakov, and the devil, who may or may not be Ivan's hallucination. Book 12 is the great trial scene, in which everyone is shown to be on trial, and the epilogue deals with the plans for Mitya's escape and the magical rebirth of joy and communion between Alyosha and the boys over the grave of the child Ilusha. Out of the novel's several deaths come this resurrection and an implied transformation of the "Karamazov" or Russian potentiality in the boys under Alyosha's influence. "How good life is when one does something good and just!" Alyosha exclaims.
The novel as it is summarized dramatizes the epigraph from the Book of John: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." Every significant character in the novel—Mitya, Grushenka, Alyosha, Katerina, even Ivan—is transformed. Ivan's brain fever is symptomatic of his particular sin—the sin of intellectual pride. That he is perhaps mad is a way of pointing toward his future regeneration, though Dostoevski evidently did not feel that he could violate Ivan's character, as he did Raskolnikov's, in providing for a ritual conversion. The bulk of the novel is one of affirmation, though Ivan, the most eloquent person in the novel, is not saved but is made impotent, broken, most violently changed.
The problems of The Brothers Karamazov are not due to any weakness on the author's part, but to his extraordinary inventiveness. Within the confines of his careful structure a series of mocking antitheses appear: have they been created consciously or unconsciously? Are they ingenious, or are they simply mistakes? The key to Dostoevski's genius, however, seems to be in his command of the dynamics of fiction. Not life, certainly: life is never equal to the pace and intricacy of any of Dostoevski's works. The theme of transformation or rebirth is more than simply a religious (and rather magical) idea; it is a part of Dostoevski's imagination. Reality is constantly turning into something else; simplicity breaks up into fragments, baffling us; nothing stays, nothing is permanent; characters who are defined in one way break loose and assume deeper, vaster dimensions; dogmatic truths are echoed and mocked hundreds of pages later; the revered father figure is shadowed by demonic father figures; doubles multiply and question the very basis of individual identity; what is intended to be a parable or prophecy (Russian spirit threatened by European intellect) becomes a great mystic work in which all of men's acts, whether "good" or "evil," are held finally to be of little account, for it is precisely this heresy of Ivan's tragic pride, his assumption that man's sin is of importance, that Dostoevski wants to destroy. ...

By Joyce Carol Oates


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