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The Passion of Dmitrii Karamazov

  • Carol A. Flath (a1)

What is the word of Christ without an example?

—Zosima, PSS, 14:267

Do not believe the empty and mendacious crowd, Forget your doubts…

—Dmitrii, via Nekrasov, PSS, 14:96

In Brat'ia Karamazovy (The brothers Karamazov), Fedor Dostoevskii suggests the impossibility of earthly justice but compensates for this harsh truth through a vision of transcendent joy. His message of Christian belief, inexpressible in the indicative, infuses every word of the novel on a poetic level and becomes manifest in the unfolding of the plot.

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1. The ultimately impossible task of creating a positively beautiful man began with Idiot (The idiot), though as far back as Zapiski iz podpol'ia (Notes from underground) Dostoevskii avows his intention of conveying a Christian message in his works. See PSS, vol. 28, bk. 2, ed. T. I. Ornatskaia (1985), 73. For a detailed discussion of the “positively beautiful man,” see Miller, Robin Feuer, Dostoevsky and The Idiot: Author, Narrator, and Reader (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), and Frank, Joseph, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–1871 (Princeton, 1995), 256–75.

2. PSS, 15: 77.

3. This is particularly evident in the later novels. “With qualification piled on qualification, tentative judgments no sooner made than withdrawn and perhaps ambiguously reasserted, the narrator claims not to be sure what he himself has seen. Reports of others are probably even more unreliable, and apparently contradictory though not necessarily groundless. Frivolous people with a taste for scandal say things ‘quite seriously’ that are different from what the narrator himself has seen, although he does not entirely trust his own eyes, either.” Gary Saul Morson, “Introductory Study: Dostoevsky's Great Experiment,” in Fyodor Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, trans. Kenneth Lantz (Evanston, 1993), 1: 86. This characterization of the unreliable narration in The Possessed is relevant to The Brothers Karamazov as well: The most important events and actions in the novel are in doubt. For the purposes of this study we will set aside a long and interesting theoretical discussion about the truthfulness or nontruthfulness of fiction.

4. Margaret Ziolkowski discusses the lives of the saints (in particular Alexis, Man of God) and the holy fool archetype as they relate to Alesha's character in Hagiography and Modern Russian Literature (Princeton, 1988), 163–70. Harriet Murav notes a tension between holy foolishness (iurodstvo) and an iconic model in her discussion of Alesha's plot as a story of conversion in Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky's Novels and the Poetics of Cultural Critique (Stanford, 1992), 153–60. On the basis of hagiographical elements in Alesha's description, Jostein Børtnes unambiguously identifies Alesha with Christ: “In the figure of the young hero of his last novel Dostoevskij […] created a character who is both conformable and consubstantial with Christ, the ideal of man that is the opposite of man's own nature. Børtnes, , “The Function of Hagiography in Dostoevskij's Novels,” in Miller, Robin Feuer, ed., Critical Essays on Dostoevsky (Boston, 1986), 190 . Dostoevskii's biographers trace the development of Alesha as a continuation of the author's quest to create a perfectly good but at the same time human hero; see, for example, Mochul'skii, K., Dostoevskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Paris, 1980), 515–19. See also Vetlovskaia, V. E., Poetika romana Karamazovy, Brat'ia (Leningrad, 1977), 162–65, and the editors’ notes to the Academy edition of the novel in PSS, 15: 474–76.

5. Ivan's rescue of the drunken peasant follows a pattern established by St. John the Merciful—and introduced by Ivan himself in the statement of “rebellion” he makes to Alesha before recounting his “Grand Inquisitor.” See Børtnes, Jostein, “Religion,” in Jones, Malcolm and Miller, Robin Feuer, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Classic Russian Novel (Cambridge, Eng., 1998), 104–29.

6. The most insightful studies of religious models in Dostoevskii's work come from Børtnes, who builds on an iconic model of reading to broaden the implications of Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of polyphony for Dostoevskii's Christian message. His best work shows the way Dostoevskii's images (such as the setting sun in The Brothers Karamazov) communicate the religious message in a way that transcends a linear view of the plot. See, for example, “Polyphony in The Brothers Karamazov: Variations on a Theme,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 17, no. 3 (Fall 1983): 402–11. Vetlovskaia, Poetika romana, 157–59, notes that the “resurrected” Dmitrii needs to accept Christ ( “This ‘new man’ must accept the ideal of Christ into his soul” [159]), but she does not address the importance of hagiographic models to his story; her focus, like that of most scholars of this theme, is on Alesha. Here I am most concerned with hitherto unelucidated implications of Dmitrii's plot.

7. Børtnes supplies this quotation from the Greek philosopher Christos Yannaras in “Religion,” 115. Børtnes introduces the concept in relation to Alesha's account of Zosima's life, but it is surely relevant to an understanding of Dmitrii's function in the novel. As Dmitrii's various confessions show, his is a profoundly poetic form of expression. At the conclusion of this study I will reinforce the links between Dmitrii's story and Zosima's.

8. Børtnes, Jostein, Visions of Glory: Studies in Early Russian Hagiography, trans. Børtnes, Jostein and Nielsen, Paul L. (Oslo, 1988), 12.

9. See, for example, Ziolkowski, Hagiography and Modern Russian Literature, 163–68.

10. Surely the word itself is significant on a level that transcends this particular novel. As I will show, Dmitrii's martyrdom comes as a direct result of his fleshly passions, but it is his reenactment of Christ's Passion that ensures his redemption. Of course the words are related in Russian: strast’ (passion) and stradanie (suffering).

11. Fedotov, George, The Russian Religious Mind: The Collected Works of George R Fedotov (Belmont, Mass., 1975), 3: 99 . The concept of iurodstvo, or holy foolishness, has been the subject of some recent studies of Dostoevskii, as noted above. Although the word iurodivyi itself is used to characterize Alesha in the text of the novel (e.g., PSS, 14: 20) and provides a useful reference point in Russian religious tradition, I believe it serves as a distraction in our quest to decipher the novel's Christian message through Dmitrii's plot. More useful for us is a three-part classification of Russian saints made by E. Behr-Sigel: iurodivyi, starets, and martyr. Jacques Catteau paraphrases: “The martyr [is] not a glorious martyr who dies for the faith, but a spiritual imitator of the Passion of Christ, someone who yields to the exhortations of the Gospel in the terror of his flesh and gives up his life, endangered often for reasons outside religion. “Jacques Catteau, Dostoevsky and the Process of Literary Creation, trans. Audrey Littlewood (Cambridge, Eng., 1989), 240. Dmitrii does not “give up his life,” because he represents “life,” but his story is best seen as following the “martyr” model.

12. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, 128, 117. Although Fedotov issues a disclaimer about uniting very different prototypes with very different stories under the single heading of “kenoticism,” the broadness of his application does test the critical intelligence. For an excellent discussion of kenoticism that goes beyond that of Fedotov, see Steven Cassedy, “Dostoevsky and the Kenotic Tradition” (paper, Tenth Triennial Symposium of the International Dostoevsky Society, New York, 1999). I prefer not to challenge the term here but will attempt to focus instead on the saintly motifs of martyrdom in a plot of imitatio Christi as relevant to Dmitrii's story. The relevance of imitatio Christi in the Eastern Church has been the subject of some debate; Fedotov suggests that the Eastern Church prefers the formula “following Christ” to “imitating Christ “; see Fedotov, Russian Religious Mind, 130. Others assert that in fact it is a key concept in Orthodoxy: see Børtnes, Visions of Glory, 40.I retain the term, as it is a generally accepted shorthand for the concept I am exploring. In Dostoevskii's extraordinarily well structured novel, all three brothers can be seen as enacting an imitatio Christi, but each does so in his own way. Insofar as “imitation” can imply guile and calculation (raschet), it may be interpreted as sinful (as in the case of Ivan's and Kolia Krasotkin's calculating attempts to appear in a Christlike role to those around them). The current study focuses exclusively on Dmitrii's martyrdom and ensuing Christlike grace. For an introduction of this theme in Dostoevskii that is more relevant to Ivan, see Flath, Carol, “Fear of Faith: The Hidden Religious Message of Notes from Underground,” Slavic and East European Journal 37, no. 4 (1993): 510–29. A more extensive treatment of the overall theme in The Brothers Karamazov would require a close investigation of Vladimir Solov'ev's writings on Man-Godhood and God-Manhood (the lectures “O Bogochelovechestve,” 1878), which affected Dostoevskii so deeply in his later years. For an excellent study on this subject, see Kostalevsky, Marina, Dostoevsky and Soloviev: The Art of Integral Vision (New Haven, 1997).

13. To make this important point it may be sufficient to note the current campaign to beatify the assassinated Romanov family. No one is claiming that virtue is a primary criterion for sainthood in their case; the point is their martyrdom, their redemptive suffering.

14. Bøtnes, Virions of Glory, 47. Børtnes explains the principle in detail on pp. 23–25. The original text on the distinction between metonymy and metaphor is Roman Jakobson's seminal study “Linguistic Types of Aphasia,” Selected Works (The Hague, 1971), 2: 307–33.

15. Børtnes, Visions of Glory, 33 (emphasis added).

16. On this subject, Priscilla Hunt's work on kenosis in Old Russian literature is particularly enlightening: “Christ's ‘condescension’ into manhood (while remaining one with the transcendent father) must be conveyed ‘obrazno, ’ that is metaphorically, whereby concrete material reality in its particular context also conveys a higher spiritual meaning.” Hunt, “A Penitential Journey: The Life of the Archpriest Awakum and the Kenotic Tradition,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 25, nos. 1–4 (1991): 206. Hunt's reading of the Life of Awakum offers many insights relevant to a reading of The Brothers Karamazov. For example, the distinction she draws “between the true Christian witnessing to the transcendent Father through redemptive suffering, and the false Christian, who equates God with learning and power” (207) can surely be applied to Dmitrii and Ivan Karamazov.

17. In essence this question should inform our reading of all serious fiction. Artistic literature (Dmitrii's poetry) functions through metaphor, as opposed to other kinds of language (Ivan's polemical articles) that aim to convince rationally. When even Ivan allows poetic truth to infuse his “poem,” it triumphs over his rational arguments (as Alesha, after hearing “The Grand Inquisitor,” exclaims, “Your poem doesn't revile Jesus as you intended, it praises him” [PSS, 14: 237]). An interesting exercise would be to test the proposition that Dmitrii does in fact commit the murder, and Smerdiakov's role is the product of wishful thinking on Ivan's part—a desire that his brother Dmitrii did not do it. Ivan, after all, is prone to hallucinations; his interaction with his devil is adequate evidence that he could have imagined both Smerdiakov's confession and the three-thousand-ruble “material proof he takes from him. Given the improbability of Smerdiakov's and Dmitrii's versions of the central event of the novel, the reader must choose to believe them, and to doubt all the material evidence. We must make a “leap of faith,” suspend our disbelief, and see through the lies and slanders of fiction to its greater truth.

18. PSS, 14: 64.

19. Ibid., 14: 66–67.

20. The most difficult task in the present study was deciding what textual evidence to believe and on what grounds. My somewhat cumbersome formula—that confessions to Alesha and direct dramatic depictions are to be trusted—leaves much to be desired, but it is functional. And it is a fundamental assumption of the present study that reading fiction demands an act of faith.

21. PSS, 14: 100.

22. Ibid., 14: 101.

23. Ibid. In fact most of the significant “action” in the novel is actually failure to take action. The most important examples are the brothers’ failure to prevent their father's murder and Dmitrii's failure to commit it.

24. My reading is diametrically opposed to that of Nathan Rosen, for whom Katerina Ivanovna acts as a guardian angel who influences Dmitrii at key moments to overcome his baser instincts. Thus Dmitrii's self-restraint in the initial encounter with her is the effect of her virtue, rather than divine grace. In Rosen's reading, education and civilization— represented in part by the finishing-school graduate Katerina Ivanovna—function as positive values that bring order to the chaos of instinctual and destructive desires. See Rosen, , “Why Dmitrii Karamazov Did Not Kill His Father,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 6, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 209–24.

25. The Job story is introduced by Zosima in Book 3 (PSS, 14: 89). For an in-depth discussion of its function in The Brothers Karamazov, focusing on Zosima's story, see Nathan Rosen, “Style and Structure in The Brothers Karamazov: The Grand Inquisitor and the Russian Monk,” Russian Literature Triquarterly 1 (1971): 352–65. See also Eikeland, Kristin, “Functions of Hagiographic Discourse in the Life of Father Zosima,” in Grimstad, Knut Andreas and Lunde, Ingunn, eds., Celebrating Creativity: Essays in Honour of jostein Børtnes (Bergen, Norway, 1997), 151—62, esp. 162. Eikeland suggests that the Job story, as presented in Zosima's discourse, represents an act of imitatio Christi.

26. PSS, 15: 31.

27. Robert Belknap analyzes the way Dmitrii's psychology—his tendency not to act at crucial moments—functions in the plot of the novel: “Mitja neither absorbs nor initiates chains of events. Rather, he stands in the middle of several chains of events, responding to causes, and thereby producing effects. But his responses almost all reflect an aspect of his nature which readers have largely failed to see. This is his indecisiveness. He responds, but does not complete his response.” Belknap, The Structure of The Brothers Karamazov (Evanston, 1989), 64. Belknap also links this to divine grace.

28. Nevertheless, even the beating of Grigorii supports an alternative interpretation: If we believe Dmitrii's version of the events of the night of the murder, there is only one reason for him to flee: to escape the overwhelming impulse to murder his father. Thus, Grigorii's interference can only be interpreted, from Dmitrii's point of view, as an obstacle to the miraculous workings of grace, an attempt to keep him at the scene and under temptation. Challenging the usual interpretation of Dmitrii's violence on this occasion leaves us with just one unambiguous act of violence by Dmitrii—when he inflicts that “warning blow” upon his father. This focuses the attention of the reader on the symbolic center of the novel.

29. PSS, 14: 415.

30. See, for example, Michael Holquist's “How Sons Become Fathers: The Brothers Karamazov,” in Dostoevsky and the Novel (Princeton, 1977), 165–91.

31. The miracles in The Brothers Karamazov, like that of the incarnation itself, challenge the reader to believe without coercion. As Eikeland notes, “in Dostoevskii, a miraculous event may have another, more rational explanation.” Eikeland, “Functions of Hagiographic Discourse,” 159.

32. PSS, 14: 413.

33. Ibid., 14: 355.

34. Dmitrii clearly sets off on a path toward violence and murder but ends up in a state of grace and love. This pattern echoes throughout the novel; for example, at his first meeting with Grushen'ka, he tells Alesha, he went intending to do her violence ( “The first time, I set off to beat her,” PSS, 14: 109) and ended up falling in love. The same pattern applies to Grushen'ka, who goes to Mokroe with the possible aim of taking revenge on her seducer; she ends the evening in Dmitrii's arms. Katerina Ivanovna, on the other hand, sows hatred and discord wherever she goes and will not admit love and grace into her heart.

35. For the vinegar-soaked towel, see PSS, 15: 183–84 and John 19: 29; for the prayer, see PSS, 14: 394 and Matthew 26: 29.

36. PSS, 15: 185.

37. The symbolic importance in Russian culture of Siberia as an underworld, a place for spiritual testing and purification, has been noted by many scholars. To name a few: Børtnes notes that Siberia is the “landscape of liminality” of the Russian novel; Raskol'nikov's exile and regeneration serve as a pattern that will be repeated in The Brothers Karamazov. Børtnes, “Religion,” 111–12. Michael Finke describes a “katabatic masterplot” in Anton Chekhov's works, whereby the literary hero undergoes a descent into the earth— a journey into hell; the association extends to Chekhov's own journey to Sakhalin. Michael Finke, “The Hero's Descent to the Underworld in Chekhov,” Russian Review 53 (January 1994): 67. We can draw a parallel to Dostoevskii's imprisonment and exile in Siberia as well. Also relevant here is Priscilla Hunt's discussion of the new type of hagiographic plot, “the penitential or spiritual journey,” in Awakum's Life. See Hunt, “A Penitential journey,” 205.

38. Ivanov, Viacheslav, Freedom and the Tragic Life: A Study in Dostoevsky (New York, 1968), 45 . Fedotov discusses the relationship between Russian Christianity and the Slavic pagan worship of Mother Earth, along with the “gens” cult ( “the cult of the dead as the parents, as the ancestors of the eternal kinship-community “; both of these pagan elements echo strongly in the Christian vision of The Brothers Karamazov. See Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, 15–20. Also useful for general context is Joanna Hubbs's discussion of the relationship between the pagan Russian earth goddess and the Orthodox Mary, in Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture (Bloomington, 1988), 86–123.

39. Coercive, and therefore wrongful, use of miracle (the second temptation of Christ) is the subject of Curt Whitcomb's article “The Temptation of Miracle in Brat'ja Karamazovy,” Slavic and East European Journal 36, no. 2 (1992): 189–201.

40. “[Dmitrii: ] ‘That's true, I did say so, I told the whole town, and the whole town said it, and everyone believed it, and here in Mokroe, too, everyone believed that there were three thousand. But still, I squandered not three, but one and a half thousand, and sewed the rest of it up in a little pouch, that's how it was.’ ‘That's almost miraculous . .., ’ muttered Nikolai Parfenovich” (PSS, 14: 442, emphasis added).

41. PSS, 14: 372.

42. Ibid., 14: 395.

43. Ibid., 14: 374.

44. Ibid., 14: 374, 390.

45. Ibid., 14: 390.

46. Ibid., 14: 398.

47. Ibid., 14: 400.

48. Ibid., 14: 69.

49. Ibid., 14: 281.

50. Ibid., 14: 282.

51. Ibid., 14: 283.

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