Part 2: Russians are not happy people
Book One, Chapters One, Two, Three, and Four
Where we are introduced to a terrible father, his forgettable sons, and the unhappy women of Russia
“In the majority of cases, people, even evil-doers, are much more naïve and artless than we generally assume.
As, indeed, we are ourselves.” p. 6
Dostoevsky’s epic begins like much of his writing: with a historical introduction to some of the ill-fated characters we are going to be spending hundreds upon hundreds of pages reading about. In the first sentence we are told that the despicable pater familias Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is going to meet a nasty end. Given the description of the elder Karamazov as a thoroughly disreputable clownish drunk and sentimental lout who whores around and neglects his children, we can be forgiven for thinking that his murder is not such a bad thing.
Bad things happening to bad people, and bad things happening to good people for that matter, is a matter of some interest to our esteemed author. Never one to let a tragedy go unmentioned, Dostoevsky swiftly continues to tell the tale of a would-be Ophelia, who commits suicide by means of gravity. This is then said to illustrate the character of Karamazov’s first wife, Adelaida, who, we are told, also meets a tragic end from typhus or starvation. One death in the wings and two confirmed in the first five pages, well done there. You can already tell this is going to be a cheerful book.
During her unhappy marriage to Fyodor, Adelaida manages to produce one son before running off to be unhappy with someone else. This son, Dmitry (or Mitya), is forgotten almost as soon as he’s out of his diapers. While the elder Karamazov is living the good life, the care of his only child is left to his servant Grigory Kutuzov. Then a cousin of the dead Adelaida pops up, intending to take care of Mitya himself. The kid is moved to Paris where his uncle also promptly forgets all about his young charge, and Dmitry is in turn again brought up by others.
Mitya grows up to live a “riotous” life, partying, dueling and running up debt in the belief that he will one day inherit his father’s wealth. The latter, however, strings him along with small cash payments until Mitya discovers one day to be in his father’s debt. When it is also revealed that no lands and coin are forthcoming, this sows the seeds for a final falling out between father and son. After this, Mitya will appear to lose his mind with catastrophic consequences. To paraphrase Darth Vader: the foreshadowing is strong with this one.
The third chapter is dedicated to the origin of Karamazov’s other two sons: Ivan and Alexey (A.K.A. Alyosha.) These strapping young lads are the result of the father’s marriage to a woman prone to shrieking fits and hysteria. As is customary, the woman dies not long after giving birth to the youngest of the two, Alyosha. It is sometimes hard to decide whether Dostoevsky, a self-professed literary realist, draws from common occurrences in 19th century Russia, or whether he just has a thing for ladies struck down by tragedy. With their mother out of the picture, the amnesiac Karamazov again forgets he even has children, and these boys too are brought up in a different home.
The elder, Ivan, reaps the dual benefits of an intelligent mind and a good education away from his father. He swiftly grows (self)conscious of his position as an outsider dependent on the charity of others. This causes him to become self-sufficient but also somewhat resentful and tactiturn as a result. Ivan grows up, as Dostoevsky puts it; “learned, proud, and seemingly so cautious.” Alyosha, by contrast, is fully accepted as a member of the family that has adopted the brothers, and this colours his worldview. This dreamy-eyed youth becomes a beacon of acceptance and serenity, showing a lack of interest in the material world. He is inescapably drawn into the religious life. This last tendency is the result of a quasi-mystical memory of his deceased mother. A definite stand in for the Virgin Mary there.
By the end of the fourth chapter, we have met the elder Karamazov and his three sons. One of these is a sensualist, quick to anger, to drink and to get into fights. He takes most after his father, whom he hates with a searing passion. The second son is a scholar, a reserved, quiet but arrogant young man who likes trolling the (ir)religious, while strangely getting along just fine with a father who is his polar opposite. His diplomatic mission is to negotiate a settlement between his older brother and his father. The third son is a monk, prone to daydreaming, chaste people loving and Christ-like acceptance. His father loves him most of all, especially when he’s drunk.
The first few chapters show some of the tendencies of Dosotevsky as a writer. He likes to give an intricate historical background to his characters and setting up their relations to one another. He has the tendency of drawing psychological conclusions from the actions and utterances of his characters, and pointing them out to us, as in the quote prefacing this blog.
In several places he addresses the reader directly, telling us to make note of, for instance, the difference in upbringing between Alyosha and Ivan. In his description of the psychology of the actors, he often veers into the territory of omniscient narration, describing inner reasoning or emotion behind expressions, spoken words and acts. This is in contrast and opposition to the fictitious narrator’s own claims of biographical verification. Thus, we have a an unreliable, semi-omniscient storyteller on our hands who likes breaking the fourth wall, taking notes on human nature, and offing russian ladies.
We’re in for a treat.
Next week: A Brief History of Russian Orthodoxy.
Image: “Woman’s Head (V.A. Repina lying in bed) – Женская голова (В.А.Репина, лежащая в постели)ʺ by Ilya Repin. Licensed under public domain via WikiArt.
Doesn’t always refer to himself in the third person.
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