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THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, BOOK III


My turn to keep the karamazblog going with my entry on Book III. Book I was addressed by
intertext and Book II was addressed by marri . 

Book III is titled "The Sensualists" and thus rightly starts out by zooming in on Fyodor Karamazov's home turf.  There a dinner party, at which an increasingly drunk Karamazov-pere is entertained by the theological speculations of a shadowy border-figure, the servant Smerdyakov, whose history, as much as is known, is related in chapter two, "Stinking Lizaveta" (girls, if you hate your nickname, consider what it might be!).

Smerdyakov has been raised by the servant Girgory, but rumor has it that he is actually the product of one of Karamazov's most depraved impulses, the rape/seduction of the animal-like Lizaveta.  Now, we all know that there is a long tradition in Europe of assigning holiness to the mentally ill or impaired, and this tradition is reputedly most perfected and most revered in Russia, so Fyodor's possible (probable) exploitation of this girl (especially, it seems, in the way of a joke) underlines his depravity more than anything.   At the same time, however, we learn in this book that Karamazov is strangely dependent on the man who has raised Smerdyakov and who also once cared for Karamazov's own sons when they were infants: Grigory.  Ah, fathers!  Lizaveta's papa was an abusive scoundrel, the Karamazov boys are spectacularly neglected in early childhood, and even foster-fathers can be useless or unkind. 

Another son moves to centre-stage here, though: Dmitri, who confesses in three chapters (and in both verse and prose) his cruelty and his lust.  Dmitri is that most interesting of sons-of-bitches: the one who knows and condemns what he is and yet at the same time gleefully, if helplessly, embraces it.  Unlike his father, who makes excuses for himself, Dmitri lets us (and Alyosha) know that he knows and sometimes even regrets how low he is willing to sink, and yet he makes no move toward the light of goodness and reason.

It is important that it is to his youngest brother that he confesses.  Dmitri, like his father, loves the monastery-dwelling Alyosha best.  Later, Ivan will also say the same.  And Alyosha wants and tries to save Dmitri, but at the same time, he recognizes in Dmitri's tortured confession of his "sensuality" his own human weakness.  "'The steps are all the same,'" says Alyosha, "'I'm on the lowest, and you are above, somewhere on the thirteenth.  That's how I see it, but it's all one and the same.  Whoever steps on the lowest step will surely step on the highest.'"  Alyosha takes one confession after another in the chapters I have read, almost as if each confession is a homily designed to initiate him into the trials and potentials of the human condition.

And what's at the top of that staircase?  Who knows--Fyodor perhaps--but it is becoming apparent that the steps have everything to do with women: their sexuality and their vulnerability both.  Dmitri is torn between two women, one pure and arrogant, the other sullied and free.  And the most Freudian of situations is bound to occur, for doesn't Fyodor want the sleazy yet winning Grushenka as much as his son does, and doesn't this conflict, as much as their monetary one, threaten to upset the balance of everyone's lives?  Both father and son are almost mad with desire and jealousy and in this are ironically united more than any two others in the novel.

Now, how does Smerdyakov fit into this?  Where Fyodor and Dmitri Karamazov are all lust and rage, Smerdyakov is a blade of ice.  Smerdyakov seems to represent both reason used as a weapon and the chilly anger of one who condemns the inheritance he is denied.  This last is precisely Dmitri's beef with his father, whom, he says, owes him morally if not financially.  But perhaps Smerdyakov is the son who is truly undone and who has it in him to strike back in an effective manner.  Dmitri's crazed attack on his father has nothing like the subtlety, for instance, of Smerdyakov's measured and smirking attack on his "father" Grigory; Dmitri beats his father, but Smerdyakov systematically dissects Grigory's simple faith and holds it up to a mocking light.  I am fascinated by this character, obviously.  In his ability to reason, Smerdyakov has affinities with Ivan, who later, in Book V, will compellingly dissect religion's betrayal of the souls of the wounded (Ivan often startles me by speaking my own thoughts aloud), but none of Ivan's capacity for love or honor.  In his rage, Smerdyakov has affinities with Dmitri, also abandoned as a babe and also picked up by a foster-father who didn't understand him, but none of Dmitri's heat or passion.  In his asceticism, Smerdyakov has affinities with Alyosha, but none of his gentleness or desire for harmony. 

That desire for harmony is surely going to lead Alyosha to some dark places.  In this chapter, it leads him to "the two together," Katya and Grushenka, and poor Alyosha's head nearly explodes with the impossibility of light and dark being in harmony, which later, of course, turns out to be a trick on Katya.  She's a hard one to figure out.  She seems to want more to save Dmitri than to love him.  She is too good for him, I suppose, but good in an unpleasant way: fervent and proud, like any fanatic.

I enjoyed this part of the novel.  It move us away from the monastery and into the so-called real world, and it moves Alyosha that way too, for the dying Zosima had ordered him to go out into the world, where his destiny lies.  But what is his destiny: to become an ordinary man?  Is there a possibility, after reading this section, that we can even believe in such a thing?  Is Alyosha to be tested or saved by earthly love?  A letter from the innocent Lise ends the book.  Can Alyosha find in romantic love a peace and purpose that none of the others has found?  Or is he now moving up the ladder to the fire of sin in which Dmitri and Fyodor and Grushenka writhe?  Will Alyosha bring the harmony he wishes to bring, or is he there, in fact, to fan the flames by being such a perfect listener for others' yearning and complaint?

Sin, redemption, resentment, love, brotherhood, family, pain.
Tags: books, brothers karamazov, dostovesky, intertext, karamazblog, marri, reading
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