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Fyodor Dostoevsky completed his final novel— The Brothers Karamazov—in 1880. A work of universal appeal and significance, his exploration of good and evil immediately gained an international readership and today “remains harrowingly alive in the face of our present day worries, paradoxes, and joys,” observes Dostoevsky scholar Robin Feuer Miller. In this engaging and original book, she guides us through the complexities of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, offering keen insights and a celebration of the author’s unparalleled powers of imagination.
Miller’s critical companion to The Brothers Karamazov explores the novel’s structure, themes, characters, and artistic strategies while illuminating its myriad philosophical and narrative riddles. She discusses the historical significance of the book and its initial reception, and in a new preface discusses the latest scholarship on Dostoevsky and the novel that crowned his career.
"All praise to Yale University Press for reprinting Robin Feuer Miller''s The Brothers Karamazov: Worlds of the Novel. Already a classic, this profound book is a must-read for all."—Deborah A. Martinsen, Christianity and Literature
— Deborah A. Martinsen
In January 1879 readers of the conservative Russian Herald turned to the first installment of The Brothers Karamazov with excitement and intense expectation. The appearance of Fyodor Dostoevsky's newest and last novel was, quite simply, an event. Before undertaking a reading of The Brothers Karamazov, or for that matter, before reading any work of Russian literature, it is helpful for the Western reader to keep in mind that Russian literature is-and has traditionally been-taken very seriously by its audience. Why is this? Why is so much value placed on the word in the context of artistic discourse? The answer to this question is quite straightforward. Because of the intermittently repressive regimes of the Russian czars, the related arenas of literature and literary criticism have served as primary vehicles, particularly in the nineteenth century, for political, economic, and social discourse. That is, writers and thinkers often found that the safest way to express their ideas was indirectly-through the medium of literary art and discourse about that art.
In fact, by the 1860s the key debate about Russia-its future and its identity-wastaking place through a complex dialogue between three of its greatest novelists-Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky-and the so-called radical critics, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobroliubov, and Dmitri Pisarev, all followers of the first great Russian social critic, Vissarion Belinsky. Their debate often centered on the problem of the nature of art: should writers focus on the problems inherent to and arising from the work itself, or should art deliberately seek to serve socially utilitarian purposes? The first duty of art, argued the radical critics, is to serve the betterment of man; aesthetic considerations are secondary. Literature, they asserted, should depict reality in such a way that readers will be inspired to advocate fundamental social change, even revolution. No, argued the novelists, maintaining the aesthetic integrity of the literary text must remain the uppermost concern of the writer. Only then will the work genuinely serve the larger purposes of awakening the consciousnesses of its readers and creating in them a higher moral awareness.
Add to this general picture of the artist in nineteenth-century Russian society the ever-present censor. The most direct effect of censorship was to make the Russian writer resort to the techniques of Aesopian language more often than his counterparts in Europe or the United States found it necessary to do. Whether this resulted in better or worse writing is still a subject for debate. This situation was further muddied by the fact that one could not simply dismiss the censor as a villain, for the censor often had a double identity as writer. The example of Ivan Goncharov is a good case in point. Goncharov, the author of the magnificent and haunting novel Oblomov (1859), found himself in the difficult but not altogether unusual predicament of being both a liberal novelist and an official government censor charged with upholding an autocratic, restrictive regime.
The government censor was not the only censor with whom the Russian writer had to contend. Almost as insidious and difficult to coexist with from the 1860s onward was the subtle censorship shaped increasingly by the shared beliefs of the intellectual class, whose sympathies, according in part to the dictates of literary fashion, were becoming decidedly radical. This double bind, this dual censorship, has been eloquently described by Simon Karlinsky. He calls our attention to "the existence of two separate but equally repressive systems of censorship." The de jure censorship of the government had considerable power, but "far more powerful and, in the long run, even more oppressive was the de facto unofficial censorship by the anti-government literary critics, who not only ceaselessly demanded that all writers be topical, obviously relevant and socially critical, but also prescribed rigid formal and aesthetic criteria to which all literature was supposed to conform." The great twentieth-century novelist Vladimir Nabokov has succinctly and aptly described the Russian writer's situation as a "strange double purgatory."
What an irony it is then that the key distinguishing marks of the great Russian writers Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Leskov, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and, above all, Dostoevsky should exhibit precisely the opposite features. Despite the overriding differences among the visions of all these writers, they shared the conviction that literature need not, indeed, should not be narrowly topical. Most important, each author refused to conform to "rigid formal and aesthetic criteria"; instead, all of them were extraordinary innovators in artistic form. Thus, one way that we might begin to understand the historical context of Russian literature in the nineteenth century, and The Brothers Karamazov in particular, is that despite an unrelenting pressure from all sides on Dostoevsky and other writers, they consistently refused to conform to defined standards. Instead, they-and in particular, Dostoevsky-created a literature of extreme narrative inventiveness and mythic universality. The Brothers Karamazov stands as the greatest representative of this literature.
By using the phrase "greatest representative," I am taking a stand in an ongoing debate among critics about the nature and the validity of affirming that "great works" and a canon even exist. A book such as this one, an introductory volume that is part of a series, is in itself an affirmation of both ideas. Despite the widespread attack on the canon, I suspect that certain works, among them The Brothers Karamazov, will continue to be read, not because they subtly support the existence of certain reigning power structures but because of their aesthetic qualities, their passion, and the frisson of recognition they incite in their readers. The Brothers Karamazov exists as a happy blend of form and its transcendence. It has easily become a case study for widely varying literary theories and has prompted arguments about whether the meaning inherent in its pages opposes its author's actual intentions. The characters in this novel have attained the status of myth. Moreover, Dostoevsky, in this as in all his other novels, indirectly has encouraged his readers to duplicate in the act of reading the dilemmas of the characters. Dostoevsky's reader is an implicated reader.
From the outset of his literary career in 1846 Dostoevsky was a radical experimenter. He consistently sought new narrative forms and ceaselessly worked to portray "new types" of characters who had not yet been fictionally represented. Despite this continual reaching out to new forms and themes, however, Dostoevsky's created world has a curiously confined geography. Certain roads are traveled repeatedly from story to story and novel to novel, so that every inch of their terrain is charted in depth. Scandal scenes, confessions, inserted narratives, passionate, infernal women, grimy taverns, coffinlike rooms-these are the stock-in-trade of Dostoevsky's created world, yet this world, despite its familiar landmarks, remains provocative and uncontainable.
Each reader who enters this world discovers Dostoevsky's greatness anew and must, despite the successive generations that have preceded her as a reader, confront along the way the great and searching questions this writer asks us to contemplate. The Brothers Karamazov asks us to approach the problem of evil: How can one accept the suffering of children and still believe in a good and active God? Does a child have the right to raise his hand against the father who mistreats him? Who has the right to judge a criminal? How can one overcome the boundless grief felt at the loss of a beloved child? These are the kinds of questions that each reader of The Brothers Karamazov is asked to consider.
The last of these questions offered Dostoevsky the painful cornerstone of inspiration for this, his last and arguably greatest novel. Just as he was beginning work on the novel, Dostoevsky's youngest son, Alyosha, died at the age of three, apparently from an epileptic seizure. Inconsolable and nearly mad with grief, Dostoevsky, himself an epileptic, blamed himself for Alyosha's death because he believed the child had inherited his disease. Yet in the pages of The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky created through art the child he had lost and remade him as he might have become in Alyosha Karamazov. One cannot but think of Shakespeare, his lost son Hamnet, and his play Hamlet. Both works are, of course, intimately about the relations between fathers and their sons. Sigmund Freud, in his famous essay "Dostoevsky and Parricide" (1928), asserts that "The Brothers Karamazov is the most magnificent novel ever written: the episode of the Grand Inquisitor, one of the peaks in the literature of the world, can hardly be valued too highly. Before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms."
Dostoevsky viewed his brand of fiction as "fantastic realism"-an oxymoronic term, certainly, but one worthy of our careful consideration. The following statement contains a kind of artistic credo: "I have my own special view of reality (in art), and what the majority call fantastic and exceptional sometimes constitutes the very essence of reality for me. In my opinion, the commonness of some occurrences and the conventional view of them are not realism at all, but even the contrary."
Virginia Woolf was among the first Western readers to recognize this special quality of Dostoevsky's prose.
Alone among writers Dostoevsky has the power of reconstructing those most swift and complicated states of mind.... This is the exact opposite of the method adopted, perforce, by most of our novelists. They reproduce all the external appearances-tricks of manner, landscape, dress, and the effect of the hero upon his friends-but very rarely, and only for an instant, penetrate to the tumult of thought which rages within his own mind. But the whole fabric of a book by Dostoevsky is made out of such material.... We have to get rid of the old tune which runs so persistently in our ears and to realize how little of our humanity is expressed in that old tune.
Dostoevsky's life itself was characterized by just such a "tumult of thought" and by a kind of "fantastic realism." How many men find themselves, after a term of solitary imprisonment in a fortress, facing a virtually certain death by firing squad, only to be reprieved at the last moment by the arrival of a galloping messenger from the czar? Take into account, too, Dostoevsky's epilepsy, his years as a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp, his episodes of compulsive gambling, his affair with Polina Suslova while his first wife lay dying of consumption, and his probable belief that his father had been murdered by his own serfs. The stuff of Dostoevsky's life, as in the lives of so many Russian writers of the nineteenth century, was often far stranger, more violent, more fantastic, than the stuff of fiction.
The critical reception of The Brothers Karamazov has been extraordinary and, whether positive or negative, intense. All of Dostoevsky's novels were published serially in the thick journals of the day, and each installment provoked discussion about both its literary qualities and its role in that great ongoing polemic about Russia and her future.
Toward the end of his life, as he was working on The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky delivered his famous Pushkin speech. On 7 June 1880, on the night before his speech he wrote at midnight to his wife about the amazing reception he was receiving. Much of it he attributed to the positive critical reaction that The Brothers Karamazov had been attracting in each of its installments. "As I walked across the hall during intermission, a host of people, youths and graybeards and ladies, rushed toward me exclaiming, 'You're our prophet. We've become better people since we read The Karamazovs.' (In brief, I realized how tremendously important The Karamazovs is.)" The next evening, after the triumph of his speech, he wrote to her, "When I appeared on the stage, the auditorium thundered with applause.... I bowed and made signs, begging them to let me read-but to no avail: elation, enthusiasm (all because of The Karamazovs)!"
In the years after Dostoevsky's death, some Russian critics and philosophers, such as Vladimir Solovyov and V. V. Rozanov, focused, almost as disciples, on Dostoevsky's religious ideas. Somewhat later, the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev concluded his book on Dostoevsky with the staggering assertion: "So great is the worth of Dostoevsky that to have produced him is by itself sufficient justification for the existence of the Russian people in the world; and he will bear witness for his countrymen in the last judgment of the nations." Likewise, Dmitri Merezhkovsky regarded him as a great mystic. Far more critical was Nikolai Mikhailovsky, the radical populist, whose 1882 article "A Cruel Talent" depicts Dostoevsky as a sadist. Dostoevsky's own friend, the critic Nikolai Strakhov, contributed to this negative view of Dostoevsky by circulating after Dostoevsky's death the unfounded but unfortunately persistent rumor that Dostoevsky had once violated a young girl. Perhaps the best-known negative critics of Dostoevsky are Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and, more recently, Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera, although all four, on closer examination, are not nearly as derogatory about Dostoevsky's art as they have been described as being. For example, Lawrence complains, about The Brothers Karamazov, that he feels impatient with "these morbidly introspective Russians, morbidly wallowing in adoration of Jesus, then getting up and spitting in His beard.... It's all masturbation, half-baked, and one gets tired of it. One gets tired of being told that Dostoevsky's Legend of the Grand Inquisitor 'is the most profound declaration which ever was made about man and life.' ... The more Dostoevsky gets worked up about the tragic nature of the human soul, the more I lose interest. I have read the Grand Inquisitor three times, and never can remember what it's really about." But then he also admits that he finds The Brothers Karamazov increasingly more depressing "because, alas, more drearily true to life. At first it had been lurid romance. Now I read The Grand Inquisitor once more, and my heart sinks right through my shoes."
Dostoevsky began to be read widely outside of Russia during the 1880s. By 1912 Constance Garnett had undertaken her monumental project of translating Dostoevsky into English. By the twentieth century in the United States and Western Europe Dostoevsky had indeed become a major figure whose fictional style would be imitated by countless other writers and whose ideas would be appropriated by philosophers-especially the French existentialists, social thinkers, and students of psychology.
In the Soviet Union the reception to Dostoevsky has ebbed and flowed with the changing political climate, although virtually every decade of the twentieth century in Russia has managed, despite these political vagaries, to produce its great Dostoevsky scholars. Today Dostoevsky studies are literally flourishing. This is not the appropriate place for a survey of Dostoevsky criticism, but readers interested in such a survey would do well to turn to the works of Joseph Frank, Sergei Belov, G. M. Fridlender, William Leatherbarrow, Vladmir Seduro, and Victor Terras and to the helpful indexes published in the journal Dostoevsky Studies. Suffice it to say, the critical reaction to The Brothers Karamazov has continued unabated for over a hundred years. Each generation of readers discovers and remakes this novel anew. For those readers who are approaching this novel for the first time, I would urge you to gauge carefully the most important critical reception of all: your own. What follows is an introductory reading of the text with a modest goal: to enrich your response to this great work and to deepen your aesthetic pleasure in it.
Excerpted from The Brothers Karamazov by Robin Feuer Miller Copyright © 1992 by Robin Feuer Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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