Reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers K: The Patriarch and The Carnival

Note: From the same journaling of 13 years ago. I ended up re-reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in three separate graduate classes before finishing up my last degree in 2006. The brothers have percolated enough into my brain that I find echoes of them in my current batch of novel characters.

6 October 1999

What can one make of such a family as the Karamazov?  How can one account for such a patriarch as Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov?

In a burst of optimism and energy, I read The Brothers Karamazov for the first time ever in one week. By the last one hundred pages of the book, I was very impatient with the defense lawyer and prosecutor to finish their final speeches, and when I read that Dmitri was found guilty, it was a bit of a letdown, yet, at the same time, a relief.

Much goes on in this book, and even though the narrator devotes much to the brothers, the spirit of their father Fyodor, like the spirit of Caesar, haunts the lives of the brothers.

Much of their lives, I think, are in reaction to being sons of such a man. A self-declared buffoon, Fyodor certainly lives to a standard that is not the standards set forth by good manners nor social graces.

Dmitri reacts against his father’s seemingly amoral sensuality with his own sense of gentleman’s honor; but he still has the Karamazov sensuality, which will bind him passionately to the suffering of others.

Ivan reacts against his father’s vulgar irrationality with his own sense of abstract rationality; but he still has the Karamazov sensuality, which demands Ivan not to dismiss passion in the truth, which may look like irrationality and vulgarity.

Alyosha reacts against his father’s sins and disrespectful blasphemies; but he still has the Karamazov sensuality, which will show Alyosha that great sinners are also great believers.

Fyodor, the root of the Karamazov sensuality, is a grotesque buffoon, i.e., a fool.  But as seen in the literary tradition of the fool, the fool speaks the truth in a world filled with masks and lies.

28 October 1999

The critic Bakhtin writes of the carnival in fictional works such as Rabelais’ Gargantuan and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

The carnival is literally a paradox, a time of masks and sinful revelry just before the period of fasting, abstinence, and suffering. In the carnival, grave leaders become rambunctious peasants and vice versa. All traditions are turned upside down, and the greatest fools become the wisest of men.

The Brothers Karamazov is a carnival, swept up in a polyphony of voices in which the characters put on masks and make show.

Even the narrative voice that unifies the many voices is a character, a townsman relating a story that happened thirteen years ago in his little town to a stranger, the reader.

The many types of genres in this saga of a novel — Ivan’s poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Alyosha’s saint’s life testimony of Father Zosima, the speeches of the defense and the prosecution, for examples — only reflect the polyphony of voices of the novel.

Like the carnival, in which many people are doing many things all at the same time, The Brothers Karamazov has a whirlwind of characters doing many things while other characters are doing other things at the same time.

While the narrator tries to give an account lineally of the events, the characters prevent him, forcing the narrative voice to flashback to many years back or backtrack to the beginning of the day but with a different character.

For example, in order for the narrator to introduce Smerdyakov, he must first tell of his mother, Stinking Lizaveta, and the rumor that Fyodor is his father.

Another example is that while Alyosha had visited Grushenka and then returned to the monastery, Dmitri had gone to see Lygavy and then returned in town to find Grushenka. While Dmitri was cavorting with Grushenka in Mokroe, Smerdyakov had murdered Fyodor.

The whirlwind of characters just missing each other while acting out their chosen roles also contributes to the carnival; even minor characters of the first half of the book become major characters in the second half of the book, i.e., Krasotkin and Ilyusha.

This entry was posted in Academic Research, AVOCATIONS, EDUCATION, Learning, Reading, The Writing Life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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