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What is Brothers Karamazov really about?

What is Brothers Karamazov really about?



Dostoyevsky’s notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov does center young children as Dostoevsky had predicted, but portrays them in dynamic, multidimensional ways, and not only in accordance to Zosima’s characterization of children as “sinless, like angels, and live to bring us to tenderness and the purification of our hearts and as a sort of example for us” (319). Certainly, there are times that children in the novel manifest Zosima’s generalization—such as Ilyusha on his deathbed—but the child characters show varying levels of maturity, humiliation, innocence, and the capacity for redemption, which suggest children can certainly be as complex as adults in The Brothers Karamazov. 

Fourteen-year-old Kolya Krasotkin, endowed with a mind hungering for intelligence and a desire to get ahead of his peers and outsmart his superiors, subjugates his fellow schoolboys by causing them feelings of inferiority. Often, he creates impressions of his intelligence and bravery that loom larger than how he truly is, taking impressive-sounding ideas from difficult books and holding them over his classmates’ heads. “‘They adore me, do you know that, Karamazov?’ Kolya boasted effusively” (565). Kolya takes Ilyusha’s refusal to submit to him completely as “sentimentalities”, and begins acting coldly towards the little boy “in order to season him” (565).

Later, Kolya’s continued show of contempt for Ilyusha after the incident with Zhuchka the dog, along with the bullying of the other schoolboys, causes Ilyusha to unravel and lash out in violence, twice. Kolya causes suffering to Ilyusha by making him feel like he needs to earn his respect, and terrorizes the weak for no other reason than to exercise control over them.

And yet, through conversations with Alyosha, whom Kolya feels drawn to and admires greatly, the fourteen-year-old child displays a remarkable change from the haughty, arrogant bully he once was. For all his intellectual bravado and inflated ego, Kolya suffers from insecurity about his ideas and appearance, constantly worried he is not being taken seriously. “Kolya swaggered, and glanced at Alyosha: his was the only opinion in the room that he feared… “his silence could well be contemptuous”, and at that Kolya became quite vexed” (583).

Kolya does display a kinder side to his personality, however; though his performance in Ilyusha’s house may very well be fueled partly by his own ego, he tries his best to cheer up the dying Ilyusha and free him from the guilt of having probably killed Zhuchka. Here, Dostoevsky may be treating his child characters with a “softer”, more “holistic” touch; perhaps this disheveled but well-intended behavior reflects some quality of tenderness and innocence found only in children. 

Finally, Kolya admits to Alyosha, “It was vanity that kept me from coming, egoistic vanity and base despotism, which I haven’t been able to get rid of all my life, though all my life I’ve been trying to break myself…I imagined you must deeply despise me for being in such a hurry to show what a fine fellow I was, and I even hated you for it…sometimes I imagine that everyone is laughing at me, and then I’m quite ready to destroy the whole order of things” (589-590).

Alyosha not only responds in love and acceptance of Kolya’s “egoistic vanity” and destructive impulse, but even commends him for confessing “bad and even ridiculous things about yourself” (590), and Kolya exclaims in joy. This boy is a good example of Dostoevsky’s notion that if the right seed is planted, there’s hope for a change in one’s character; and if the time is right, there is even proof of the change as well. Kolya reaches and undergoes a love for himself through Aloysha’s acceptance, and comes to his own redemption as a child. 

Fourteen-year-old Liza Khoklakova, however, is different, and demonstrates that children can bear seeds as malicious and evil as any adult in The Brothers Karamazov. Whereas Kolya’s problem could be seen more straightforwardly as egoism as a result of a child’s immaturity, Liza suffers deeply from self-loathing and humiliation, and harbors contradictory desires in her tortured soul.

Bound to a wheelchair all her life, Liza looks at herself the way she thinks the world looks at her—perhaps with pity or condescension. In response, she lashes out, fighting two mutually exclusive states of wanting to “set fire to the house” (615) and wanting to be accepted and forgiven for it. In the moment that Alyosha is “struck most of all by her seriousness: not a shadow of laughter or playfulness was left on her face” (617), Liza, a child, reaches even beyond the “typical” tortured character; at least for Fyodor Pavolvich, the performance of his insecurity and self-hatred has comical aspects to it.

Liza demonstrates an internal turmoil comparable to that of Ivan Fyodorovich, an adult, when over and over again she expresses an attraction to the idea of being surrounded and pointed at by accusers who have witnessed some horrific crime she has committed. In fact, the moral “low point” of the entire novel may be found in Liza’s fantasy where she “imagines that it was I who crucified [a four-year-old boy]. He hangs there moaning, and I sit down facing him, eating pineapple compote” (618).

Moreover, to not only picture the image of a crucified, fingerless four-year-old boy without revulsion, but to revel in the repulsiveness and fantasize to have done it herself, and then imagine enjoying a sweet dessert in the face of such unspeakable suffering—what perversion and utter debasing of her own soul! One can hardly imagine how deep the despair runs in such a young girl. 

An original page of book 3, chapter 3 of The Brothers Karamazov.

Then Liza suddenly runs to Alyosha, groaning, “Save me! Would I tell anyone in the world what I told you? But I told you the truth, the truth, the truth!” (619). Behind the need to expose herself and the darkness of her soul, is the desire to still be loved for it; she wants to be guilty and enjoy “doing an awful lot of evil, all sorts of nasty things…reviling God out loud” (616-617), and be forgiven for it.

She can revel in such distortion and malice as long as there is a chance that the seed of evil can yet be forgiven and redeemed; even covered in the scum of her sinfulness and crime, to be embraced. When Liza asks, “Will you weep for me?” (619), there appears the potential for a new beginning. To weep, as witnessed in Alyosha’s spiritual rebirth in the chapter “Cana of Galilee”, is to water the earth with one’s tears, that something may grow there. In the little moment when Liza pleads for salvation, a new seed may have been planted in her young soul, and Dostoevsky has opened a possibility—however uncertain—that it may someday grow. 

Unlike in Kolya’s story, this encounter ends ominously with Liza’s outburst of violent self-harm. Moments of true sympathy for Liza are sparse, especially in comparison to Kolya, and given the extent to which Liza’s darkness has been exposed, the reader may feel a much stronger inclination to view her unfavorably.

However, it is precisely because Liza has been so starkly revealed to the reader, and because she still yearns for love and acceptance despite it all, that she reflects the mystifying complexities of being human; I, for one, cannot pretend that her contradictions are somehow unnatural or condemnable, or that anyone is above those feelings. Perhaps the fact that a child can contain many different seeds—those of malice and evil commensurate to the adults’, certainly, but also those of hope and potential—suggests not only that the children in The Brothers Karamazov are as complex as the adults, but that they deserve a softer or even a more forgiving treatment because they are young and their good seeds could grow, given the right conditions. 

What is Brothers Karamazov really about? Written by: Jacqueline Kim