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Fyodor Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880)


By Vladimir Nabokov

The Brothers Karamazov is the most perfect example of the detective story technique as constantly used by Dostoevski in his other novels. It is a long novel (more than 1,000 pages), and it is a curious novel. The things that are curious about it are numerous; even the chapter headings are curious. It is worth noting that the author not only is well aware of this quaint and weird nature of his book but he even seems to be all the time pointing to it, teasing his reader, using every device to excite the reader’s curiosity. Let us look, for instance, at the index of chapters. I have just mentioned how unusual and how puzzling: a man, unfamiliar with the novel, could be easily misled into imagining that the book offered him is not a novel but rather the libretto of some whimsical vaudeville. Chapter 3: “Confession of a Fiery Heart, Expressed in Verse.” Chapter 4: “Confession of a Fiery Heart, Expressed in Anecdotes.” Chapter 5: “Confession of a Fiery Heart, ‘Upside Down.’ ” Then in the second volume, Chapter 5: “Nerve Storm in a Drawing Room.” Chapter 6: “Nerve Storm in a Peasant Hut.” Chapter 7:

“And Outofdoors.” Some headings surprise us by their odd diminutives: “A Cozy Little Chat Over Brandikins” (Za kon’yachkom: kon’yak – brandy; kon’yachok – diminutive form), or an elderly lady’s aching little foot (nozbka -diminutive of noga). Most of these titles do not hint even ever so slightly at the contents of the chapter, as “One more reputation destroyed” or “The third and indisputable thing,” headings that are meaningless. Finally a number of headings with their flippancy and their bantering choice of words read actually like an index to a collection of humorous stories. Only in part six, in fact, incidentally the weakest part of the book, are the names of chapters in agreement with their content.

In this taunting and teasing way the cunning author quite deliberately entices his reader. However, this is not the only way in which he does it. He is constantly preoccupied with various means for keeping and whetting the reader’s attention throughout the book. Take for instance the manner in which he finally discloses the name of the town where the action has been taking place from the very start of the novel. This revelation of the town’s name does not occur until close to the end: “Skotoprigonyevsk [place towards which cattle herds are driven, clearing place for cattle, something like oxtown], Skotoprigonyevsk,” he says, “such alas is the name of our town, I have been long trying to conceal it.” This over-sensitivity, over-concern of the writer in regard to the reader—when the reader is thought of simultaneously as the victim being drawn into a trap by the writer and as a hunter before whose path the writer keeps crossing and recrossing like a fleeing hare—this consciousness of the reader on the part of the writer derives partly from the Russian literary tradition. Pushkin in Evgeniy Onegin, Gogol in Dead Souls, often apostrophize, address themselves to the reader in a sudden aside, sometimes with an apology, sometimes with a request or with a joke. But it also derives from the tradition of the Western detective story, or rather from its predecessor, the criminal novel. It is in accordance with this latter tradition that Dostoevski uses an amusing device: with deliberate frankness, as if he were putting down before you all his cards, he comes out at the very beginning with the statement that a murder has been committed. “Aleksey Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor

Karamazov, a landowner of our county, who became so famous for a time . . . through his tragic and unclarified death.” This apparent sincerity on the part of the author is nothing but a stylistic device, the object being to inform the reader from the first of the fact of this “tragic and unclarified death.”

The book is a typical detective story, a riotous whodunit—in slow motion. The initial situation is the following. We have the father Karamazov, a lecherous, hideous old man, one of those unlamentable victims neatly prepared for murder by every farsighted writer of detective fiction. And we also have his four sons—three legitimate and one illegitimate—each of whom might be his murderer. The youngest son, the saintly Aleksey (Alyosha) is definitely a positive character, but if for once we accept Dostoevski’s world and its rules, we may consider it a possibility that even Alyosha may kill his father, whether for the sake of his brother Dmitri in whose way the old man most deliberately stands, or in a sudden rebellion against the evil which his father represents, or for any other reason. The plot is presented in such a way that for a long time the reader keeps guessing who the murderer is; moreover, when the alleged murderer goes on trial it is the wrong man who is being tried, the eldest son of the murdered man, Dmitri, whereas the actual murderer happens to be the illegitimate son, Smerdyakov.

In accordance with Dostoevski’s purpose to entangle the credulous reader in the guesswork that goes with the enjoyment of detective fiction, the author carefully prepares in the reader’s mind the necessary portrait of the possible murderer, Dmitri. The pattern of deception begins when Dmitri after feverish and vain attempts to secure the three thousand rubles he desperately needs, seizes on the run a copper pestle seven inches long, shoves it into his pocket, and rushes off. “Oh Lord, he sure wants to murder someone,” a woman exclaims.

The girl Dmitri loves, another of those Dostoevskian “infernal” women, Grushenka, has also caught the fancy of the old man, who has promised her money if she pays him a visit, and Dmitri is persuaded that she has accepted the offer. Convinced that Grushenka was with his father, he leaped over the fence into the garden, from where he could see the lighted windows of his father’s house; then “he stealthily approached and hid in the shadow, behind a bush. One half of the bush was lit by the lighted window. ‘A bush with berries, how red they are,’ he whispered, not knowing why.” When he went up to the bedroom window, “the whole bedroom of Fyodor Pavlovich, a small chamber, lay before him as if in the palm of his hand.” That little room was divided in two by red screens. Fyodor, the father, stood there, beside the window, “in his new striped silk dressing gown belted with a silk cord with tassels. From under the collar of the dressing gown appeared clean smart linen, a shirt of fine Holland cloth with golden studs. . . . “The old man almost climbed out of the window while trying to see the garden door which was further on the right side. . . . Dmitri was looking from the side and stood motionless. The whole detested profile of the old man, with its sagging skin on the Adam’s apple, his lips smiling in voluptuous anticipation, all of it was obliquely lit on the left side by the lamp. A terrible boundless fury arose in Dmitri’s heart,” and losing all self-control, he suddenly snatched the copper pestle he had in his pocket.

Here follows an eloquent line consisting of asterisks, this again in compliance with the technique of entertaining novels built around bloody deeds. Then, as if after catching his breath, the author attacks it again from a different angle.

Providence, as Dmitri himself used to say later, “seems to have watched me at the time.” This might mean that something stayed his hand at the last moment; but no, immediately after this sentence comes a colon and then a sentence which seems to be there as if to elaborate the previous statement: At that very time Grigori, the old servant, woke up and came out into the garden. So that the sentence about God instead of meaning, as it seemed at first, that some guardian sign stopped him in time on his evil path, may also merely mean that God woke up the old servant to allow him to see and identify the fleeing murderer. And here comes a curious maneuver: from the moment of Dmitri’s flight to that when the authorities come to arrest him for murder in the small market town where he is having a drinking bout with Grushenka (and there are seventy-five pages from murder to arrest), the author arranges things in such a way that garrulous Dmitri never once betrays his innocence to the reader. What is more: whenever he remembers Grigori, the servant whom he hit with the pestle and maybe has killed, Dmitri never mentions the man he hit by name but merely describes him as “the old man,” so that it actually could have applied to his father. This device may be too crafty; it betrays too much the author’s desire to keep Dmitri’s speeches confusing enough to deceive the reader into taking him for the murderer of his father.

Later, at the trial, an important angle is whether or not Dmitri is saying the truth when he claims that he had his three thousand rubles with him before he went to the old man’s house. Otherwise he may well be suspected of having stolen the three thousand rubles the old man had prepared for the girl, which in turn would serve to prove that he entered the house and committed the murder. And there, at the trial, Alyosha, the younger brother, suddenly remembers that Dmitri when he saw him last—and that was before Dmitri went on his nocturnal expedition to his father’s garden—kept slapping himself on the chest and proclaiming that he had right there what was necessary to help him out of his difficult situation. At that time Alyosha had thought that Dmitri meant his heart. But now he suddenly remembered that even then he had observed that the place Dmitri kept slapping was not where the heart would be but much higher. (Dmitri had it in a little bag on a string around his neck.) This observation of Alyosha became the only proof, or rather a hint of proof, that Dmitri actually had obtained the money before and thus had not necessarily murdered his father. Incidentally, Alyosha was wrong: Dmitri meant a charm he had on a chain.

Yet the following circumstance, which would easily have settled the question and saved Dmitri, is completely disregarded by the author. Smerdyakov has confessed to Ivan, another brother, that he was the real murderer, and that in committing his crime he had used a heavy ashtray. Ivan is going all out to save Dmitri; yet this essential circumstance is never mentioned at the trial. Had Ivan told the court about the ashtray, not much skill would have been needed to establish the truth if the ashtray was examined for blood and its shape was compared with the shape of the mortal wound. This is not done, a bad flaw in a mystery novel.

This analysis will suffice to show the characteristic development of the novel’s plot where it concerns Dmitri. Ivan, the second brother, who goes away from the town in order to allow the murder to be completed (by Smerdyakov whom he has been actually coaching for murder in a sort of metaphysical way), Ivan who thus becomes so to say an accomplice of Dmitri, Ivan is much more closely integrated in the plot of the book than is the third brother Alyosha. Where Alyosha is concerned, we constantly gain the impression that the author was torn between two independent plots : Dmitri’s tragedy on the one side and the story of the almost saintly youth Alyosha. Alyosha is again an exponent (the other was Prince Myshkin) of the author’s unfortunate love for the simple-minded hero of Russian folklore. The whole lengthy limp story of the monk Zosima could have been deleted from the novel without impairing it; rather, its deletion would have given the book more unity and a better balanced construction. And again quite independently, sticking quite obviously out of the general scheme of the book, stands the, in itself, very well written story of the schoolboy Ilyusha. But even into that excellent story about the boy Ilyusha, another boy Kolya, the dog Zhuchka, the silver toy cannon, the cold nose of the puppy, the freakish tricks of the hysterical father, even into this story Alyosha introduces an unpleasant unctuous chill.

Generally speaking, whenever the author busies himself with Dmitri his pen acquires exceptional liveliness. Dmitri seems to be constantly illumined by strong lamps, and so do all those who surround him. But the moment we come to Alyosha, we are immersed in a different, entirely lifeless element. Dusky paths lead the reader away into a murky world of cold reasoning abandoned by the spirit of art.