Saturday 25 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: characters and characterisation

Spoiler alert: Again, if you haven’t read the book, you probably shouldn’t read this blog post, in which I will discuss significant plot points. Whilst The Brothers Karamazov is not only a murder mystery and not only read for the plot, I do think the mystery is part of the enjoyment of the first reading. 

1/ I think Ivan is the most interesting of the Karamazov brothers. Both Dmitry and Ivan are more interesting than Alyosha because they are souls in torment. But between the two elder brothers, Ivan fascinates me more because Dmitry is hot-headed and often driven by animal passion whereas Ivan is the thinking man—“in the Hamlet mould”, as Ignat Avsey puts it—he thinks, he tortures himself, and he sees the devil.

The two most thought-provoking sections in the novel both involve Ivan: his discussion with Alyosha about God (“Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor”), and his talk with the devil. I am not religious, but the characters of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy ask serious questions and think deeply, and they get me to care about the things that torment them. 

I also find Ivan’s torment after old Fyodor’s murder more interesting than Dmitry’s, probably because he asks himself and raises questions for us about the nature of guilt and complicity. 

Why does Smerdyakov say that among the brothers, Ivan is most like his father? 

2/ Smerdyakov is another striking, vivid character. He’s full of contradictions—arrogant but servile, weak and seemingly cowardly but extremely sly, cunning, and manipulative—but he feels utterly real, at least within the world of the book.

Almost everyone in the novel, including old Fyodor and Dmitry, is deceived about his character, but the defence lawyer Fetyukovich seems to get right his arrogance, spite, and envy. The only thing he gets wrong is about the money—there is no indication that Smerdyakov has any interest in the money. 

The confrontations between Ivan and Smerdyakov are so good because Smerdyakov is Ivan’s alter-ego, his Hyde, and at the same time, Smerdyakov is like the devil himself—I don’t think it’s random that Dostoyevsky describes the room as unbearably hot—it’s hell. 

My friend Michael thinks:

“Smerdyakov’s obsession with Ivan is not overtly homosexual (there’s a similar relationship in the Devils that is far more overt), but I always felt that there was something in his obsession, his fawning desire for Ivan’s approval — and ultimately his killing for him, and his suicide at Ivan’s rejection — that seemed explicable as a kind of hidden or sublimated homosexual infatuation.”

As for the suicide, he thinks:

“There are multiple reasons, practical and existential. He committed the crime as a gift to Ivan, but Ivan rejects the gift and is going to turn him in. He also commits suicide because his nihilism is the ultimate dead end.

But there’s a heartbreak there too.

That’s what I think.”

Do I think it’s a kind of homosexual infatuation? I’m not sure. But I do think Smerdyakov has an obsession with Ivan, and there’s something in their final exchange—Smerdyakov provokes Ivan to kill him but he doesn’t, then: 

“‘Till tomorrow!’ shouted Ivan, and moved to go. 

 ‘Wait… show it to me once more.’ 

Ivan pulled out the banknotes and showed them to him. Smerdyakov looked at them for about ten seconds.

‘Well, off you go,’ he said waving him away. ‘Ivan Fyodorovich!’ he shouted after him suddenly. 

‘What do you want?’ Ivan, already on his way out, turned around.

‘Goodbye, sir!’ 

‘See you tomorrow!’ Ivan shouted again, and walked out of the house.” (P.4, B.11, ch.8) 

(translated by Ignat Avsey)

Smerdyakov clearly has made this decision then. 

3/ Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) thinks Alyosha is bland. In a way, he is, compared to the rest of the Karamazovs (including the one not officially named Karamazov). But I think Alyosha lightens up the book—which is filled with filth, sickness, and depravity—and the final chapter, the final speech from Alyosha makes me emotional. 

4/ Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is also a striking character—I’ve written about him before. This speech from Starets Zosima is especially interesting: 

“‘… A man may be perfectly well aware that no one has offended him, that he has imagined it all and put about a lie just for the sake of it, blown it out of proportion so as to attract attention, deliberately picked on a word and made a mountain out of a molehill—he may very well realize all this, and yet be the very first to take offence, to the point of deriving enjoyment and pleasure from it, and so fall into a state of real animosity…’” (P.1, B.2, ch.2)

I’ve seen a lot of this online.  

5/ What about the female characters in The Brothers Karamazov? They’re all bonkers, as the male characters are.

I find it hard to write about Dostoyevsky’s characters as they are all insane, bizarre, unpredictable, and full of contradictions and tortured logic, and yet they’re so vivid, so utterly real within the distorted world of the book.

Among the female characters, I think I understand Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka—up to a point—but generally I understand them, understand their spite and jealousy, understand why Katerina Ivanovna clings to Dmitry despite her love for Ivan and hatred for Dmitry, understand why Grushenka mocks and refuses to kiss Katerina’s hand, understand why Katerina testifies the way she does at the trial then completely changes her mind a moment later, understand why Grushenka wants to seduce Alyosha for the fun of it but stops at once and changes her behaviour the moment she hears of Zosima’s death, and so on.  

The one I completely fail to understand is Lise, Mrs Khokhlakova’s fourteen-year-old daughter. 

“‘… And then suddenly Lise woke up this morning, flew into a rage at Yulia and, can you imagine, slapped her face. […] Then, barely an hour later, she was hugging Yulia and kissing her feet. And she sent me a message saying that she wasn’t going to come to my room and that she never wanted to see me again, and then, when I dragged myself over to her room, she threw her arms round me, kissing me and crying, and then just pushed me away without a word, so I was none the wiser…’” (P.4, B.11, ch.2) 

The final scene between Alyosha and Lise is even more bizarre and dramatic. Dostoyevsky’s characterisation is always exaggerated and dramatic—his characters are all insane and always on edge—there’s always lots of shouting, shrieking, laughing, crying, wailing, teeth clenching, fist thumping, eye flashing, face contorting—but there’s a lot of it in that scene between Lise and Alyosha. Too much. 

This is a character I don’t understand. Why does she tell Alyosha she loves him, then later calls him an errand boy not suited to be a husband? Why does she offer herself to Ivan? Why does she deliberately hurt her finger? 

I don’t get any of it.

But more importantly, why does Alyosha love her? What does he see in her? 

6/ I do think Dostoyevsky is a great writer—Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky focus on different aspects and reveal different truths about human nature. 

And yet I don’t think of Dostoyevsky when I think of male writers great at writing women. Is it because his female characters are all deranged? But his characters, male and female, all are. Do I think Katerina Ivanovna, Grushenka, and other female characters are less successful than Dmitry, Ivan, Smerdyakov…? Not necessarily. Is it that they’re all driven by spite and there’s nothing particularly feminine about them? 

Is it because I have different criteria when I think of female characters, favouring the ones who are realistic, complex, and life-like? Or is it because, when I talk about male writers great at writing women, I’m not just talking about good female characters, but also talking about a deep understanding of women and feminine sensibilities? 

I don’t think of Dickens as one of the male writers great at writing women either, even though I do like some of his female characters. 

Or perhaps I’m just overthinking, and there’s a difference between being able to write women (Dostoyevsky and Dickens are) and being exceptional at it (like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Chekhov).  


  1. "Why does Smerdyakov say that among the brothers, Ivan is most like his father?" I think it is because Ivan has the darkest soul; he is the most capable of committing an evil act. Alyosha is incapable of an evil act, and Dmitry is capable but only when overwhelmed by passion. Otherwise, he is actually a noble and good person, who yearns to be good. Ivan has a dark view of humanity and of the human condition, and in turning his back, leaving his father to be murdered, when he knows he could prevent it by remaining, he acts according to the principle "everything is permitted." Like Raskolnikov -- and various Shakespeare characters (Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Enobarbus come to mind) -- he doesn't correctly gauge his own capacity for evil; his conscience comes to punish him. He is a better person that he realized, and his miscalculation causes his own destruction. But he is still the closest to old Fyodor in spirit.

    I don't find Alyosha bland, but I do think he is an oddly limited person, notwithstanding is wonderful kindness and true wisdom at times. It is as if his own awareness of the Karamzov bestiality within him has caused him to crush any sensuality within himself dead. I think part of Lise's problem, part of what contributes to her madness, is that she actually loves Alyosha as a woman, but Alyosha's love for her is strangely neutered. One senses he loves her more as a sister than as a romantic partner. When Zossima prophesies Alyosha will live outside the monastery like a monk, I think this is what he means. This is strange too because Myshkin, the kindly protagonist of The Idiot and Alyosha's spiritual brother, is physically disabled by epilepsy (whereas Alyosha is healthy and young), and yet Myshkin still fully and romantically falls in love. There is so much Alyosha is capable of that Myshkin is not (including being able to tolerate great moral and mental stress), and yet this is one area in which Myshkin is far more typical then Alyosha. Again, I attribute this to the Karamazov illness -- "sensuality" (i.e., sexual addiction and cruelty) -- which Alyosha has, but which he is able to so entirely suppress that it in him it is most evident by its total absence.

    1. I think one of the things that I struggle with in The Brothers Karamazov is the idea of Dmitry's nobility. I do believe it when he helps Katerina Ivanovna, but somehow I struggle with the idea of him as having a noble heart. I don't know. What does he do that is noble? He nearly beats his father to death. He treats the women horribly. He throws money around and lives irresponsibly. He humiliates the Captain in front of everyone including the son.
      You make a good point about Alyosha, but I don't think you particularly help me understand Lise. She puzzles me still.


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