Tuesday, 21 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: children, innocence, and cruelty

I am, in many ways, not an ideal reader of Dostoyevsky. Firstly, I’m non-religious, indifferent to religion, and ignorant of theology. Secondly, I’m not much of a fan of novels of ideas. 

I started my blog post this way because I’m about to write about one of the things that puzzle me about The Brothers Karamazov.

Children, I’ve been told, are central to the meaning of The Brothers Karamazov. In “Rebellion”, one of the most important chapters of the novel, Ivan explains to Alyosha his struggle with God: 

“ ‘… Listen, if everyone has to suffer in order to bring about eternal harmony through that suffering, tell me, please, what have children to do with this? It’s quite incomprehensible that they too should have to suffer, that they too should have to pay for harmony by their suffering. […] And if the suffering of children is required to make up the total suffering necessary to attain the truth, then I say here and now that no truth is worth such a price. […] And that’s why I hasten to return my entry ticket. If I ever want to call myself an honest man, I have to hand it back as soon as possible. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I’m just, with the utmost respect, handing Him back my ticket.’” (P.2, B.5, ch.4) 

(translated by Ignat Avsey)

He could talk about all suffering, but limits it to children because they “have eaten nothing and are still completely innocent”. 

It is a powerful chapter, and has a stronger emotional impact on me than “The Grand Inquisitor” does.

Later, during the interrogation, Dmitry falls asleep out of exhaustion and has a dream about a crying bairn. He wakes up saying he had a good dream, and it clearly has a significant effect on him, as he later says many times to Grushenka “It’s on account of the bairn that I must go to Siberia” (P.4, B.11, ch.1).

The theme of childhood innocence and children’s suffering is clearly important in The Brothers Karamazov.

And yet, when I look at the children Dostoyevsky depicts, I see not innocence but something else.

There are two children on whom Dostoyevsky focuses in the novel: Ilyusha and Kolya. 

The first time we see children in the novel, it’s a group of schoolboys throwing rocks at each other and at Alyosha. One of the boys is Ilyusha, the 9-year-old son of the Staff Captain who’s humiliated by Dmitry in public. Like most of the adults in the book, he’s full of anger and hatred, and takes it out on Alyosha by throwing rocks at him and biting his finger to the bone. I get it, but it remains nevertheless disturbing that Ilyusha physical hurts someone who has never done anything to him, and stabs in the thigh with a penknife someone who, as we later learn, has been protective of him. 

Not only so, it turns out that once Ilyusha learns from Smerdyakov and hides a pin in some food and lures a dog to eat it, just to see what happens.

Is that innocence? 

Having heard the dog cry in pain, he tortures himself with remorse afterwards, but do the adults not also feel bad after hurting others? 

The other child who features in the novel is 13-year-old Kolya, the one who gets stabbed in the thigh. He’s a precocious child, calling himself a socialist, rejecting God and medicine, and having opinions about all sorts of subjects, but he’s also known in the neighbourhood as a “desperado” because of his reckless pranks and dangerous games.

Note the story he tells at Ilyusha’s house: 

“‘… So I turned to this idiot and I reply, “I was wondering what a goose thinks about.” He stares at me like a real idiot, “What a goose thinks about?” “Well,” I say, “you see that cart full of oats standing over there. There’s a bag with oats spilling out of it, and a goose is sticking its neck right under the wheel to peck at the grain—do you see?” “Yes, so what,” he says. “Well now,” I say, “if one was to push the cart forward just a smidgen, would the wheel decapitate the goose or not?” “Certainly,” he says, “certainly”, and he grins a wide toothy grin, fairly beaming. “Come on then, old chap,” I say, “let’s do it.” […] I gave the lad a wink, he jerked the reins, and—crack, the wheel chopped the goose’s neck in half!...” (P.4, B.10, ch.5) 

There is a cruel streak in Kolya. 

The two children we see in close-up in The Brothers Karamazov both have something cruel in them. The other children aren’t much lovelier either: the schoolboys bully and humiliate Ilyusha mercilessly (though they do come, thanks to Alyosha, to make up with Ilyusha during his illness).

The only children who do seem nice and innocent in the book are Kolya’s little neighbours Nastya and Kostya, but they’re in a short scene.

I probably miss the point entirely. What do you think?  


  1. Kolya is not a child. He is an adolescent, a youth. In fact he is portrayed as a budding revolutionary or a socialist, a naive and a misguided one, in Dostoevsky's view.

    In Ivan's tirade, innocence is used in a theological sense which is ignorance or lack of experience but viewed positively. In that sense children are innocent even if they may do evil things.

    1. "In that sense children are innocent even if they may do evil things."
      I don't understand that at all.

    2. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter a little boy is playing with a gun and shoots a little girl. To what extent is he guilty of a crime or a sin?

  2. "I don't understand that at all."
    You are innocent until you have tasted the fruit from the tree of knowledge. It's not me, it's Christian theology.

  3. The Brothers Karamazov is primarily a novel about the problem of evil in a world created by a loving God, and ideas about original sin, and of innocence. The Karamazov family represents mankind (the family of man, if you will) after the Fall, the biblical event where Adam and Eve choose to place their desires above the will of God, introducing sin into the world. The name Karamazov is derived from the Russian word for stain or smear, and the Karamazov family carries the stain of sin with them, passing it from generation to generation. Orthodox theology is a little different from the theology I grew up with, but I think original sin carried along through history is essentially the tendency on humanity's part to place themselves above God. It's an innate tendency, hence the nice kids being moved to murder geese for fun. As Alok says, they are "innocent" because they don't necessarily know any better, not because they haven't committed bad acts.

    It's important to see that all the characters in the novel are children of some parent. Dostoevsky is talking, in part at least, about how society at large is maladjusted in 19th-century Russia. You see how Fyodor's behavior is passed down to Misha and even to Ivan, who misrepresents Orthodox belief about God and sin. The Grand Inquisitor scene is about the western church (which in Dostoevsky's showing has perverted the message of Christ to serve the passions and desires of hypocrites), not about the Russian Orthodox church, which institution Dostoevsky sees as the salvation of Russia. Alyosha obvs represents that idea. Ivan is caught in the middle, wanting to be good and to believe in goodness and the salvation of the world, but he is too much under the influence of the devil (as personified by a sort of smarmy cynical worldliness) to see that his worldview is skewed. He's almost a stereotypical Russian nihilist of the period.

    It's been a few years since I read the novel, so this is maybe a little vague.

    1. And, if memory serves, the narrator of the novel is an Orthodox monk: the only character in the book who has a clear view of everything going on, the only character with a solid moral understanding of the events.

    2. I'm going to think more about it, but as you're all here, I have some more questions.
      1/ Why does Alyosha love that nutter Lise? What does he see in her?
      2/ What do you think about the idea of being guilty of one another's sin?

    3. All of the love interests in Dostoevsky novels are weird, so I just sort of say whatever. Dostoevsky was a strange person, full of romance, hate, hope and despair. I'm not sure what he really thought of women.

      Nobody is guilty of another's sin. The idea of sin being passed along from parent to child is not guilt for a specific bad act. It's a propensity in humanity since the Fall to do evil, evil being essentially any turning away from love of others. People are born with this propensity (which is the mark of "original sin") and can only be saved from this propensity through the grace of God, which for Dostoevsky is found through the Orthodox church. The theological terminology goes a long way to make these concepts obscure. A lot of Christian doctrine was codified during the middle ages by people who'd been trained as lawyers, so the jargon leans heavily toward legalistic.

    4. I'm going to have to blog about this.

  4. I like the idea of the narrator as a monk, but it is not a common idea. Victor Terras goes no farther than calling him the "local resident" (A Karamazov Companion, p. 87).

    Father Zosima goes well beyond original sin, literally stating that everyone is responsible for the crimes of everyone (Terras, 74). This sounds heretical to me, but what do I know.

    1. Yeah, both Zosima and Dmitry say that.
      It sounds nuts to me.

  5. We also don't know how well Dostoevsky understood Orthodox theology. Flannery O'Connor is generally called a "Catholic" novelist, but plenty of her ideas are unorthodox. If you'll pardon the expression.

  6. I think Ilya and Kolya, the two children you mention, are near-adolescents for whom life has already begun its corrupting influence. That is, they are no longer really "children." For Ilya, it was the humiliation of watching Dmitry beat his father that cruelly plunged him into the adult world. For Kolya, as Dostoyevsky portrays it, he has been corrupting his own thoughts with the books and ideas he has been exposing himself to. The true innocents that Ivan is talking about are in the really small children -- like the little ones that Kolya is baby sitting. Incidentally, I think this is why Alyosha's love of children grows stronger with younger children, as Dostoyevsky notes. I don't think Dostoyevsky idealizes children either, and children (as he shows) can actually be thoughtlessly cruel. But they can also be strongly influenced by a moral adult (such as Alyosha).

    In the Idiot, the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, tells a story about his sojourn in Switzerland, where the children were initially cruel to a fallen woman (because their parents were), but Myshkin gains influence over them, and ultimately causes them to feel compassion for the young woman; and when they do, they come to deeply love her and support her. The innocence of children, in Dostoyevsky's view does not make them "good" necessarily -- but they have a natural tendency towards kindness and compassion, although they sometimes need an influential adult to show them the way.

    1. So what do you think about Dmitry's dream, and him saying that it's because of the bairn that he must go to Siberia?

    2. I don't know, actually. I'm not sure if that's really about children per se, or has some other symbolic meaning -- possibly a reference to Christ. I don't pretend to understand everything in Dostoyevsky.


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