Sunday, 19 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka

It’s probably unwise to write about the characters whilst still reading the book, but I’m going to jot down some thoughts anyway. 

There are two women in the centre of The Brothers Karamazov, and in the centre of the conflicts of the Karamazov family: Katerina Ivanovna is engaged to Dmitry but loved by Ivan; and Agrafena Aleksandrovna, better known as Grushenka, is chased by both the father and Dmitry (she also wants to seduce Alyosha, but let’s ignore that for now).

The two women are different, though both are bonkers. How would you describe them? I think Katerina Ivanovna is more theatrical, and more like a masochist.

“‘… To put it simply, in a couple of words, I’ve already made up my mind, even if he does marry that… creature, whom I shall never be able to forgive, I shall never leave him! From now on I shall never, never leave him!’ she said, her voice quivering in barely concealed anguish. ‘What I mean to say is that I’m not going to chase after him, or irritate him constantly by my presence, or be a burden to him—oh no, I shall go and live in another town, no matter where, but all my life long I shall keep track of him whatever happens. And when he becomes unhappy with her, which he is bound to, then let him come to me, and he will find a friend, a sister… […] And let him see, as long as he lives, that I shall remain faithful to him till I die, and shall remain true to my word in spite of his infidelity and betrayal…’” (P.2, B.4, ch.5)

(translated by Ignat Avsey) 

Even Alyosha calls that theatre. 

Grushenka, in contrast, is a sadist and dominatrix. She has the men twisted around her fingers, and drives them all crazy.  

“People recounted with laughter how Mitya has got the local bumpkins drunk on champagne and had plied the village girls and women with sweets and Strasburg pies. They also laughed, especially in the tavern, at Mitya’s own candid and unsolicited admission (no one laughed in his face of course, for that would have been too dangerous) that, in return for the entire escapade, all that Grushenka had granted him was permission to kiss her foot, and that she had not allowed him to go any further.” (P.3, B.8, ch.5)

Dmitry feels nothing for Katerina Ivanovna despite her devotion and money, but he’s mad about Grushenka. 

But now I’ve realised, they aren’t so different after all.

This is what Grushenka says to Dmitry about the Polish officer who abandoned her: 

“‘Mitya, Mitya, I loved him, do you realize that!’ she began in whispers. ‘I loved him so much, all these five years, all that time! Was it him I loved, or merely my own spite?...’” (P.3, B.8, ch.8) 

Having met the officer again after 5 years, she realises she loves Dmitry: 

“’Will you forgive me for torturing you? I made you all suffer out of spite. I even drove that pathetic old man out of his mind through sheer spite… […] Don’t just stand there! Kiss me… harder, that’s better. Love me, love me more! From now on I’m your slave, torture me, do something to me… Oh, I really deserve to be tortured…’” (ibid.) 

About Katerina Ivanovna, Alyosha thinks: 

“And now, when Alyosha considered Mrs Khokhlakova’s direct and insistent assertion that Katerina Ivanovna, loved Ivan but that, as a result of a deep emotional crisis and a peculiar sense of gratitude, she continued in some kind of bizarre game perversely to delude and torture herself with a fanciful love for Dmitry, he was completely taken aback. […] Alyosha instinctively felt that a woman such as Katerina Ivanovna had an overwhelming need to dominate, but that she could only dominate someone like Dmitry and never someone like Ivan.” (P.2, B.4, ch.5)

In front of her, Ivan says to Alyosha that she “was constantly taking revenge on me for all the insults she suffered at the hands of Dmitry”, then leaves. But later on, when alone with Alyosha, he says: 

“‘… what you have to understand is that it will take her perhaps fifteen or twenty years to realize that she doesn’t love Dmitry at all, that she loves only me, whom she torments…’” (P.2, B.5, ch.3) 

The two women are similar after all: both are driven by spite, both deceive themselves and cling to someone who has treated them callously and cruelly, and both torment someone who loves them (that they themselves also love). 

But that’s not all. I’ve realised that almost all the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, except for Alyosha, are driven by spite: old Fyodor plays the buffoon and mocks everything out of spite; Dmitry and Ivan are both full of spite; the old Captain crumples up the money out of spite and out of shame, having shown too much pleasure upon seeing it; Rakitin takes Alyosha to Grushenka for money but also because of spite, and wants to see his downfall; Smerdyakov is full of spite and hatred for both his adoptive father, the old servant Grigory, and his biological father, old Fyodor; the townspeople flock to Zosima’s funeral out of curiosity and spite, and feel triumphant over his putrefaction and degradation; even the saintly Zosima’s spiteful when he’s young…  

I think it’s fair to say that Tolstoy and Chekhov have a wider range of characters and broader view of humanity than Dostoyevsky does. But spite is Dostoyevsky’s specialty—he is probably unsurpassed in his examination and understanding of spite, shame, humiliation, and irrationality. 

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