The Brothers Karamazov – Book III – The Sensualists

The Brothers Karamazov – Book 3  – “Sensualists”

The next two books are still, by and large, introductory.  The cast of characters is broadened, mostly by our following Alyosha around as he’s sent to manage everybody’s affairs.  It reminds me a little bit of a computer roleplaying game, where the main character brings items from person to person while their characters and the conflicts between them are developed.  It should be remembered – all the events of Book 2 took place in one day; Book 3 continues that day – it doesn’t really come to a close into Book 3’s final paragraphs.

First we are introduced (through narrated backstory) to Fyodor K’s three servants: Grigory, his wife Marfa Ignatievna, and the infamous Smerdyakov.  Grigory and Marfa were K servants from before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.  There’s an amusing anecdote where Marfa asks Grigory why they don’t leave.  He tells her she doesn’t understand what loyalty is – she replies that she knows perfectly well what loyalty is, just doesn’t understand why it should apply to their master Fyodor.  Grigory says then she’ll just have to not understand, but they’re not leaving.  They’re reported as a more or less happy couple.  He only ever beat her once (a common Dostoevskyian formulation) after she deployed some dance moves she had learned from Miusov’s wealthier and more urbane servants.  Here another Royal Tenenbaums parallel presents itself – Grigory’s fanatical loyalty to Fyodor reminds me quite a bit of Pagoda’s for Royal: “And Grigory was a most faithful man.  It even so happened that many times in the course of his career, Fyodor Pavlovich might have been beaten, and beaten badly, but Grigory always came to his rescue, though he admonished him each time afterwards…” (93). He didn’t stab him, but the spirit of misshapen loyalty seems all the same.  Smerdykov lives there and is presumably Fyodor’s bastard son.  His mother, “stinking Lizaveta” (in Russian “smerdy” means “stinking”, hence Smerdykov, a name Fyodor himself coined), was a deranged “holy fool” who wandered the streets of their town wearing only a tattered shirt and was often covered in mud.  One day Fyodor was out carousing with a group of travelers and one of them suggested that Lizaveta wasn’t worthy of being called a woman.  Fyodor thence took a fancy to her and proved otherwise (or so the narrator strongly suggests).  9 months later, the travelers gone, no one knew what happened, but Fyodor let her son live in their house, and so the presumption seemed validated.

After the introduction of the servants, we get more backstory (which Dmitri relates to Alyosha as he meets him leaving from the monastery) about Dmitri and his problematic engagement to Katerina Ivanonva.  This backstory is presented as “a confession in verse” and also “in anecdotes”, in two separate chapters.  It reminded me a bit of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, with the presentation of the Abraham story first as series of cryptic and poetic epigrams about a mother and child, and then later as prose.  In the “verse” section, Dmitri quotes liberally from Schiller and describes the corruption of his soul and its incurable sensuality; he’s like his father in the in-curability of sensualism, it comes out here, but unlike him in that he seems tormented by it.

In “anecdotes” then, we learn that while serving in the military, in Moscow, Dmitri had befriended a young woman, Agafya Ivanovna.  They were only friends, and she eventually told him about her sister, who was supposedly beautiful, dignified, and all the rest.  Dmitri worked with their father (a colonial) and knew he was in the habit of habitually embezzling money, and using it to earn interest through an intermediary he’d send to “fairs.”  The auditors eventually caught the father and demanded the money back.  Dmitri, around the same time, had begun to court Katerina Ivanovna, but she pretended to be too good for him.  To get back at her, he offered to her sister that he could repay the father’s debt if Katerina Ivanovna would only give herself over to him.  She took him up on this offer and eventually they became engaged.  Their relationship is thus founded on humiliation, something that definitely perplexes Alyosha.

But – Dmitri continues – he wants out – mostly because he’s so enthralled with Grushenka now.  He asks Alyosha to go to Katerina Ivanovna and tell her the engagement is finished, but first asks him to go to his father’s house and get 3000 rubles from him.  He needs these because he’s previously been given 3000 rubles by Katerina, which he was to have sent to her sister in Moscow.  He instead spent it (or half of it?) on a “spree” with Grushenka in a nearby town.  Alyosha complies and stops by his father’s house (at the dinner which he’s having instead of the one that was to have taken place at the monastery).  When he gets there Fyodor is already drunk; he, Ivan and Smerdyakov are having rambling theological arguments.  They’re talking about the (real-world) case of a Russian soldier who refused to repent of his Christianity in spite of his Muslim captors’ demands.  Smerdyakov is accused of being a “Jesuit” again and again, for making arguments like – before you repent, God would already have heard you, in which case you would no longer have been a Christian, in which case your words were not a sin, and besides, if having faith is supposed to move mountains, and those mountains haven’t moved to destroy your captors, your faith was probably useless in the first place.  These arguments make Fyodor angry and he continues to heap condescending scorn upon Smerdyakov and what he sees as his simplistic atheistic reasoning.  Frank suggests we’re supposed to see here the effect that Ivan’s learned atheism could have on a confused member of the peasantry such as Smerdyakov.  This seems confirmed by Ivan’s suggestion to his father (after Smerdyakov leaves) that he’ll make “prime cannon fodder” when the time comes.  There is something ominous and I suppose prophetic in this suggestion – Ivan sees the world through calculating, revolutionary-socialistic eyes.

When this discussion starts to wind down, Dmitri, thinking he’s seen Grushenka emerging from Fyodor’s house – he thinks she wants to take the 3000 rubles Dmitri knows are housed there – bursts into the house yelling and screaming.  Alyosha thus never gets to ask Fyodor about this money, as Fyodor and Dmitri start arguing about it.  Dmitri knocks the drunken Fyodor down and kicks him repeatedly.  This causes a great scene, wherein Ivan and Alyosha end up restraining their brother Dmitri, who eventually leaves as they put Fyodor to bed.  Fyodor, upon getting into bed, asks Alyosha to come back the next day, as he would like to speak with him, because he’s the only son whom he trusts.

Alyosha leaves, feeling very dejected and sad.  He pays a visit to Katerina Ivanovna, to inform her of Dmitri’s wishes (Dmitri had told him to go “with our without the 3000 rubles”).  So he goes, and sees when he arrives that there must be a visitor there.  We don’t know who it is, until he eventually brings up Grushenka’s name in his explanation to Katerina Ivanovnva.  She’s then heard laughing behind a partition.  Katerina explains that she can work all of this out; she’ll get Grushenka married to another man, and then her engagement to Dmitri will be fine.  Grushenka has played along in this conversation, but then, as Katerina is confirming this arrangement with her, Grushenka starts laughing and spitefully rejects Katerina’s offer.  This makes Katerina really mad and she chases her from the house.  On his way out, Alyosha is handed a note from Katerina Ivanovna’s maid, but he doesn’t read it until later.

Alyosha then returns to the monastery, where he learns Zosima is near death.  He reads the note he’s received, and it’s from Lisa Khoklakov; in it, she professes her love for him, and demands that he come back to their house the next day.  Alyosha decides he really doesn’t want to pay any of those visits the next day, because he wants to be there when Zosima dies.  But Zosima reassures him, letting him know he won’t die until he’s there, and that he needs to fulfill his worldly duties right now.

I know that’s a lot of summary and not so much analysis – but this is really all scene-setting as far as I can tell.  I’m really typing this mostly to help myself remember the characters and their many problematic interconnections.  None of the main action of the book has been anything more than pre-figured yet.  The same is true of Book 4 – after that, all the pieces will be in place for the grand patricidal tragedy and ensuing trial.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Brothers Karamazov – Book III – The Sensualists

  1. Pingback: The Dostoevsky Project Wrap-Up #1: Everything I Wrote – Original Positions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *