The Brothers Karamazov – Book IV – Strains

Book 4 contains one of the sequences that really stood out in my memory of the first time I read this book: Alyosha’s strange confrontation with the schoolchildren.  More shades of Wes Anderson – these super-serious little children speaking in dreadful terms about honor, revenge, etc.  I guess I’m thinking of that scene in Rushmore where Max is stoned by Dirk Calloway and his companions. 

It is quite a vivid scene in here TBK.  Alyosha is walking through the town, from his father’s (where he’s just had an inconclusive meeting with Fyodor, who decides against giving Dmitri the 3000 rubles, and declaims against both Dmitri and Ivan), on the way to the Khokhlokov’s house.  One little boy (who’s left-handed) is having stones thrown at him by a group of 5 other boys.  The keep calling him “Whiskbroom” and getting a rise out of him.  He tries to defend himself by throwing stones back.  Alyosha tries to stop the fighting, and have a heart-to-heart with the boy who is all alone.  He keeps trying to talk to him, and the boy remains silent.  Finally the boy bites Alyosha’s finger and wounds it very badly, such that it remains bleeding through the next two scenes.  Alyosha leaves very puzzled.  The chapter is such a break in style from the others, featuring as it does, a very reserved and stark description of a violent confrontation among unnamed school children… It’s disturbing in a way that other theological-dialogue-heavy chapters aren’t, for me anyway.

When he arrives at the Khokhlokov’s (this is the old woman who was at the monastery, with the daughter in a wheelchair who was earlier flirting with Alyosha and has also sent him a love note), he learns that Katerina Ivanovna and Ivan Karamazov are there.  Katerina decides she won’t leave Dmitri – that she can’t – and Ivan decides he’ll leave for Moscow, he’s so heartbroken and embarrassed.  Lisa, the wheelchair-bound daughter, takes advantage of a free moment and tells Alyosha that she hopes he didn’t take her notes seriously, of course she was only kidding, etc. etc.  Alyosha, deadly serious as he is, tells her he believes them whole-heartedly and still does.

Before leaving, Katerina Ivanovna asks Alyosha to run another errand.  She would like him to deliver 300 rubles to a man whom Dmitri has recently humiliated.  She tells the whole story, about how Dmitri dragged this poor man about the town by the beard, in front of everyone to see, and that his son was running beside him, pleading with Dmitri that his father be forgiven.  His father’s beard is described as a “whiskbroom.”  Alyosha puts two and two together and figures (correctly) this is why his finger was bitten: the boy is angry at the whole Karamazov family for humiliating his father, and making him the object of ridicule at school.

Alyosha leaves and sets off for the house of the old man (Snegiryov), who also has a diseased and crazy wife, two daughters (one of whom is filled with progressive ideas), and the aforementioned son.  They live in totally Dickensian squalor, and there is a lot of confused shouting and murmuring back and forth.  The Snegiryovs are quite recognizable as playing a similar role as the Marmaladovs in Crime and Punishment – a poor family that experience material hardship that’s thematically interwoven with the spiritual hardship felt by the novel’s more well-off characters.  Alyosha draws the father away and tries his best to finesse the situation, so that he might deliver the 300 rubles.  Snegiryov at first revels in the possibilities that these 300 rubles might bring him – he can get his children healed, buy a horse and cart and move to another town and make a new start, and so on – but then in a fit of righteous rage, stomps on the money and tells Alyosha that his honor is worth more than 300 rubles.  Alyosha begs his forgiveness and continues to insist that Dmitri will bow before him in front of all the townspeople, but he eventually leaves after he realizes that the dishonor has been felt far more strongly than he is in a position to correct.

(Earlier on, before Alyosha sets out from the monastery on these errands) there is an interesting chapter about one “Father Ferapont,” who makes an interesting contrast with the Elder Zosima.  He is just visiting the monastery here, and is a more outwardly mystical sort of priest/monk who makes a great show of following all the outward forms of religious duty.  It frames the rest of the book thematically, though it doesn’t really fit with the action of book 4).

Frank makes the point that the “strains” in the title refer both to the bourgeois “strains” experienced between Ivan and Katerina, and the more proletarian “strains” experienced by the Snegiryov family.  Carrying this further, you could see a set of juxtapositions between the shallow Ferapont and the Khokhlakovs on the one hand, and the more deeply emotional Zosima and the Snegiryovs on the other.  That Alyosha is able really to resolve neither of their issues is perhaps instructive?

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One Response to The Brothers Karamazov – Book IV – Strains

  1. Nates says:

    Interesting — I had a different reaction to Father Ferapont. He’s clearly less charismatic than Zosima, but I take it this is what’s potentially troublesome about Zosima: his brand of religious enthusiasm encourages a cult of personality. I guess I saw Dostoevsky as pointing out a different kind of religious experience: solitary and, again, troublesome in certain respects, but still genuine.

    You’re way ahead of me, Josh, but I’ll keep commenting on your earlier posts as I work through the book. So far, I’m really enjoying re-reading it.

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