An Open Notebook

Brothers Karamozov


We find the paradox of love again in The Brothers Karamazov, which begins right away with an allusion to Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Like Dido before her, we have suicide of Adeläida Ivanovna, mostly due to unhappy circumstances.

We get some reasons for the tragedy. Bluntly, the author tells us, “Adelaida Ivanovna had no feeling for her husband but contempt.”

Such contempt seems to be mutual, since though reportedly gorgeous, “She seems to be the only woman who made no particular appeal to his senses.” Her husband Fyodor married her merely for her dowry—for her money.

This reminds of the of the paradox of literature, in that everything about love points away from love, while most that is not love, points towards love.

When she leaves, and runs away with a divinity student of all people, Fyodor collects a daily, carousing harem. The orgy of drunkenness and promiscuity points to his lack of true love, true happiness with his wife, and his haste to marry her for matters more than love—wealth and pride. In fact, Fyodor uses her departure to exhult his self-vanity, crying ‘Woe is me,’ to everyone he meets.

“What seemed to gratify him and flatter his self-love most was to play the ridiculous part of the injured husband, and to parade his woes with embellishments.”

Then, when she dies, Fyodor quotes Simeon, from the book of Luke, with an ironic twist—who said these words when he finally saw Jesus.

“Fyodor Pavlovitch was drunk when he heard of his wife’s death, and the story is that he ran out into the street and began shouting with joy, raising his hands to Heaven: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.”

The stingy Russian reappropriates Simeon’s words with a cruel joke, taking whole new meaning completely deattached from anything good and true in the gospel. Even when he marries his second wife, for Fyodor enjoyed the ‘corser types of beauty’ he is not is attracted to money, but her ‘innocence.’

“He had not reckoned a dowery; what allured him was the remarkable beauty of the innocent girl, above all her innocent appearance, which had a peculiar attraction for a vicious profligate, who had hitherto admired only the coarser types of feminine beauty.”

After shortchanging his son, the narrator tells us Fyodor searches for ‘innocence’ not just ‘beauty.’ The irony of course is he acts anything but innocent. Though a drunkard, he has been manipulating people all his life—his own wife, son, and now a young girl from a far-away province. He drives her crazy and to her death too (though not suicide).

Quite literally he mistreats orphans and strangers, even his own son. So when he enters the monastery with his three sons by two marriages whom he neglected most his life, to meet the Elder, he comes again on the pretense that what he seeks is ‘innocence.’ But of course it’s not innocence he seeks. It’s a kind of love. Self-love, in this instance.

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