Slow-Read Sunday: The Brothers Karamazov, Part Two

We left Part One with a central question, as expressed by Alyosha: “how would it end between his father and his brother Dmitri with this terrible woman?” We’re still waiting for our answer at the end of Part Two, but we have a couple of chapters in this Part which show Dostoevsky’s mastery: (a) The Grand Inquisitor poem Ivan recites to Alyosha (see 16 below) and (b) Elder Zosima’s biography as written by Alyosha (see 19 below). Those two pieces are worth reading and re-reading repeatedly. They are what Dostoevsky intended to be the heart of the novel. You should read the two together to understand what Dostoevsky was trying to do.

1. Elder Zosima’s final instructions.

Elder Zosima starts to leave his final instructions on p. 163: (a) “love one another;” (b) we are all guilty because of the common guilt of the world; (c) make confessions to each other; (d) do not hate atheists; (e) teach the gospel; and others.

Do Elder Zosima’s final instructions cross doctrines and reach the level of universally “good” advice?

Later we’ll get Elder Zosima’s complete story as seen through Alyosha’s eyes. So, we begin and end in this Part with Elder Zosima’s instructions. Compare these final instructions with the way we’re given Elder Zosima’s story.

2. Science v. Religion

Arguments against religion are usually couched as science being in opposition to religion. Father Paissy addresses this on p. 170. This kind of artificial battle has been going on for centuries. I think it’s worth reflecting on whether the two have any aim in common and whether it is a good thing to have the two in opposition.

3.  Wicked men.

Is there any honor in a wicked man who lives openly wicked as compared to a wicked man who does so on the sly? p. 173.

4. Alyosha’s encounter with children.

What do you make of Alyosha’s odd encounter with the children and his being stoned and bitten by one? p. 179. Remember, I suggested focusing on Dostoevsky’s use of children and how Dostoevsky might be working through them in his story. Do we gain any insight into how Dostoevsky views children in this scene? How does Alyosha view these children?

5. Alyosha and Liza.

Alyosha tells Liza that he intends to marry her. p. 184. Does that come as a shock to you? Do you get the impression Alyosha was influenced by Elder Zosima’s instructions?

6. Alyosha’s forays into the emotional lives of others.

Is Alyosha right when he tells Katerina Ivanovna she loves Ivan but does not truly love Dmitri? p. 192

He was practically forced to tell her his thoughts and when he does she gets angry with Alyosha. Ivan also goes on to disagree with Alyosha.

Alyosha eventually regrets putting his opinion in on an “affair of the heart.” p. 196. Has he done anything wrong? If it’s wrong under what authority is it wrong? Has he done anything that would disappoint Elder Zosima?

7. Why Alyosha was bitten by the boy.

We learn why Alyosha was bitten on the finger. p. 200. It involves a dispute Dmitri had with the boy’s father. The boy knew Alyosha to be Dmitri’s brother and attacked him. The boy had witnessed Dmitri beat his father. A bit later we see this come up again and Dostoevsky goes into great detail about how much Dmitri’s actions affected this child. p. 208. Why is this such an important thing for Dostoevsky to have us understand?

What kind of emotion did you feel when you read about the boy and his defense of his father?

8. “Schoolchildren are merciless people”

“Schoolchildren are merciless people: separately they’re God’s angels, but together, especially, in school, they’re quite often merciless.” p. 205. This sounds like something we’ve heard in Part One, right? Remember when we were told on p. 57 that the country doctor has a similar opinion: “I love mankind, he said, but I am amazed at myself: The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons.” Why might Dostoevsky repeat this idea?

This idea reappears later in the context of Jesus. The question comes up, is it possible for humans to love mankind as Jesus loved mankind? Here we’re talking about real up close love, not abstract love. p. 237. This is a repetition of our theme of individual love v. love of all mankind isn’t it?

9. The man refuses Alyosha’s offering.

What are the real reasons Alyosha is refused when he tries to make amends with the man Dmitri beat? Can you attribute any of it to Alyosha’s innocence or eagerness to make the situation right? p. 215. Does Alyosha eventually recognize he is in any way to blame for the way he handled the situation?

Do you get the impression Alyosha is as in tune with the human soul as those around him do?

Do think Alyosha makes an effort to learn from his experiences, though, perhaps setting him apart from those around him?

10. Alyosha lies.

Alyosha is not perfect, he lies to Lisa. p. 219. We start to see Alyosha becoming a full-person in this Part as opposed to a limited monk. He’s learning from real entanglements of love and life and from some of others’ entanglements that he’s drug into.

Are there times when lies can be for the greater good? Does Alyosha give an example of that for us to consider? Are lies always bad?

11. Alyosha admits he may not even believe in God.

Were you shocked to hear him say this? p. 220. I think it’s worth noting that Alyosha expresses this belief before Ivan recites his poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.”

12. Dostoevsky reminds us of our central conflict.

“What about Dmitri and father? How will it end between them” Alyosha asks on p. 231. Dostoevsky never lets us get too far from our story, does he?

13. “Euclidian geometry.”

This is another area where you could delve into some deep study and write a critical paper. Euclidean geometry is based on assuming the existence of certain axioms and then constructing logical arguments or proofs from those axioms. One of the problems with religion is that it asks us to consider a reality or a set of truths (the belief in God) based not on logic, but on something folks generally call faith. Ivan’s take on this is interesting to me. It boils down to this: If Euclidean geometry exists then there must not be a God. Ivan seems to be suggesting that if God exists and if he made the world so that he does not follow a firm set of rules then he shouldn’t have and that any proof that the universe does not follow a set of stated rules is actually proof that God does not exist. p. 235.

In the 1800s a new form of geometry, non-Euclidean geometry, was beginning to emerge. With its emergence intellectuals like Dostoevsky would have been interested in what a world without a firm set of rules might look like. Thinkers would have started to wrestle with what it might mean if the world was not as orderly as Euclid and Newton had made it seem. Do you see any signs of Dostoevsky wrestling with this in the novel?

14. Hamlet reference–Polonius.

Dostoevsky specifically refers to Hamlet on p. 238. He does not want us to forget his book is in the Shakespearean tradition.

15. I always make a note of lawyer jokes in literature.

There’s a long tradition of lawyer jokes in literature. Shakespeare made many as well. Here Ivan says: “Among the Russian people lawyers have long been called ‘hired consciences.'” p. 241. Is this a criticism of the justice system or just a cheap shot at lawyers?

16. The Grand Inquisitor.

This section should be read multiple times. It is oft criticized and interpreted. It is classic Dostoevsky.

Before reciting his poem, though, Ivan asks Alyosha if he would be the man to create a world where all men would be happy if it meant that one innocent child would have to be tortured. What a weighty hypothetical. Is it a fair question to ask Alyosha?

We need to spend some time analyzing this section before moving on. What Dostoevsky is trying to accomplish through Ivan’s poem? One way to ask that is to ask what Ivan himself is trying to accomplish? What do you think?

Ivan seems highly critical of Roman Catholicism. p. 250. He says the central feature of Catholicism is that “Everything…has been handed over by you to the pope, therefore, everything now belongs to the pope.”

The setting of the poem is of course one of the lowest points in the history of the Catholic Church, the Spanish Inquisition. p. 248. It’s worth reading some on the Inquisition to understand why Ivan would have set his poem there. In sum, the stated purpose behind the Inquisition was to suppress heresy. It is alleged that the Church used the Inquisition to keep the Church in power by killing its detractors.

The Church defined heresy as publicly declaring your beliefs, having beliefs against the teachings of the Church, and then refusing to denounce those beliefs when confronted with the accusations. There are some additional elements such as trying to persuade others to follow your beliefs and doing so on your own free will, without being possessed by the devil. What makes the Spanish Inquisition unique is that it was used as a tool of secular leaders in Spain, although it was administered by the Catholic Church.

The Inquisitions were not trials to a jury, but instead, to a tribunal, and you were not allowed to have an attorney defend you. Further, the accused was required to testify and if he did not testify then guilt was assumed. Usually, there were no witnesses  on behalf of the accused because any that came forward would likely be prosecuted for heresy as well. In many cases, the accused was not informed of the charges being brought against them.

Inquisitors were trained by the Church to know the Bible and to ask questions in such a way that they obtained a confession or an admission of guilt. Torture was allowed as a tool to obtain a confession, but if you confessed while being tortured then you had to confess again. The torture was horrific and I won’t go into it here, but you should research terms like “Strappado” and “rack” if you’re interested in learning more.

The last Inquisitorial act in Spain was in 1834, not too long before Dostoevsky would have written The Brothers Karamazov. The Catholic Church, today, generally takes a position that the Inquisition was bad, but that it was exaggerated and that you can not believe all accounts of torture and death that came out during this time period and years later. Many of the records necessary to determine how frequently torture and capital punishment were used are not available, but we know of several confirmed cases.

Ivan’s Inquisitor would have been part of the process described above, officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church to find heretics and obtain confessions.

Ivan has Jesus return to earth for the purpose of his illustration. He then has Jesus faced with an inquisition like the ones I’ve described above. In Ivan’s poem, The Grand Inquisitor knows he is facing Jesus. p. 249. He shuts himself up with Jesus in a room, alone. Immediately he begins to ask Jesus why he has come back to “interfere.” The Inquisitor tells Jesus that tomorrow he will burn at the stake. p. 250. Jesus offers no response.

Then the Inquisitor explains to Jesus where the Church has gone with Jesus’ teachings and admits that they have done things that Jesus did not accept when he was tempted by the devil. The Inquisitor is convinced that people will give up their freedom to the Church if it satisfies their needs. p. 253. He is also convinced that the Church can use the powers of “miracle, mystery, and authority” to rule where Jesus had refused to use those powers. p. 254. The Inquisitor admits the Church has worked in concert with the Devil and that men have been willing to give away their freedom like sheep. p. 257.

The Church has, in effect, accepted the Devil’s last temptation, “all the kingdoms of the earth.” p. 257. While the Church has not used these powers to complete effect, the Inquisitor believes the time will come when men will give up all their freedoms. p. 257.

The Inquisitor sees Jesus as having come back to interfere with the Church’s “obedient flock” and tells him he will burn him at the stake. p. 259. The Inquisitor eventually does not burn Jesus, but tells him to never return.

After Ivan has set out the story in full, Alyosha offers his reaction. p. 260. As they part, Alyosha mirrors the way Ivan ended the poem by kissing Ivan on the lips just as Jesus had kissed the Inquisitor. p. 262. Alyosha will make other similar gestures, in effect giving back to the people he interacts with what they have given to him.

The easy answer is that Dostoevsky has a vendetta against the Catholic Church and that he used his literary prowess and Ivan to tear down the Roman Catholic religion. But, that seems to be only a partial explanation of Dostoevsky’s intent.

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Roman Catholicism?

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of fascism?

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Christianity?

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Alyosha’s beliefs?

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Elder Zosima?

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of the Spanish justice system?

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Fyodor?

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Russian fathers?

Dostoevsky very much wanted to include the next book, about Elder Zosima, together with The Grand Inquisitor. Why do you think that might have made sense to him?

Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a sort of existential ground clearing that will make way for what Dostoevsky intends to construct through Alyosha?

17. “The Karamazov force.”

Ivan talks about a force that “will endure everything.” p. 263. He describes this as “The Karamazov force…the force of the Karamazov baseness.” Dostoevsky has already made a point of saying that Alyosha contains that force as well, hasn’t he? Is there any good that you can, at this point, imagine coming from the Karamazov force?

18. Alyosha returns to Elder Zosima.

Once he returns, Alyosha is questioned by Elder Zosima about whether he’s seen to Dmitri. p. 284. When Alyosha says he hasn’t seen him, Elder Zosima orders him to go to Dmitri immediately. Elder Zosima tells Alyosha he must go out into the world and be loved by even his enemies. p. 285. What makes Zosima so sure that Alyosha has that kind of strength? Is it faith or has he seen something in Alyosha that others have not yet seen?

19. Alyosha’s biography of Elder Zosima.

Alyosha writes a brief biography of Elder Zosima. p. 287-322. Could you make an argument this section was supposed to be paired with “The Grand Inquisitor?” If you’re going to study another section of this book I’d recommend spending equal time with this biography. You could study it next to “The Book of Job.” You could study in terms of the emotion you fill in your heart after it’s been drained by “The Grand Inquisitor.” You could consider it an attempt to build a foundation after the ground clearing that occurred in “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Here’s what you’ll find in a nut shell:

Zosima’s brother has a crisis of faith p. 288.  Zosima’s brother is filled with guilt, he is dying p. 289. Zosima’s brother tells Zosima to “live for me!” and then dies. p. 290. Zosima’s mother sends him to Petersburg cadet school. p. 290. Zosima recounts the 1st time he “received the first seed of the word of God in my soul.” p. 291. Zosima discusses the story of Job. p. 291. Zosima is very much taken by the story of Job’s trials. p. 291. Zosima begins to suggest a new “church” where priests open their cottage doors and read Job to those who will come. Not in a church, but in the simplest of ways. p. 293. Then he suggests other scriptures that could be read in the same way. Zosima says no teaching will be needed, just to read the scripture. p. 293 Zosima explains after the cadet school he got some wealth and forgot these teachings from scripture. p. 296. He met a girl, the girl marries another, and Zosima explains how this embarrasses him and he becomes angry. Zosima challenges this man to a duel. p. 297. Zosima beats his servant, Afanasy. p. 297. Zosima remembers his dead brother’s words about serving the servants. p. 298. Zosima asks Afanasy for forgiveness and goes to the duel. p. 299. Zosima allows the man to shoot his cheek and ear and then throws his gun into the trees, refusing to shoot. Zosima’s regiment feels dishonored. Zosima resigns his commission and announces he’s going into the monastery. p. 300. A mysterious man starts talking regularly with Zosima and explains his belief that “no science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights…” and that people must “physically” “become the brother of all.” But that this will not happen until “the period of human isolation” concludes. [emphasis added] p. 303. The mysterious man confesses to having killed someone p. 304. He had the murder blamed on a servant. The servant died of illness. p. 305. The man is considering confessing to the crime to legal authorities. p. 308. Zosima tells him to confess but he refuses for some time, delays. p. 309. The man confesses in front of authorities at his birthday party. p. 310. No one believes the confession, his family blames Zosima, and the man falls ill. p. 311. The man confesses he considered killing Zosima to rid the world of the only one he had confessed to. The man dies. p. 312.

Zosima speaks of the monk’s role in a world of ever-increasing “needs.” p. 314. Zosima explains both the rich and the monks are isolated, but in different ways. Zosima believes without Christ there is no crime, no sin. p.315. In other words, Jesus is the source of moral authority. Zosima tells those gathered to make themselves responsible for the sins of all mankind. p. 320. Zosima says “you cannot be the judge of anyone.” p. 320. Zosima defines hell: “the suffering of being no longer able to love.” p. 322.

Dostoevsky makes a point to say that Alyosha wrote the biography of Elder Zosima after some time had passed. Is Alyosha’s biography of Zosima like Plato’s use of Socrates? p. 323. In other words, in this biography do we have some editorial decisions being made by Alyosha in the way the story is told? I think you have to at least admit that we’re seeing Elder Zosima’s life through Alyosha’s eyes, right?

We end Part Two with Zosima’s death but still in suspense over Fyodor’s. p. 324.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Part Two when you get time. It’s my favorite part of the novel. For next time, let’s try to read through Part Three to p. 511.

Photo: Some rights reserved by AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker.

1 comment

Comments are closed.