When I was reading Anna Karenina three years ago I met no end of people willing to tell me the end of the novel. This was dismaying (the first time), but the knowledge ultimately had no effect on how I enjoyed the novel, or what I found most interesting about it, mainly because a novel the size of Anna can’t be easily reduced to its plot details. The same is true of The Brothers Karamazov. The dust jacket to my Everyman edition (which I read unintentionally) reveals that the book is about a murder. Well, true, but it’s “about” much more than the murder. The murder is perhaps more structurally crucial than the train in Anna: it happens right at the centre of the novel, after slowly building an ominous terrible-things-are-going-to-happen mood in the first half; the second half of the novel is taken up with the community’s response to the murder.
But it’s more complicated, of course. The novel is also preoccupied with the problem of how we know things. This question is played out in lots of different ways — especially in the long trial in the novel’s second half — but the form in which it most interestingly plays out is in the figure of the narrator. Ostensibly writing a biography of his hero, Alyosha (“Alexei”) Fyodorovich Karamazov, the narrator does not attempt impartiality. Alexei is his favourite Karamazov: he talks about him in sympathetic terms and using endearing nicknames. He also unabashedly announces when he has forgotten facts, or has deliberately omitted boring or unnecessary details (this happens a lot, and with deliberate irony on Dostoyevsky’s part, I suspect, in the trial). He is the paradigmatic Unreliable Narrator on whom, incidentally, our entire “knowledge” of events depends.
I found myself wondering a lot why a biography of Alexei spends so much time recounting the relationships, anguish, murders (or NOT), and trials of Mitya Karamazov. I suspect it has a lot to do with how the book attempts to frame Mitya for the reader. That is, brother Ivan loves Mitya as much as Alyosha does (though in a complicated, resentful, competitive way), but he views Mitya’s guilt in the trial in a very different way than Alexei (specifically: Vanya thinks he’s guilty, Alexei doesn’t). The narrator clearly shares Alyosha’s point of view, siding with the nobler Karamazov over the bitter, nihilistic, petty, and increasingly mad Vanya. And the reader is invited, through these depictions, to share in Alyosha and the narrator’s opinion. Mitya’s innocence seems clear, but the novel also challenges us to our assumptions. The narrative experience of the murder itself is epistemologically confusing. The chapters leading up to it position us to anticipate one turn of events, only to thwart that anticipation — only to then cast doubts on what Mitya’s thought process and the narrator has led us to believe happened.
The process of witness questioning and the trial itself show the same events, the evidence can be endlessly reinterpreted to give new meaning, to tell a new story. It reveals that what people claim as “true” is muddied by poor judgment, faulty memory, anger, jealousy, and other motivations. One version of the “truth” is no more credible than another. This leaves us and the book’s entire cast of characters in an epistemological bind. Almost everyone in the novel is passionately driven by an ideology — and the precepts of nearly all these ideologies prove untrue, shaky, hollow. Alyosha’s morality, in the final chapter, seems to win out, but one wonders if both he and his admiring narrator are just one more variation of an incredible “truth”.
28 February 2012 ~ Hamilton
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Everyman, 1992.