18 January 2018
Many praise The Brothers Karamazov as the greatest novel ever written. Dostoevsky’s
novel captivates millions because of Dostoevsky’s thoughtful philosophy and bold aesthetic. Like
the rest of Dostoevsky’s work, this novel has its fair share of literary criticism, most of which focuses on the religious and philosophical aspects of the novel. One of the often (if not always) disregarded themes is the idea that the characters in The Brothers Karamazov find resolution through
the use of self-harm. By choosing actions that result in a distressed, miserable state, they gain
control of their fate. This paper identifies themes of self-harm and masochism in The Brothers
Karamazov and will reveal that through self-harm, the characters will acquire control.
It is one thing to harm another, but is a completely different thing to willingly inflict harm
on the self. Dostoevsky emphasizes this concept throughout the novel. Self-harm is the practice
of intentionally harming the self in a deliberate and emotionally detrimental manner. This concept
is further elucidated by Edith Clowes as “essentially a semiconscious conflict between cherished
moral ideals, for example, love, self-sacrifice, or honesty, and the way they are realized in the
complex and contradictory human psyche of the insulted and injured” (123). This idea concerns
the making of life decisions that the character is in complete realization will cause suffering for
both themselves and, transitively, anybody who shares an emotional bond with them. This is
caused by a distorted perception of the self, chiefly due to societal expectations and perception of
worth, this is further supported by Clowes: “inherent in self-laceration is… a projection of ones
own sense of insufficiency onto a person perceived to be more powerful… and a desire to punish
that person for ones own suffering” (123). The struggle here lies in the Russian psyche, where one
can either view the world as fatalistic or as an individual experience. This struggle is solved by
means of self-laceration. By consciously choosing to be miserable one can experience false control
over the events taking place in their lives, they can say to themselves that they knew the outcome,
they chose the outcome, and because of this they feel in control.
The first example of this theme is Katerina Ivanovna, she is the wealthiest and most socially
advantageous in all of Dostoevsky’s self-harming characters. She reaches her most abject state
when she acts as a supplicant and beg for Dmitri’s charity. He forces her to beg on her hands and
knees to save her family’s honor. This situation, in which she is forced to jeopardize her honor
and therefore security is a form of retaliation against Katerina by Dmitri because she rejected his
presence, failing to give him the slightest sense of warmth. The fact that Dmitri met this slight with
so much malevolence sheds light on the power of societal perception. This trivial act of retaliation
dramatically changes Katerina’s life and later causes the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov.
At first, Dmitri’s treatment of Katerina is relatively poor, he exercises his dominance over her and
forces her into a submissive role. Dmitri even considers raping her but later attempts to justify
this by stating “My first idea was a– Karamazov one… At that moment she was beautiful because
she was noble, and I was a scoundrel… Understand, I should have gone to her the next day to
ask for her hand, so that it might end honorably, so to speak” (Dostoevsky 99-100) Here Dmitri
aims for a feeling of superiority. Dmitri’s perception of his own inadequacy is justified in his
lack of financial stability, his standing in society, and foremost his sense of purpose. He believes
that a marriage with Katerina will result in him gaining a greater social standing as her family is
wealthy relative to his own. Katerina views begging charity from a man such as Dmitri Karamazov
establishes a failure of self and gives her further reason to believe the world is inherently unjust.
Katerina develops her self-identity upon the fact that she is guaranteed a secure future as she is
the daughter of a colonel. Dmitri steals this from her by, and because of this, she intimately
involves herself in his future in a manner that is unhealthy for her. Katerina’s involvement with
Dmitri is her form of self-laceration, she intently chose a situation in which she would inherit a
diminished position relative to her position at the start of the book. In the beginning of the novel
she is described as “a person of character, proud and really high-principled; above all, she had
education and intellect” (95) The second Katerina forfeits her agency by placing herself in the
mercy of Dmitri, she undergoes a dramatic change in personality. The strong and independent
Katerina offers herself to Dmitri stating, “I will be your chattel. I will be the be the carpet under
your feet.” (101). The jarring difference between her initial aloofness, her anger at him, and this
offering is alarming. Clowes states in reference to Katarina: “she wants in equal parts to sacrifice
herself for Dmitris salvation and to hurt him. In this inner moral contradiction, the genuine desire
to enact high moral values and the equally strong urge to use them to do harm embody the essence
of the moral dilemma in self-laceration” (Clowes 120). In conclusion, Katerina gains agency in
her life by selecting a toxic partner as a form of self-laceration. While society strips Katerina of
her ability to exercise her will, she still retains the ability to select a partner. She uses this ability as
a means of rebellion against a fatalist life and a society which only views women as sexual objects,
the intentional selection of destructive men stands as an expression of feminine power. While
Katerina expresses herself in a way that is emotionally destructive, destruction is requirement for
creation, the renewal of Katerina’s life suggests that self-laceration can give rise to a positive state
in the wake of abjection.
The second example of this theme is Ivan Karamazov. Ivan bears the greatest amount
of degradation from his self-laceration, by the end of the novel he is left without any form of
redemption. The reader last sees Ivan under the care of Katerina Ivanovna in a state of illness.
Ivan’s emotional self-harm begins as a child, it stems from the guilt and anger he has for his father
who abandoned him and his brothers. His reason for self-laceration is individual from that of the
other characters. Ivan, instead of looking to retaliate against an unjust society, he tries to cope with
his relationship with his father.
Towards the end of the novel, Ivan struggles with the guilt caused by his involvement in
his father’s murder. While this is still a significant stressor, it is not what brings him to Skotoprigonyevsk, his father’s hometown. He visits Skotoprigonyevsk at the command of Dmitri to
—as the narrator hypothesizes— to help him with in a financial conflict with Fyodor Pavlovich.
Prior to this visit however, Ivan’s relationship with his father is near nonexistent as he was taken
from both his father and Skotoprigonyevsk to be raised by Yefim Petrovich. Seeley states that for
Ivan, “The seeds of his hatred of his father and of all cruelty, and of his revolt against an order
of things which gave such fathers unlimited power to inflict such cruelty – were certainly sown in
those years” (Seeley 126). After moving away from his father, Ivan realizes that he and Alyosha
are being cared for out of charity and that Fyodor Pavlovich does not care for them and only cares
for his own lecherous desires. This is clear as Dostoevsky writes: “t ten years old he had realized
that they were not living in their own home but on other peoples charity, and that their father was
a man of whom it was disgraceful to speak” (Dostoevsky 12). At this point, Ivan (aged 13) sees
himself as a burden and abandons the care of his benefactor (Yefim Petrovich) to secure a job while
he is at university. His actions hint towards him internalizing his father’s inadequacy, which later
evolves into his guilt-driven act of leaving the home of Yefim Petrovich. His rapprochement of
his negative relationship with the father who has detrimentally shaped his younger life is another
factor that Ivan must consider in returning to Skotoprigonyevsk.
During Ivan’s visit to his birthplace, he appears to get along well with his father. This
however is not true, as in reality, Ivan is horrified of his father. While Dostoevsky foreshadows
Dmitri as the one who will eventually kill Fyodor Pavlovich, Seeley states, “Ivans loathing and
rejection of his father is much more intense than Mityas, in proportion as the Karamazov elements
occupy a greater part of his psyche: Ivan wants his father dead, whereas Mitya only wants to
neutralize his rival with Grushenka”. I believe Seeley came to this conclusion through the outlining
of the contrasting nature of Ivan’s parents that are expressed through Ivan’s being, that is to say
the “Karamazov earthy passion against Sofyas otherworldliness and passivity, and Sofyas muted
rebelliousness against Karamazov licence and foulness… and aims to transcend both” (Seeley
120). While Ivan’s mother is not alive to experience Ivan’s atheism in contrast with her devoutness,
Fyodor Pavlovich experiences Ivan’s condemnation to his Karamazovian primacy. Berman argues
that one of the main subjects of The Brothers Karamazov is the preeminence of fraternal love over
that of paternal love. Berman states that paternal love is disposed to the formation of vertical power
structures where the power coalesces at the top while fraternal love is disposed to the formation of
horizontal power paradigms where there is shared power, “As the vertical relations between fathers
and sons fail, lateral, nonhierarchical sibling bonds offer an alternative model of love, support, and
understanding” (Berman 260). Berman writes about what she calls the “idealogical center of the
novel”, The Grand Inquisitor as the most fascinating display of fraternal love (261). In The Grand
Inquisitor, the Inquisitor castigates Jesus for giving Man free-will because, he claims it inspires
indulgence and only acts as a burden. The Inquisitor also argues that the vertical power paradigm
found in the Catholic Church is the better demonstration of a love for Man as it relieves Man the
hardship of choice.
Ivan demonstrates his ability to handle self-laceration in his relationship with God.
Berman, Anna A. “Siblings in The Brothers Karamazov.” The Russian Review, Apr. 2009, pp. 82–
263. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9434.2009.00524.x.
Clowes, Edith W. “Self-Laceration and Resentment: The Terms of Moral Psychology in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche.” Freedom and Responsibility in Russian Literature, 1995, pp. 119–133.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Staraya, Russia. Translated by Richard Pevear and
Larissa Volokhonsky, 12th ed., Farrar, Straus/Giroux, 2002.
Seeley, Frank. “Dostoyevsky’s Women.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 93, 1961,