Mohamed 1Ahmed MohamedMr. GremaudAmerican Literature18 January 2018Many praise The Brothers Karamazov as the greatest novel ever written. Dostoevsky’snovel captivates millions because of Dostoevsky’s thoughtful philosophy and bold aesthetic. Likethe 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 throughthe use of self-harm. By choosing actions that result in a distressed, miserable state, they gaincontrol of their fate. This paper identifies themes of self-harm and masochism in The BrothersKaramazov 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 harmon the self. Dostoevsky emphasizes this concept throughout the novel. Self-harm is the practiceof intentionally harming the self in a deliberate and emotionally detrimental manner.
This conceptis further elucidated by Edith Clowes as “essentially a semiconscious conflict between cherishedmoral ideals, for example, love, self-sacrifice, or honesty, and the way they are realized in thecomplex and contradictory human psyche of the insulted and injured” (123). This idea concernsthe making of life decisions that the character is in complete realization will cause suffering forboth themselves and, transitively, anybody who shares an emotional bond with them. This iscaused by a distorted perception of the self, chiefly due to societal expectations and perception ofworth, this is further supported by Clowes: “inherent in self-laceration is…
a projection of onesown sense of insufficiency onto a person perceived to be more powerful…
and a desire to punishthat person for ones own suffering” (123). The struggle here lies in the Russian psyche, where onecan either view the world as fatalistic or as an individual experience. This struggle is solved bymeans of self-laceration. By consciously choosing to be miserable one can experience false controlMohamed 2over 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 sociallyadvantageous in all of Dostoevsky’s self-harming characters. She reaches her most abject statewhen she acts as a supplicant and beg for Dmitri’s charity. He forces her to beg on her hands andknees to save her family’s honor. This situation, in which she is forced to jeopardize her honorand therefore security is a form of retaliation against Katerina by Dmitri because she rejected hispresence, failing to give him the slightest sense of warmth.
The fact that Dmitri met this slight withso much malevolence sheds light on the power of societal perception. This trivial act of retaliationdramatically 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 andforces her into a submissive role. Dmitri even considers raping her but later attempts to justifythis by stating “My first idea was a– Karamazov one.
.. At that moment she was beautiful becauseshe was noble, and I was a scoundrel..
. Understand, I should have gone to her the next day toask for her hand, so that it might end honorably, so to speak” (Dostoevsky 99-100) Here Dmitriaims for a feeling of superiority. Dmitri’s perception of his own inadequacy is justified in hislack of financial stability, his standing in society, and foremost his sense of purpose. He believesthat a marriage with Katerina will result in him gaining a greater social standing as her family iswealthy relative to his own. Katerina views begging charity from a man such as Dmitri Karamazovestablishes 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 isthe daughter of a colonel. Dmitri steals this from her by, and because of this, she intimatelyinvolves herself in his future in a manner that is unhealthy for her.
Katerina’s involvement withDmitri is her form of self-laceration, she intently chose a situation in which she would inherit adiminished position relative to her position at the start of the book. In the beginning of the novelshe is described as “a person of character, proud and really high-principled; above all, she hadeducation and intellect” (95) The second Katerina forfeits her agency by placing herself in theMohamed 3mercy of Dmitri, she undergoes a dramatic change in personality. The strong and independentKaterina offers herself to Dmitri stating, “I will be your chattel. I will be the be the carpet underyour feet.” (101).
The jarring difference between her initial aloofness, her anger at him, and thisoffering is alarming. Clowes states in reference to Katarina: “she wants in equal parts to sacrificeherself for Dmitris salvation and to hurt him. In this inner moral contradiction, the genuine desireto enact high moral values and the equally strong urge to use them to do harm embody the essenceof the moral dilemma in self-laceration” (Clowes 120).
In conclusion, Katerina gains agency inher life by selecting a toxic partner as a form of self-laceration. While society strips Katerina ofher ability to exercise her will, she still retains the ability to select a partner. She uses this ability asa 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. WhileKaterina expresses herself in a way that is emotionally destructive, destruction is requirement forcreation, the renewal of Katerina’s life suggests that self-laceration can give rise to a positive statein the wake of abjection.
The second example of this theme is Ivan Karamazov. Ivan bears the greatest amountof degradation from his self-laceration, by the end of the novel he is left without any form ofredemption. 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 fatherwho abandoned him and his brothers. His reason for self-laceration is individual from that of theother characters. Ivan, instead of looking to retaliate against an unjust society, he tries to cope withhis relationship with his father.Towards the end of the novel, Ivan struggles with the guilt caused by his involvement inhis 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 takenfrom both his father and Skotoprigonyevsk to be raised by Yefim Petrovich. Seeley states that forMohamed 4Ivan, “The seeds of his hatred of his father and of all cruelty, and of his revolt against an orderof things which gave such fathers unlimited power to inflict such cruelty – were certainly sown inthose years” (Seeley 126). After moving away from his father, Ivan realizes that he and Alyoshaare being cared for out of charity and that Fyodor Pavlovich does not care for them and only caresfor his own lecherous desires. This is clear as Dostoevsky writes: “t ten years old he had realizedthat they were not living in their own home but on other peoples charity, and that their father wasa man of whom it was disgraceful to speak” (Dostoevsky 12).
At this point, Ivan (aged 13) seeshimself as a burden and abandons the care of his benefactor (Yefim Petrovich) to secure a job whilehe is at university. His actions hint towards him internalizing his father’s inadequacy, which laterevolves into his guilt-driven act of leaving the home of Yefim Petrovich. His rapprochement ofhis negative relationship with the father who has detrimentally shaped his younger life is anotherfactor that Ivan must consider in returning to Skotoprigonyevsk.During Ivan’s visit to his birthplace, he appears to get along well with his father. Thishowever is not true, as in reality, Ivan is horrified of his father. While Dostoevsky foreshadowsDmitri as the one who will eventually kill Fyodor Pavlovich, Seeley states, “Ivans loathing andrejection of his father is much more intense than Mityas, in proportion as the Karamazov elementsoccupy a greater part of his psyche: Ivan wants his father dead, whereas Mitya only wants toneutralize his rival with Grushenka”. I believe Seeley came to this conclusion through the outliningof the contrasting nature of Ivan’s parents that are expressed through Ivan’s being, that is to saythe “Karamazov earthy passion against Sofyas otherworldliness and passivity, and Sofyas mutedrebelliousness against Karamazov licence and foulness.
.. and aims to transcend both” (Seeley120). 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 arguesthat one of the main subjects of The Brothers Karamazov is the preeminence of fraternal love overthat of paternal love.
Berman states that paternal love is disposed to the formation of vertical powerstructures where the power coalesces at the top while fraternal love is disposed to the formation ofhorizontal power paradigms where there is shared power, “As the vertical relations between fathersMohamed 5and sons fail, lateral, nonhierarchical sibling bonds offer an alternative model of love, support, andunderstanding” (Berman 260). Berman writes about what she calls the “idealogical center of thenovel”, The Grand Inquisitor as the most fascinating display of fraternal love (261). In The GrandInquisitor, the Inquisitor castigates Jesus for giving Man free-will because, he claims it inspiresindulgence and only acts as a burden. The Inquisitor also argues that the vertical power paradigmfound in the Catholic Church is the better demonstration of a love for Man as it relieves Man thehardship of choice.Ivan demonstrates his ability to handle self-laceration in his relationship with God.Mohamed 6Works CitedBerman, Anna A. “Siblings in The Brothers Karamazov.
” The Russian Review, Apr. 2009, pp. 82–263. DOI: 10.1111/j.
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 andLarissa Volokhonsky, 12th ed., Farrar, Straus/Giroux, 2002.Seeley, Frank. “Dostoyevsky’s Women.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 93, 1961,pp. 291–312.