Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Then all at once he began speaking loudly, quickly, nervously, gesticulating and decidedly in a frenzy.

Now there's a funny line.  The "he" is Dmitri Karamazov (p. 370), but it could apply to any number of Dostoevsky characters, in The Brothers Karamazov and elsewhere.  His assemblage of neurotics, hysterics, and psychotics is without precedent.  I feel fortunate that I do not live in Dostoevsky World.

The mad Father Ferapont vanishes soon after we meet him.  His devils stick around, though. The Brothers Karamazov is packed with them:

Ah, I’ll tell you a funny dream of mine: sometimes I have a dream about devils, it seems to be night, I’m in my room with a candle, and suddenly there are devils everywhere, in all the corners, and under the tables, and they open the door, and outside the door there’s a crowd of them, and they want to come in and grab me.  But I suddenly cross myself and they all draw back, afraid, only they don’t quite go away, they stand by the door and in the corners, waiting.  And suddenly I have a terrible desire to start abusing God out loud, and so I start abusing him, and they suddenly rush at me again in a crowd, they’re so glad, and they’re grabbing me again, and I suddenly cross myself again – and they all draw back.  It’s such terrible fun; it takes my breath away. (p. 583)

The speaker here is a fourteen year old girl, Liza Khokhlakov, who near the beginning of the novel was “miraculously” cured of her hysterical paralysis.  I’m not entirely convinced that Liza is describing a dream.  Or perhaps it was Ferapont who was dreaming.  Dostoevsky is repeating the scene, adding variations.  The truly Satanic sentiment is not the insincere abuse of God, but that very last line, evildoing as a source of endorphins.  Pleasure in the face of suffering.  Pineapple compote.

Liza is obsessed with doors, or Dostoevsky associates Liza with doors.  She mentions the door three times in this one passage alone.  A few pages later (585), the word “door” appears four more times, interwoven with her other obsession, fingers.  The dream of the devils is followed by Liza’s blood libel fantasy, where she lingers on a Jewish child’s fingers being cut off:  “The boy with his fingers cut off is good, and to be despised is good” (584).  The chapter ends with an act of self-mutilation, a finger crushed by a door.  And then, like Father Ferapont, Liza more or less drops out of the novel.

Liza’s is the novel’s second injured finger.  The first belonged to Alyosha Karamazov, received in the course of his interminable quiet do-gooding:

Madame Khokhlakov screamed and shut her eyes tightly.

“God, what a wound, it’s terrible!”

But Lise, as soon as she saw Alyosha’s finger through the crack, immediately swung the door open. (182)

I have been claiming, here and there, that Dostoevsky is often not entirely in control of his own novel. This post is part of the argument for the defense. That’s a four hundred page gap between the two (Liza, door, wounded finger) clusters. That’s the way to write a novel.


  1. You are certainly making me move this novel towards the top of my TBR stack. I'm thinking once my summer class is over I may pick it up.

  2. Lise crushing her finger was one of the more startling moments in the book for me - more intentionally violent than the death of Fyodor, which we don't witness after all. What an odd character. I found her somewhat frightening...

  3. Extremely enticing - on my list - thanks for posting


  4. I guess this is encouraging. The book has some serious problems, too. No, no, encouraging, very encouraging. It's a Must Read. It's a first-class Humiliation.

    Sarah - yes, that's a vivid scene. When people descrbe Dostoevsky as "powerful," they're often thinking of quite different scenes. Liza and her finger is one that does it for me.

  5. Oh wow. This book actually sounds scary.

  6. Scary? No, it's all just comedy, a lark. Pure fun.