Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What terrible tragedies realism inflicts on people.

"Did you see all the devils around there?" asked Father Ferapont.

"Around where?" the monk timidly inquired.

Father Ferapont is a seventy-five year old holy fool who lives in a little hermitage in “a corner of the wall” at the monastery that is a major setting of the first half of The Brothers Karamazov.  He is an ascetic who lives, the omniscient narrator tells us, on nothing but four pounds of bread a week, although Ferapont almost immediately contradicts the narrator, saying he supplements his diet with mushrooms and berries from the forest.  It’s the other monks who can’t do without bread, “that’s why they’re in bondage to the devil.”

Father Ferapont is a barking loon.

“As I was leaving the Superior’s, I looked – there was one hiding from me behind the door, a real beefy one, a yard and a half tall or more, with a thick tail, brown, long, and he happened to stick the tip of it into the doorjamb, and me being no fool, I suddenly slammed the door shut and pinched his tail.  He started squealing, struggling, and I crossed him to death with the sign of the Cross, the triple one.  He dropped dead on the spot, like a squashed spider.  He must be rotten and stinking in that corner now, and they don’t see, they don’t smell a thing.” (169)

That “I crossed him to death” is so good, so vigorous and odd, that you’ll forgive me if I double-check Pevear and Volokhonsky against Constance Garnett.  “I made the sign of the cross over him three times” – just as I suspected, Garnett clarifies but weakens.  Otherwise, her version of the passage is pretty close, and similarly energetic.

Father Ferapont is not afraid of “shifty-eyed devils,” but he is afraid of an elm tree, which is also Christ:

“It happens during the night.  Do you see those two branches?  In the night, behold, Christ stretches forth his arms to me, searching for me with those arms, I see it clearly and tremble.  Fearsome, oh, fearsome!”

“Why is it fearsome, if it’s Christ himself?”

“He may grab hold of me and ascend me.” (169)

The Brothers Karamazov is extraordinary in its contradictions. The monks and the monastery are the mainstays of the “positive” theme of the novel. The Christianity of the book is built around Russian Orthodox monasticism. But Dostoevsky’s creativity does not move in straight lines. He puts obstacles in his own path, parodies of his own ideas. Some monks are saints, but others are bullies and hallucinating madmen, terrified of Christ, not the devil, obsessed with literal corruption.

Another devil who is “rotten and stinking in a corner” is, in other words, the holy man Father Ferapont. When he appears once more, a few chapters later, the words “rotting and stinking” take on another meaning. I suppose, in today’s well-written novels, the disappearance of Ferapont and all of the other monks just before the middle of the book is a flaw. Dostoevsky works, though, in themes. So I’ll follow the themes. Father Ferapont only exists for a few pages, but those devils – Ferapont is right about them. They’re everywhere.

The context-free title quotation may be found on p. 376, in the stark raving mad "Lyagavy" chapter.


  1. I didn't ever write about Father Farapont myself, but whoa, he was a great/crazy character. He was such a contrast to the Elder. So interesting.

  2. "Dostoevsky works, though, in themes. So I’ll follow the themes."

    How I've always read his novels.

  3. "The Brothers Karamazov is extraordinary in its contradictions"-this is what I was referring to when I said, overstating of course, that D was for your youth-great post

  4. Brian, it's a struggle for me. It's an effort to adjust. I want to follow details, motifs, and let the ideas take care of themselves. Dostoevsky is a challenge.

    But, mel, less of a challenge than he would have been. As a youth, I was much more demanding of a closed meaning. I'm much more open to contradictions now.

    tuulenhaiven - yeah, I'm kind of approaching the novel through the side door.