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In his essay, “The Brothers Karamazov: Idea and Technique” Edward Wasiolek examines two aspects of Dostoevsky’s work. He begins with an exposition of the scene in Elder Zosima’s cell and Ivan’s internal struggles with religion, and then follows this with a detailed look at the relationship between Dmitri and Katerina. Both of these sections have much to say about the novel as a whole, especially when viewed together. However, before a discussion of their combined significance can begin, each one of these parts of the essay must be understood by itself.
Wasiolek begins his essay by acclaiming Dostoevsky’s introduction to The Brothers Karamazov. The preliminary scene in Zosima’s cell is essential because it sets the stage for the entire novel, and it raises questions that will be addressed throughout. The conflicts of “child against father; humility against hate; monastery against the world; expiation against threat” (Wasiolek, 813) are all introduced. In addition to this, the reader is made aware of Ivan’s questions with regard to religion. Wasiolek emphasizes the importance of the doubts that Ivan has because, in his own words, “The external drama is Ivan’s internal drama” (814). All that occurs in the cell is a representation of Ivan’s conflict of ideas about the existence of God and His treatment or mistreatment of man. This premise is carried on throughout the novel, as the reader is continually forced to judge the characters’ actions based on whether or not God exists and whether His existence necessitates obedience and respect.
The second part of Wasiolek’s essay examines Dmitri and Katerina’s relationship. The first point that he makes is that their relationship is full of irregularities, specifically on the part of Katerina. Her actions toward Dmitri continually contradict each other. “Her fitful character sweeps her from love to hate, generosity to spite, arrogance to submissiveness” (816). Her actions seem to encourage him to both love and hate her. After studying the nature of Katerina’s love for Dmitri, Wasiolek attempts to ascertain the reasons behind her actions, turning to the first encounter between Dmitri and Katerina for explanation. At this meeting, Dmitri gives Katerina the money without getting anything in return, after which they exchange low bows. Wasiolek suggests that these bows completely humiliate Katerina, for she has previously considered herself of a much higher quality than Dmitri. Now, however, he has done a respectable thing for her, and she must return it. Her pride is severely injured by his act of sacrifice, and it is this that causes her actions from that time forward to be what they are. “Is it any wonder, then, that she is obsessed, from this point on, with only one idea: to save Dmitri, to sacrifice herself wholly and fully, to repay the burning insult of sacrifice with the burning insult of sacrifice” (818). In order to fulfill her need to be noble, Katerina forgives all of Dmitri’s wrongs against her. In fact, at times she even encourages him to act in ways that will debase her so that she can forgive him in the name of love. However, Dmitri despises this love and feels persecuted by the forgiveness of Katerina, a concept that she cannot understand. Wasiolek continues to explicate Katerina’s love for Dmitri in terms of laceration. He asserts that what Dostoevsky meant by this term was “a purposeful and pleasurable self-hurt” (820). Katerina uses “love” for Dmitri to fulfill her own purposes, to build up her pride in her own goodness.
Wasiolek’s analysis of these two aspects of The Brothers Karamazov is very accurate and complete. My initial reaction upon completion of the study of his thoughts was one of general agreement. However, the more I considered his words, the more one aspect of his essay intrigued me. Because this one aspect of the article drew me to greater reflection than any of the other parts combined, it shall be the focus of my discussion from this point forward. The point of disturbance to which I am referring is the question of Wasiolek’s motives in including examination of both Ivan’s religious views and the relationship between Dmitri and Katerina in his essay. In other words, what is the relationship between these two seemingly unrelated aspects of the novel that would induce Wasiolek to critique them both together? Wasiolek does not answer this question, but leaves his readers to approach its answer on their own. I believe that he provides sufficient clues throughout the text for the reader to infer an answer though.
The greatest unifying concept between the two sections of Wasiolek’s essay is the idea of laceration. Wasiolek goes into great detail to explain Katerina’s laceration for Dmitri, and then mentions briefly in concluding that Ivan also practices laceration. I think that it would have been very interesting for Wasiolek to explore this idea more, for everything else in his essay builds into it. Katerina and Ivan’s lacerations are very similar, for they are both based on a willingness to accept humiliation and even condemnation for what they perceive to be a higher goal. Katerina lacerates herself to Dmitri in attempt to restore her pride and nobleness after he bows to her, while Dmitri lacerates himself to God because he believes that God is unjust. As is made clear in the Grand Inquisitor scene, he would rather suffer condemnation by denying Christ than follow a God who allows great suffering and injustice to occur. Ivan feels that God has made the earthly life too difficult for the multitudes to truly be virtuous and happy at the same time. “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue” (Dostoevsky, 233). Katerina and Ivan are both proud, and they are angry that an action was done for them that cannot be justified or explained logically (Dmitri’s freely loaning the money and God’s sacrifice for man’s sins). For them, acceptance of these things is akin to humiliation and an acquiescence to their weakness and dependency.
Though the previous paragraph explains why Katerina and Ivan lacerate themselves, it does not explain why Dostoevsky includes these two examples of laceration in his novel, nor why Wasiolek includes them in his essay. I think that the answer, at least from a Christian perspective, is evident in the difference between Katerina and Ivan. Their difference is this: while Katerina is the making a sacrifice for the purpose of laceration, Ivan is rejecting the sacrifice of another for the sake of laceration. This difference is key. In order to explain its significance, it is helpful to turn one’s comparison from Katerina and Ivan to Dmitri and Ivan, for they are the ones who both reject the sacrifice. First of all, Ivan rejects Christ’s sacrifice because of his pride. As Wasiolek’s essay makes clear, Ivan believes that if God exists He should be manifested in all areas of society (expressed in Elder Zosima’s cell) and should be understandable to man. Because these things are not true to Ivan, he rejects the idea of God on principle2E He has been given the freedom by Christ to do this. Dmitri, on the other hand, cannot reject Katerina’s sacrifice. He is forced to suffer under her pride. The significance is that Christ’s sacrifice is perfect and can be rejected, while Katerina’s sacrifice is selfish and harmful and cannot be rejected. The difference in the actions of Dostoevsky’s characters makes a statement about the nature of love. True love is not laceration; rather it is quite the opposite, for love is not proud or self-seeking and does not aim to harm. Our human love can never fulfill this completely, for only in Christ is there the example of absolutely pure love.
In conclusion, the original thought of the combined importance of these two sections of the novel must be revisited. The preceding discussion has shown that they are significantly related and that together they make a profound statement about the vast difference between human nature and the love of Christ, thus answering one of Dostoevsky’s main questions about the nature of God and religion.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Ed. Ralph E. Matlaw. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.
Wasiolek, Edward. “The Brothers Karamazov: Idea and Technique.” 813-21.
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