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Nature of Crime in The Brothers Karamazov
The central act in The Brothers Karamazov is the murder of father Fyodor Karamazov. As such, the novel could be thought of as a crime story, the purpose of which is to find out who committed the heinous act of parricide. Central to any crime story, however, are three important elements: first, is the process of finding out who perpetrated the crime, the “whodunit” part; second, is the determination of what that individual is responsible for or guilty of; and third, is the verification that the crime was committed under the individual’s free-will. This novel, however, does not fulfill any of the three elements of the traditional crime story. Instead, Dostoyevsky sets out to write in The Brothers Karamazov a crime where more than one person is guilty but where it is also unclear what each person is guilty of; it is a story that examines the assumption of free-will and the implication that has on our judgment of the crime. While the story starts out with the Ivan’s theory of “if there is no immortality of the soul, then…everything is lawful” (90), it ultimately swings to the other extreme of “every one is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything” (328). Dostoyevsky, however, through the novel’s indeterminate ending, rejects both these extremes and suggest that the real nature of crime and guilt is somewhere between two theories.
The first element of crime that Dostoyevsky examines and rejects is the traditional “whodunit” part of a crime story, that is, the idea that there must be one person who caused and carried out the offense. Yet, in The Brothers Karamazov, the line between who is guilty and who is innocent is not that easy to draw. It is true that there is a trial where Dmitri Karamazov, the eldest brother, is accused and convicted of killing the father. Although all evidence seems to point the other way, it turns out, as Dmitri always proclaimed, that he “is innocent of [his] father’s blood” (870). The actual murderer is Fyodor Karamazov’s illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, who confesses to Ivan that “I did kill him” (725) and showed him the three thousand roubles he also stole. At this point, a traditional murder mystery would have been solved. Smerdyakov is the killer and the one guilty of the crime. Yet, in this story, the murderer proclaims his innocence sincerely. Smerdyakov tells Ivan, “You are the murderer! I was only your instrument, your faithful servant, and it was following your words I did it” (721). Smerdyakov was inspired by Ivan’s theory of “all things are lawful” (730) without God, and believed Ivan “wanted [him] to do it, and went away [to Tchermashnya] knowing all about it” (725). Suddenly, what seems to be a straightforward murder mystery becomes much more complicated. Who is responsible for the crime? Dmitri confessed at one point that he “meant to kill [his father], and perhaps I really might have killed him” (590). Ivan ultimate comes to terms with his implicit guilt in the crime, for “if [Smerdyakov] is the murderer…then I am the murderer, too” (714). Indeed, the whole town wanted and rejoiced in Fyodor’s death, as Lise points out, “everyone loves his having killed your father” (673). Dmitri is the one convicted of the crime at the trial, but in a way, isn’t everyone partly guilty? Everyone wanted old Karamazov dead – does it matter so much who did the physical act?
If everyone is guilty to some degree, it raises the question of exactly what each person is guilty of. Is Dmitri guilty of the same thing as Smerdyakov or Ivan? Clearly, Smerdyakov is guilty of physically committing the murder, yet, he did so because he thought he was following Ivan’s orders. But what exactly is Ivan guilty of? For having a philosophy that “all is permitted if there is no God”? Smerdyakov tells Ivan that by going to Tchermashnya “with no reason, simply at [his] word, it shows that you must have expected something from me” (712). But is Ivan then guilty of simply leaving town at Smerdyakov’s request? The murder demonstrates that it is hard, if not impossible, to pin responsibility on someone for causing a crime. Everyone’s action is so interconnected to everyone else’s, is influenced by so many factors that it is foolish to say only one person is responsible for the murder. Dmitri, although he did not physically kill his father, decides he too is guilty after having a dream where babies are crying out of hunger and cold. Dmitri asks “why is the babe poor?” (657) and accepts that “it’s for that babe that I’m going to Siberia. I am not a murderer, but I must go to Siberia!” (657). Dmitri believes he is in some way responsible for another’s suffering. Here, he rejects Ivan’s philosophy – that if everything is permitted, then no one can be guilty or accountable for anything – instead, Dmitri embraces a concept of shared responsibility which stems from the belief that we are all interconnected and our actions impact many others. This is a philosophy advocated by Father Zossima who believes that “every one is really responsible to all men and for all men and for everything” (328). As the moral compass of the novel, Father Zossima seems to be telling us that we are all implicated in the injustice of this world. However, another way of saying we are all responsible for everything is that each of us is responsible for nothing. That is, Father Zossima’s theory takes away the individuality of crime and guilt – if we’re already responsible for “everything”, then where is the accountability for the person who commits a crime? Thus, we can see that Father Zossima’s and Ivan’s theories are really two sides of the same coin – both acquit the individual of the responsibility of crime.
In order for a person to be guilty of a crime, that person must commit that crime under free-will, yet free-will as a concept is attacked several times in The Brothers Karamazov. Most famously, Ivan in his Grand Inquisitor story claims that “nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom” (286). Humans need bread and material security, instead of free-will and the burden that comes with the autonomous exercise of one’s mind and judgment. Ivan believes that we are all weighed down with “the fearful burden of free choice” (289) and look for someone to take that burden away from us and want to “again [be] led like sheep” (292). “All that man seeks on earth”, according to Ivan, is “someone to worship, someone to keep his conscience, and…universal unity” (293). Thus, to Ivan, submission and obedience to higher authority is the ideal antithesis to the burden of free choice. Not only Ivan, however, but Father Zossima also advocates a rejection of individual autonomy in favor of obedience to higher authority – that is what the elder system is founded upon. An elder is someone “who tool your soul, your will, into his soul and his will” (27). When you choose your elder, you “renounce your own will and yield it to him in complete submission, complete self-abnegation” (28). However, by renouncing one’s free-will, one also cannot be held accountable for any crime or wrongful deeds, since there cannot be guilt and responsibility when there is no free-will. By challenging the assumption of free-will, Dostoyevsky is also challenging the nature of crime. For when Smerdyakov tells Ivan that he was “only [Ivan’s] instrument, [his] faithful servant” (721), the reader is asked to reevaluate Smerdyakov’s guilt if he indeed killed the father because he thought he was obeying Ivan’s command
It seems that Dostoyevsky, through the murder of father Karamazov, questions the three central tenets of any traditional crime story: that there is usually one person responsible, that we are usually clear on what the guilt is, and that the crime is committed under free-will. However, what is the implication of all this? It seems that the novel starts out with Ivan’s theory of “all is permissible without God” but gradually rejects it in favor of Father Zossima’s theory of shared guilt. This explains why Dmitri, although he did not physically commit the murder, accepts the punishment nonetheless because he believes he has a responsibility for more than himself and his actions, that he has a stake in the baby crying out of hunger, that he is responsible in part for all the injustice in the world. Yet, this theory also is weak, for if we are all responsible, then the accountability of individual crimes gets erased and we end up being responsible for no individual action. Moreover, if it is true that Dmitri should accept the guilt and crimes of all others, then why does he try to escape at the end of the novel? Ultimately, he rejects Father Zossima’s theory of bearing responsibility for all evil that is perpetrated in this world.
The Brothers Karamazov seems to offer us two theories of crime and nature of guilt and responsibility. While on the surface, the two seem very different – one which advocates that all is lawful and there is no individual responsibility and another that advocates that we should all bear responsibility for each other’s actions. Yet, ultimately, the two theories prove to be similar and both are rejected by the author by the end. What is left in its place? It seems that while Dostoyevsky have rejected the two extreme takes of human nature and crime, he does not offer a convincing alternative. Just like the ending of the novel, where everything is left indeterminate (whether Dmitri successfully escapes, whether Ivan survives, etc), this question too, is left up to the reader. Is there a middle ground between rejecting God and responsibility and having to embrace shared guilt and responsibility for all evil?
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