Posted by: Sally Ingraham | April 15, 2010

The Brothers Karamazov: Book Two

Bros Kby Fyodor Dostoevsky
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I read this 160 page section in one sitting, on the first night of the reading marathon at Jesup Memorial Library. Was it just me, or did almost nothing happen for that entire 160 pages? Yes, Alyosha declares his (sudden) love for Lise, Ivan takes off for Moscow, and the Elder dies, but that could have been a matter of several pages. Instead, the monologues kicked into high gear, and wow, people talked. And talked. And talked.

The expansion of some of the book’s main themes was interesting at points, Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor speech was astonishing, a few funny characters made appearances (tell me you too had to giggle at Father Ferapont!) but whoa, slam on the breaks, full stop – what was all that about the Elder at the end of the section? The stuff about his life was pretty good, but did we really need the ‘Talks and Homilies’ too? I’m intrigued by the character, but didn’t find the last chapter very illuminating and besides, he dies, he exits the story…! Granted my eyes were literally going cross-eyed at this point, 2:00 in the morning and at the end of a 6 hour reading stint. 🙂

I wasn’t able to work on my narrator questions because of the monologue heaviness of this section – he barely got a word in edgewise! I was pleased that Ivan spoke at such length though. What an interesting guy. He’s so disillusioned, and yet he clings to the idea that his youth will overcome anything – at least until he is 30. I like this bit:

“I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit…Sticky spring leaves, the blue sky – I love them, that’s all! Such things you love not with your mind, not with logic, but with your insides, your guts, you love your first young strength…”

Also interesting to me are Ivan’s thoughts about God, and how he doesn’t exactly not believe in God -‘ “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.” ‘ Ivan’s rejection of a world where innocent children suffer, in the hope of future harmony, and his refusal to be himself, through his suffering and evil deeds, the manure for someone’s future harmony is especially gripping. It is fascinating to look at a person who has grown up and lived, steeped in specific religious beliefs, throw them away because they just don’t make sense. His whole being cannot accept the idea that when the end times come, such a scene as this will take place: ‘ “…the mother and the torturer whose hounds tore her son to pieces embrace each other, and all three cry out with tears: ‘Just art thou, O Lord’…” ‘ Not fair, not just, not possible in Ivan’s eyes for this mother to forgive, or even to have the right to forgive. It’s too high a price for harmony. And where is this hell, and where this harmony – where do the tormentors receive their just desserts and where do those who have suffered receive their reward? Ivan rejects it all, although his questions remain for the most part unanswered, and his head is a mess of fragmented ideas.

“It’s not that I don’t accept God…I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”

As if that’s not enough to keep Ivan awake at night, there’s the whole nightmare/vision of the Grand Inquisitor – which I feel entirely incapable of tackling this morning! Suffice it to say that I identify with Ivan’s religious struggle, and recognize his love for those sticky leaves that come out in the spring!

Alyosha continues to be the vessel that carries these stormy waters, the fellow who’s all ears when everyone else gets monologuing, and he’s a dear. Dmitri has momentarily disappeared, papa Karamazov nurses his broken head, the servant Smerdyakov goes about smirking, and most of the female characters in this section have hysterics of some sort. The plot has progressed only minimally, and I truly can’t imagine where the story will go from here. But I intend to find out! See you next Thursday for more from the Karamazovs. 🙂


  1. Nothing happens! To some critics, “The Grand Inquisitor” is the only thing that happens in the entire book. One of the earliest books about D., for example is V. V. Rozanov’s Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor (1894).

    To Russian Orthodox crtics, the Elder Zosima episodes are exactly the point of the book. The rest is all – (waves hands vaguely).

    • Haha, okay, so a few things do happen! I did feel in my gut that the Grand Inquisitor section was probably important, but I was definitely overloading the brain at that point and I couldn’t get myself to take it seriously. However, when I was scanning through it again before writing this post I thought I should probably read it again at some point. I know I would find it more than a little intriguing if I focused on it for a moment! And I do realize that I need (even want) to do a little more research about the book and it’s history. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. The books of Victor Terras have been very helpful – e.g., Reading Dostoevsky, Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

    • Cool, thanks for the tip!

  3. Haha, I remember reaching this point in the book. At the time it was such a novelty to me – “Hmm, it seems that nothing happens in this book. Fascinating!” I wonder what my reaction would be now that I have a whole analytic schema to apply to the “nothing happens” novelistic genre. 😉

    • What’s funny to me is that I totally dig the ‘nothing happens’ genre usually – but that’s usually because the writing itself is completely satisfying. Not the case with Dostoevsky, unfortunately!

  4. I have to imagine that boring “nothing happen” segments are a little bit troubling in an 800-page text, Sarah! I feel your pain even though I’m only reading along vicariously through y’all right now. Better luck next week!

    • At annoys me that I felt that way about the section, since usually I do very well with books where nothing happens! But you’re right – progress did seem to be stalling out through that chunk, and there’s still so much ahead of me! I’m already halfway through the next section though, so better luck is definitely with me now. 🙂

  5. If I wasn’t a Christian, I’d totally buy into Ivan’s ideology. He sounds exactly like my friends who don’t believe, because he can’t equate God with good with our fallen world. From a human perspective, this makes sense. He just hasn’t made the ‘leap of faith’ yet, into a view which believes rather than asks.

    Ah, I tread into heavy waters here…I was fascinated, yet bored at times, with Ivan’s discourse. I could understand his worldly point of view, yet infuriated at his rebelliousness and refusal to see any point but his own.

    Zosima remains one of my favorite characters. It occurs to me that while Grigory was more of a father figure to Dmitri, Zosima is Alyosha’s father, more than Fyodor could ever have hoped to be.

    I wanted to comment here much earlier, I’m sorry I didn’t arrive until Saturday, but thank you, Sarah, for reading with me and sharing your insights. I’m learning so much from the reviews, and comments, particularly those of Amateur Reader whom I suspect should really be leading this discussion. 😉

    • I come from a very religious background, although I’m now at the age where I’ve got to question everything ( 🙂 ) so I can see both sides of the argument. And therefore I would argue that Alyosha in his turn refuses to see any point but his own! Don’t we all, in the end.

      I loved the story about Zosima’s earlier life. So interesting. 🙂

  6. Ah, now here we have what I find most startling about Karamazov. We all have trouble seeing points of view other than our own – all of us except for Fyodor Dostoevsky. He presents the strengths of ideas he opposes and the weaknesses of his own beliefs.

    There’s something about his imagination – he really throws himself into the psychology or belief system of his characters.

    • What an interesting insight. Thanks for pointing that out! My respect for Dostoevsky has risen somewhat, and in a startling way, as you say. Huh. *ponders*

  7. All these issues of narration and the author speaking through and not speaking through. I can appreciate the brilliance of the two sections representing doubt and faith as standalone pieces but they stand so starkly in the text given the tempo already set. Hmmm. Just keep reading, just keep reading is where I am.

    Finally got a post up! How goes your reading?

    • Yes, I couldn’t appreciate the theology and ideas as much as I might have if they hadn’t felt like inserts. But I understand now that I could have approached the text with a little more knowledge and it would have benefited my reading experience somewhat! Really must read the Grand Inquisitor passage again someday.

      As for my other reading, I’m on the brink of 200 pages with the Proust, and am glad to be back in Balbec. The Perec is easily my favorite book that I am reading right now. 🙂 How about you?

      • My favorite would have to be the Perec but only because the whole new and novel thing attracts me a little more right now than the comfortable and now familiar world of Proust. But love the Proust too. Dostoevsky (sorry Bellezza!) is a distant third but still very enjoyable. So going francophile is the answer I guess.

  8. I am once again late for the party! I kind of feel like in this book we are hearing the debate that has gone on in Dostoevsky’s own mind that eventually results in his own belief system. It’s sort of a struggle of faith that we see represented by different characters, but really they represent his own deep thoughts. I don’t know if that makes sense, but although I am a religious person, I feel pretty well represented by both Ivan’s and Zosimov’s philosophies. There’s an eternal tennis match going on inside my head! I envy those with absolute faith, like Alyosha and Zosimov.

    • A tennis match indeed! Nice image, and I would say that I agree with you on feeling that way myself most of the time.

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