An Examination of Strain in The Brothers Karamazov In Order to Find the “Man in Man” In Dostoevsky’s epic work, The Brothers Karamazov, a number of ideas, central to the novel, present themselves as themes that surface throughout the text, offering a glimpse into the man in man. In citing Strakhov, Bakhtin reveals the method Dostoevsky uses to arrive at the core of humanity: “With full realism to find the man in man… I am called a psychologist: that is not true, I am only a realist in a higher sense, that is, I portray all the depths of the human soul.” Dostoevsky finds the man in man precisely because of this heightened realism, in which he allows his characters to step out of the molding of a type, and to act rather as complete entities in and of themselves.
His ability to portray complete and human characters serves as the means by which Dostoevsky illuminates not only the complexity, but also the simple truths in the human condition. He illuminates them most brightly and most lucidly in his portrayal of nadrivi—strains. His contemporaries were right to call him a psychologist, for on the surface, it seems that Dostoevsky employs his understanding of the human psyche in crafting his characters. According to Robert L. Belknap, “the nadryv causes a person to hurt himself in order to hurt others, or perversely, to hurt others in order to hurt himself.” The strains that some characters toil under stem from a distinct and complex combination of pride and suffering, or to clarify, a pride in suffering.
Dostoevsky masterfully utilizes his craft to convey the complexity of emotion and struggle that constitute the strain. Truly, only a master of human psychology would understand the swelling of pride, and even perverse joy in the face of self-induced suffering. The very notion that the strains are self-induced, and not imposed by another, adds to their complexity and depth: why would someone purposely rupture themselves by assuming a burden too large for them? The answer Dostoevsky offers seems to involve pride. Belknap argues, “the nadryv is a twisted response to wealth and benefits received, or at least offered.” Pride in the self-destructive nature of the suffering brings the sufferer a happiness in their pain. They cause themselves harm but believe that they do so to sacrifice for a higher purpose: a selfish martyrdom.
This martyrdom serves as a source of pride in suffering. If a selfish martyrdom served as the extent of the development of those characters who suffered strains, then Dostoevsky’s critics would have been justified in calling him a psychologist. They overlook, as he contends in the quotation, that more transpires in his work than a mere depiction of inner struggle and strain. His characters do not remain in stasis, but rather they evolve and grow as their understanding of themselves and the world does. They move beyond the psychological molds they should occupy and they transform and progress just as fully human characters would. Essentially, Dostoevsky’s realism stems from the idea that neither psychology nor Dostoevsky himself can finalize his characters. Alyosha and his meeting with Captain Snegiryov. The meeting between Alyosha and the captain clearly and simply embodies the essential aspects of strain. The self-inflicted suffering, intended also to hurt another, originates in Captain Snegiryov’s pride. During their encounter, Alyosha attempts to give the captain two hundred rubles as a compensation from Katerina Ivanova for the outrageous behavior of Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov.
The money Alyosha wants the captain to accept essentially amounts to generosity driven by pity. In their conversation by the stone near the outskirts of town, both the captain and Alyosha agree that the money would serve as an invaluable means of escape for the captain and his family from the town in which they currently live. Faced with the prospect of receiving the two hundred rubles, the captain allows himself to dream of what good might come of it, especially for Ilyushechka: “[D]o you know, perhaps now Ilyushka and I will indeed realize our dream: we’ll buy a horse and a covered cart, and the horse will be black, he asked that it be black, and we’ll set off as we were picturing it two days ago.” The captain’s undeniable enthusiasm for his dream stems from his perception that with just this little money he could make a new start for his family in another town. Alyosha makes the mistake of reminding him that the two hundred rubles would be given out of a pity-engendered generosity by allowing his own enthusiasm for the captain and his family’s future to get out of hand.
He remarks that more money will come, however much the captain needs, and essentially that others will provide everything for him. Sounding too much like charity, this description of the possible future, which instills a helpless feeling in the captain, sparks his strain. Instead of accepting the money, and with it, a new future for himself and his family, the captain crumples the notes and stomps on them with his heel to show his disdain. His pride will not allow him to accept the charity, even if the generosity of others would help him and his family a great deal: “‘And what would I tell my boy, if I took money from you for our disgrace?’” This dialogue clearly depicts both the prideful and self-inflicted aspects of strains. Captain Snegiryov’s refuses money that would undoubtedly help his situation because he feels that doing so would jeopardize his dignity. He denies himself and his family believing he has done something courageous in not sacrificing his dignity. He also hurts Alyosha because he bears witness to the captains purposeful, and seemingly spiteful suffering.
Dostoevsky includes other simple examples of strain, which also contain their differences, but they all contain similar elements which interact with both the strained characters and those around them. Previous to this scene in the novel, Katerina Ivanova displays her own strain in a discourse between herself, Ivan, and Alyosha. She discloses her desire for recognition as Dmitri’s benefactor. Her desire runs deeper than this, however, as her statements reveal: “I shall go to another town, anywhere you like, but I will watch him all my life, untiringly. …I will be his god, to whom he shall pray—that, at least he owes me for his betrayal and for what I suffered yesterday because of him.” Katerina wishes to sacrifice herself tirelessly for Dmitri because of her need to have his gratitude. Ivan rightly recognizes that this desire comes out of pride: “And the more he insults you [Katerina], the more you love him.
That is your strain. …But you need him in order to continually contemplate your high deed of faithfulness, and to reproach him for his unfaithfulness. And it all comes from your pride.” Katerina’s pride seems subtly different from Captain Snegiryov’s in that, instead of trying to maintain dignity, however selfishly, as the captain does, Katerina seeks revenge for the gratitude she was forced to show Dmitri in their dealings in the past. By sacrificing her entire self to Dmitri, she feels that her actions would finally trump his past kindness, thus allowing her self-rupturing to cause Dmitri pain from an acceptance of her kindness. Even if he does not recognize her actions, however, the strain still serves the paradoxical role that it does for many: it eases one suffering by creating another. For the captain, it eased the pain of his humiliation by allowing him to sacrifice in rejecting pitying charity even though it could have helped him and his family.
In some cases, it even elevates the sense of sacrifice and pride into a sense of false martyrdom. The Grand Inquisitor illustrates such a case because of his aspirations for humanity. The Inquisitor convinces himself that his lies can serve as the basis for the happiness of others. His martyrdom proves false precisely because it rests on a lie: he and the clergy hold the truth and true salvation lies in obedience to them and in sacrificing freedom. By alleviating the burdens of trying to emulate the perfection of Christ, the Grand Inquisitor feels that he restores happiness to those whom he graces with the freedom from responsibility. Because the Inquisitor believes he does a service for humanity, and because he argues his case eloquently, Dostoevsky creates a character who wishes to enslave humanity, yet, at the same time, one who does not immediately elicit a loathsome response because he subtly deceives.
The Grand Inquisitor believes he and the clergy sacrifice for the benefit of all: “‘Have we not, indeed, loved mankind, in so humbly recognizing their impotence, in so lovingly alleviating their burden and allowing their feeble nature even to sin, with our permission?’” The Grand Inquisitor himself, however, admits his own evil in that he confesses proudly that for the sake of humanity he has allied himself with the devil, and has led his unwitting flock into a blameless sinfulness. He sees himself as suffering, much like a strain, because while his followers remain blameless, since they know no better, the burden of freedom and truth rest on his and the clergy’s shoulders: “‘This conceit will constitute our suffering, for we shall have to lie.’”
His strain comes from a prideful belief that he can teach and relieve the suffering of humanity more effectively than Christ; not to the same end as Christ, but to an end he perceives as more rewarding—earthly human happiness. His pride in the face of Christ’s generosity leads him to a strain-like situation in which the perceived inability for the Grand Inquisitor to match the standard Christ has set causes him to choose to suffer in another way. He ruptures by denying himself salvation, but he attempts to alleviate this pain by believing that he martyrs himself for the sake of others. The realism of Dostoevsky’s work, that allows him to find the man in man in The Brothers Karamazov directly involves Dmitri, his strain, and his eventual transformation. In the character of Dmitri, strain clearly presents itself, but because he evolves in the novel, Dmitri overcomes his strain, transforming it into understanding.
He realizes the mistake of his pride and begins to accept a guilt for all. With the help of Alyosha, Dmitri discovers the man in man within himself. Dmitri’s strain rests in the money he carries around his neck throughout most of the novel. In a conversation with the authorities, Dmitri reveals the secret of his strain, and why he torments himself with half of Katerina Ivanova’s money: “I go on a spree and spend only fifteen hundred out of the three thousand—half in other words. The next day I go to her and bring her the other half: ‘Katya, take this half back from me, a villain and a thoughtless scoundrel….’ Well what am I in that case? Whatever you like, a beast, a scoundrel, but not a thief, not finally a thief….” Dmitri makes a clear distinction between a scoundrel and a thief. This difference represents the key to his salvation. He feels that if he stays merely a scoundrel, he has not fallen too far from grace. “‘Any man can, and perhaps is a scoundrel, but not any man can be a thief, only and arch-scoundrel can be that.’” Ensuring that he maintains a chance to prevent a transformation into an arch-scoundrel makes him try to weather the torment of the reminder of his deeds—the money around his neck.
Dmitri’s strain, however, definitely takes its toll. When he feels that he will never return the money and has finally condemned himself as a thief, he fights in the tavern with the captain, and he beats his father. Dmitri’s troubles depict most clearly the self-rupturing common to all of the strains. He holds on to the money proudly, and sometimes foolishly, hoping that it will redeem him. He pursues his strain, hoping to avoid guilt, but at the same time driving himself nearly mad over the potential of condemnation or salvation that hangs in the form of a strip of cloth around his neck. Dmitri’s freedom from strain does not occur until he recognizes his pride and accepts his guilt. He does not only accept the guilt for stealing Katerina’s money, but more generally, he accepts a communal guilt—a feeling that he remains responsible for others, not just himself.
This enlightenment occurs in the dream of the Wee One. In the vivid imagery of the scene he witnesses, Dmitri comes to understand his responsibility—his guilt—in the suffering of others. His statement to the authorities just before they take him away serves as a testament to Dmitri’s understanding: “‘I accept punishment not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him, and might well have killed him….’” From this point forward, even during his trial, Dmitri exhibits a marked calm that seems to stem from this new understanding of the guilt for all. The transformation of Dmitri serves as one of the strongest testaments to the realism and unfinalizability of the novel. A tormented character escapes his suffering and finds peace in his punishment.
While Dostoevsky’s revelation of the man in man through Dmitri demonstrates the realism of the character, Dostoevsky adds another dimension to the “psychology” of the novel. Alyosha’s conversation with Dmitri in the hospital, after the court convicts him of patricide demonstrates the extent to which Dostoevsky writes with “‘Realism, gentlemen, the realism of actual life!’” In the same novel in which the acceptance of guilt transforms and saves the sanity of one of its major characters, this cardinal idea is trumped by a conversation between two brothers. Out of concern for Dmitri, Alyosha tries to convince his brother that the assumption of communal guilt could overwhelm him: “Listen, then: you’re not ready, and such a cross is not for you. Moreover, unready as you are, you don’t need such a great martyr’s cross. …You wanted to regenerate another man in yourself through suffering; I say just remember that other man always, all your life, and wherever you escape to—and that is enough for you.”
Alyosha does not speak as a substituted voice for the author’s ideas, espousing communal guilt. Rather, he speaks as a concerned brother, worried that Dmitri might lose all faith if he tries to undertake too great a burden. He understands that to accept wholly the significance of communal guilt would take a Christ-like holiness. Merely a man, Dmitri could not burden himself with the entirety of the guilt, or else it might become another strain for him, or worse yet, he might reject the idea and blame those who condemned him for his suffering. Alyosha’s concerned dialogue with Dmitri undeniably illustrates that the novel does not merely contain an orchestration of ideas in order to arrive at a predetermined authorial goal. It represents the realism of actual life in the discourse between characters and the ideas they embody.
The Brothers Karamazov details the lives of three Russian brothers and their relationships. In their interactions with each other, with those around them, and within themselves, Dostoevsky finds the man in man. He uses dialogue and discourse to depict their lives with a deep realism that infuses the novel with the oft elusive quality of truth. In naming and depicting the relationship of strains to the individuals they burden, Dostoevsky captures the pride and pain involved in his characters’ suffering. He captures it, but he does not finalize his characters with it, or with any other psychology. The realism in his work allows them to develop and transform as any true human being could
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