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Revealing Traits of The Brothers Karamazov Through Secondary Characters

Being a parent, a teacher, and a writer, I’ve received my fair share of unsolicited advice. I’ve tucked some of the helpful bits into my memory. Others I’ve let slip away. As I began to prepare for this post, one came piece of advice came to mind from waaaaaay back in my dating days. I don’t remember who said it, but I do remember the gist of it: “Before you decide on a guy, watch how he treats his mother, because that’s how he’s going to treat you some day.”

Now, whether that advice is sound in all circumstances or not, (I’m certain someone out there can come up with situations in which it is not—after all, this is the internet!) there is something to be said for observing how people interact with others. Their actions can bear out the kind words they speak, or contradict them. (For the record, the way my husband treated his mom didn’t give me anything to worry about :))

During this summer’s Read Along of The Brothers Karamazov, I found it interesting how Dostoyevsky showed us just who these brothers were by the way they interacted with each other and with the secondary characters around them. (If you’re not familiar with the book, in my last post I gave a brief sum-up of the major plot points.)

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Interacting with Father Zosima

From the opening of the book, the author (as narrator, who interjects commentary throughout the novel) states that, even though he is not the first character described, Alyosha is the book’s protagonist. As the reader, I’ll admit, this left me poised and waiting for him to prove himself a protagonist that I could root for. Observing him in Father Zosima’s presence, I see that he has given himself over as novice under his elder, and though he is terribly embarrassed by his family’s behavior, (we hear about him shuddering at his father’s speech) he is quiet, allowing his elder to handle matters. When Father Zosima sends him off to his family, foreseeing that there is trouble on the horizon, Alyosha listens, even though he knows that Father Zosima will soon die and doesn’t wish to miss his chance to say goodbye. While Alyosha is the quietest character at this juncture, and rather passive, on the positive side he does show self restraint in his willingness to listen to his elder against his personal wishes—a trait that doesn’t seem common among his family members.

Ivan, on the other hand, comes into Father Zosima’s presence as an intellectual—if not an atheist, then certainly a skeptic. He bows politely, but does not receive the Father’s blessing. He doesn’t engage in the foolish talk of Fyodor and his other relative. However, he does have a interesting interchange with the elder that, I think, is telling. In discussing Ivan’s claim that if there is no immortality of the soul there can be no virtue and no sin, Father Zosima points out that Ivan doesn’t necessarily believe all of the things he writes. Ivan, in a gesture that the other characters note is unusual, admits that the Father may be right, to which Father Zosima, after acknowledging the struggles Ivan has, replies:

But thank the Creator who had given you a lofty heart capable of such suffering; of thinking and seeking higher things, for our dwelling is in the heavens. God grant that your heart will attain the answer on earth, and may God bless your path.

The Brothers Karamazov, page 60*

After this understanding answer by the elder, Ivan does accept his blessing, kissing his hand. It is interesting to see that Ivan, who seems so sure in his own ideas, seems to have a chink in his armor of logic exposed here. I thought back to this moment later in the book, when Ivan discovers that his philosophy on amoral behavior has terrible consequences. Smerdyakov uses it as license to murder Fyodor Pavlovich, crediting (or blaming) Ivan for giving him justification for the crime.

As for Dmitri, he arrives late to the meeting because Smerdyakov told him the wrong time. Still, on entering he stops for a low bow, to apologize, and to receive the Father’s blessing. Of course, he’s soon busy arguing with his father and the meeting comes to nothing. While Dmitri can show restraint and respect, it only extends so far before he looses control.

Interacting with Madame Hohlakov

We first meet Madame Hohlakov under the book heading “A Woman of Little Faith,” and indeed, though she has come to thank the elder for helping her daughter and professes her great love for God and desire to do right, she seems to be the sort of person who likes to talk more about good deeds than doing them, particularly as her devotion to Father Zosima fades as soon as he passes away without any great miraculous sign to satisfy her.

She has Katerina Ivanova staying with her, and so all three brothers wind up visiting. While Ivan is a great favorite with Madam Hohlakov (she wants him to marry Katerina Ivanova instead of Dmitri) the scenes that stand out with her involve Alyosha and Dmitri.

First, Alyosha, in his role as peace keeper, has returned to her house after suffering quite a deep bite on his finger from a local boy (more on that in the next section.) As he stands there with his blood slowly soaking the handkerchief wrapped around his finger, she talks—with interjections from her daughter—for two pages until, at last, Alyosha manages to get a word in edgewise:

I should be very grateful,” Aloysha interrupted suddenly, “if you could give me a clean rag to bind up my finger with. I have hurt it, and it’s very painful.”

page 164

Again, we see Alyosha’s patience, but that it does have some limit! He also has a chance to show a bit of stubbornness in dealing with Madame H. Her daughter, Lise, writes him a letter confessing her love about midway through the book, and they discuss getting married someday. Madame H, who has been eavesdropping, demands the letter and his assurance that he’s not serious about this “impossible, unthinkable” idea. He refuses, and continues on his way. While Alyosha is the gentlest of the brothers and a peacemaker, he is not a pushover.

One of my favorite scenes with Dmitri also involves this loquacious lady. In his quest for 3,000 rubles so that he can run off with Grushenka, he comes to Madam Hohlakov, thinking that perhaps she will make him a loan.

He asks her, and is thrilled at her response:

I will give you more, infinitely more than three thousand!” cried Madame Hohlakov, looking with a radiant smile at Mitya’s ecstasy.”

Pg 354

Dmitri (Mitya) is confused as he only needs 3,000. His confusion is finally cleared up three pages later, when Madame Hohlakov gets to the point in her incessant talking and clarifies matters.

Oh no, you misunderstood me, Dmitri Fyodorovich…I was talking of the gold mines….Oh, if you meant money, I haven’t any. I haven’t a penny.”

Selected portions, page 357

She has not really intended to GIVE him anything except advice—go work in the gold mines! While Dmitri is (understandably, I think) frustrated by all of this circular talk, he does no more than shout, spit, and leave. As he’s later accused of violent crimes, it is interesting that here, at least, he displays some self control. Sadly, he doesn’t always do so, which gets him into trouble. For example—

With Captain Snegiryov

In a recent scuffle with a local captain who had been hired by Fyodor Pavlovich for some mischief, Dmitri looses control entirely, dragging the man out into the street by his beard as the captain’s little son follows along, pleading for his father. An uncomplimentary look into where Dmitri’s impatience and temper can lead him, this is one of many scenes that makes it clear how people could imagine that Dmitri could loose control enough to commit murder.

Alyosha, on the other hand, encounters the son of the captain while a group of boys are throwing rocks at him. Attempting to intervene, Alyosha gets rocks thrown at him by the boy and his finger badly bitten, all because he bears the name “Karamazov.” In contrast to Dmitri, Alyosha does not lose his temper. Instead, he shows compassion, first determining why the child is so angry, then trying to help the family financially as they are nearly destitute. He even goes so far as to work towards a reconciliation between the boy, Ilyusha, and his classmates. As a matter of fact, it is this reconciliation that Dostoyevsky uses to wrap up the novel.

Though Ilyusha falls ill and dies, the other boys have become friends with him through Alyosha’s efforts. Unlike Fyodor Pavlovich, who abandoned his sons and lived his life only to serve himself, Alyosha has used his time to model kindness and to help these boys find compassion.

Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other! “

PG 717

With their Father

As both of the women Fyodor Pavlovich married have passed away, observing the brothers’ behavior toward their mother isn’t possible. However, their relationships with their father are, perhaps the most revealing ones in the novel.

Recall, their father abandoned them, took no interest in their upbringing, and enjoys playing the buffoon and shaming their family every chance he gets.

Dmitri is the obvious suspect in his father’s murder—they’ve already come to blows, and Dmitri has not been subtle about his loathing of Fyodor Pavlovich. He creeps to his father’s yard on the night of Fyodor Pavlovich’s murder, and watches his father peer out the window. The old man is looking for Grushenka, who he thinks might come that evening. On that night, Dmitri certainly had the motivation for murder in his heart and a useable weapon in his hand.

A horrible fury of hatred suddenly surged up in Mitya’s heart: “There he was, his rival, the man who had tormented him, had ruined his life!”

Pg 361

And yet, he does not strike the fatal blow. (If you believe his confession anyway, which I’m inclined to.)

Whether it was someone’s tears, or my mother prayed to God, or a good angel kissed me at that instant, I don’t know. But the devil was conquered. I rushed from the window and ran to the fence.”

Pg 436

While reckless Dmitri does his fair share of hurting people and causing trouble, in the end, he shows some restraint.

Ivan, on the other hand, while generally restrained and self controlled as he watches the conflict between his brother and his father, in an unguarded moment predicts the outcome and reveals his feelings about it to Alyosha.

One reptile will devour the other. And serve them both right, too.”

Pg 125

Ivan then hastily assures Alyosha that he’d protect their father. However, when Smerdyakov hints that it would be best for him to leave for a bit, hints that perhaps the situation will resolve itself while he’s gone, Ivan goes. And though he did not raise a violent hand against his father, and though he’s argued against the need for morality, the guilt eats away at his mind.

Finally, we come to Alyosha. His relationship with his father isn’t easy—Fyodor Pavlovich vacillates between excessive affection and mockery of his son’s beliefs. And yet, Alyosha spends the novel trying to make peace, to defend his family against each other. He refuses to judge himself as better than his family, stating instead that he is just the same as the rest of them, just perhaps a little further down on the “ladder” of corruption. Even as his father drunkenly rails and insults Alyosha’s faith, Alyosha offers grace. His father asks:

You’re not angry with my, Alyosha? My dear little Alexy!”

“No, I am not angry. I know your thoughts. Your heart is better than your head.”

Page 121

With 718 pages worth of material, there are many, many other examples of ways that Dostoyevsky highlights his main characters’ traits by their interactions with secondary characters—but I think that’s enough from me today. 🙂

Have you read the book? Can you think of other examples?

What about in other novels—have you come across any good examples of authors showing who their main characters are by the way they interact with others?

It’s a great writing technique, and when done well it adds so much to a story. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

For other thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov, check out Arti’s “Ripples” on the Read-Along page.

Looking ahead, I finally saw last year’s WWII film Greyhound, and I’m looking forward to reviewing it next week, as well as FINALLY sharing my new book’s cover with all of you! Thanks for stopping by.

*All page numbers are from the Dover Giant Thrift Edition of The Brother’s Karamazov, Copyright 2005.

2 thoughts on “Revealing Traits of The Brothers Karamazov Through Secondary Characters”

  1. I find the chapter of Dmitri trying to get 3K from Madame Hohlakov the funniest in the novel. Madame Hohlakov is totally playing him.

    Thanks for sharing your insights, Anne. They are valuable in understanding Dmitri, a character that’s riddled with contradictions. As you’ve so succinctly summarized, how Dmitri interacts with other characters shows his internal conflicts within himself. Surely self-control is a major issue, I also feel that Dostoevsky has packed into Dmitri’s character, the conflicts between faith and doubt, the quest for forgiveness and redemption pitted against self gratifications, the classic fight between the spirit and the flesh.

    Your analysis of Ivan interacting with Father Zosima also shows such conflicts within Ivan himself, even though his outward mode is a skeptic and intellectual.

    Alyosha is the author’s hero, and we understand why especially in the Epilogue, how he becomes a mentor and a role model for the younger generation, and a rescuer of the family name!

    Again, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Anne, adding much to our discussion of this literary masterpiece. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Arti, and for organizing this whole thing! I’m glad I could finally throw a few pebbles in the pond- better late than never?? It was a fascinating book to work through- thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

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