Book Review #14
Book Review #13
Book Review #12
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Constance Garnett
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov—the father of the family. At the time of the book he is an elderly widower. He has been a lecher all his life and is the father of the illegitimate son, Smerdyakov.
Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov (Mitya)—The passionate oldest son who is a veteran of the military and is entangled in two love interests: Katya and Grushenka.
Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov--The intellectual nihilist (2nd son) who loves Katya (unrequited) and is filled with contradictory feelings about his atheism and general worldview.
Alexei (Alyosha) Fyodorovich Karamazov--(3rd son). He is the spiritual center of the novel. He becomes a novice monk and then follows his mentor’s (the Elder Brother Zosima’s counsel) call for him to enter into the world and do good (= love his fellow humans).
Stinking Lizaveta—A young retarded girl who is treated as the village idiot. She dies giving birth to Smerdyakov. Most of the town believes that the father of the child is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who continually raped her over a period of time.
Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov--The illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov and Lizaveta. He is epileptic and is the real killer of Fyodor Karamazov. He was raised by Grigory Kutuzov and his wife Marfa (servants to Fyodor).
Grigory Kutuzov--servant to Fydor Pavlovich Karamazov. He and his wife, Marfa, raise Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov.
Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova (Grushenka)--At a young age she has an affair with a Polish officer who abandons her (thus ruining her “reputation”). She travels to another town and is taken on by a merchant as a mistress and then involves herself with Fyodor Karamazov and then with his son Dmitri. This causes much of the tension in the novel.
Katerina Ivanovana Verkhovtseva (Katya)--Dmitri’s finance until he turns to Grushenka. There was an early incident in which Katya needs money (before she realizes her wealth) in which she begs him for money so that she might redeem her father’s good name. This “goes against her intense pride.” She feels forever beholden to Dmitri so that she becomes his espoused. Her flip over this event makes her want to be Dmitri’s slave, but the more she wants him, the more he is moved to Grushenka. Her love-hate relationship includes showing some attention to Ivan and to her hysterical testimony at Mitya’s trial in which she produces a letter that seals his fate.
The Elder Monk, Brother Zosima--He is a revered monk (revered one who is treated as a saint and spiritual center). Alyosha is very close to him. In the novel we have two glimpses of him. In the first case we see many who come to him for advice and for healing. In the second case he is the spiritual advisor for Alyosha. He tells Alyosha to go out into the world—away from the monastery—to live in the world (including taking a wife and raising a family). When he dies, many are disappointed that his body smells just like any other corpse. What his followers wanted was a miracle in which his body would smell like a garden. Some questioned his spiritual status because of this. Alyosha was not so affected. But he followed the advice and gave up his monk’s clothes for lay attire and went out to the world and is the center of the rest of the novel.
Katerina Ospovna Khokhlakov (Madame Khokhlakov)--A wealthy lady in town who is also a friend of Katya. Her crippled daughter, Lise, is fixated upon Alyosha (who says he wants to marry her). She is rather coy showing affection and then proclaiming it all to be a joke.
Mikhail Osipovich Rakitin—a seminary acquaintance of Aloysha. Aloysha likes Rakitin mildly, but Rakitin despises Aloysha out of jealousy. Rakitin is a Nietzsche aficionado.
Ilyusha Snegiryov—a local school boy whose father is insulted and beaten by Dmitri Karamazov. He is taunted by his peers who throw stones at him. He bites the finger of Alyosha, but later befriends him before his early death.
Captain Snegiryov--Ilyusha’s father who no longer has a position and feels shame because of it. His son takes on the brunt of this as the boy tries to defend his father’s reputation against his school mates.
Nikolai Ivanov Krasotkin - (Kolya) A bold, intelligent young boy who claims to know who founded “Troy.” (This is a claim that cannot be verified since it is unknown). Kolya befriends Alyosha after Ilyusha becomes ill and is a positive element in the final scene in the book.
Fetyukovich--A renowned defense attorney from Moscow who represents Dmitri at the trial.
Ippolit Kirrillovich--The prosecuting attorney at Dmitri’s trial.
Structure of the Book:
Author’s Note & Book I: A Nice Little Family, Chapters 1–5
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering, Chapters 1–4
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering, Chapters 5–8
Book III: The Sensualists, Chapters 1–11
Book IV: Strains, Chapters 1–7
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapters 1–4
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapters 6–7
Book VI: The Russian Monk, Chapters 1–3
Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4
Book VIII: Mitya, Chapters 1–8
Book IX: The Preliminary Investigation, Chapters 1–9
Book X: Boys, Chapters 1–7
Book XI: Brother Ivan Fyodorovich, Chapters 1–10
Book XII: A Judicial Error, Chapters 1–14
Epilogue, Chapters 1–3
A brief summary: The novel begins with the family coming together in the town of their father after being apart for a while being in the care and employ of others. Each has a particular reason to be there. Dmitri wants to settle his inheritance with his father. Upon the death of their mother each child was to get 3,000 roubles. The tight-fisted Fyodor doesn’t want to do it—even though he’s worth 60,000-80,000 roubles. He is an evil man in several dimensions.
Aloysha is there because he is a novice at the local monastery.
Ivan is there perhaps for the same reason as Dmitri or to assist him.
One source of friction arises when Dmitri (who is engaged to Katya) has taken to Grushenka, instead. But Fyodor is also interested in Grushenka—even though he is old enough to be her father. Fyodor is a bad man.
The Karamazovs go the monastery to solicit the opinion of the elder Zosima. But Fyodor causes a ruckus and that nixes that idea. Aloysha seeks out Dmitri, who has been hiding in the garden, and the brothers talk. Dmitri tells the story of how Katya humbled herself to get money from Dmitri to redeem her father’s good name. After that, Katya devoted herself to Dmitri, who then asked her to marry him.
After a time, Dmitri falls for Grushenka, gets money (3,000 roubles) from the now wealthy Katya to carry on his affair with Grushenka.
Aloysha goes to his father’s house and finds Ivan, Fyodor, Smerdyakov, and Grigory engaged in a religious dispute. This is really a metaphorical confrontation on how each of them relates to the other. The only stand-out is the nihilist intellectual approach of Ivan. He represents the solely rational man. Out of nowhere Dmitri comes in and beats his father and runs away. [This is a sort of “red herring.”]
Aloysha also exits and goes to Katya who just happens to be entertaining Grushenka. But when Aloysha arrives, Grushenka insults Katya and is asked to leave. Katya’s maid hands Aloysha a note upon his departure. When Aloysha arrives at the monastery he finds the note is from Lise who declares her love for him (later she says it just a “joke”).
The next day Brother Zosima directs Aloysha to check on his family. Aloysha goes to his father who is angry to the point of being delusional about his other two sons. Aloysha leaves heading for Katerina Khokhlakov’s (and Lise) when he meets the Snegiryov family including the boy, Ilyusha, who had bit his finger viciously earlier in the day. Former Captain Snegiryov rejects Aloysha’s offer of charity. Aloysha is going back to his father’s house where he meets Smerdyakov who tells Aloysha that Ivan and Dmitri are having a conference at a local tavern.
Aloysha goes to the pub and finds Ivan alone. They dine together and Ivan defends his theological position via the poem: “The Grand Inquisitor”
“The Grand Inquisitor”: The narrator is Ivan with brief queries by Aloysha. In the narrative poem Christ comes back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition in the town of Seville, Spain. Christ performs miracles to establish his identity and the people praise him (reminiscent of Palm Sunday). But the authorities take this differently. The Inquisition hierarchy view Christ as a threat and arrest him and sentence him to death (just like the aftermath of Palm Sunday). The main problem that the Inquisitor has with Jesus mirrors the three temptations of Jesus by Satan at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the 40 days in the wilderness. In the end, it is Jesus’ doctrine supporting human free will that upsets the Inquisitor. “Non-freedom” is preferable from the viewpoint of a church that sees itself as a political institution (mirroring the social/political tensions in Russia at the time).
The ultimate judgment of the Inquisitor is that Jesus was wrong to give the answers he did to Satan. In fact, Satan was correct!
In this way, Ivan is purporting that the Church is Satan and antithetical to the doctrines of Jesus—and that the Church (in taking this position) is correct!
This is powerful nihilism in this context. It will provide intellectual support for the forthcoming Russian Revolution which will abolish the Church in Russia.
The novel now turns to Ivan. Ivan returns to his father where he first runs into Smerdyakov who insinuates that Fyodor may be vulnerable to murder. This upsets Ivan. The next morning Ivan’s father, Fyodor, asks Ivan to go to Chermashnya to get a price on some wooded land that Fyodor owns and to bargain a higher price. Ivan does go, but is not successful in the mission. He heads to Moscow.
We now turn to Aloysha who attends to his spiritual advisor, the Elder Zosima who is near death. Aloysha seeks direction in his life. Brother Zosima tells Aloysha his story of how he was once a soldier almost killed a man in a duel. This story is centered around what it means to be “brave.” It contrasts competitive, macho values vrs. strength of virtue. This difference marks the difference between those who appear to be good as oppose to those who actually are. This is a key point in the novel as Aloysha internalizes this and acts it out effectively. It makes Aloysha the hero of this tale.
The next day the Elder Zosima dies. Since the man was so revered in the region, people looked for a miracle to appear. But instead of a miracle the body decays as other bodies do. His monastic followers (including Aloysha) morn his passing by prayer and the reading of scriptures. [Note back to “The Grand Inquisitor” for the common folk miracles are important. But are they really important in the physical sense? Isn’t the character of a man much more important?]
Now Dmitri is out and about looking for 3,000 roubles (the amount he had taken from Katya). Both Kuzma Samsonov and Madame Khokhlakov turn him down. Then he heads to his father’s. He is consumed with the thought that Grushenka might be there with his father, but he gets a bird’s eye view through the window that no visitor is there so he decides to exit. Unfortunately, he runs into the servant Grigory who tries to restrain him. Dmitri extricates himself by hitting Grigory over the head causing profuse bleeding. Grigory screams, “Parricide!”
Dmitri returns to Grushenka's. He finds out from the servants that Grushenka has left for Mokroye to meet the Polish lover, who turned her over five years ago and thereby ruined her reputation. Dmitri rushes off to Mokroye, where Grushenka rejects her Polish lover (when she finds out that he will leave her with a financial inducement from Dmitri) and declares her love for Dmitri. They throw a party to celebrate, but the festivities come to an end when officials arrive to arrest Dmitri for the murder of his father.
The novel now returns to the story of Ilyusha Snegiryov. There is an incident in which Ilyusha believes that a needle that he had put in food that his dog ate had killed the dog. The pain of this contributes to Ilyusha becoming ill. Kolya, another boy in the school who is very bright, takes a liking to Aloysha who comes to visit. Aloysha rallies the very same boys who had thrown stones at Ilyusha when he had been defending his father. Kolya brings Ilyusha a dog that they convince the sick child was his old dog come back: that Ilyusha had not killed his dog. Despite this change in spirit, a Moscow doctor that Katerina (Katya) had paid for makes the prognosis that Ilyusha does not have long to live.
It is now time for Dmitri’s trial. Just before the trial Ivan questions Smerdyakov privately. The duplicitous servant admits to killing Fyodor and taking the three thousand roubles. Smerdyakov hands over the money to Ivan. Ivan and Smerdyakov talk about confessing in court: Ivan for wanting his father dead and Smerdyakov for doing it. Later that day Smerdyakov kills himself.
Dmitri’s case rests on the money. When he had taken 3,000 from Katya he had used ½ of it for a bender with Grusenka. The other half he had put in a pouch that he carried around his neck. After leaving his father and heading for Grusenka for another bender he spent a little less than the 1,500 left. There was no further money left on his person, so it would seem that he didn’t steal 3,000 from his father or there would be 3,000 on his person.
The case made by the prosecutor, Ippolit Kirrillovich, emphasized a certain psychological profile that would explain the “facts.” However what really made a difference is when Katerina (Katya) testified in an emotional outburst that she felt that Dmitri was seriously thinking about killing his father and had written a note to that effect when he was drunk the day before.
The defense, Fetyukovich a renowned lawyer, also used a psychological profile that made different fundamental assumptions. The crowd all thought that Dmitri would be acquitted. He wasn’t.
Ivan, who fell apart during his testimony, had gone a way towards setting up the proper bribes that might allow Dmitri to escape before going to Siberia. From there he would leave Russia for America with Grusenka. Katya would pay the bill.
Aloysha meets with Dmitri in jail. Aloysha give his moral judgment that it would be all right for Dmitri to follow Ivan’s plan. The novel ends before we find out if that is actually effected.
Then we go to the dying scene and wake of Ilusha with his twelve comrades (once antagonists) who are drawn together by Aloysha and Kolya. The group rallies around the grave site and Aloysha tells the boys that this is a sacred moment which will yield a memory that they should hold onto all their lives. It will give sacred meaning and life is all about finding and holding onto sacred meaning. The insight and goodness of Aloysha makes this final moment the ultimately most valuable moment in a novel filled with bitterness and sorrow.
Themes: One quick and easy dichotomy might be to contrast the “sensualists” (Book III) with Aloysha’s spiritualism (Books VI and VII). The way of the world is via competition and money. It is the exercise of power over others. But the use of extreme power is also dangerous because it can turn its back on the perpetrator as it does to Fyodor, Dmitri, and Smerdyakov. A tangent to this is to use intellect or perverse emotion to try and cope with life’s tragedies: Ivan, Katerina, and the early Kolya. Intellect is important but it is not the most important ingredient in the human soul.
Love, on the other hand, comes from the spirit and self-control (right conduct). Aloysha is the standard-carrier here. He is a transformational character who is not so good as to be “unreal.” Love truly does offer an option in times of crisis. And the humble execution of the same creates a real agent of positive social change.
Assessment: Dostoevsky is a fine writer. It is this reviewer’s opinion that The Brothers Karamazov is his best work. Further, I believe it to be one of the best novels ever written that I have read. When I first pursued this work forty years ago I was not able fully fathom the existential truth of the contrast of the three approaches: power via sensualism, power via reason, vrs. unconditional love. It can take a lifetime to understand how to weigh these options. Surely the way of the world is to lean toward the sensualist or rationalist, but though these roads may be the most powerful, they are not the most choiceworthy. Our only hope for survival as a species lies in unconditional love. This novel expresses via fictive narrative philosophy the truth of that normative proposition.
Attempted: *****/ Accomplished: *****
Book Review #11
Fydor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, tr. Constance Garnett.
Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (“Rodya,” “Rodka”)--Central character
Alyona Ivanovna –the old pawnbroker who Raskolnikov murders
Lizaveta Ivanovna--sister to the pawnbroker. She’s also murdered.
Nastasya Petrovna (“Nastenka,” “Nastasyushka”) –servant in the house where Raskolnikov rents his small room. She keeps him alive by bringing him soup and bread.
Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov (“Sonya,” “Sonechka”)--his love (daughter to Marmeladov)
Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov--Alcoholic civil servant. Sonya’s father.
Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladov--Sofya’s mother
Polina Mikhailovna Marmeladov (“Polya,” “Polenka,” “Polechka”)--the oldest daughter of Katerina Ivanovna from a previous marriage
Pulkheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikova--Raskolnikov’s mother
Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov (“Dunya,” “Dunechka”)--sister of Raskolnikov
Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin--Fiance to Dunya. That breaks-up thanks to Raskolnikov
Andrei Semyonovich Lebezyatnikov--Luzhin’s roommate. He is arrested for ninhilism.
Dmitri Prokofych Razumikhin--friend, marries Raskolnikov’s sister
Porfiry Petrovich –Magistrate. Raskolnikov’s foe. Has a keen interest in psychology
Ilya Petrovich (“Gunpowder”)--policeman Raskolnikov runs into after committing the murders. He eventually confesses to him at the end of the novel.
Nikodim Fomich--amiable chief of police
Nikolai Dementiev (“Mikolka”)--a painter at the house where Raskolnikov committed the murders. He is suspected of the murder and imprisoned. He later makes a false confession.
Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov--evil man who killed his wife (Marfa Petrovna Svidrigaïlova) by poisoning her. He rapes women and has designs on Raskolnikov’s sister. He kills himself.
The book begins with Raskolnikov full of resentment : his career as a law student is on hold because he has been giving away the money he has (from his mother) to various people who desperately need it. He puts others above himself. From Nietzsche’s standpoint this is false aestheticism. If we buy into this interpretative lens, then Raskolnikov needs to act.
Again, he chooses a social goal: to kill an old pawnbroker who makes money at the expense of poor, struggling people. In this way he might be a quasi-Napoleon. (Remember, from the Russian standpoint Napoleon was a rascal invader that got his just deserts.)
So Raskolnikov carefully plans and murders the pawn broker. Her sister comes in at the end and is murdered, too. Raskolnikov collects some trinkets and the purse, but he realizes (after the fact) that this was not the reason he had committed the act. He walks about and decides to put the loot into a hole beneath a stone in a remote place.
Now the book begins. Exiting the building he has to hide to avoid detection by some painters. Then he runs into an angry cop. Raskolnikov is mentally unstable. He tries to clean up the blood with an obsessive nature (like Lady Macbeth).
He does it. Is everything okay?
No. His sister and mother are coming to town. They give him some money in the letter. Then there is a long period of Raskolnikov walking about with a fever coming home when he’s about to drop and then Nastasya gives him some weak soup and a piece of bread. Raskolnikov is thinking about the potential marriage of his sister to an unscrupulous lawyer and the possibility that he will be caught. He keeps repeating his theory (really Nietzsche’s) about supermen. Is he a superman? Raskolnikov is a bit of an egoist so he really thinks he might be. But events are not going as he thought they should.
Raskolnikov goes into a bar for a drink and meets Marmeladov. This is another person who has lost his bearings. He is drinking himself to death. He is spending the family money so that the only way to make things work is for his daughter, Sonia, to go into prostitution (yellow card).
Marmeladov gets lucky and is hit by a cart which leads to his death. Raskolnikov steps in to help (anti-superman activity) and gives all the money he has to the family for the funeral. It is then that he meets Sonia.
At the funeral Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin shows his evil self. He tries to say that Sonia stole money from him. But really he had stuffed a hundred ruple note into her dress pocket in order to frame her. Unfortunately for Luzhin, he was seen by another who also came to the funeral following the lawyer. The crowd turns away from Luzhin. He is never a power in the book again.
Then Svidrigaïlov comes to town also after Raskolnikov’s sister. He has gotten a good deal of money after poisoning his wife to death. After a scene in which he rapes a young girl, he gets Dounia into a situation in which she has to brandish a gun to protect herself from rape. The shot only grazes the man, but then he becomes upset at her so he hands over the key and Dounia escapes.
Svidrigaïlov gives some of his money to the children of the bereaved family. This means Sonia does not have to prostitute herself any more. Then Svidrigaïlov goes and kills himself after the turn-down by Dounia.
By this time Sonia has become a good friend of Dounia and Raskolnikov—so much so that Raskolnikov confesses his murder to her. Sonia is a good Christian so she tells Raskolnikov that his only option is to “kiss the earth and then confess to the world that he is a murderer.” She says that she will follow him to Siberia.
Given the two options of suicide or taking a prison term Raskolnikov does some walking to get his head together. He knows that his sister will be fine with his friend, Razumikhin. He tries to arrange that. It is time to take Sonia’s wooden crucifix and face his fate.
Raskilnikov goes to the police station to confront the policeman who ran into him just after the murder. Raskilnikov confesses. That is the end of the regular novel. In the epilogue Raskilnikov faces 8 years in Siberia due to his mental condition, his previous good works, and the fact that he does not try to dispute facts.
Sonia follows Raskilnikov to Siberia. She visits him regularly. She is seen by the other convicts as a “sister” and they adore her. She is the light of Raskilnikov’s redemption. He will be 32 when he gets out. He has changed. Sonia changed him. She is the Christ figure in the novel: Christ 1, Nietzsche 0. Game over.
I see the principal theme a tension between the Christian worldview of what makes a good person and Nietzsche (aka the nihilists—in Russian historical terms). This is the most powerful presentation via Fictive Narrative Philosophy of this theme. Compare to Nietzsche’s own attempt in Also Sprecht Zarathrusta. There is no comparison. This is one of the finest presentations of this theme. It beats Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope by a mile.
Attempt: *****/ Accomplished: *****
10-26-18/ Bethesda, MD
Book Review #10
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1956). Tr. Constance Garnett, revised by Avrahm Yarmolinsky
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin - The hero and protagonist of the novel. Myshkin is from an old noble line and a distant relative of Madame Yepanchin. Myshkin has light-brown hair and blue eyes. He is mid-twenties to early thirties. At the beginning of the novel he returns to his native Russia after an absence of four years spent in a sanitarium in Switzerland. Myshkin is a meek man in a land of competition. This is why he is called an “idiot.”
Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov - A recognized alluring female around the same age as Myshkin. Myshkin calls her mad. Nastassya Filippovna was once a ward of Totsky. Later, however, he seduced her and made her his mistress when she was a young woman. She blames herself for her dishonor and, although she loves Prince Myshkin, she considers herself unworthy of marrying him. Nastassya runs away on the day of her proposed wedding to Rogozhin, who takes her away and then, later, stabs her to death.
Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin - A swarthy twenty-seven year-old who is descended from a long line of merchants. Rogozhin is madly in love with Nastassya Filippovna. After receiving a large inheritance, he attempts to woo her [buy her] by bringing her 100,000 rubles. She cannot decide between the two—going first to one and then to the other. When he “rescues” her on her wedding day to Myshkin, he ends up killing her.
Aglaya Ivanovna Yepanchin - A beautiful twenty-year-old beautiful and the youngest daughter of General Yepanchin and Lizaveta Prokofyevna. Aglaya is haughty and childlike in her caprices, but also very romantic and idealistic. She falls in love with Prince Myshkin, but is unable to accept his compassionate love for Nastassya Filippovna. Aglaya ends up running away with a man claiming to be a Polish count, who later abandons her.
Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin - A thin, blonde, attractive young man in his late tweties. Ganya is highly vain and ambitious. Although the epitome of mediocrity, he strives for originality. He is in love with Aglaya, but is willing to marry Nastassya Filippovna—whom he despises—for 75,000 rubles. Of course, this never occurs.
Ivan Fyodorovitch Yepanchin - A fifty-six year-old general. Yepanchin is a wealthy and respected member of St. Petersburg society. At the beginning of the novel he lusts after Nastassya Filippovna. As the novel progresses he begins to fail and becomes something of a bafoon.
Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin - A distant relative of Prince Myshkin and the wife of General Yepanchin. In her willfulness and eccentricity, Lizaveta is very similar to Aglaya. Her greatest anxiety in life is finding suitable husbands for her three daughters.
Alexandra Ivanovna Yepanchin - The oldest daughter of the Yepanchins, who is twenty-five and unmarried. Although Alexandra's parents worry about her marriage, she feels very calm. Highly educated and well read, she has a talent for music.
Adelaida Ivanovna Yepanchin - The middle daughter of the Yepanchins, who is twenty-three. Adelaida, like her older sister, is very cultivated and expresses a talent for painting. She is engaged to Prince S.
Hippolite Terentyev - A seventeen year-old consumptive. Hippolite is well aware of his approaching death and feels like an outcast of nature. He tries to reassert himself by espousing his own views on life and morality in his "Essential Statement" and then by his suicide attempt: shooting himself with an unloaded gun. He is in love with Aglaya, Hippolite is a friend of Kolya and the son of Madame Terentyev, the mistress of General Ivolgin.
Afanassy Ivanovich Totsky - A rich aristocrat in his middle fifties, he tries to arrange the marriage between Nastassya Filippovna and Ganya to get her off his hands. Several years before the action of the novel takes place, he makes her his mistress for several years.
Yevgeny Pavlovich Radomsky - A young and dashing suitor to Aglaya Yepanchin. Radomsky retires from the military just before he takes part in the novel's action. A man of reason, he frequently visits Myshkin in the Swiss sanitarium at the end of the novel.
Prince S. - The good-looking and intelligent fiancé of Adelaida Yepanchin, who later on becomes her husband. Prince S. is hardworking, knowledgeable, and very rich.
Lebedev - A rogue, drunkard, liar, and recently widowed father of a large family. At the beginning of the novel, Lebedev is part of Rogozhin's gang. He later rents out several rooms in his summer cottage in Pavlovsk to Prince Myshkin.
Ivan Petrovitch Ptitsyn - An ordinary man just under thirty who manages to collect a large fortune by being a usurer (lending money for interest). Ptitsyn is suitor and later husband to Varya Ivolgin.
Ardalyon Ivolgin - Ganya's father, an ex-general. General Ivolgin has lost his circle of friends in high society due to constant drinking and lying. He has a stroke late in the book.
Nina Alexandrovna Ivolgin - General Ivolgin's wife. Nina Alexandrovna, a dignified woman of about fifty, is the mother of Varya, Ganya, and Kolya Ivolgin. Despite her husband's lying and keeping of a mistress, she pities him and even helps Hippolite.
Varvara Ardalyonovna Ivolgin (later Ptitsyn) - Ganya's dignified twenty-three-year-old sister. Varya is among the characters whom the narrator considers ordinary people. She tries to help her brother's chances with Aglaya by befriending the Yepanchin girls, but to no avail.
Nikolai Ardalyonovitch Ivolgin - Ganya's younger brother. Kolya is a simple and good-natured boy who becomes friends with Prince Myshkin, whom he respects greatly. Kolya is also friends with Hippolite, whom he visits throughout his illness until Hippolite's death from consumption.
Ferdyshchenko - An ugly and insolent lodger in the Ivolgin apartment at the beginning of the novel. Ferdyshchenko strives to be original, yet most people regard him contemptuously as a drunkard and an amoral rogue.
Burdovsky - A young man who fraudulently claims to be the son of Pavlishchev, Myshkin's late benefactor. Burdovsky attempts to use the false claim to gain access to a portion of the prince's inheritance. When Myshkin’s hired detective shows this claim to be impossible Burdovsky leaves—but now without Myshkin helping Burdovsky’s mother (who Burdovsky defamed as having him out-of-wedlock).
The book revolves around three people: Prince Myshkin, Nastassya Filippovna, and Rogozhin. Each are “peculiar” in their own ways. At the beginning of the book Myshkin is coming home from Switzerland where he had been having health treatments. It is unclear whether this is really epilepsy. The so-called seizures do not clinically fit this. Instead, I think they are psychological panic attacks. I am not sure whether Dostoevsky read the Hippocratic treatise “On the Sacred Disease.” If he did, then it is probably that Dostoevsky intended Myshkin to be “touched” in a sacred way. Indeed, the prince is a quasi-Christ figure (on the model of Francis of Assisi). Myshkin is simple, but profound. He has money but he gives most of it away. He is not afraid to die, and is not overcome by desire.
Myshkin “falls in love” with two women: (a) a fallen woman in Switzerland; and (b) Nastassya Filippovna, a fallen woman in Russia. He feels sorry for them. He wants to save them. But then there is also Aglaya. He loves her too, but in a different way. She has let out that she loves him and that creates an expectation of marriage. Myshkin agrees (formally) but then Aglava wants to willfully show that she is the preferred woman and she sets up a “choose me or her” situation. Myshkin refuses to choose. That breaks things up and leads to the tragic end where on his wedding day Nastassya asks Rogozhin to save her from the marriage. But the end of love brings death.
There is definitely something crazy going on!
So whence the crazy? Is it the people? Is it the society? Is it humankind, in general (there are quite a few generals in this novel)? So getting beyond the questions, I believe that this novel is about Russia as being the idiot. Prince Myshkin is a decent guy who does not get hung up on his money (which he largely gives away) or any other personal gain. He is a Christ-like stoic who seeks to get on and do good whenever he can. This is totally contrary to the competitive social climbers who inhabit the rest of the volume. There are three key scenes. The first is when Burdovsky (spurred on by some of his friends) seeks to get half of Myshkin’s money claiming that his mother had an out-of-wedlock affair with Myshkin’s benefactor (Pavlishchev) and so HE, Burdovsky is the illegitimate son who is entitled to half of the wealth. This scene is about pure competitive greed. This is a tale told by a real idiot full of sound and fury and signifies nothing. Pavlishchev had been out of the country for a number of years at the time that Burdovsky was born. Myshkin had documentation to prove this. Myshkin is no “pushover” but he is a truly meek man and seeks to set out the truth in a way that is kind. Myshkin was kindto Burdovsky’s mother (which is more than Burdovsky can say).
Second is the statement of Hippolite Terentyev. It is a rambling treatise of a community worldview seen by a man who believes he is about to die. (He does die way before his teen-aged time.) This is essentially a statement of existentialism. The event is heightened when he attempts suicide with an unloaded gun. Is this a stunt (thus negating the statement) or is it the honest mistake of a troubled mind—existentialists say we should all be so troubled.
Third, is when Myshkin is taken by Aglava to Nastassya’s in order to “prove” to herself that Myshkin (who is legally engaged to her) really loves her more than Natassya. Big mistake. Myshkin does not choose women on the basis of love, but rather compassion. Just as he had in Switzerland defended the “fallen woman” here he does the same. He throws away his contentment with a conventional marriage in order to save Natassya. It is a pity that she is not able to accept this.
The message is that Christ-like meekness when introduced into the world is a radical game changer. Christ must be sacrificed and the world is shaken-up.
This book is very ambitious. It is a book of character that revolves around Myshkin and the three key episodes. In some ways these are a bit didactic—but not overly so
Attempt: *****/ Accomplished: ***1/2.
2nd time read: November 2014,
Book Review #9
Fydor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, tr. Constance Garnett (Easton Press, 1967 ).
The Underground Man—anonymous narrator and anti-hero of the novella. He is a civil servant with an inferiority complex. He is situated in 19th century St. Petersburg. He is full of contradictions. In his first person narrative he pretends that he thinks of himself as brilliant and capable, yet in the events described he is anything but that.
Simonov—A former schoolmate of the narrator. He is the only social contact for the narrator. Though he seems innocuous, the underground man is suspicious of him.
Zverkov—A former schoolmate of Simonov (and by extension, the narrator). He is an officer in the army and is popular. The underground man hated Zverkov during their school days. He was really jealous—and charges Zverkov with being gross. Zverkov has money which the underground man lacks.
Trudolyubov—Another former schoolmate of the narrator and a distant relation to Zverkov. He is not actively mean to the narrator, yet he admires “success” and views the narrative as a “failure.”
Apollon—The narrator’s elderly servant. He is also a tailor. The narrator keeps failing to pay his servant because he spends his money on other things. He also is in a “master-slave” dynamic with the servant.
Anton Antonych Setochkin—He is the narrator’s boss in the department of the ministry. He is the closest thing the underground man has as a friend. He occasionally lends the narrator money. Occasionally, the narrator visits him at his home on Tuesdays.
The Officer—A military officer who treats the narrator rudely in an incident at the tavern and is thus transposed as an object of general hatred by the narrator. He is everything the narrator is not: strong, confident, well off, and socially accepted.
Liza—A young prostitute who was sold to a brothel by her father. She has to pay off that debt. She acts detached from events around her and after having sex with the narrator, he fills her with thoughts about marriage and another life. She comes to his place a few days later only to be rebuffed by the narrator.
The plot is divided in half. In the first part (or note) depicts the narrator around the age of 40. This is largely a philosophical rant. Like Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, resentment is the main character. The narrator hates the era of his life and his circumstances. He rants against both the society and his position within it. He longs for power, but is impotent.
The second note is entitled: “Apropos of the West Snow.” This note has a story attached. It begins as a flashback to his twenties when he was supposed to be making it in the world. But instead, he is a failure. He is not attuned to the mores of his country. While walking in the park he unsure whether to yield to a soldier, who is a stranger. Nothing is as it seems.
Then there is the failure of the dinner which he crashes with some of his former schoolmates (who don’t really like him). He thinks he is entitled. But he drinks too much (more than he can afford) and makes himself ridiculous.
Then he is drawn into a brothel and talks to the new prostitute, Liza. She was sold by her father and she cannot be free until she pays her father’s fee. The narrator spouts platitudes to her to make her want to leave her profession. He gives her his address on a small piece of paper. She comes by in a few days and then she takes pity on him as she sees the poverty in which he lives. He gets angry and she leaves. Ironically, she might have been just the person who could have been his salvation while he could have been hers.
The underground man cannot act. He even wants to continue writing his notes, but even fails to do that. In the eyes of any society he is a loser. But whose fault is it? Therein lies the interpretation of the tale.
Themes: Freewill and determinism is the predominant theme. Determinism seems to win, but why? Is it merely social? How much responsibility do we have for getting rid of our resentment and exerting our power to act? This puts a Nietzsche twist to the tale, which I think fits. Here “power” is not power over others but power to execute freewill and to see things clearly. These are necessary for authentic living, but they are lacking in the narrator.
Assessment: The central character is either pitiable or despicable—maybe a little of each. He is full of self-pity yet he does not act when he has the chance (via Liza) to extricate from his lonely, solipsistic existence. The novella is a form that allows the author a single focus—much like a lyrical poem. In this way Dostoevsky has accomplished his task.
Attempt: 4.0/ Accomplished: 4.0
Book Review #8
Fyodor, Dostoevsky, The Gambler, tr. Constance Garnett.
Alexei Ivanovich—the narrator of the story. He arrives in Roulettenburg, a German resort after a stay in Paris. He is the tutor for the family of a retired Russian General. He is in love with Polina and claims he would do anything for her—including suicide.
The General—Retired. A spendthrift. All his Russian properties are mortaged. He has borrowed money from de Grieux.
Polina Alexandrovna Praskovja—Step daughter of the General
Maria Filippovna—The mistress of the General.
Marquis de Grieux—Alleged relative of Blanche. He has a love interest in Polina.
Mr. Astley—Englishman also has an eye for Polina.
Mademoiselle Blanche de Cominges—Love interest of the General
Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm—In the town’s social circle. Polina gets Alexi to insult them on a whim.
Antonida Vasilevna Tarasevitcheva—Grandmother (the General’s mother)—is wealthy and the General is just waiting for her to die so that he can get her inheritance.
Madame de Cominges—Mademoiselle Blanche’s mother
The General (retired) is in hock. He is at a German resort living on credit. He is waiting to marry Blanche de Cominges but he needs money. His mother has money and is old and infirmed. The General is constantly telegramming St. Petersburg to find out if his mother is dead. This bothers the “grandmother.” She makes a train trip to Roulettenburg. The grandmother is confined to a wheelchair, but her wits are about her. She is angry at her son for his greediness.
Alexei is head-over-heals for Polina. She asks him to insult the Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm to prove his love. Alexei does it, but it gets back to the General who sacks the tutor, but agrees to pay his hotel bills (with money that the General does not possess). Then Polina (who is also short on money) gives Alexei some money to gamble for her. Alexei (a novice) agrees and wins some at roulette. Everyone is up-beat. But then Alexei has to go back and lose it again.
Enter the grandmother. She also wants to bet and just like Alexei, she wins the first day, but then loses it back the next. But she is hooked and keeps gambling until she has lost all the ready cash and bank notes she has with her. She offers to take Polina back to Russia with her, but the latter demurs. With no money but a train ticket, the grandmother goes back to Russia.
There is some intrigue among the three who want Polina’s love: Alexei, Astley, and de Grieux. It seems that she doesn’t know her own mind. It is a bit of a gamble of her own. She favors de Grieux, but it is a bad choice. Polina tells Alexei that she has been de Grieux’s lover. Alexei tries to find Astley and get some firm footing, but doesn’t
Once Blanche sees that the General won’t get his inheritance she arranges to leave town (with her mother) for Paris. Alexei, who has the run of a lifetime on the roulette wheel decides to go to Paris with Blanche to live with her for a short time in return for giving her virtually all of his money. Blanche is financially set, but it runs out quickly for Alexei, who then has to leave town to re-make his fortune gambling. But it is not to be. He is always at the low end of things and is even sent to prison for not paying a debt. A mysterious person buys him out.
On the outside, Alexei meets up with Astley in Bad Homburg and they sort out the events of the story. Grandmother died and left her money to Polina, who is living in Switzerland. Astley tells Alexei that Polina really did love him. The General died in Paris. Astley gives Alexei a bit of money, but not too much because Astley knows that if he did, that Alexei would just lose it again to gambling. Alexei goes home and dreams of Switzerland and the magic of the roulette wheel.
It seems that the title is incorrect. There isn’t just a single gambler, everyone in the story is a gambler in some fashion. Some gamble with rather better odds (such as Blanche or de Grieux or Astley), but they are all placing primary goods of life before the wheel of fate. This is a decent metaphor for life. And it plays out well, for the most part.
One way to approach this story is to inquire about how many levels the presentation takes us. It is this reader’s opinion that the options are rather limited to a couple of levels: money and love. Perhaps with a more complex story or more physical detail the author might have create a fuller depiction. This is not the stuff of Notes from Underground or The Double. Novellas are tough to write.
Aspired= ****/ Accomplished= ***/ Bethesda, MD September, 2018
Book Review #7
Book Review #6
Book Review #5