The function of violent death is complex in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: it serves as the driving focus of the work, calls into question the many characters’ agency and morality, and provides a forceful resolution. At the forefront of the novel is the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich by one of his sons. Parricide is the crux of the work; slightly more subtle but no less important, however, is the concept of suicide in the novel. All four Karamazov brothers have brushes with suicide—although only Smerdyakov, Fyodor Pavlovich’s illegitimate son, actually commits the deed. Suicide as a construct the novel, rather than an expression of weakness, serves as a final expression of the madness that stems from being caught between irreconcilable identities. Each brother faces a choice between two or more identities; it is in these moments of crisis that they contemplate terminating their lives. In order to explicate this choice, this paper first examines the suicide debate, its role in Russian society, and its significance to Dostoevsky himself. Using Durkheim as a frame of reference, the paper then explores each of the brothers’ conflicts regarding suicide to understand its significance not just in the characters’ lives, but also in the reader’s experience. This serves to illuminate how inseparably suicide and conflict of identity are linked for each of the Karamazov brothers.
In order to comprehend the many-faceted topic of suicide in Dostoevsky’s works, it is crucial to first understand the sociology of suicide. Emile Durkheim famously researched this in the late 1800s, ultimately publishing his monograph On Suicide. While his research focused on Western European suicidal tendencies, his understanding of suicide may be applied to Russian cases. It should also be noted that there are a number of worthy criticisms of Durkheim’s undertaking, but they are beyond the scope of this paper; therefore, this simplified explanation of Durkheim’s categorization of suicide into four types will suffice at this point to examine each of the Karamazovs’ potential final acts.
First, egoistic suicide stems from an individual’s alienation from society: “at the very moment when [an isolated man] is breaking away from the social environment, he is still subject to its influence. However individualized a person may be, there is always something collective that remains, which is the feeling of depression and melancholy that arises from exaggerated individualism” (Durkheim 231). No matter how independent one claims to be, isolation is often too much to bear for an individual. Second, altruistic suicide “adequately describes the opposite situation, in which the individual does not belong to himself, or else is merged with something other than himself, and where the polar star that guides his behavior is situated outside himself” (239). In other words, an individual may be overwhelmed by the beliefs of a group to which he belongs, and so by obligation or of his own free will terminate his life to fulfill these beliefs. The other two categories of suicide also have to do with factors outside the individual’s control and not his inner struggle: anomic suicide, which is a response to financial crisis and the resulting lack of social direction (288); and fatalistic suicide, in which an individual is overwhelmed by outside regulation and premature death is the only escape (as is found in suicides among prison inmates, for example) (302).
Durkheim’s view on man’s double nature is interesting and relevant to this discussion on identity reconciliation in Dostoevsky’s novel: “If, as is often said, humans have a dual nature, it is because a social man is superimposed on the physical one. And the former inevitably assumes the existence of a society that he expresses and serves” (Durkheim 229). People are perpetually caught, claims Durkheim, between the individual self that asserts its singular traits and the social self, which is a slave to societal expectations. The individual is well and good, but when there is isolation from our fellow man, “nothing can serve as a goal for our actions” (229). Without society, man has no drive; it is this conflict of identity, then, between the private and public selves that drives one to suicide.
It is important to understand how suicide was seen in Russia during Dostoevsky’s time. Expert on imperial Russian history Susan Morrissey chronicles this in detail, making the significant point that “the suicide rate in St. Petersburg had tripled between 1864 and 1874, making the Russian capital into one of the ‘leading’ cities of Europe, behind Paris but well ahead of Berlin” (Morrissey 204). This was obviously alarming to authorities, and much was done to seek out the causes in the subsequent years:
Not only did many specialists describe suicide as an epidemic, but they also began to search for its virus—in other words, they attempted to construct an epidemiology of suicide. Yet the phenomenon resisted conventional strategies of diagnosis and cure. Reasons for suicide, such as romantic disappointment or shame, were clearly different than causes, such as alcoholism, poverty, and mental illness… But if suicide evaded neat explanation, two facts remained clear: suicide increased following the suppression of the 1905 Revolution, and it was primarily an urban phenomenon. (208)
Of critical importance for this work is the information that suicide spiked “following the suppression of the 1905 Revolution,” (208, emphasis added), during a major time of transition. This is a common trend: it is during times of transition, when one is faced with reconciling a self that is pre-event and a self that is now living post-event—such as during and following periods of revolution—that many fail and turn to suicide as an escape from the difficult reconciliation of two identities separated by time and action.
This provides contextual evidence for an examination of Dostoevsky’s own take on the suicide phenomenon. Though authorities may have treated suicide as an epidemic that had a virus-like cause, to explain the spike in suicide Dostoevsky turned to the quandary of his generation, which struggled to reconcile new science with traditional religion. Professor of Russian literature Irina Paperno states, “Dostoevsky’s heroes met their deaths as the result of the existential dilemma that faced a whole generation of Russians, not because of a medical or social disorder” (123). She goes on to explain:
In Dostoevsky’s age, the conflict [between science and religion] received special poignancy: developments in positivistic science presented a powerful threat to transcendental truths. . . . In addressing the common problem of suicide, the writer [Dostoevsky] asked not ‘what is suicide?’ but ‘what if there is no God and no immortality of the soul?’ ‘Then, everything is permitted, even murder and suicide,’ concluded some of Dostoevsky’s heroes. In his writings, suicide is the answer to these questions, an end point of a syllogism. The high incidence of suicide and murder among those of his characters who espoused atheism suggests that, for Dostoevsky, belief in God and immortality was a necessary condition of human existence (125) ,
This illustrates the issues that deeply concerned Dostoevsky: the place of science and religion in society and a profound fear of a society torn between the two. For him, the choice is obvious—one chooses God. When one does not, one turns mad, as Ivan Karamazov does, or commits suicide like Smerdyakov. The choice is a deeply personal one: where the authorities attempted to deal with suicide with statistics, Dostoevsky attempted to face it with individual experiences. Thus, his depiction of suicide in his torn Russia is much more poignant—“unlike medical men, he works not with the body but with human consciousness and ideas” (Paperno 126).
Turning to these highly individual experiences reveals perhaps the most successful case of suicide avoidance in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha. As the white sheep in a family of very black sheep, it is almost surprising that he is the one most successful in avoiding a dark fate. He is Fyodor Pavlovich’s youngest son, and counting the number of times he is called a “holy fool” or an “angel” by other characters would be quite a feat. Despite his angelic nature, he has his share of identity conflicts, and in fact may be subject to more than others. Most pertinent is Alyosha’s identity as a holy fool and would-be monk, which conflicts with his inherent “Karamazov sensuality” (Dostoevsky 79). Though he is attributed with saint-like qualities, and described as one who “accepted everything without the least condemnation, though often with deep sadness…Coming to his father in his twentieth year, precisely into that den of dirty iniquity, he, chaste and pure, would simply retire quietly when it was unbearable to watch, yet without the least expression of contempt or condemnation of anyone at all,” (19) his Karamazov side is touched upon by many, including the odd hypocrite Rakitin. He says, “I’m really surprised at you, Alyosha: how can you be a virgin? You’re a Karamazov, too! In your family sensuality is carried to the point of fever…You’re the quiet type, but the devil knows what hasn’t gone through your head, the devil knows what you don’t already! …You’re a sensualist after your father, and after your mother—you’re a holy fool” (79–80). One of the most intriguing parts of Rakitin’s statement is his invocation of the devil; he claims that it is the devil, not God, who knows what Alyosha may have thought about. Rakitin is frustrated by this disparity in Alyosha’s identity: he wants Alyosha to fulfill his Karamazov sensuality; he wants him to fall, so as to see him fully embrace one identity—his darker identity watched over by the devil. Using Rakitin’s invocation as a reference, Alyosha’s God watches over the saintly side ordained to him by his mother, and the devil over his sensualist half. Here it becomes clear how one of the issues laid out in his brother Ivan’s “poem,” “The Grand Inquisitor,” is reified in Alyosha’s mind: God and the devil are competing for souls, including the holy sensualist Alyosha’s.
Most significant, then, is how Alyosha manages to reconcile these competing forces in a manner that is not suicidal. For Alyosha, the choice is obvious: he must choose the holy life as the elder Zosima ordained: “I give you a blessing for a great obedience in the world. . . . You will have to endure everything before you come back again” (Dostoevsky 77). This is not to say that the way is always clear: in fact, Alyosha’s greatest moment of conflict confirms his need for a holy life. After Zosima’s death and the ensuing disappointment at the lack of miracles post-mortem, Alyosha’s faith is shaken; indeed, he calls his own reaction “faint-heartedness” (355). He echoes Ivan’s words when he states that he “do[es] not accept this world” (341), and he consents to eating sausage (341), drinking vodka (342), and going to the flirt Grushenka’s (343), things that prior to Zosima’s death he would not have done. Paradoxically it is Grushenka, the woman his father and brother are lusting after, who saves him. She tells him and Rakitin a story: a wicked woman dies and, perhaps rightly, goes to Hell. Her guardian angel intercedes on her behalf, and God states that if the guardian angel can pull the woman out of Hell using the one good deed she ever did—giving an onion to a beggar woman—then she can go to Heaven. So the angel takes the same onion she gave and offers it to her in the lake of Hell. The woman grabs it and, on seeing that others want to come out with her, says, “It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours” (352). With this selfish act, the onion breaks, and the woman falls back into Hell.
This story acts as a turning point for Alyosha. He professes, after Grushenka tells it, that he came to this meeting expecting his downfall: “I came here seeking my own ruin, saying, ‘Who cares, who cares?’ because of my own faintheartedness” (355). Had he given in to this temptation to ruin himself, Durkheim’s second suicidal type, altruistic suicide, would have come to mind: “It may even happen that an individual sacrifices himself solely for the pleasure of sacrifice, because renunciation, in itself and for no particular reason, is considered praiseworthy” (Durkheim 241), This is significant ,as it matches Alyosha’s overwhelmed state of mind: having been deprived of miracles, he needs the “earthly bread” (Dostoevsky 253) described in Ivan’s “The Grand Inquisitor.” This harsh realization is what sends him spiraling into Grushenka’s lap—for the “pleasure of sacrifice,” swinging to the opposite extreme in renunciation, to do the most extreme deed in his unhappiness. This is not physical suicide, but “spiritual suicide,” the same kind that Zosima spoke of as he lay dying (313). This is significant because for Alyosha, “holy fool” that he is, it is so much worse than physically ending his life. It is after Grushenka’s story of the onion that he realizes this was foolish, and instead he is among those who “remain with God, having no need of miracles” (255).
His confession of his own folly is touching, but so is the allegory of the onion story acted out and Alyosha’s ability to immediately apply this newfound self: between Alyosha’s proclamation of faintheartedness and Grushenka’s story, Grushenka herself confesses to her five-year-long affair with self-pity, and Alyosha is the first person to pity her for her suffering. Rakitin, who brought Alyosha there, sneers and condemns Grushenka, but Alyosha, much like the guardian angel in the story, intercedes on her behalf and asks for his mercy: “Don’t be angry. You’re offended with her, but don’t be angry…One cannot ask so much of a human soul, one should be more merciful” (357). Alyosha “offers her an onion,” but it breaks as she flies away “into a new life!” with her former fiancé, a Polish soldier from five years previous (357). Through this trial Alyosha is gilded, made into Grushenka’s angel. He chooses, instead of throwing himself into ruin over a need for miracles, to live life by what Zosima preached. Thus, in his angel’s gild, and having chosen this gild over his Karamazov sensuality, Alyosha is safe from suicide.
Interestingly, his eldest brother Dmitri Fyodorovich, or Mitya, escapes his possible suicide thanks to the same woman, but in an entirely different fashion. The crux of his conflict is the one he has had with his father: a fight over Grushenka. Most ironic is that Grushenka had toyed with Mitya and Fyodor Pavlovich “from spite” and all along had been planning to go back to her “former and indisputable one” (430). Upon learning this, Mitya’s jealousy is reconciled: “it’s all finished now…And I will vanish” (410). Suicide itself becomes the resolution for Mitya. Though he is no longer jealous nor fights with his father over Grushenka, it is impossible for him to build a life without her. He realizes that, as he states to Piotr Ilych, he must “make way for the one [he] hold[s] dear” (402). This is a clear example of Durkheim’s egoistic suicide, or social isolation that leads to fatal hopelessness: isolated from Grushenka for good, Mitya sees no reason to have hope or life.
Thus, Mitya is prepared to commit suicide, but not without a great “spree” beforehand. He takes his final three thousand rubles and decides to buy up cookies, cakes, champagne, Gypsy girls, and musicians and take them all to Mokroye, where Grushenka is with her pan, her former and indisputable Polish officer. The pages leading up to their presumed final meeting are littered with Mitya’s “hysterical rapture”:
He had already written his own sentence with pen and paper: ‘I punish myself and my life’; and the paper was there, ready, in his pocket; the pistol was already loaded, he had already decided how he would greet the first hot ray of ‘golden-haired Phoebus’ in the morning, and yet it was impossible to square accounts with the past, with all that stood behind him and tormented him, he felt it to the point of suffering, and the thought of it pierced his soul with despair. There was a moment on the way when he suddenly wanted to stop Andrei, jump out of the cart, take his loaded pistol, and finish everything without waiting for dawn. But this moment flew away like a spark (410).
This moment is crucial for Mitya: he has his suicide note, and his thoughts—reflected in the syntax of the first long, rushed sentence—are as frenzied as the troika in which he is flying down the road to Mokroye and Grushenka. What is buried in this thought, however, and what is for Mitya the most dire, is the “impossib[ility] to square accounts with the past” (410). It is this that gives him the most suffering. Before taking off in the troika, “he walked like a madman, beating himself on the chest, on that very place where he had beaten himself two days before…What this beating on the chest, on that spot, meant, and what he intended to signify by it—so far was a secret…but for him that secret concealed more than shame, it concealed ruin and suicide” (388). What is only later revealed is that that spot is where the amulet with the last of Katerina Ivanovna’s money lies, the money he took from his former fiancée to run off with Grushenka, his new lover, and start a new life with her. This point of shame is truly the ruin of Mitya and what he is most willing to kill himself over: he cannot reconcile the shame he feels for being a thief, for stealing money to spend on himself and his new fiancée, with his want and need for a life with Grushenka. He has a choice between being a thief and being a man with no purpose or living without the woman he loves. It is made all the worse—and suicide becomes his only option—when this woman runs off “to a new life,” and Mitya resolves to finally spend the stolen money and redeem himself and his pride through suicide.
Eventually, even this situation begins to resolve itself. After Grushenka spurns her ridiculous panowie (the Polish “gentlemen”), she “glanced at [Mitya] from time to time with caressing but ardent eyes” (433). The Polish officer has been proven ridiculous; Grushenka has given in to love for Mitya; Mitya, it seems, has won. She returns his love, saying, “I love you, you alone, I’ll love you in Siberia…” (442) seeming to prophesy their future together even beforehe has been arrested for the murder of his father. However, even with her love—which allows him to realize his ideal of a life with Grushenka—Mitya cannot shake the shame and is still pressed by thoughts of suicide: “He stood alone in the darkness, and suddenly clutched his head with both hands. His scattered thoughts suddenly came together, his sensations merged, and the result of it all was light. A terrible, awful light! ‘If I’m going to shoot myself, what better time than now?’” (436) That is, with Grushenka’s love, his old fears are assuaged, but the shame still remains and he must still repay the debt he owes Katerina Ivanovna. Then he resolves to pay it back: “’I will return the stolen money, I’ll give it back, I’ll dig it up somewhere’… It was as if a ray of some bright hope shone on him in the darkness. He tore himself away and rushed inside—to her, to her again, his queen forever! ‘Isn’t one month, one minute of her love worth the rest of my life, even in torments of disgrace?’” (437) Here, Mitya decides to live his life with Grushenka: the shame he feels can be justified through even “one minute” of her love, of their life together.
Yet this is not all. He finally is reconciled to life, and pulled fully away from suicide, with his dream of the “wee one” (508). Though Mitya recognizes that, unlike Alyosha, he can never be fully purified of his Karamazov sensuality—his life, after all, is given meaning through Grushenka—he realizes while dreaming of the freezing baby and crying women that “I accept the torment of accusation and of my disgrace before all, I want to suffer and be purified by suffering!” (509) He wishes to atone for his sins, for the shame of stealing Katya’s money, for wishing his father would die, and indeed for all the world’s sins, through his own suffering in Siberia. Just this wish is enough: Alyosha, after becoming that worldly servant Zosima charged him to be, acts as Mitya’s intercessor, stating, “You’re innocent, and such a cross is too much for you. 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” (763). Mitya’s reconciliation with God and suffering, and his wish to become a Christ-like figure, is earnest. This is enough to redeem him, at least in Alyosha’s eyes because he cannot be redeemed finally from his sensuality, so much is not asked of him. Through a life with his love, and a life in remembrance of this time and “that other man,” Mitya is also saved from suicide after his brush with it.
The middle brother, Ivan, is also plagued with a dual nature. Unlike his elder and younger brothers, however, his convictions turn him into a hypocrite, which is ultimately his downfall. In one of the most famous passages from the book, his “poem,” “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan attempts to refute God’s teachings, condemning the weakness of the common man and God’s trust in him, that “in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: ‘Better that you enslave us, but feed us’” (253), and the famous “everything is permitted” (263). He also purports also a rather nihilistic view of life, stating, “I want to live, as long as I have bent to this cup [of life], I will not tear myself from it until I’ve drunk it all! However, by the age of thirty, I will probably drop the cup, even if I haven’t emptied it, and walk away…” (230). Ivan plans to live most fully until he hits thirty, and then—end it all, for what is the point after that? After all, “everything is permitted,” and he grants himself leave from it all after that point. Recalling Durkheim, his would be a practical suicide, perhaps even fatalistic. Prison would not drive him to suicide but seeing no point to life would.
All of his writings and stated beliefs, however, are hypocritical. At the beginning of the novel, Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov is reported to have written an article that set everyone—church- and laymen alike—abuzz: “Many churchmen decidedly counted the author as one of their own. Suddenly, however, along with them, not only secularists but even atheists themselves began to applaud from their side” (16). So from both sides, then, people claimed Ivan for their own beliefs. However, in his speech at Zosima’s and his poem “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan states, “I was joking” (234) and “But it’s nonsense, Alyosha, it’s just the muddled poem of a muddled student who never wrote two lines of verse. Why are you taking it so seriously?” (262) Thus it becomes almost impossible to discern what Ivan believes, because by refuting his own words he seems to be an ideological chameleon. Not until the end does the reader recognize Ivan’s reluctant need for God in his conversation with his (perhaps imagined) devil. The devil proclaims, “My ideal is to go into a church and light a candle with a pure heart—by God, it’s true. That would put an end to my sufferings” (639). Further, “I swear, by all that’s holy, I wanted to join the chorus and shout ‘Hosannah’ with everyone else…But common sense—oh, it’s the most unfortunate quality of my nature—kept me within due bounds even then” (647). The devil that appears before Ivan mocks him with his own words and declares that even he needs God, and that God needs him, too, else “everything in the world will immediately be extinguished” (647). Ivan claims to reject God’s world because he can envision a better one, but his devil explains the state of things: that if he needs—and perhaps more weighty here, wants—God, then Ivan too must believe so, with the devil posing as some form of subconscious here. This hallucination (or at least “nightmare”), demonstrates that even Ivan’s devil, and thus Ivan himself, have need of God despite their loud claims.
Furthermore, Ivan is also caught between innocence and guilt. Though he did not kill his father, Smerdyakov with his poisonous words convinces Ivan that Ivan was complicit in the murder: “I want to prove it to your face tonight that in all this the chief murderer is you alone, sire, and just not the real chief one, though I did kill him. It’s you who are the most lawful murderer!” (627) Smerdyakov explains that he hinted to Ivan that if he left, his father would be in grave danger, and despite this, Ivan did leave; Smerdyakov took this as his “needed consent, so that you couldn’t corner me with anything afterwards, sir” (627), and acted on Ivan’s unspoken (and unwitting) orders. This might be seen as a perversion of the elder-novice relationship explained at the beginning of the novel: the novice, in seeking the freedom of obedience, gives his will to the elder. Thus, he is able to lead a freer existence unburdened by his selfish wants (27). What the reader witnesses between Ivan and Smerdyakov, however, is a twisted version, in which the “novice” Smerdyakov hands his will to the unknowing “elder”, Ivan, and afterwards blames the elder for his actions, stating that he had only done as the elder had willed. Yet this is also how Ivan’s innocence-guilt duality is resolved: if Smerdyakov is indeed Ivan’s tool to kill his father, he is also his tool to escape guilt. To resolve the issue of duality, Smerdyakov the tool completes the entire cycle by killing himself. In his own suicide, he relieves his unwitting elder, Ivan, from the same fate—and so releases him. Ivan, however, does not go unpunished, for he descends into madness, argues with devils, and thus lives out his punishment.
Smerdyakov himself is perhaps the most complex case of duality and suicide in the novel, not least because he is the only one to actually commit suicide. By his very nature, he is caught between: he is the product of rape by one of the most corrupt men in Russian literature of an innocent holy fool—perhaps the only true holy fool in the novel—Stinking Lizaveta. However, in a way that ends up being plausible for Alyosha, it is clear that it is impossible for Smerdyakov to make his two sides from each parent meet, with such stark disparity between them. He also displays clear traits bequeathed to him from them both. From his father he inherits a lack of social graces, and cruelty: “He was terribly unsociable and taciturn. Not that he was shy or ashamed of anything—no, on the contrary, he had an arrogant nature and seemed to despise everyone….As a child he was fond of hanging cats and then burying them with ceremony” (124). From his mother, he inherits a tendency to the “falling sickness,” or epilepsy, a clear sign of the holy fool.
Though Smerdyakov does not outwardly seem to be overly conflicted by these two very disparate sides of himself, it is clear that he has long been ready to end the life of a father who has not recognized him as his son, and who has endowed him with such a foul nature. Several times while being questioned by Ivan about the murder of their father, he makes such statements as, “I’d prepared it long ago” (629) and “For pity’s sake, sir, how could I have thought it all up in such a flurry? It was all thought out beforehand” (631). Though Smerdyakov claims he was just doing as Ivan bid him to do, it is obvious that this was grossly premeditated. In killing his father, it is possible to imagine that he is killing that awful side of himself that hangs cats and implicates innocent men in murder. Even if that is not fully the case, it seems that this murder plot has been the whole driving force of his life: with it complete, he cannot turn to his holy fool side, having used his falling sickness for evil. That is, in faking his epileptic fit—“Of course I was shamming, sir, it was all a sham” (625)—he has corrupted his illness and forfeited his right to become a holy fool and give in to his mother’s side, as his half-brother Alyosha did.
This is all to say that Smerdyakov’s suicide was done, not out of guilt, but rather out of hopelessness. Rather than have a court tell him that he is utterly to blame for parricide, he completes his life’s work himself and preempts the court’s decision. For him, with the murder and subsequent suicide, the circle is neatly closed. Murder is the final reconciliation between his identities, having corrupted his innocent side in the deed. Suicide, then, is a response to that very lack of purpose that results from the erasure of his parents’ effects on his genes and life. As Paperno states, “suicide was the inevitable result of the disintegration of the whole” (Paperno 172, emphasis mine). Who is Smerdyakov, after all, if he has no father to hate and no right to his own illness?
At the novel’s ultimate conclusion is an understanding about violent death. For some, like Mitya, murder is a false charge through which one may redeem one’s awful deeds; for others, like Smerdyakov, it is the opportunity to hack out the worst part of one’s whole life. Suicide, for all four brothers, serves as a possible reconciliation between disparate identities, between righteous and ruinous paths; between pride and shame; between hypocritical statements and their truthful roots; between innocence and guilt; and between legacies from polar-opposite parents. For Dostoevsky, what is most important is suicide and madness as a method of atheism: what saves Alyosha and Mitya is their reconciliation with God, and what condemns Ivan to madness and Smerdyakov to death is distance from God and (perhaps literal) closeness to their devils. Moreover, Durkheim explicates several types of suicide, each of which may be seen as a separate method for one of the Karamazov brothers. Though these are all separate possible suicides for each of the Karamazov brothers, the brothers’ union is evident in their battles with psychological conflicts that might—and in one case ultimately do—lead to the termination of a life that cannot reconcile two discordant identities.
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