The Mothers Karamazov

Carol Flath, Duke University

Dostoevskij’s works have justifiably drawn their share of psychoanalytic readings. Raskol′nikov’s murder of the pawnbroker and her sister in Crime and Punishment, for example, has been interpreted as an attempt to overcome the oppressive power of the mother (Breger and others). Elizabeth Dalton’s brilliant reading of The Idiot demonstrates the sources of that novel’s power in hidden Oedipal tensions and the workings of the primal scene. The philosophical, psychological, and symbolic importance of the struggle of sons against fathers is dominant in studies of Demons and The Brothers Karamazov. The current proposed interpretation of The Brothers Karamazov focuses attention away from the obvious paternal conflict onto the missing mothers: Adelejda Ivanovna Mjusova, the gentle Sofija Ivanovna, and Stinking Lizaveta. Although the rage of the sons is directed against the father, it is the imbalance caused by the absence of their mothers that has allowed this conflict to develop to the breaking point.

Fedor Pavlovič Karamazov’s guilt before his wives and sons has generally been taken as a given. And yet, as in all of Dostoevskij’s best work, the boundary between righteousness and sin is a fragile one. In spite of his misdeeds and weaknesses Fedor Pavlovič represents a vital life principle that can be demonstrated at all levels of the text. In contrast, his women are all dead—and not simply in the obvious, superficial sense of the word. Our reading is necessarily symbolic and to a degree abstract. It goes as follows: How is Adelejda Ivanovna, who deserted her husband and young son Dmitrij to run to Petersburg with a seminarist (a negatively marked character type and location in Dostoevskij’s works), not guilty? The answer to this question builds on Susan Amert’s insightful exploration of the Ophelia motif in the novel. The second wife, Sofija Ivanovna, presents a more enigmatic identity. The narrator describes her to us as childlike, abused, oppressed and religious (positive markers in Dostoevskij’s hierarchy of moral worth). Aleša’s memory of his mother’s icon-wailing scene is generally cited as the source of his own deep spirituality and goodness (most compellingly by Diane Thompson). I will explore two questions: 1. Elsewhere in the novel klikuši are shown to be possessed and in need of exorcism (or the equivalent) from Zosima; how, then, can we interpret Sofija’s hysteria as a source of spiritual peace and goodness? In solving this riddle I turn for help to Ljudmila Saraskina’s seminal and iconoclastic rereading of Demons’ Marija Timofeevna; 2. Might it be possible on the symbolic level to view Sofija’s marriage to Fedor Pavlovič Karamazov as a life-affirming choice? Relevant to this issue are a) his clear association with the life principle and b) her pre-marriage enthusiasm for suicide—the fate of Dostoevskij’s most irretrievably damned characters. Stinking Lizaveta, the raped innocent, may prove to be the most challenging of our targets. We will explore the pre-rape dialogue among the town drunks as to whether even this low creature can be considered a woman (not a beast—zver′)—to which only Fedor Pavlovič can answer in the affirmative—and Grigorij’s post-rape contribution to Fedor Pavlovič’s defense: “ona sama, nizkaja, vinovata” (14: 2).

These are dangerous questions, but Dostoevskij’s art draws its great power from primeval ambiguities. And we anticipate an uplifting conclusion: all, including the ostensibly innocent, are guilty.