Simple Forms in Brat’ja Karamazovy

Kate Holland, Yale University

The Dutch scholar Andre Jolles published his Einfache Formen in 1930. In this groundbreaking work he argues for the existence of a number of simple narrative forms, such as the legend, the memoir, the proverb and the folk tale. He differentiates between these simple forms, which form part of a kind of universal grammar of genre, and literary genres, which are the concrete instantiations of particular writers in particular societies responding to particular historical conditions. Simple forms provide narrative responses to universal human needs: legend functions as a response to man’s desire for ideals of conduct, while the memoir provides a narrative possibility of exploring the relationship between uniqueness and universality in an individual human life.

Dostoevskij’s Brat’ja Karamazovy contains a proliferation of narratives of different genres which we are required to interpret, from which we are required to pick and choose, in rehearsal for its finale, the courtroom drama, where we, and the peasant jury, are provided with two alternative narratives, each claiming absolute authority, from which we, and they, must choose, in order to reconstruct the novel’s main “missing” narrative, that of the murder of Fedor Karamazov. Many of these interpolated narratives share the genres of Jolles’ simple forms. Examples include Grušenka’s tale of the onion and the “Notes from the Life of Zosima” which functions as a memoir. I shall argue that in his novel Dostoevskij, like Jolles, demonstrates that each of these forms conveys its own particular view of man and the world. These simple forms are set against other more self-consciously literary kinds of narratives, such as Ivan’s počma of the Grand Inquisitor, and the legal narratives presented at the trial of Dmitrij Karamazov. I shall argue that Dostoevskij places these different genres into dialogue with one another, creating a hierarchy of genres and worldviews which come into play in the final dramatic climax of the novel.


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