The Karamazov Diary: 1 – The Setting

…being the first of an occasional series of posts containing random thoughts that occur to me during my latest reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

The setting of The Brothers Karamazov is a familiar one in Russian literature. It is a provincial town, unrelievedly dull and grey, mean and nasty; at best mind-numbingly monotonous, at worst filthy and evil; peopled by eccentrics and madmen, mean, venal, and petty –  people whose souls are dead.

People whose souls are dead. Indeed. This town was first depicted by Gogol in the play The Government Inspector, and then, in the novel Dead Souls. In this novel, Gogol quite explicitly painted this town as Hell. Dead Souls was intended to be a tripartite work which, like Dante’s poem, was to depict Hell in he first part, Purgatory in the second and Paradise in the third: the third part was never written, and much of the second part was destroyed by Gogol himslf in what appears to have been a fit of insanity before his death: the only part we have left is the first part –  Gogol’s vision of Hell. And this vision of Hell appears to have haunted Russian literature ever since.

We see it repeatedly in Chekhov’s works. It is this Hell from which those three sisters longed so to escape to Moscow; it is this Hell that appears through so many of his short stories – “Ward No. 6”, “Ionych”, “In the Ravine”, and the novella My Life. In the wonderful novella Three Years, Yulia does manage to escape: she escapes to Moscow, as the three sisters had longed to do. She doesn’t quite find there the happiness she had hoped for, but she knows well what her fate would have been had she remained.

This town is also the setting for Saltykov-Schedrin’s remarkable The Golovlyov Family, where it seems that the only possible escape from this soulless desert is the grave: it is possibly the darkest and most despairing novel I have come across. This town is the setting, too, of Tolstoy’s last full-length novel, Resurrection, in which he looked in horror at the conflagration that was raging under his readers’ very noses, and at the enormity of the suffering human beings inflict on each other as a daily matter of course.

And this town appears in Dostoyevsky too – in The Devils, and also here, in The Brothers Karamazov. That grey, grotesque Hell Gogol depicted never seems far from the Russian literary imagination.

One response to this post.

  1. You might want to watch the film by Clint Eastwood: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973). In that film, the Stranger (Clint Eastwood) paints over the town of Lago’s sign and writes “Hell” in red paint.

    Here is my review of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (this is on my High Plains Drifter blog):

    The first time I saw High Plains Drifter was probably in the late 1970s. Clint Eastwood stars in and directs the film. Most westerns are either about cattle drives or cowboys and Indians. High Plains Drifter is different: this is a God’s-Judgment-on-the-wicked western.

    Clint Eastwood plays a stranger who rides into the town of Lago–and he has a really bad attitude. This stranger is also very good with a side arm. During the course of the film, the stranger ends up killing some bad guys and burning the town of Lago to the ground. There are a couple of flashbacks of one Marshall Jim Duncan being whipped to death. At the end of the film, the audience can see that the stranger was the Second Coming of Marshall Duncan:

    The stranger rides out of the town of Lago past the cemetery. This little guy named Mordecai is writing something on a grave marker.

    The stranger looks at Mordecai and Mordecai looks up and says, “I’m almost done here.”

    Then Mordecai asks the stranger, “I never did know your name.”

    And the stranger replies, “Yes you do.”

    As the stranger rides off, the camera shows the grave marker: “Marshall Jim Duncan.”

    I have a short story entitled “High Plains Drifter” (Ethos, March & May 1995); I have a book entitled High Plains Drifter: A Hitchhiking Journey Across America (PublishAmerica, December 2008); I have a blog called “High Plains Drifter.” So is this some sort of gunslinger fixation or is there method to my madness? The clue is in one Scripture: “In the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established.”

    There is a lot of sin (unrepented sin) in the United States and in the world. When people continue to live in sin, eventually God’s Judgment falls. The more people try to hide their sin, the greater God’s Judgment. The people of Lago tried to hide the murder of Marshall Duncan, but their sin was found out. You can’t hide from God.

    There is a scene in High Plains Drifter where this lady tells the stranger, “Ever since Marshall Duncan’s death, the people in this town are afraid of strangers.”


    “When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
    Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
    What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
    To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?

    “Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
    Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

    “There is one who remembers the way to your door:
    Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
    You shall not deny the Stranger.”

    –T.S. Eliot
    Choruses from “The Rock”


    There is another scene in High Plains Drifter where the people of Lago [the town of Lago reminds me of Algona, Iowa] are meeting at the church. One of the guys is speaking in the front of the church. The camera then pans to the right and shows a bulletin board with this Scripture: Isaiah 53: 3-4: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

    Marshall Jim Duncan was whipped to death; Jesus Christ was at least nine-tenths whipped to death. The stranger riding into Lago (the first scene of the film) is a symbol of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ: not as the Lamb of God, but as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

    Isaiah 63: 1-6: “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save. Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come. And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury, it upheld me. And I will tread down the people in mine anger, and make them drunk in my fury, and I will bring down their strength to the earth.”


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