The Karamazov Diary: 2 – A Depiction of Grief

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

Quite early in the novel, in a chapter entitled “Women of Faith” in David McDuff’s translation, Dostoyevsky gives us a striking depiction of grief. A peasant woman has come to speak to Father Zosima. She has lived through the death of all four of her small children, and the last of this series of tragedies has broken her completely. She cannot think of anything, she cannot do anything: she has given herself over completely to grief. Father Zosima tells her what we would normally expect a religious person to say – that her dead child is an angel in heaven. But, the woman asks, what good is that to her? She wants to see him here, on earth. Zosima understands that there is nothing he can say to alleviate the woman’s grief: this, he knows, is “Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, for they are not”.

At one point in this scene, the woman draws from her breast “a gold-embroidered gold sash that had been her little boy’s”, and, at the mere sight of it, begins sobbing yet again. From my previous reading, I remember this motif being repeated in a passage towards the end of the novel where a father, returning from his son’s funeral, sees his dead son’s shoes, and breaks down in tears, clutching the shoes to his breast. Of course, such passages are not mere digressions in a novel whose central theme is that of human suffering, but I doubt too many other writers would have depicted so overpowering an emotion with such disconcerting directness.

But Tolstoy, I think, would. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are often held to be extreme opposites, and, in many ways, they are, but at points such as this, they seem to touch. For Tolstoy, too, depicted human emotions with a disconcerting directness.

The scene between Father Zosima and the peasant woman could easily have been written by Tolstoy. Neither Turgenev or Chekhov, I think, would have allowed themeselves a scene of such open and overwelmingly powerful emotion. True, Tolstoy would not have made Zosima a monk: Tolstoy hated established religion, and would, most likely, have made Zosima a wise peasant. But at points such as this, I wonder if Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky really are as far fromeach other as they are often made out to be.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Speaking of Tolstoy. Have you read Tolstoy’s “The Three Hermits”? It is a great short story.

    The Three Hermits


    • Yes, it’s a wonderful story. I am a great admirer of Tolstoy”s short stories and novellas: I often think that if he hadn’t written his big novels, we’d be remembering him as a master of short fiction – as, indeed, the greatest master of short fiction.


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