A Karamazov Diary: 3 – Hysteria

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

Much that had struck me on my first reading as dramatic and exciting struck me on the second as mere hysteria. But that isn’t really a fair judgement. Dostoyevsky knew how to depict hysteria convincingly: he often took us into the character’s mind, and depicted the hysteria as it develops and grows. An obvious example of this is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment: there, the feverish delirium into which his mind descends is entirely believable. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri’s growing hysteria in Book Eight (“Mitya”), or Ivan’s descent into delirium in Book Nine (“Brother Ivan Fyodorovich”), are, once again, believable and frightening in equal measure. But what are we to make of cases where characters are introduced already in a state of hysteria? Where we do not observe the development of the hysteria,as such, but are presented with the hysteria from the very beginning as a sort of fait accompli? For Dostoyevsky does that as well.

In the first half of the novel, Katerina Ivanovna appears twice, and in both scenes, she is, not to mince words, off her rocker. Her behaviour is not that of a normal person. And, since she is brought on stage already in this hysterical condition, the effect can be somewhat risible. One is reminded of Sheridan’s The Critic, when, after a mad scene in his play, Puff asks in triumph: “Now, could you wish to see anyone madder than that?”

But I wonder: could it be possible that comedy is Dostoyevsky’s intended effect? He was, after all, a skilled comic writer. If comedy is the intended effect, I am not really sure what purpose it serves, since Katerina Ivanovna does play a dramatic role in the proceedings. Why present her as a sort of Gogolian grotesque? I can’t say I know the answer to this, but I am fairly certain that whatever comedy there is in those scenes involving Katerina Ivanovna, it was not unintentional. Dostoyevsky could judge his tone better than to create unintentional effects. But to play serious, dramatic scenes for laughs in what is, after all, a dramatic novel does seem, to say the least, rather eccentric.

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