The subplot in The Brothers Karamazov concerning children seems to be tacked on almost as a sort of afterthought, so it’s a bit surprising to read that the entire novel was initially intended to be primarily about children. Obviously, Dostoyevsky’s conception changed radically, but the idea of writing about children, however imperfectly realised in the finished product, never quite went away.
We first come across children in the third part of the novel, in which Alyosha sees a group of children throwing stones at another child. Alyosha tries his best to stop this, but, when he approaches the child at whom the stones were being thrown, the child bites him on the finger. Later, Alyosha finds out why: this child had witnessed his father being publicly beaten and humiliated by Alyosha’s brother, Dmitri, and the sense of shame on behalf of his beloved father is eating into his very soul. Alyosha later visits the boy’s family on a charitable mission, and finds them living in the most abject poverty. The boy’s mother appears to have become half-witted, one of the boy’s sisters is hunchbacked, and the boy himself is very ill. The father, devoted though he is to his sick boy (shades here of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) is, nonetheless, a Dostoyevskian buffoon. But beneath that buffoonery, Dostoyevsky depicts a man who feels everything deeply, and is only too aware of the injuries and insults he has received throughout his life, and of his abject humiliation, witnessed by his own son.
After this section of the novel, we lose sight of the children for some 500 or so pages. But the theme of the children remains present: when Ivan speaks to Alyosha of human suffering, it is the suffering of children he focuses on. Adults, he says, have “tasted of the apple” – and so, it may be possible (though still not, perhaps, very credible) to provide some sort of explanation for their sufferings; but when we come to the suffering of children, there cannot be even a hint of an explanation. Similarly, when Dmitri has his transforming dream, it is the suffering of an infant that is central to it.
In the novel, the children emerge again after Dmitri’s arrest and interrogation. In terms of pacing, this episode with the children relaxes the tension before the start of the next dramatic wave, and, in this interlude, we are introduced to the children more specifically: the child who had bitten Alyosha’s finger is dying – it is almost as if Dostoyevsky is daring us to find this episode sentimental – and the other boys, still innocent at heart (despite having once thrown stones at him), make up their differences and go to visit him. And visiting the sick child too is that childlike figure of Alyosha.
The theme of childhood was, I think, important to Dostoyevsky because, in common with so many other writers both then and now, childhood was seen as a state of innocence, an image of a prelapsarian condition free of sin; and the act of growing up becomes, by analogy, an image of the Fall. Children, as Ivan says, haven’t yet tasted of the apple. This idea of children’s state of innocence, together with the idea of the corruption that comes with growing up, was explicitly stated by Rousseau, and was taken up enthusiastically by others. Wordsworth, for instance, specifically regarded growing up as a distancing from the Divine:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
This idea is present in various different forms also in the works of Dickens and of Tolstoy, and is present even to the present day: this is why we continue to be shocked by a novel such as The Lord of the Flies, say, and find particularly unpalatable awful crimes committed against children, and perhaps even more unpalatable those committed by children. And the idea the innocence of childhood is very much present in Dostoyevsky. This is why, at the very end of the novel, when Alyosha addresses the boys after Ilyusha’s funeral, he tells them to remember this moment of childhood: even in our fallen states, we may have a chance of redemption only if we carry with us something from before the Fall.
To address the vitally important issues of innocence and of corruption Dostoyevsky had, of necessity, to depict childhood, or, at best, a person of childlike simplicity (Alyosha). But in neither, I think, is he entirely successful.
The main problem with depicting children is that it is very difficult for an adult to enter into the mind of a child. Even Tolstoy, who seemed able to enter into any mind at will, generally kept children on the fringes of his novels (although Seryozha does make a few telling appearances in Anna Karenina). Mark Twain obviously depicted children well, although one suspects that he really knew well only a particular type of child. As far as I’ve read, the finest depictions of a child’s mind may be found in the novels of Dickens. But on the basis of the depictions of children in The Brothers Karamazov, I get the impression that while this is an area with which Dostoyevsky wanted to address, he felt uncomfortable with it. In the event, instead of depicting a group of children, he effectively depicts only one – Kolya Krasotkin – and keeps the rest ( even the dying Ilyushka) in the background.
Kolya is a boy nearly fourteen (as he keeps reminding everyone), and is highly precocious; he is outgoing and extraverted; intelligent and aware of his intelligence; patronising of those whose intelligence he can see is not up to his own level; and yet, nowhere near as mature as he likes to imagine. In the context of the novel, I find him charming in small doses, but find also that a little goes a long way: beyond a few pages, he becomes frankly tiresome. The question remains why Dostoyevsky focussed so unremittingly on this one boy while leaving all the others more or less in the background: I think the reason is simply that Dostoyevsky felt confident in characterising this particular child, but didn’t feel so confident about characterising the others. So, for all his good intentions about writing a novel about children, the best he could do is to bring them into a subplot that is likely to strike most readers as more or less irrelevant; and even within this subplot, he fails to make too much of his theme. I doubt any reader ever reads this part of the novel with anything other than impatience, and wishing that the novel would move back to Dmitri and to Ivan.