Ruminations on the Ending of The Brothers Karamazov

The death of the child is central to Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov and, as such, it seems almost natural for the book to end with the death of a child and with a speech which orders that this death of this child not be forgotten, but rather be cherished as a sort of talisman against future wrong-doing. Looking at Alyosha’s final speech and taking into consideration its subject matter, it becomes interesting to look at it in relation to the novel’s other great speech of the death of the child: Rebellion. However, while Ivan speaks of the anecdotal horrific deaths of innocents unknown, Alyosha’s speech is grounded in the particular, the present, the personal. The death Alyosha speaks of is a perfect one—it has none of the horror of being torn to pieces by dogs or skewered by bayonets—and furthermore, it is the death of someone we, as readers, know. And yet Ilyusha’s death is not the death of an innocent, like the innocents of Ivan’s anecdotes. Ilyusha is on the border between innocence and experience (and its inherent guilt); he has, perhaps unwittingly, tormented the dog Zhuchka. He feels extreme guilt for his actions, but he has left the realm of innocence, even if he has not fully entered the realm of sin beyond. It is not just their subject matter that sets the two speeches apart, though, but also the two brothers’ responses to their subject matter. While Ivan rails against God and Heaven for the state of things, Alyosha stays rooted firmly upon the earth—symbolized by the gathering around Ilyusha’s stone. Though no one in this final image “soaks the earth with their tears” (thank goodness), through the stone, we feel the connection to the earth and one another which Markel and Zosima and now, apparently, Dostoevsky through Alyosha preach. The death of Ilyusha is, for Alyosha, an inspiration for union and communion, rather than the splintering off and rejection with which Ivan meets the deaths of innocents in the world. The final scene would seem to tell us that what Alyosha proposes is a more feasible answer for living than Ivan’s: we are to join forces with our fellow men and hold the dead in our memories, using our memories of them to keep us from committing the evils the thought of which torment Ivan.

The final scene, though, is not simply a monologue by Alyosha. The boys (of which there are “about twelve” (884)—a suspiciously disciple-like number) have a presence too, though they almost entirely speak in a chorus, rather than with individual voices. In this, the boys literalize the union which Alyosha preaches. We have heard a novel of monologues and now, in its final moments, that form is rejected and replaced by a chorus of voices as “the boys caught up [Kolya’s] exclamation” (893). That the actual words of the chorus are not recorded only emphasizes the fact of the chorus. It doesn’t matter what is being said—only that it is said together. In a similar transformation, Dostoevsky emphasizes in this last scene image over word—what seems something of a sharp turn at the end of these nearly 900 pages. One would think that all those speeches, all the words we’ve read and heard would culminate in a statement about language, but rather they terminate in what amounts to a subjugation of the word to image as Alyosha preaches the importance of holding a memory close to one’s heart, as a sort of armor against future ill. “Remember his face, and his clothes, and his poor little boots, and his coffin” (893), Alyosha asks, prompting the boys to a chorus of “We shall remember!”s. Alyosha figures images as the basis of memory. As one closes the book, it is this image of the boys crowded around Alyosha standing beside the stone which sticks with us. It is an image of permanence and unity projecting itself beyond the last page of the book, into a future for both the characters and for Russia. The final hurrah which Kolya leads the boys in for Alyosha (“Hurrah for Karamazov!”) is a hurrah projected into this future. While all throughout the novel the name Karamazov has been associated with sin, jealousy, lechery, and the characters of Fyodor, Dmitry, and Ivan, here it has been cleansed. The Karamazov being cheered is Alyosha—who hitherto has almost never been referred to by his last name (I say almost because I have not checked this for certain, but am pretty sure he hardly ever is until Kolya shows up—partly because he begins a monk and thus has rejected his worldly family and his name)—and with him the name name is allowed a new beginning. The hurrah projects the name forward into a future where it will be able to take on new associations. The future is open wide as the novel ends and it is these boys—the youth of the novel—who will be going forth into it, memories guarded at their breasts, unified in spirit, though they may part ways.

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1 comment
  1. Tim Shey said:

    This is excellent. You are a very good writer. THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is a classic.

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