Death and Realism in Buddenbrooks and The Brothers Karamazov

The project of realism is often narrowly understood as being closely married to the visual. In breaking the taboos of previous literature, it rendered visible what had long been obscured by propriety and so easily becomes synonymous with the whipping away of a cloak or screen or the application of a magnifying glass. This mode of speaking about realism in terms of visual metaphor is useful, however, only so long as it does not serve to limit our understanding of realism’s full capabilities. For many novels of nineteenth century realism—Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks being just one example—the portrayal of death was just such a mode of visual taboo breaking, wherein the physical fact of death became central to understanding it more fully than the obfuscation of delicacy, propriety, and fear had before allowed. However, realism’s capacity for the representation of death is not limited to this emphasis of the visual and physical, but is capable, too, of the achievement of a spiritual and psychological realism as in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, wherein death and its complete representation are not depersonalized, as in the scientific realism of Buddenbrooks, but rather inextricably bound up in the psychology, spirit, and being of the deceased, allowing Dostoevsky to paint a complete portrait of a person only through the inclusion of their death.

In Buddenbrooks, Mann paints many deaths of many different causes and circumstances and yet, uniting them all, is a sense of loss of personhood through the emphasis on the scientific process of dying rendered in gruesome detail. Mann achieves this through an emphasis on the scientific details of the process of dying—the process consumes and subjugates the person. Perhaps the best examples of this process come in the deaths of Hanno and Elisabeth, both of whom succumb to protracted illness, allowing Mann the opportunity to study the process of death at some length. As Elisabeth lies dying in her bed, Mann describes how her illness “had invaded her proud, upright body without her soul’s having had any chance to prepare itself for illness’s work of destruction—to prepare her by undermining life, by estranging her from it” (546). Illness and death here are characterized as invaders which lay siege to an unprepared body, which will eventually, in Elisabeth’s phrasing, “surrender” (546) itself. In Mann’s portrait of death, the body is paramount. Death, he makes clear, happens to the body, not the soul. As Elisabeth lies in bed for weeks, her “tenacious will” (548-549) fighting to keep her alive, her body deteriorates as we and her family stare: her digestion fails, she develops several bedsores “that would not heal and looked truly odious” (549). These are the elements of a scientific process of dying, which Doctor Grabow can give whatever name he likes, but which do not substantially alter for anyone.

Elisabeth’s death is particularly striking because she remains conscious—visibly so—throughout the long process, aware of her body’s deterioration and the gradual surrendering of herself to her body, to her disease.¹ However, her death merely primes the reader for Mann’s final analysis of the depersonalization of the process of death in the chapter of Hanno’s Typhoid. With Hanno’s death, the process so completely takes over that the narrative itself is forced to surrender to it. The subject of Chapter Three of the last book—the chapter in which Hanno dies—is not Hanno himself, but his illness. Whereas Elisabeth’s illness had at least been her illness (even if it was really more like she was its person), Hanno’s illness isn’t even his. He is never once mentioned, but is completely depersonalized, becoming any one of the hundreds of thousands of people Typhoid runs its course with. The language of the chapter is cold, scientific, unyielding, and impersonal—the language of a textbook rather than a novel. It is written in the present tense, transcending the present moment and individuality of any sort. Hanno, Mann makes clear, exits the book before his body does; as with the death of his grandmother, his body and soul are not one and the same, but fragmented. He is himself, his soul, and it is not to him that death happens, but to his body—a body like any other body, the body that makes him “a person” (723), rather than Hanno.

By contrast, death in The Brothers Karamazov is not only personal, but perhaps the most personal experience a human undergoes. In death, Dostoevsky sees an encapsulation of a person’s attitude toward life, as in the deaths of Father Zosima and his young brother Markel. For these characters, death does not happen simply to the body, but to the entirety of a person; thus, it is as much a part of life as birth is. As Markel dies, it is not the condition of his body that Dostoevsky focuses on, but of his mind and spirit. The process of dying—and it is a process for Markel, as it was for Elisabeth and Hanno—transforms both the body and the mind, though the emphasis is on the mind. As Markel’s body grows worse—having always been “chesty, of weak constitution and disposed towards consumption” (330)—he “undergo[es] a complete spiritual alteration” (331). While once he had been “ mocking and . . . taciturn” (330), in dying his countenance is one of “cheerfulness and joy” (331). His entire attitude towards the world is changed. He allows his nurse to light the icon for him, which before he had always refused. He develops a love of life which had been foreign to him in life, before he entered the dying process. Dying makes him believe that “we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in the world tomorrow” (331) and that “each of us is guilty before all for everything and everyone” (332). When eventually he dies, it is for who he was as he was dying that he is remembered. Zosima credits this brother “full of tender piety and joy. . . trembling all over with love” (332) with having caused him to have “taken monastic orders [and] entered upon this precious path” (328). To phrase it as “who he was when he was dying,” though, is to misrepresent Dostoevsky’s thought. Rather, who Markel was when he was dying was who he was all along. In the process of dying, Markel’s deepest being came to the fore and he became whole. Life and self, in Dostoevsky’s view, can only be unities. The body, soul, and mind are not fragmented as in Buddenbrooks, but one and death is a much a part of who they are as anything else.

While Mann emphasizes the impersonal process of death, death comes in Dostoevsky individually. When Father Zosima dies, the narrator notes that “nothing could have been predicted” (372), giving an entirely opposite account of death than is given in Buddenbrooks, where deaths are presided over by doctors who map processes and end results with as little regard to individuality as the illness itself. Dostoevsky does not ignore the physical symptoms of Zosima’s death—as he didn’t with Markel, but he marries them intimately to Zosima’s attitude toward death. “Though suffering” he “nevertheless gaz[ed] upon them with a smile. . . as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying” (373). Unlike Markel, this attitude evinces no dramatic shift, but just as with Markel it encapsulates the essence of the man who performs it. With his perfect death, Zosima completes and adds meaning to his life.

While for Mann death is impersonal and therefore can have no moral dimension, in Dostoevsky, death—since it is about life and specifically the life of an individual and not simply about itself—is capable of meaning, both in terms of understanding the essence of the deceased and in terms of its impact on those around the dying. As we saw with Markel, the perfected death of a perfected person can take on a moral dimension for those around them, inspiring a duty, as it did for Father Zosima in experiencing Markel’s death or for Alyosha in watching Zosima’s. Because death is personal, it can have meaning for life and for the people around it. The impersonal death of scientific realism, death which is only a medical process, can have no moral meaning because it is arbitrary and predictable. Death in Dostoevsky, though, is capable of meaning beyond itself. As Father Zosima tells Alyosha in the parable of the wheat, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it dies it bringeth forth much fruit” (327). This sentiment is reprised throughout the novel—most poignantly following the death of Illyusha. In it, Dostoevsky expresses his view of death not as an end, but simply a part of larger life, but also his idea that death understood spiritually is capable of revealing much about the nature of the deceased: it brings forth fruit. For Dostoevsky, life and death are inextricably bound up in one another for the goal of existence is not the day-to-day of quotidian existence, but the whole of life as expressing the whole of the person: body, spirit, and mind;  life and death.

  1. It is also particularly striking because of her status as mother. We feel that the mother has been violated, her holiness desecrated. In shattering the taboos surrounding the representation of death with the gruesome death of a mother, Mann attacks the idealism, prudery, dishonestly, and sentimentality of the same class which venerates the figure of the mother—that is, the middle class.

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