Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Sins of Children in the Brothers Karamazov: Serfdom, Hierarchy, and Transcendence

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Sins of Children in the Brothers Karamazov: Serfdom, Hierarchy, and Transcendence

Article excerpt

Near the end of Crime and Punishment, in one of the most harrowing passages in all of Dostoevsky's works, Svidrigailov is plagued by a series of nightmares. The last of his dreams is the most horrifying of all: Svidrigailov dreams that he helps and comforts a miserable five-year-old girl whom he finds sobbing in a corner, hiding from her abusive mother. After he tucks her into bed, she attempts to seduce him, with a "fiery and shameless look" on her "completely unchildlike face" "Ah, cursed girl!" he exclaims, and awakes (PSS 6:393; CP 509). (1) Soon after, he commits suicide, unable to accept his own inner world where purity cannot exist without being defiled. The little girl of Svidrigailov's dream is the only child in Crime and Punishment who could be called anything other than deeply innocent. It is a mark, indeed, of Svidrigailov's own vileness that he is able to imagine this devilish, sexualized child. Children in Crime and Punishment are often victims of violence and poverty, but they retain purity and natural empathy--thus Raskolnikov's childhood self in his dream protests against the torture of the horse while the grownups around hito are at best indifferent to its sufferings.

The Brothers Karamazov likewise insists on the innocence of children, an idea reiterated throughout the novel. Characters of otherwise opposing viewpoints reinforce the idea that children ate pure: Zosima says that children are "sinless, like angels" (PSS 14: 289; BK 319) while Iran protests against the suffering of children in part because they "have not eaten [the apple] yet, and are not yet guilty of anything" (PSS 14: 216; BK 238). The death of the consumptive Ilyusha can be read as an example of just such a suffering innocent. Rimvydas Silbajoris, for example, writes that Ilyusha at the end of the novel is the "symbolic equivalent of the dead Christ" (37), a sinless being who, in dying, helps to redeem those left behind.

But Ilyusha's Christ-like nature is far murkier than it might at first seem. Dostoevsky's thoughts about childhood innocence became more complex between 1866, when Crime and Punishment was published, and the late 1870s, when he was writing The Brothers Karamazov. Even while The Brothers Karamazov insists on the innocence of children, it also undercuts this idea, showing how children can be sinful even while they suffer. Ilyusha is a sinner at the same time that he is Christ-like; suffering leads to cruelty even while it brings the sufferer closer to God.

This article will argue that the tension between childhood innocence and childhood guilt is at the very heart of the novel. Children in The Brothers Karamazov are frequent victims of poverty, abuse, and neglect. In this they resemble another category of natural victims, the peasants, who had recently been freed from serfdom. Abused children reflect the historical and personal suffering so many serfs underwent, and the long-term results of that suffering. Among the saddest of these results is that the victims of cruelty go on to perpetuate it, thus creating more victims and more violence. The novel proposes a solution to the vicious cycle of abuse: people need to be willing not to strive for the top of the hierarchy, but rather to put themselves in the position of historical victims. If everyone becomes like a child or like a serf, then power structures become meaningless and the whole violent system dissolves. The Brothers Karamazov offers an understanding of kenosis that takes literally Paul's call to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who ... emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Phil 2: 5-7). Thus kenosis can be a spiritual act with immediate social and political implications.

And yet, the novel also makes it clear that such glorious solution is next to impossible: almost no one is willing to risk such a radical act of humility. Within the world of The Brothers Karamazov, the continuing corruption of the innocent is a simple and all but inescapable fact. …

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