Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 59

The Brothers Karamazov : Books 5–6

The two set pieces of Book 5, Ivan's “rebellion” and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, reach ideological heights for which there are few equals. In the nineteenth century one can think only perhaps of Balzac's Seraphita and Louis Lam- bert, George Sand's Spiridion, or possibly Flaubert's La tentation de Saint Antoine. These inspired pages take their place in a Western literary tradition that begins with Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound and the book of Job. They also continue the Romantic titanism of the first half of the nineteenth century, represented by such writers as Goethe, Leopardi, Byron, and Shelley. The Czech critic Vaclav Cerny, in a penetrating book, saw Dostoevsky (along with Nietzsche) as the culmination of this Romantic tradition of protest against God on behalf of a suffering humanity.1

Formally, the three chapters devoted to Ivan illustrate again that sudden vertical expansion of a character that enlarges his symbolic status and poetic power. Now the coldly conceptual Ivan is consumed by the same passionate thirst for life as Dimitry. Alyosha tells him affectionately during their conversation in the tavern, “You are just a young and fresh nice boy, green in fact!” “It's a feature of the Karamazovs, it's true,” Ivan replies, “that thirst for life regardless of everything, you have it no doubt too, but why is it base?” Of course it can become so, as in old Feodor or Dimitry's escapades, but it can be a life-sustaining force as well. As Ivan acknowledges, “even if I … lost faith in the order of things, were convinced in fact that everything is a disorderly, damnable and perhaps devilridden chaos, if I were struck by every horror of man's disillusionment—still I would want to live, and, having once tasted of the cup, I would not turn away from it till I had drained it.” This loss of faith “in the order of things” is exactly what torments Ivan, but his primordial love for life is powerful enough to counteract the dispiriting conclusions of his reason: “I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic” (14: 209).

Enumerating all the endearments that still link him to life, he lists not only nature (“I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring, I love the blue sky”)

1 Vaclav Cerny, Essai sur ie titanisme dans ia poésie romantique occidentale entre 1815 et 1850
(Prague, 1935).

-867-

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