The following is based on the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of this novel.
Fyodor Dostoevsky possessed amazing insight into the human mind. Many of the characters in the The Brothers Karamazov are drawn in intricate complexity. They are also lively and entertaining. It seems to me that they come close to real people. The portrayal of the entire Karamazov family is an aesthetic triumph. I could write pages and pages of commentary on the entire clan.
Case in point is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. The patriarch of the Karamazovs, Fyodor is a terrible father, a cheapskate and a sexual abuser of the mentally disabled. Fyodor abandons his sons at an early age, is lecherous and he refuses to part with money even when it is owed to others. He is repeatedly described as a buffoon. He is also often hilarious. What a marvelous literary creation he is.
Though I am not intending a full-blown character analysis on Fyodor, I find Dostoevsky’s take on his foolishness unique. As the author spells it out, Fyodor’s buffoonery is a kind of pathetic rebellion against the world.
Though speaking of another clownish figure, Alyosha, one of the Karamazov brothers observes,
“there are people who feel deeply but are somehow beaten down. Their buffoonery is something like a spiteful irony against those to whom they dare not speak the truth directly because of a long-standing, humiliating timidity before them. Believe me … such buffoonery is sometimes extremely tragic”
At one point Fyodor himself comments,
“That is exactly how it all seems to me, when I walk into a room, that I’m lower than anyone else, and that everyone takes me for a buffoon, so ‘Why not, indeed, play the buffoon, I’m not afraid of your opinions, because you’re all, to a man, lower than me!’”
I believe that there is something to this. We all likely have encountered people who behave so overtly clownish as to be embarrassing. I like to be careful when trying to fit large groups of people and a spectrum of behaviors into a single box, as I do think sometimes in an effort to create universal rules, we overgeneralize and thus turn insight into dogma. However, at least some of the time, the question arises; is this type of conduct truly a form of rebellion and contempt for certain aspects of society and behavior? Is it a safer way to challenge authority as opposed to outright defiance? There is a tradition of clowns and jesters speaking truth to power and getting away with it when no one else can. The concepts of seriousness, piety, honor, straight talking, etc. do seem to be challenged by this over the top foolishness. It makes sense, at least in some cases, to look at such clownish attributes as a kind of guerilla warfare against accepted convention.
For instance, such real buffoonish behavior as disrespecting oneself, saying inappropriate things and being disruptive is in many ways counter to what is commonly considered honorable and polite comportment. This is illustrated hilariously in The Brothers Karamazov when Fyodor visits Zosima, an elderly monk characterized by pious wisdom. Fyodor succeeds in making a fool of himself by arguing with his companions, engaging in melodramatic outbursts and by addressing Zosima in inappropriate and pretentious terms such as “Great Elder” and “Sacred Elder”. I think in an odd way, this can be seen as contempt for so-called acceptable etiquette. It is an attack upon social conventions. In some ways Fyodor is a human satire of the society around him.
This is but one little appetizer in a grand buffet of sociological and psychological commentary presented in this book. One thing that I loved about The Brothers Karamazov is that it is chock-full of such insights and observations.
My additional commentary on this novel can be found at: