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The Brothers Karamazov
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Archived 2012 Group Reads > Brothers Karamazov (B) 01: Book I - Chapter 1, Book II - Chapter 2

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Andrea Please post your thoughts on the first section!

Everyman | 885 comments Every time I start this book (this is at least no. 3, and probably would be higher if I were being candid about it) I wonder, who is the narrator? And how does he or she know all the things he or she does about what goes on behind closed doors? I've never come up with an answer that satisfies me. Maybe this time?

Everyman | 885 comments At least by now I've gotten some sort of handle on the nicknames. The first time I read it I came across these unfamiliar names and wondered, who the heck is this person? For those coming to it for the first time, this may be helpful:

Alexi is also called Alyosha, and a few other things but not for awhile.

Dmitri is also called Mitka and close variants thereof.

Ivan is called Vanya, and again close variants thereof.

I suppose it's just as confusing to the Russians why somebody called Margaret will also be called Peg or Meg.

Andrea (tasseled) | 189 comments I'm reading this for the first time and surprisingly I find it not as intimidating as I thought it would be. It helps that I know the language, historical context and structure of names; I'm sure I would be pulling my hair out if I didn't.

Granted, not much happens in the first book, since it's mostly just background story of the brothers, but but I am already annoyed with the patriarch of the family (especially in the beginning of the second book). It's hard to find a single redeeming quality, isn't it? As for the narrator, I too was wondering about his identity. I haven't read any other of Dostoyevsky's works, but the language used in this book paints a picture of a very simple man, most likely a peasant. I imagine he is one of the help to the Karamazov's? Again, I am reading in the original language, so I cannot judge if the translation mirrors this or not. I would love to hear other people's opinions on the narrator.

Everyman | 885 comments Hi, Andrea. I hope that others join us her soon -- I'll never get through this book without the healthy support of other Chunkster readers!

I agree that there's not much happening so far, but I think it's worth noting that this is unlike most novels of the Victorian period, where characters are presented more through their entry into the action of the story than having them gradually brought onto the stage for lengthy introductions. It suggests to me that he may be saying "this is a book primarily about people, not about events."

Everyman | 885 comments I found a bit of disconnect between the description of Fydor's first wife as "bold, hot-tempered" and her having almost been browbeaten by him into marrying a man she didn't love. I didn't find this character very consistent. But since she came into and left the story within the first few pages, I suppose it doesn't matter much.

Everyman | 885 comments The children seem to have been shifted from one place and relative to another with almost no concern for them or their welfare, but it's just whoever will take care of them. Today, we would expect that to result in royally messed up children. I wonder, though, whether it was more common at the time, or whether the expectations laid on child caretakers were less than we expect today.

Everyman | 885 comments The narrator seems to address the reader more directly in this book than in most literature. Starting with the very beginning note, "From the Author," he addresses himself specifically to us ("...I foresee such unavoidable questions as these...Why should I, the reader, waste time learning the facts of his life." Already we are to think that we are wasting time reading this book?

And he makes sure to keep telling us what we should be paying attention to. For example, late in Chapter two he says "(a fact worthy of note)", and in the middle of Chapter 3 "I beg the reader to note this from the beginning."

There are other authors, of course, who from time to time address "Dear Reader" or otherwise directly address the reader, but I don't recall any other author who specifically tells us what to take note of or what will be important in the book.

It gives it both a somewhat weird and also a perhaps more intimate feel, much like a conversation around a fireplace where one person is telling another a story and interjecting comments such as "it's really important for you to understand that..." or otherwise directly interacting with the people he's telling the story to.

What do others make of this technique, and do you find it interesting, or distracting, or what?

ayanami I don't mind the narration technique. It does feel more intimate and I like that in a book. I've always thought of books as companions, I guess, so a book talking to me seems normal LOL.

I, too, was wondering about the strange life of the brothers. I wonder if there will be indications of any lasting effects all the moving around and being separated had on them.

I'm reading a translation by Andrew R. MacAndrew this time and I find the translator's choice of naming curious. MacAndrew rarely uses the characters' middle names, instead calling them by only first name or first name + last name, or in Fyodor's case, simply calls him "Karamazov" most of the time (and there's absolutely no mention of Miusov's middle name when he's introduced). In Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation (which I started with last time we tried to read this together), most of the major characters are referred to by first name + middle name, eg. Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan Fyodorovich. I know the middle names come from the father's name. Just wondering if there's any significance to this. In the Russian language, do people normally include middle names when referring to each other?

Aside from that, the translations are very similar. P&V sometimes chooses a more esoteric word here and there but on the whole, there's not much difference. I feel like P&V also uses some odd syntax but I'm basing this on the 160 pages I read last time...

Andrea I just wanted to post some of my thoughts before I start the next section. I actually took some notes as I was reading and it made reading the first section much more understandable.

As Everyman said, I have NO CLUE who the narrator is at this point. I got a little further last time we tried to read this as a group and I still did not know who the narrator was so I am not sure when or if we will learn that fact.

Also, by taking notes I was able to figure out who everyone was between the real names and the names that are used when we are introduced.

I also picked up that feeling that we are being guided through the story by the author. I like Everyman's example of this. I also noticed that we are told when "we will be getting back to something" later in the story. So far this is not bothering me but I will have to keep reading to see if I remain feeling this way...hahaha

Andrea, Welcome! You are reading this in Russian? That is great and will make for some interesting conversation possibly!

I can't help but keep wondering why the boys would move back to their hometown after the father had abandoned them, it just is odd. It seems like we have been set up to learn more about this later in the story ;)

I'm going to go out on a limb and say so far I am enjoying this much more then out last attempt! I am surprised that we have so few readers given how many People voted and said they wanted to read it again. I may see if we can do a reminder of some sort.

Andrea (tasseled) | 189 comments Patronymic names that are derived from father's name are always used with first name when making a formal address to an older person or somebody of little acquaintance. It is basically a sign of respect. Sometimes even relatives use them to talk to each other. My mother used to always address her mother-in-law by both first and patronymic names, since my grandma was older and they weren't particularly close. Patronymic names are dropped between close friends. So to answer your question, yes, it is very normal and quite frequently used.

Andrea Andrea, thank you for that great explanation! I have a feeling we are going to keep you busy with questions. Please let us know if we ask too many..hahah

Andrea (tasseled) | 189 comments Thank you, it was my pleasure. I will try my best and answer any questions that pop up during our discussions. There can never be too many!

Everyman | 885 comments Andrea wrote: "Patronymic names that are derived from father's name are always used with first name when making a formal address to an older person or somebody of little acquaintance. It is basically a sign of re..."

Thanks for the clarification!

Since you've allowed us to pester you with questions (I hope we don't overdo it), I did wonder whether the practice of Elders was really as overwhelming as Tolstoy paints it. The idea that anybody would turn their whole life over to an Elder seems very strange to me. Is Tolstoy exaggerating a bit here, or was it really as he describes it?

message 15: by Andrea (last edited Oct 04, 2012 11:45AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Andrea (tasseled) | 189 comments Hi, Everyman, I'll try to answer your question to my best ability, though I don't claim to know everything.

Back in the day Elders used to be considered almost like living saints, so naturally people tended to take their word for law. Elders were different from regular church clergy, because they did not choose to be spiritual leaders, but rather were chosen by people who believed in their connection with divinity. They were considered to have direct connection to the Holy Spirit and perform miracles. So I guess you can imagine why people were turning to them and wishing to receive their guidance. People indeed used to travel very far distances to see them and were willing to wait for days to speak to them, just like Dostoyevsky had written it. And yes some deeply religious considered following in their footsteps and abandoned they whole life to become their students. After the revolution religion was banned, so new generations lost their connection with the Church, and Elders became pretty much extinct.

To give you an example, think of Grigori Rasputin who styled himself as an Elder. While people called him a fraud, Czar Nicolas Romanov (or rather his wife Alexandra) truly believed him to possess divine powers and let him rule their lives at the expense of their popularity with their subjects. Maybe that would give you a better picture of an Elder's influence on the believers.

I hope this helps a little. It's hard for me to present a really clear picture for you, since as I mentioned, this is not practiced in Russia anymore. I am simply lacking firsthand experience.

Andrea You did a great job explaining that, Andrea! I think I get what you are saying.

Meghan Blackburn I agree that the narrator is a mystery. This is my second time reading the book, and I still have no clue who it is.

I do like the way the narrator engages the reader in a sort of familiar way. I read another book not long ago that made use of this, and at the time I thought it was refreshingly different. I can't remember the book or author--female, mid-nineteenth century.

Thank you, Andrea, for the info about Elders, as I was curious about that. One other thing that struck me as interesting was the lack of commitment (for lack of a better word) exhibited by some of the residents of the monastery; Alyosha comes and goes as he pleases, and it seems some of his acquaintances there aren't believers at all. This just seems surprising to me...I would think one either decides to become a monk, or not.

Everyman | 885 comments Andrea wrote: "Hi, Everyman, I'll try to answer your question to my best ability, though I don't claim to know everything.

Back in the day Elders used to be considered almost like living saints, so naturally pe..."

Fascinating! Thanks very much.

Andrea (tasseled) | 189 comments Meghan wrote: "I agree that the narrator is a mystery. This is my second time reading the book, and I still have no clue who it is.

I do like the way the narrator engages the reader in a sort of familiar way. ..."

I haven't yet gotten to the point where we see lack of commitment from members of monastery, so your comment intrigues me. My guess would be consider corruption within the church that has been present in many other religion. I know that many Russians in the beginning of 20th century considered church far from perfect. One book from the period that comes to my mind is The Twelve Chairs that has a character of Father Fyodor who takes advantage of a confession to find hidden treasure. He is also shown constantly engaging in strange business projects in order to gain profit. So Dostoyevsky could be doing something similar here. But I have to actually read a little further to be able to comment. I'll make sure to look into it.

ayanami Thanks for the explanations, Andrea! I guess that would explain why the chapter 'Elders' is included in the section introducing the family.. They basically govern your whole life.

Rosemary I've just picked up the book from the library and I'm catching up.

Regarding the narrator, I think I've come across this situation before in the stories of Gogol where there's an omniscient narrator who appears to be a local resident but is never identified.

I was surprised that Dostoyevsky had given his own first name to Karamazov Senior who is not a very nice guy by the sound of it. Perhaps the use of the patronymics makes the first name by itself less personal than it would be for us?

Andrea So glad you are joining us, Rosemary!

message 23: by Sera (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sera I've finally started reading the book and I think that it is excellent so far.

Andrea is going to be an excellent resource for this read. I'm not as knowledgeable as she is, but I did want to mention that Russians don't have middle names. I am Ukrainian and I don't have a middle name either. As a first generation American, it made me feel weird while growing up viz-a-viz my peers.

Looking forward to more discussions with the group.

message 24: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Librarian (ellenlibrarian) | 167 comments That's interesting. My father's entire side of my family is Russian and neither I nor my sisters have middle names. I've always felt weird about it, too, but nobody ever told me it's a Russian custom. I just thought it was my family.

message 25: by Sera (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sera Ellen wrote: "That's interesting. My father's entire side of my family is Russian and neither I nor my sisters have middle names. I've always felt weird about it, too, but nobody ever told me it's a Russian cust..."

I thought that it was my family, too, until my parents explained it to me when I was older and asked about it. I gave myself a made-up middle name at some point, too, just to try and fit in. Quite sad, really.

Andrea Wow, that is really interesting. I didn't know about this custom. I do know several people that Russian and now that I think of it I don't think they have middle names, I never thought to ask why though.

message 27: by Marissa (new) - added it

Marissa Late to the discussion so forgive me.

This may not have any bearing on prospective readers but there's a very specific scene that really locked me in as a reader. This scene can be no other than the Elder's somewhat monologue of a speech. It shows just how clever Dostoyevsky is and how layered these characters are. It feels as if a very close warning to those who indulge in this behavior. The Elder unravels Fyodor Pavlovich's persona that feels like an unraveling of yourself.

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