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message 1: by Alex (new)

Alex | 4 comments I'm looking for any kind of feedback I can get on an essay I wrote about Tolstoy and the brothers karamazov. Anything good or bad is welcome.


A character in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse five remarks that, "everything I need to know about life can be found in The Brothers Karamazov." Indeed, Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel is a fiercely thoughtful mystery that weighs in on nearly every facet of life. It's central themes are the themes of life itself. Through the lens of Fyodor Dostoevsky's writing, one can understand a lot about the lives of two other brilliant thinkers- Lev Nikolaivich Tolstoy, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
An important rule for writing is to never refer to yourself, or your audience in an essay. But the topics that I'm going to try to tackle here are daunting, so you'll have to follow along, sorting through what will unmistakably be messy at times, but will have a few poignant and thought provoking points which I will desperately try to make shine through. Understanding, much less writing about these three with the prerequisite of understanding them is a tough task, so I'll undertake it in my own way. The patterns that will be revealed in the lives and works of these three, even if you don't agree with the conclusions I make, should be worth the read.

Part 1: An introduction to the Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov was the culmination of the works of one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen, Fyodor Dostoevsky. He has been often criticized for lacking the artistic vision of most other writers that are at the same literary level, but is unmatched, before or after, for the insight and the thought provoking themes. His other major works, Crime and Punishment, The idiot and Demons are all regarded as classics, but The Brothers Karamazov is unmistakably his crowing achievement. It's the story of three brothers (possibly four), a misanthropic father, and the murder, mayhem, and intrigue that ensues. Alyosha, the youngest of the brothers, is the hero of the story according to Dostoevsky. When one understands that Alyosha is named after a son of Dostoevsky's who died at a young age, of an inherited disease that Dostoevsky blamed himself for, the overwhelming sentiment of the novel grows even stronger. Alyosha plays the role of the religious son in the novel. He is kind, honest and not quarrelsome, almost to a fault. He is representative of almost all that Doestoevsky believes is good, and of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Ivan Karamazov is the middle son, and at the age of twenty two is the intellectual of the family. He borders on being a nihilist, and represents the educational and institutional values of Western Europe. Dmitri is the eldest son, and is the most passionate of the three. Neither spiritual nor intellectual, he has the fiery human passion that compliments Ivan's intellect.
But the core of the novel reveals both unadulterated passion and intellect as an Achilles heel to themselves, while the true hero of the novel is simplistic kindness in spirit that is embodied by Alyosha. Smerdyakov, who is strongly hinted at being the illegitimate fourth brother, is representative of deviance and the opposite of Alyosha, a kind of unfeeling simplistic individual
The father of the four, who is murdered two thirds of the way through the novel is the dastardly root of the novel. He has a bit of Ivan, Smerdyakov, and Dmitri in him, but lacks the spiritual core which Dostoevsky hints at being a strong part of what a person should seek in themselves. He remarks early on that the more he hates men individually, the more he loves humanity. The father is very often tongue in cheek, self centered, and usually cruel. He becomes embattled in a love triangle with his eldest son Dmitri, with a woman they both long for.
The last main character of the novel, Elder Zossima, is Dostoevsky's rebuttal to the atheistic stances that Ivan takes. At the time of the novel, Elder Zossima is on his deathbed and tells the story of his life, and religious conversion. The question of the existence of God, and reasons for cruelty of people is the core question the novel takes on, and the chapters about the question serve as a stand alone philosophical work that rivals that of Plato.

Part 2: Tolstoy and the Elder Zossima

Leo Tolstoy, who later came to prominence and cemented himself as one of the greatest authors of all time, was born to an aristocratic family on September 9th, 1928. His upbringing stands in clear opposition to his later, more humbly religious years. He was born at a time when peasants were slaves to the land, and the Tolstoy's owned a great deal of land in Yasnaya Polyana at the time of his birth. His birthplace was like a "self-sufficient kingdom, with its own population of serfs to till the fields, milk the cows, chop wood, weave carpets, cobble shoes, groom the horses... It was also an elite school where he began his education with a private tutor, and an enormous playground..." (Bartlett, 47). In later life Tolstoy would reject the worldview that had given him such a sheltered beginning, and become the preeminent authority on the "Christian anarchism" movement.

Friedrich Nietzsche also set his later life in stark contrast to his beginnings. He was born in the village of Saxon Thuringoa, in "the Lutheran heartland of Germany- a mere seventy kilometres from the great Reformers (Martin Luther) birthplace at Eisleben" (Cate, 1). He was born to a Lutheran pastor, and many in his family, going back generations, were very religious. He would later go on to decry that the cultural values that he was born into were "dead", and needed to be replaced.
One of the most interesting stories of Tolstoy's early life is a story about him and his brother Nikolay. His brother convinced him when he was a small child that "the secret to human happiness was written on a little green stick which was buried in the woods a short walk from their house" (Bartlett, 52). Later in life, Tolstoy was buried, by his request, where the green stick could be found according to Nikolay. At a young age Tolstoy was enthralled by the possibilities of mankind, for a better world, and was even said to be somewhat superstitious. These qualities about him would remain somewhat dormant during young adulthood.
His young adulthood, flowing into his midlife, was a period Tolstoy himself dubbed was "a period of 'crude dissolute living in the service of ambition, vanity, and, above all, lust'" (Bartlett, 68). He would spend much of his early life racking up gambling debts, serving in the army, abusing the privileges he obtained by being born as an aristocrat and dropping out of school. The Elder Zossima in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov has many similarities to Tolstoy. On his deathbed, he remarks "I stifled many of my childhood impressions, though I did not forget anything... I took up so many new habits and even opinions that I transformed into an almost wild, cruel, and absurd creature" (Dostoevsky, 296). This same sentiment is echoed by Tolstoy about his young adulthood in his memoir Confessions, "I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat."
Later, Zossima describes the moment of his religious conversion. In his youth, he had become jealous of a man who was to marry a woman he had liked. He insulted the man and challenged him to a duel, which the other man agreed to. A day before the duel, Zossima assaulted another man by striking him "in the face with all my (Zossima's) might, so that his face was all bloody" (Dostoevsky, 297). He recalls that moment with great shame on his deathbed. The next day, during the duel, Zossima allows the other man to fire first, and then casts his gun aside. Later that day he made his intentions known that he was joining a monastery.

Fyodor Dostoevsky had also had a somewhat distinctive turning point in his life. He enjoyed a reasonably strong success with his first novel "poor folk" and had become well known in the liberal circles in St. Petersburg. He attended a group known as the Petrashaevsky circle, which was then very critical of the csar, and had a strong socialist leaning. The group was arrested, and sentenced to die by firing squad. On the day he received the announcement, him and some of the others were taken to the stakes in Semyonov place in St. Petersberg and were given their last rites. Dostoevsky recalled later in life that he felt "a mystic terror, and was completely dominated by the thought that in perhaps five minutes he would be going to another, unknown life" (Frank, 56). At the very last moment, the execution was called off, and "aide-de-camp arrived on the scene at a gallop carrying the Csar's pardon and the real sentences [for Dostoevsky, four years in Siberia]" (Frank, 56). It was one of the most notable mock executions ever carried out. This scene scarred Dostoevsky for the rest of his life, the haunting image of what happened shines through in many of his writings, most notably in The Idiot.
Tolstoy's religious conversion was not as sudden as Dostoevsky, or his character Zossima, but it was also more of a development which was sparked in his earliest days. His parents died when he was very young, and his older brother Nikolai, who had told him of the "green stick" passed away when he was a young adult. Throughout his life, Tolstoy's "whole identity was bound up in the quest for spiritual meaning and perfection, and he took his inspiration from the life of Christ," he believed that, "the divine core of every human being is in their compassion and ability to love" (Figes, 345). Tolstoy also believed that "sin is loss of love- a punishment itself- and the only way to find redemption is through love itself" (Figes, 341). Dostoevsky would probably agree, as he states in the Brothers Karamazov, "'What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."

message 2: by Alex (new)

Alex | 4 comments Part 3: Nietzsche and Ivan

Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in Saxon Turningia, Germany. His father was a Lutheran pastor, and Nietzsche was born not too far from the birthplace of Martin Luther, in the "Lutheran heartland of Germany" (Cate, 1). He would later make a name for himself as one of the greatest philosophers Europe had ever seen. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried and moved the family to Naumburg. He had one sister, Elisabeth-Forster Nietzsche, and a younger brother, Ludwig Joseph, who died at a very young age. As a child he kept to a couple close friends. He was very successful in school and showed a particular talent towards music, philosophy and religious studies.
The man who rejected Christian morality showed much more of a well balanced morality in his early days than Tolstoy, and was not prone to heavy drinking, gambling or debauchery. One account states that in February 1865, Nietzsche was taken to a "house of ill-repute" instead of a restaurant, by a sightseeing guide in cologne. He "found himself surrounded by half a dozen sinuous creatures thinly draped in spangled tinsel and gauze. Unnerved by their bold, questioning eyes, Nietzsche stood for a moment speechless. Then, spotting a piano... he struck several loud chords. They were enough to break the tense spell, giving him the strength to flee" (Cate, 43). The early years of Nietzsche and Tolstoy could not have been more different. But at their core, they had the same fire burning inside of them. They wanted to understand life.
The character of Ivan, who at the time of the novel is 24, also is said to have shown a kind of individualism and sharp intelligence from a very young age. He, like Nietzsche, also didn't show a strong disposition towards drinking and hedonism. With his strong wit, he embodied the Western thinkers, and the influx of existential thought into the traditional and orthodox Russian world. His atheism, much like Nietzsche's, was not a total rejection of Christian thought. At one point in the novel he said to have remarked, "there exists no law of nature that man should love mankind, and if there is and has been any love on earth up to now, it has come not from natural law, but solely from peoples belief in their own immortality..." This is where he echoes one of the major themes of the novel, "[without God] nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted" (Dostoevsky, 69). Nietzsche echoed a similar sentiment with his message, through an allegory, that "God is Dead." He believed that the old morality was no longer necessary, and no longer possible. What he deemed as the "slave morality", which is what he believed Judeo-Christian values brought, was a morality based on making weakness noble, and rejecting strength as being bad. He believed, for better or for worse, that the world needed a new morality, which not all could strive for. Man needed to strive to be the "ubermensch", or the superman. According to Nietzsche, "slave morality" was born out of weakness, and so it made those virtues good: "compassion, the obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, friendliness are honored, for these are the most useful qualities for the suffering and oppressed" (Cate, 481).
To Nietzsche, the morality that was dominant before the onset of Judeo-Christian values, "master-morality", had "the salient characteristic of... self-confidence and a feeling of superiority, so natural and instinctive that 'good' is virtually synonymous with 'noble'" (Cate, 481). Mankind had to return to the pursuit of self-interest, and make it honorable again. Little did Nietzsche know, the dark underbelly of this empty, and lackluster worldview would make a return to Europe through nationalist fervor, and rejecting compassion, friendliness and all the other values brought about by Judeo-Christian morality. It does need to be said that Nietzsche would have been disgusted by what was to come, as he was not antisemitic, and rejected nationalism.

Part 4: Rebellion

Alyosha, as Dostoevsky makes clear in his preface to the Brothers Karamazov, is the hero of the story. He is described as being "an early lover of mankind, and if he threw himself into the monastery path, it was only because it alone struck him at the time and presented him, so to speak, with an ideal way out for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness towards the light of love" (Dostoevsky, 18). He is very much the thesis of the early days of the Elder Zossima and Tolstoy, and embodies the altruistic beliefs that surfaced from the struggles of both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. To Dostoevsky, he represents the heart of Russia, one which valued simplicity and goodness over rationalism and intellectualism. His quest takes him to a monastery, where he becomes a student of the Elder Zossima, and listens in on the dying man's final words. He has to find solace in himself and in a changing Russia as everything around him descends into chaos. His brother Ivan, in some of the most powerful chapters of the novel, puts his faith to the test.
In the chapter titled "Rebellion", Ivan puts forward the most compelling argument against God and organized religion, at least on theological grounds, found in literature. The chapter begins with Alyosha trying to persuade his brother that there is still a lot of love to found in mankind. Ivan puts forward the pretext of the point he wants to make, he chooses the suffering of mankind, and more specifically the suffering of children as the focus of his rejection of God. Ivan starts with the theological perspective- that if children suffer here on earth, then it is for their fathers, who ate the apple. He points out in an earnest outrage that "It is impossible that a blameless one should suffer for another" (Dostoevsky, 238). Ivan goes on to list off terrible atrocities committed by people across the world, brutalities that would be incomprehensible to anyone with a moral base. He contends that, "people speak sometimes about the 'animal' cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to animals, no animal could ever be so cruel as man..." (Dostoevsky, 238). He throws fuel to the fire by contending that, "if the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness" (Dostoevsky, 239).
Ivan goes on to declare that the morality of the Bible is skewed. He doesn't accept the promise of justice to come, but wants to see it here on earth. To Ivan, all religions are based on the search for what all the suffering on earth is for. He accepts that the Christian concept is that everyone must suffer to buy eternal harmony, but can't come to terms with why children must suffer to buy eternal harmony. At the climactic moment of his argument he adds that, "It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just respectfully return him the ticket" (Dostoevsky, 245). He then poses the question to his brother, would he be the architect of a system that is responsible for "human destiny" if it entailed the torture of just one tiny creature, would he consent to those terms. Alyosha, as Dostoevsky's interpretation of humanly goodness, says he would not.
Dostoevsky can be seen in his character Ivan. He himself, like the character, kept a journal of examples of brutalities he found in newspapers. In this chapter one can actually see the pain in Dostoevsky, as he tries to come to terms with the loss of his young son, and still remain a dedicated Christian, believing in the Russian Orthodox Church. But the doubt in his heart he enshrined in Ivan.
The character of the Elder Zossima can be viewed as Dostoevsky's rebuttal. The core of his counter attack lies in the theme that without God, everything is permitted. Morality becomes subjective, and suffering becomes inherently meaningless. The Elder remarks on his deathbed, in reference to the chaos in Russia at the time, "Salvation will come to the people, from their faith and their humility" (Dostoevsky, 315). He, like Tolstoy, held the simplicity of the peasant spirit, as well as the concept of a brotherhood of man, as the most important Christian concepts. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Elder also shared the belief that love on earth is the most important value a person can hold dear. The Elder remarks, close to his death, "Fathers and Teachers, I ask myself: 'What is hell?' And I answer thus: The suffering of being no longer able to love" (Dostoevsky, 322).

message 3: by Alex (new)

Alex | 4 comments Part 5: Before the resolution

The action in The Brothers Karamazov centers around a love triagle between Dmitri Karamazov, the father (Fyodor Karamazov), and a woman named Grushenka, who they both love. Dmitri becomes desperate for money to win her over, and is driven crazy with jealousy that she might be spending time with his father. He is also convinced that his father owes him money as part of an inheritance, and is angered that his father will not pay out.
One night, in a fit of jealousy, he runs to his fathers house to seach for Grushenka, carrying a brass pestle. He crosses the garden of his father's estate in the dead of night and waits. He peers through the window and sees his father "all dressed up." Desperation overcomes Dmitri, as he stands near the window staring in, wondering if Grushenka is there or not- "the anguish of ignorance and indecision, was growing in his heart with rapidity" (Dostoevsky, 392). He taps on the windowsill. Fyodor opens the window as Dmitri steps back into the darkness, his father yells loudly for Grushenka, asking if she is there. At this moment Dmitri realizes that she is not there with his father. But, fatefully or not, Fyodor interjects that if it is her, she should come to the door, because he has "a little present waiting." Dmitri realizes that this little present is probably an envelope with three thousand roubles inside. The son becomes angry, thinking to himself "'There he was, his rival, his tormentor, the tormentor of his life'" (Dostoevsky, 392).
The reader is left in suspense as to what exactly happens to Fyodor Karamazov, though it would not be a spoiler to know that he was found dead the next morning. Instead Dostoevsky changes to the encounter between the house servant and Dmitri that night. Grigory (the servant), goes out to the yard and sees a man fleeing. Dmitri begins climbing the fence and Grigory grabs at his legs shouting "Parricide." It was common knowledge that Dmitri may want to kill his father. Dmitri jumps down from the fence and cracks him in the head with the pestle, but not killing him, before fleeing the scene.
Dmitri, who was broke beforehand, but now has three thousand roubles, leaves town to pursue Grushenka. He finds her, and spends a lavish amount of money on a party, before being arrested for his father's murder. He claims innocence. Earlier in the novel he had stolen three thousand roubles. His defense is that he only spent fifteen hundred roubles at the time of the theft, and kept the other fifteen hundred, spending them the night of the murder, after deciding to commit suicide.

Convinced that his brother Dmitri is guilty of the murder, Ivan sets about to visit his other brother, Smerdyakov, who suffers from epilepsy. His other brother, Alyosha, harbors the belief that Smerdyakov had actaully commited the murder, contrary to all reason at the time. Upon his arrival, Ivan makes it clear to Smerdyakov that he does not want to be toyed with. Smerdyakov responds, "And why should I want to toy like that, sir, when all my hope is in you alone, as if you were the Lord God, sir" (Dostoevsky, 606). Ivan was refrencing the fact that Smerdyakov had an epileptic fit before the murder, and had even predicted it. Ivan also pressures his brother on the fact that he had advised him to go away before the murder, as he had anticipated "calamity in the house" (Dostoevsky, 606). After pressuring Smerdyakov, Ivan leaves, feeling quite certain, as he was before, that Dmitri had commited the murder.
After his first visit with Smerdyakov, Ivan comes back to visit with him again a short time later. Ivan confronts him about a previous statement he made during the last visit, in which Smerdyakov had hinted that Ivan should feel some shame in leaving town before the murder. Smerdyakov states that Ivan most likely understood that his father was probably going to be murdered by Dmitri. It was not a question of if, but when the raging sensualist would finally commit the crime: "[Smerdyakov to Ivan] having known beforehand about the murder of your own parent, left him then as a sacrifice" (Dostoevsky, 614). This gets at the theme, which Dostoevsky held to be true, that everyone is responsible for everyones crimes, through inaction or other circumstances. Ivan leaves this meeting with Smerdyakov, in a fit of anger, but still believing that Dmitri commited the murder.
Ivan sets about his third and final meeting with Smerdyakov with the thought, "this time maybe I'll kill him" (Dostoevsky, 620). This time, he arrives to see his brother very sick. He assures Ivan that nothing will happen at the trial tomorrow, and to just go home and get some sleep. Ivan then presses him on this comment. Smerdyakov then states, that it was he, Ivan, who killed their father: "You killed him, you are the main killer, and I was just your minion" (Dostoevsky, 623). He then presents Ivan with the three thousand roubles, confesses that he alone killed Fyodor Karamazov, after helping to fill Dmitri's head with jealousy, and giving him the opportunity to kill. But Dmitri didn't kill his father that night, so Smerdyakov had to commit the act, which he did believing to be under the notion that Ivan wanted him to. He believed Ivan's indifference toward what went on, his understanding that a murder would probably take place, and his indifference to it still, was his silent admission he wanted it to happen. He believed Ivan wanted their father dead, or at the very least, wanted his inheritance. Smerdyakov then taunts him saying, "You used to be brave once, sir, you used to say 'Everything is permitted,' sir, and now you've got so frightened" (Dostoevsky, 625). After explaining the murder, Smerdyakov taunts Ivan about what he had taught him, "If there's no infinite God, then there's no virtue either, and no need of it [the money] at all. It was true. That's how I reasoned" (Dostoevsky, 632).
A lot of themes come together all at once. Smerdyakov had always looked up to Ivan, and his rational, atheistic logic. This is another one of Dostoevsky's rebuttals to Ivan's "rebellion", and the question of God. The goodness of humanity lies within the boundaries of faith, and without it everything is permitted. Dostoevsky also held that humanity held a responsibility towards one another, and with that lies culpability in each others sins. He leaves Smerdyakov, in a mixed state of agitation and remorse, but determined to save Dmitri. But before being able to testify on his brothers behalf, Ivan hallucinates the night of his final meeting with Smerdyakov, envisioning the Devil, who openly mocks him. He then his barely coherent when he testifies for his brother, and is not taken seriously. With this, Dostoevsky gives his verdict of European rationalism, it is empty and will doom Russia. The goodness of Russia is found in the goodness of the countrymen's faith and love.
Nietzsche also suffered a decay into insanity. But unlike Ivan's, Nietzsche's was likely not out of guilt, but brought about by a history of illness. On January 3rd 1889, he wrote a letter stating "The World is transfigured, for God is on earth. Do you not see how the heavans are overjoyed? I have just taken posession of my empire, I am throwing the Pope into prison, and having Wilhelm, Bismark and Stocker shot" (Cate, 548). Nietzsche was later said to have witnessed a man beating his horse in Turin, and seeing this take place he "ran forward and flung his arms around the horse's neck" (Cate, 550). After this event he had to be carried home, and a live in Doctor had to be retrieved for him. Curtis Cate ends his epic biography of Friedrich Nietzsche with the words: "Night, the dark night of madness he had so long feared, had finally descended on Friedrich Nietzsche, blotting out the bright sunshine of Reason he had so much wanted to extol" (Cate, 551).

Part 6: The end

The thesis of Ivan's philosophy, at least to Dostoevsky, was insanity. It was a rejection of love and compassion. His was a philosophy of realism and European rationalism. But in action, it condoned murder, for "everything is permitted", and it's up to the person to choose their morality. Nietzsche wrote that he "reproached the compassionate for easily losing a sense of modesty," and he also rejected the "so-called 'selfless' drives" of humanity (Cate, 534). Nietzsche's philosophy was used by the Nazi's to condone many of their ideological elements. They pointed to his philosophy of the "will to power" and the "master morality" he spoke of. It is true they took almost everything out of context, and one could say with close to one hundred percent certainty that not only would he have not been a supporter of the Nazi movement, but he would have hated them. But it could also be said that Ivan rejected the way Smerdyakov interpreted his own philosophy. But that's the point, this rational philosophy purported by both Nietzsche and Ivan rejects altruistic objectivity, and leaves morality up to interpretation. Everything is permitted. It should also be noted that Nietzsche's sister played the twisted role of a Smerdyakov, being an active Nazi supporter her whole life, and even encouraging his works to be used by them.
Dostoevsky ends The Brothers Karamazov on a bittersweet moment. Mourning the death of a young boy, Alyosha speaks to some of the local children, "Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life. How good life is when you do something good and rightful" (Dostoevsky, 776). Answering one of the other boys questions about whether there is life after death, Alyosha responds, "Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been" (Dostoevsky, 776). To both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the philosophy of the Christian spirit was much more fruitful, and moral, than what they perceived as the emptiness of the philosophy of Ivan, and somewhat embodied by Nietzsche. Late in life, Tolstoy became the center of the "Christian anarchist" movement in Russia. His form of Christianity "went beyond the walls of the monastery to engage directly with the major social issues" (Figes, 342). His themes had an influence on Gandhi, and could be said to have influenced Martin Luther King Jr. The twentieth century showed the darkness of existential rationalism, and "master morality", not in theory, but in action. It also showed the fundamental goodness of a firm moral standing.

Bartlett, Rosamund. Tolstoy: A Russian Life. New York: Houghton Mifflin Hardcourt, 2011. Print.

Cate, Curtis. Friedrich Nietzsche. Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press, 2005. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.

Figes, Orlando. Natasha's Dance: A cultural history of Russia. New York: Metropolitan books, 2002. Print.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Print.

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