Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dostoevsky peering into hearts # 3 - The light shineth in darkness...

Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942).  Lonely woman
Continuing our journey with Dostoevsky, to meet the marginalized and humiliated, I would like, now, to mention some women. They are 'secondary' characters which appear in two of the great novels of maturity. First, Sofya Ivanovna “possessed by devils” ["la Hurleuse"] and “Stinking” Lisaveta, in The Brothers Karamazov, then Maria Timofyevna Lebiadkina, “the Cripple” in Devils, The mere mention of their nicknames indicate the contempt they suffer. But, as in contrast, the writer highlights the richness of heart and soul – and even the beauty – of these scorned and ridiculed women.

Let us begin with Sofya Ivanonvna, “possessed by devils”. She is the second wife of the patriarch Fiodor Pavlovitch Karamazov. An orphan who “grew up in the house of a general’s widow, a wealthy old lady of good position, who was at once her benefactress and tormentor”. Without insisting, the narrator tells to have heard “that the orphan girl, a meek and gentle creature, was once cut down from a halter in which she was hanging from a nail in the loft, so terrible were her sufferings from the caprice and everlasting nagging of this old woman, who was apparently not bad-hearted but had become an insufferable tyrant through idleness (1). The rest of the story tells us that she was married to the old Karamazov after the death of the first wife of the latter. She undergoes the hardships and humiliations imposed by this debauchee, who does not fear to bring prostitutes in the matrimonial home. Sofya finds however a considerable support at the old servant Grigori. As very often, in our author’s books, it is simple and humble people who show the most beautiful qualities of heart. So, Grigori “took the side of his new mistress. He championed her cause, abusing Fyodor Pavlovitch in a manner little befitting a servant, and on one occasion broke up the revels and drove all the disorderly women out of the house”. Obviously, it is not difficult to imagine the suffering born by this poor woman. As a result of this terrible suffering, “this unhappy young woman, kept in terror from her childhood, fell into that kind of nervous disease which is most frequently found in peasant women who are said to be ‘possessed by devils’. At times after terrible fits of hysterics she even lost her reason”. It is that Sofya Ivanonvna, “possessed by devils”, who will give birth to the second and third brothers Karamazov: Ivan and Alexey (Aliocha). “When she died, tells the narrator, little Alexey was in his fourth year, and, strange as it seems, I know that he remembered his mother all his life, like a dream, of course”. Knowing the quality of soul of Aliocha, we suspect how much, still a child, he had perceived the kindness, the love and also the suffering of his mother. As for the brave servant Grigori: “His sympathy for the unhappy wife had become something sacred to him, so that even now, twenty years after, he could not bear a slighting allusion to her from any one, and would at once check the offender”.
Ilya Repine (1848-1930) A poor girl

The figure of “Stinking” Lizaveta is even stranger. She appears for the first time in the novel when the servant Grigori – him again – discovers her whereas she has just given birth to a baby in Karamazov’s garden. This gardent, surrounded with a solid fence, is closed at day fall. One night, Grigori, alerted by his wife who said she had heard as a child crying from the outside, gets out and perceives groans coming from the small shed which, at the back of the gardent, shelters baths. “Opening the door of the bath-house, he saw a sight which petrified him. An idiot girl, who wandered about the streets and was known to the whole town by the nickname of Lizaveta Smerdyastchaya (Stinking Lizaveta), had got into the bath-house and had just given birth to a child. She lay dying with the baby beside her...” Thanks to the care of Grigori and his wife, the child is saved, but Lizaveta dies the next day. To the reader, who wonders why this poor person climbed the fence of the Karamzov’s garden to deliver, the narrator supplies elements of explanation, but remain, as usual, on the mode of the hypothesis. An evening of binge and drinking bout, Karamazov and his companions had discovered Lizaveta sleeping, stretched out along a hedge. One of the jolly fellows had then asked a question of the most cynical: “Whether any one could possibly look upon such an animal as a woman, and so forth.... They all pronounced with lofty repugnance that it was impossible. But Fiodor Pavlovitch, who was among them, sprang forward and declared that it was by no means impossible, and that, indeed, there was a certain piquancy about it, and so on...” The narrator tells us nothing more about it, but lets us know that “five or six months later, all the town was talking, with intense and sincere indignation, of Lizaveta’s condition, and trying to find out who was the miscreant who had wronged her. Then suddenly a terrible rumor was all over the town that this miscreant was no other than Fiodor Pavlovitch.”
But who is this Lizaveta? She responds quite well to the image of what the Russian Orthodox tradition called the "fools in Christ": men – more rarely women – who engage in strange behaviors, living like tramps and witnessing through their wise "madness", the real madness of the world cut off from God. By the mouth of his narrator, Dostoevsky gives us a moving description of Lizaveta: “This Lizaveta was a dwarfish creature, “not five foot within a wee bit,” (...) Her broad, healthy, red face had a look of blank idiocy (...) She wandered about, summer and winter alike, barefooted, wearing nothing but a hempen smock. Her coarse, almost black hair (...) was always crusted with mud, and had leaves, bits of stick, and shavings clinging to it, as she always slept on the ground and in the dirt (...) Many people in the town, especially of the tradespeople, tried to clothe her better, and always rigged her out with high boots and sheepskin coat for the winter. But, although she allowed them to dress her up without resisting, she usually went away, preferably to the cathedral porch, and taking off all that had been given her – kerchief, sheepskin, skirt or boots – she left them there and walked away barefoot in her smock as before (...) In fact, every one seemed to like her; even the boys did not tease her (...) She would walk into strange houses, and no one drove her away. Every one was kind to her and gave her something. If she were given a copper, she would take it, and at once drop it in the alms-jug of the church or prison. If she were given a roll or bun in the market, she would hand it to the first child she met.
What a contrast between the innocence and the generosity of the poor Lizaveta and the calculating perversity of her rapist! About Smerdyakov – whose name means "stinking" – the strange figure, half-witted, half-scoundrel, whom becomes the child born of rape, he will be the instrument of some kind of terrible immanent justice by being the assassin of his parent, the old man Fiodor Karamazov.

Devils, written by Dostoevsky in 1871, is probably his darkest novel. Surprisingly prescient of the events that would take place in Russia, it stages characters imbued with a Promethean nihilism, whose only real plan is to destroy a society considered retrograde. Dandies at a loose end, bourgeois and aristocrats, seduced by the "new ideas", plot and intrigue in an almost collective frenzy. It is in this context that the novel's main character, Nikolai Stavrogin woould have married Maria Timofyevna Lebiadkina, the "Cripple", sister of a retired captain, a drunkard and an amateur poet.

Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887)  The blue shawl
This poor lame woman is a dreamer, kind of a mystic. The narrator – who, in this novel, speaks in the first person – visits her. Quite and serene in the midst of the miserable and sordid environment where she live, “mademoiselle Lebiadkina” amazes her visitor: “At some time, perhaps in early youth, that wasted face may have been pretty; but her soft, gentle grey eyes were remarkable even now. There was something dreamy and sincere in her gentle, almost joyful, expression (...) Strange to say, instead of the oppressive repulsion and almost dread one usually feels in the presence of these creatures afflicted by God, I felt it almost pleasant to look at her from the first moment, and my heart was filled afterwards with pity in which there was no trace of aversion(2). Her drunkard of brother beats her, and she is subject to nervous crises after which “she forgets everything that's just happened (...) She's an extraordinary person for dreaming; she'll sit for eight hours, for whole days together in the same place.” She recounts memories of the monastery where she would have formerly stayed, and evokes a child she would have had once. But is all this only daydreaming? Anyway, her narrative expresses a simple and moving faith. The circumstances in which Nikolay Stravogin would have married “the Cripple” are particularly dark, and the novelist makes nothing to clear them up. Stavrogin’s mother, Varvara Petrovna herself, wonders if they are really married. Having met the unfortunate in a church service, she took her home. She questions her son: “Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, she repeated, rapping out her words in a resolute voice in which there was a ring of menacing challenge, I beg you to tell me at once, without moving from that place; is it true that this unhappy cripple – here she is, here, look at her – is it true that she is... your lawful wife?” Nikolai says nothing, smiles, kisses the hand of his mother, crosses the room and goes to Maria Timofyevna: “– You should not be here, Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch said to her in a caressing and melodious voice; and there was the light of an extraordinary tenderness in his eyes. He stood before her in the most respectful attitude, and every gesture showed sincere respect for her. The poor girl faltered impulsively in a half-whisper: – But may I... kneel down... to you now? – No, you can't do that. He smiled at her magnificently, so that she too laughed joyfully at once”. Dostoevsky entitles this chapter of the book: “The subtle serpent”, a title that appoints, of course, the elusive and disturbing Nikolay Stavrogin. We shall never know if it is by some perverse challenge that he married the “Cripple” or if he really felt for her true compassion. No character at Dostoevsky, is totally bad (nor totally good). Anyway, in this context of intrigue and lies, this poor woman without malice or falsity is like a little light, humble, flickering, but how comforting.

It is the genius of Dostoevsky to succeed in giving life to such characters, paradigms of the disorder and the darkness that inhabit the human heart, but also models of a humanity whose goodness is preserved in spite of the mud and the perversity into which it is plunged. Of course, it is not easy for you to make a clear idea from some snippets. That is why I recommend you to read fully Dostoevsky’s great novels. You will not regret it!

Fiodor (the other one...)

(1) All quotations are from Ebook #28054, The Brothers Karamazov, tranlated by Constance Garnett,
(2) All quotations are from Ebook #8117, Devils (The Possessed), translated by Constance Garnett,