A Close Reading of The Brother’s Karamazov

Quote chosen for analysis from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

“I am not a doctor, but nevertheless I feel the moment has come when it is decidedly necessary for me to explain to the reader at least something of the nature of Ivan Fyodorovich’s illness. Getting ahead of myself, I will say only one thing: he was, that evening, precisely just on the verge of brain fever, which finally took complete possession of his organism, long in disorder but stubbornly refusing to succumb. Though I know nothing of medicine, I will venture the suggestion that he had indeed succeeded, perhaps, by a terrible effort of will, in postponing his illness for a  time, hoping, of course, to overcome it completely. He knew he was not well, but he was loath to be ill at that time, during those approaching fatal moments of his life; he had to be personally present, to speak his word boldly and resolutely, and ‘vindicate himself to himself.’ However, he did once visit the new doctor who had come from Moscow, invited by Katerina Ivanovna owing to a fantasy of hers. Which I have already mentioned above. The doctor, having listened to him and examined him. Concluded that he was indeed suffering from something like a brain disorder, as it were, and was not at all surprised at a certain confession that he made to him, though not without repugnance. ‘In your condition hallucinations are quite possible,’ the doctor decided, ‘though they should be verified…but generally it is necessary to begin serious treatment without a moment’s delay, otherwise things will go badly.’ But Ivan Fyodorovich, having left the doctor, did not follow up this sensible advice. And treated the idea of treatment with disregard: ‘I’m up and about, I’m still strong enough, if I collapse it’s another matter, then anyone who likes can treat me,’ he decided, with a wave of the hand. And so he was sitting there now, almost aware of being delirious, and, as I have already said, peering persistently at some object on the sofa against the opposite wall” (Dostoevsky 634-35).

 Line by line close reading:

  1. “I am not a doctor, but nevertheless I feel the moment has come when it is decidedly necessary for me to explain to the reader at least something of the nature of Ivan Fyodorovich’s illness.”

The narrator begins this chapter, and passage, by stating his inability to give a proper medical diagnoses of Ivan’s condition. In doing so, he is alerting the reader to his unreliable knowledge about the character’s condition. Furthermore, stating that he “feels” this is the right moment to comment on Ivan’s well-being implies that the narrator is not telling the story through a well planned and formal relay. That this exposition is coming from a feeling, rather than from a point of crafted, narrative control, suggests that the story is free-flowing or, at least, not completely owned or controlled by the narrator. Finally, he states that it is necessary for him “to explain to the reader.” In doing so, he is citing himself as an intermediary between the reader and the story. Combined, this analysis suggests that the narrator does not have power or possession of this story, but is only facilitating it.

  1. “Getting ahead of myself, I will say only one thing: he was, that evening, precisely just on the verge of brain fever, which finally took complete possession of his organism, long in disorder but stubbornly refusing to succumb.”

Continuing with the idea that the story is not completely possessed by the narrator, the narrator works to control his feelings for interjection and stops himself to allow for the story’s power of unfolding itself when he says: “Getting ahead of myself, I will say only one thing.” The next part of this sentence states that the brain fever takes possession of Ivan’s organism and suggests that a fever has an aspect of authority and control over Ivan’s body.  The word “organism” is an interesting choice because it is a description lending itself to a strictly scientific interpretation of the body. A separation of Ivan’s “self” from his body occurs in the next portion because it seems that Ivan’s body is refusing to succumb rather than Ivan’s whole being.

  1. “Though I know nothing of medicine, I will venture the suggestion that he had indeed succeeded, perhaps, by a terrible effort of will, in postponing his illness for a  time, hoping, of course, to overcome it completely.”

Downplaying the narrative role of understanding in this passage, when he says “I know nothing of medicine,” the narrator emphasizes his lack of knowledge not only of medical science, but of the character, Ivan, as well. Ivan is seen as battling, not only his brain sickness, but his body. The narrator seems to pit Ivan’s will against his body as though the two are not interconnected. The narrator states that Ivan relies on hope to overcome his illness rather than fully believing he is in control. This is a moment of psycho-narration that leads us more closely to the character and slightly further from the presence of the narrator.

  1. “He knew he was not well, but he was loath to be ill at that time, during those approaching fatal moments of his life; he had to be personally present, to speak his word boldly and resolutely, and ‘vindicate himself to himself.’”

This sentence seems to rest between psycho-narration and direct discourse. It is unclear if the reader is to think s/he has stepped completely into the mind of Ivan or whether it is the narrator’s interpretation, because the semicolon separates psycho-narration from a direct statement. It is further complicated by the use of quotes at the end. The quoted portion at the end doesn’t seem to be something that Ivan would be able to think himself, because it’s a rather objective point. However, if it’s not him, it is unclear why the narrator would use quotes. It could be that the narrator is quoting an idea from earlier in the text and further alluding to his own separation or lack of possession over the story.

  1. “However, he did once visit the new doctor who had come from Moscow, invited by Katerina Ivanovna owing to a fantasy of hers. Which I have already mentioned above.”

This brief interjection about Katerina’s desire for Ivan to see a doctor shows that Ivan is not without help in combating his illness. It is interesting that it is a “fantasy” of Katerina because Ivan is very aware of his own perilous mental state. The narrator seems to be downplaying Katerina’s part in relation to Ivan, although it is because of her that he sees the doctor. Ivan’s personal strength over his body is exemplified through the downplaying of Katerina’s involvement.

  1. “The doctor, having listened to him and examined him, concluded that he was indeed suffering from something like a brain disorder, as it were, and was not at all surprised at a certain confession that he made to him, though not without repugnance.”

Although the narrator has stated his inability to diagnose Ivan, it seems that he doesn’t consider the doctor as particularly skilled. Initially he states that the doctor listened to him and examined him, implying that the two methods are relevant to figuring out Ivan’s problem, but also that it is not physical examination alone that a doctor can conclude anything. The statement “something like a brain disorder, and particularly the use of  the word “something” seems to be used deliberately to emphasis the doctor’s inability to diagnose Ivan, because it is vague and indirect. This statement leaves the reader wondering at Ivan’s brain and not fully convinced that what the doctor says is reliable. That the doctor felt repugnance at Ivan’s confession suggests an element of unprofessionalism in the doctor’s manner where curiosity and further examination might have granted the doctor sound authority or respect in the text.

  1. “‘In your condition hallucinations are quite possible,’ the doctor decided, ‘though they should be verified…but generally it is necessary to begin serious treatment without a moment’s delay, otherwise things will go badly.’”

This passage continues in the vein of the last, with the doctor seeming unsure through his use of vague words like “things will go badly,” “quite possible,” and “generally necessary.” It is unclear what can go badly, whether the body will deteriorate or the mind’s hallucinations will make the body act out in “bad” ways. There is also a vague element to what treatment is necessary for Ivan. Hallucinations can’t be verified unless someone is there to witness the person’s state of weakness, and combined with the last portion, Ivan prefers to deal with his failings alone.  Although the narrator is stating what the doctor said directly, the reader is left with a sense of urgency and vagueness.

  1. “But Ivan Fyodorovich, having left the doctor, did not follow up this sensible advice. And treated the idea of treatment with disregard: ‘I’m up and about, I’m still strong enough, if I collapse it’s another matter, then anyone who likes can treat me,’ he decided, with a wave of the hand.”

The author states that Ivan did not follow the doctor’s sensible advice, but it seems that the doctor was not very concrete in his assessment and therefore unconvincing to Ivan. A moment of dark humor shines through in “And treated the idea of treatment with disregard.” Using repetitive language paces the statement in way that is both dismissive and mocking. This mocking tone adds weight to the interpretation that both Ivan and the narrator have a certain disregard for the doctor. Ivan’s decree that anyone can treat him after he collapses demonstrates Ivan’s need for control. If he’s still up he can handle things, if he collapses, it no longer matters what happens to him. He doesn’t show a desire to have a great Moscow doctor care for him after he’s falling which lends to an idea that Ivan is not hoping for anything after his collapse and only hoping to manage his thoughts and actions until that time, after which it seems he won’t care. Waving his hand at the end shows a maintained control over both his body and his discernment. Although, his lack of regard for the knowledge a doctor has is arrogant and, as will later come out in the trial, an error of judgment.

  1. “And so he was sitting there now, almost aware of being delirious, and, as I have already said, peering persistently at some object on the sofa against the opposite wall.”

This sentence shows the moment of Ivan’s loss of control. Being “almost aware” is curious because it states a position only the narrator knows. Ivan is almost aware, and therefore not aware and unable to know he is not aware. In this manner of phrasing, the narrator doesn’t diminish Ivan’s goal of controlling his illness because he grants Ivan the benefit of “almost” knowing. It’s as though the narrator pities Ivan’s struggle and condition and justifies his disregard for the doctor. The use of the word “object” lends to both the narrator’s limit of knowing Ivan’s interiority and the possibility of his (the narrator’s) own error in his subtle disregard for the doctor.

Short essay evolving from close reading:

Throughout the novel, Ivan struggles intellectually and logically against the hopes of his soul. After squabbling with Alyosha and finding out Smerdyakov’s involvement in his father’s death, Ivan’s intellectual prowess is challenged. In the chosen passage, the formal construct and the plot converge in a point that allows a better understanding of Ivan’s place in the novel. Embedding Ivan’s “brain fever” in a framework that exposes the narrator’s own lack of understanding compounds a greater theme of the dangers that come with relying solely on one’s intelligence and logic. This passage operates in a way that elucidates Ivan’s “brain fever” as a metaphor for the failings of intelligence and logic in a text that focuses heavily on the aspect of faith in religion.

The narrator in this passage hints repeatedly at his own lack of knowledge of both medical science and Ivan as a character/person. He goes on to use a tone that diminishes the doctor’s knowledge and ends this portion with sympathy for Ivan’s inability to control his sickness. With compounded emphasis on the limits of knowledge in the narrator, the doctor, and a loss of control in Ivan, this passage sets up a tone of uncertain knowledge in nearly every sentence. The passage settles on Ivan’s loss of mental control and a connection to the broader themes of knowledge and madness, as it relates to Ivan, gains relevance. Since each portion of this passage deals with the failings of knowledge, it can be discerned that worldly knowledge is highly touted, but unreliable. Ivan finally loses his mind and it seems that the efforts in framing the passage cumulate with a focus on the perils of Ivan’s intellectual struggle.

Following the analysis of knowledge, Ivan and his intellectual struggles are metaphorically highlighted through the use of “brain fever.” It is the use of this specific term that facilitates commentary on the brain and, by relation, Ivan’s knowledge. Throughout the novel, Ivan has been touting his own intellectual maturity and has maintained a sense of respect for his knowledge with most of the characters. When he reaches the cumulative point of knowledge about his father’s death, he loses the struggle with his fever. Ivan’s certainty of Mitya’s involvement in his father’s death has been destroyed and it is through the fever that his incapacity to trust in his own knowledge takes on a physical form. When considering that it is the devil who arrives during his illness, it becomes clear that Ivan’s brain fever is a metaphor for his fatiguing intellectual battle with religious truth.

Since Ivan’s intellectual struggles have been formulated around religion and judgment, it is relevant here to point out how close Ivan’s healthy faculties are to a feverish, religious hallucination. It’s as though Ivan is fatiguing in a battle for power over himself, a power that is lost if one succumbs to religion. This passage delicately handles his position with personal power and religion because, although he is not aware of his hallucination, the narrator grants him some respect in his acute ability to will away sickness. Ivan’s character is not completely debased even though he may feel he is. Furthermore, the idea that religious visions come when one is fevered complicates the question of religion vs. logic in the novel.  If religious visions occur during hallucinations in the novel, it makes it difficult for the reader to validate the religious experiences of other characters, like Father Ferapont. This could even be stretched to challenge religious signs in general throughout the novel, and include everyone’s religious opinion on Father Zossima’s odor. It’s as though the narrator is stating, yes Ivan was wrong, but that doesn’t mean he was completely without reason. By concluding with a religious vision as a fever the narrator ensures that the reader will not make a solely negative judgment about Ivan’s intellectual position and may even challenge the earlier elements of religious signs.

Although Ivan loses in his intellectual struggles, the narrator does not disrespect his struggle for truth: “And so he was sitting there now, almost aware of being delirious” (635). The narrator interjects his own understanding to relay that Ivan is almost aware of his sickness. The character who has spent his life studying and searching for answers to his moral/immoral place in the world is almost able to objectively grasp his conversation with the devil. Along with the idea that Ivan is able to will his body away from sickness for a long time, the narrator seems to be applauding Ivan’s strong presence of mind, even if the story does not grant him the complete intellectual success he desires (as in Ivan’s inability to be convincing at the trial). The narrative choice to applaud Ivan’s struggles with religion speaks positively to the idea of challenging oneself with the world’s difficult questions rather than hiding from them. The reader can walk away from this passage with the propensity to question the interpretation of religious signs as well as understand that intellect is not without failure—all while maintaining a sense of respect for intellectual astuteness and the power of religion.