Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Trial of Dmitri Karamazov

The final chapter on the trial of poor Mitya is so compelling that I couldn't believe anyone hadn't done a play or film specifically on this chapter.  Sure enough there was a 1958 Off-Broadway production at the Jan Hus Playhouse.  I imagine other productions have been done in other countries, as it is pretty hard for me to imagine others haven't seen the great theatricality of Dostoevsky's closing chapter.

The entire story is pretty well summed up, with a few tantalizing "catastrophes" thrown in for good measure.  Dostoevsky appears to relish the high drama he creates, twisting and turning his characters through the guise of the third person monk who narrates the book.  In fact this is the first chapter where the third person narrator appears plausible, as he like many others have squeezed into the town hall to witness this trial that has captured the imagination of Russians far and wide, and to hear him tell it, the foreign press as well, thanks largely to the would-be writer, Rakitin, who probably would have made for a more convincing narrator, had not Dostoevsky chose to make him such a pivotal part of the story.

In the previous chapter on Ivan, the narrator noted that Rakitin was the one responsible for dissemating the story, along with other pieces of juicy gossip to the Petersburg press.  But, as Mitya's famous defense attorney, Fetyukovich, demonstrates, Rakitin is hardly the most reliable of sources.

Ultimately, it is a letter harbored by Katya that undoes Mitya.  She is unable to stand for Ivan's maddening testimonial on the dock in which he claims to be the one ultimately responsible for his father's death.  As a result, she bears Mitya's letter, which to this point she had held close to her breast, in which he not only said he would kill his father but laid out his program, which pretty much followed that which the prosecutor had presented.

Mitya surprisingly takes this pretty cooly, but not Grushenka, who throws herself on Mitya, shouting you see what that she-devil is all about.  It seems Katya really did love Ivan after all, and the thought of him admitting a guilt he was only responsible for in thought and not deed was too much for her to bear.  The guards break up Mitya and Grushenka, and the prosecutor adds the damning evidence to the case against Mitya.

To this point, the defense attorney had done a pretty good job of casting doubt on all the testimonials, including that of Grigory, whose insistence that the door was open before Mitya purportedly clubbed him with a brass pestle had been the most damning evidence to date.  Mitya continued to insist he never entered the house, but that Smerdykov was the killer.

Smerdyakov looms like the butler in this crime.  We never really learn much about him other than he was most likely the bastard child of old man Karamazov, and raised by Grigory like the other boys, only Grigory didn't have much patience for him.  The old manservant clubbed Smerdyakov as a young boy, which apparently led to the epileptic seizures that would haunt him to the very end.  But, it seems that Smerdyakov wasn't such a fool after all in the confession he made to Ivan in Chapter 11.  The only problem is that Ivan was so rattled by his internal demons that he couldn't bear testimony to this last statement by Smerdyakov without plunging into his own maddening despair and thereby tainting his story.

It doesn't matter that there are large enough holes in the prosecutor's case to drive a troika through, the suicide by Smerdyakov at the end of the previous chapter pretty much kills any other viable suspect, which the prosecutor duly notes in his closing argument.  The defense attorney does his best to make a case for Mitya, but there is simply too much damaging evidence to overcome.

This isn't so much a murder mystery, as it is an elaborate study on the nature of guilt and how Ivan's little tract on the relationship between man and God apparently compelled Smerdyakov to take out his vengeance on his bastard father, with the seeming purpose to ruin the Karamazov family as a whole.  Shades of Poe's The Rise and Fall of the House of Usher here.

However, it seems Dostoevsky's greatest inspiration was Gogol's The Dead Souls, from which he draws upon heavily in the closing chapter, comparing Russia to Chichikov's wild troika as it sped across the great expanses.  This is a moral tale couched within a crime drama, with the Karamazov family representing the various degraded states of sensuality, with Mitya forced to assume the guilt for this debauched family.

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