Fyodor Dostoevsky is indisputably one of the greatest writers of his time, and arguably of all time. He earned this status not only by being an unmatched story teller- writing novels so gripping that they are hard to put down- but by infusing his dramas with timeless comedy, poignant social commentary, insightful psychology, and universal philosophical inquiries. His extremely in-depth character development allows for unlimited societal references that every reader can relate to.
A most common feeling expressed among readers is that he puts into words what they have always thought about, but never had the words- or the sharp observation- to express. A similar feeling is created by Jonathan Franzen, whose novel, The Corrections, is a bestseller, and not only on account of its hilarious banter and piercing insight. The Corrections is widely hailed as an epic masterpiece that perfectly brings to light the problems of materialism, technology, and alienation in American culture. This is perhaps even more impressive because he is British and not American.
Franzen has risen quickly to the top, and The Corrections will continue to be read for many years to come. Though their personal beliefs are entirely different, Franzen and Dostoevsky address many of the same questions regarding family. The psychological breakdown of relationships between family members is key and not only addresses psychology, but also society. Both authors utilize the family as a microcosmic representation for society, and Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the last of Dostoyevsky’s famous and well-regarded novels, is the best example of this tactic.
The Brothers Karamazov begins with a brief family history. The patriarch, Fyodor Karamazov, has three sons (Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha) by two different women. Fyodor, preoccupied with hedonistic debauchery, sends his sons to various relatives to be taken care of. Dimitri and Fyodor become enemies as soon as Dimitri is old enough to realize that his father not only has taken no responsibility for him, but is also withholding his inheritance left to him by his dead mother.
The feud intensifies when they both fall in love with Grushenka, a woman of notoriously poor reputation. Dimitri, though vengefully abhorrent of his father, has inherited Fyodor’s taste for wine and women. Ivan, the second oldest, is a brooding intellectual, and Alyosha, the youngest, has moved to the monastery under the well-respected Father Zossima. Smerdyakov, the fourth and illegitimate son, is Fyodor’s cook. Smerdyakov is anti-social and epileptic, but loves to talk about philosophy with Ivan.
Understandably, Dimitri is blamed when Smerdyakov murders Fyodor, because of the “overwhelming facts” against him. Ivan loses his mind when he realizes that he is more to blame than the innocent Dimitri, because he subconsciously encouraged, and even hoped for the murder, and Alyosha leaves the monastery on Zossima’s instructions. The Karamazovs forcefully confront the reader with the timeless questions of family. Is love entitled or earned? Are children unconditionally innocent? Are children obliged to love and respect their parents despite neglect and abuse?
“Even while The Brothers Karamazov insists on the innocence of children, it also undercuts this idea, showing how children can be sinful even while they suffer…the tension between childhood innocence and childhood guilt is at the very heart of the novel…they resemble another category of natural victims, the peasants…” (Hruska, 472) It is not only the idea of children that is representative of a larger social construct, but nearly every character. Alyosha is the devout Christian. He believes wholeheartedly in the good of human kind and Christ.
He is honest, loyal, and compassionate. He is not just a person of faith- he embodies faith. He has faith not only in God, but also in humanity. Though not representative of Dostoevsky himself, Alyosha is an extremely sympathetic character, designed to uphold the principals of faith and Christ against all opposition- and Dostoevsky’s representation of opposition is not slight, but in fact, very thorough. Ivan represents doubt and rationality. His intellectualism is both his strength and his eventual downfall. Though brilliant, it is precisely his doubt that drives him to madness.
He is a respectable character, but he is ultimately unsuccessful, exhibiting Dostoevsky’s view on where the path of doubt leads. Fyodor Pavlovich is obviously deplorable and pathetic. He is selfish and greedy. He seeks nothing but pleasure at all costs and is completely uncaring, except, presumably, for Grushenka. He believes that his recognition of his own disgraceful behavior frees him not from outside condemnation, but from true inferiority. His illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, becomes the manifestation of all that is impure in Fyodor.
The Lambert family in The Corrections, though lacking in murderous rivalry and unbridled sensuality, is equally disturbing, if only because of its realism. “We are talking about the “family values” of the House of Atreus, the Brothers Karamazov, the Mafia, and the Manson Gang. ” (Leonard, 6) While Alfred loses his body and mind to Parkinson’s, his wife, Enid, tries desperately to reunite the family for Christmas. The oldest, Gary, is well off and living with his own wife and children in an affluent area of Philadelphia. Denise, the middle child, is a successful and beautiful young chef.
Chip is a failed screenplay writer, a failed boyfriend, a failed professor, and a failed son. The Corrections, then, addresses not only the gap between generations, but also the grasp of one on the other. The flyaway children who feel themselves wronged return like boomerangs to the parents whose business it has always been to stamp out errancy… (Leonard, 9) Both Dostoevsky and Franzen push the reader’s limit for sympathy with their extremely flawed, but perhaps forgivable characters. The reader is forced to examine the limits of redemption from greed and “base” behavior, both in society and in the family.
In both novels, the reader is ultimately compelled to forgive any sin where repentance is present. In The Brothers Karamazov, for example, it is easier to forgive Dimitri’s aggression and lies because of his genuine sincerity, while his father, a victim of cold blooded murder, does not evoke the slightest feelings of sympathy, aside, maybe, from sheer pity. In The Corrections, Chip is likable despite his follies not only because of his self-deprecation, but because he has moral principals. Contrary to his brother, Gary, who has a wife, children, and a steady job, but a very capitalistic mindset and a depressed, numb state of living.
Denise is a competitive workaholic but is genuinely confused, and the reader his hoping for her salvation because she is so desperately isolated. The novel shifts from a condemnation of the contemporary American materialism to the possibility of family (and, by implication, human) forgiveness. The narrative has been dallying with philosophical questions, but now it lingers…I cannot say whether Franzen could have pulled off this miraculous redemption of his story had he not so cruelly set up his Lamberts as crass sinners, but I was sorry it took him so long to acknowledge their capacity for decency…(Sayers 23)
Perhaps the biggest difference between these two novels is the philosophical dissonance between Dostoevsky and Franzen. While Dostoevsky’s characters clearly represent specific and largely unchanging ideals, Franzen’s creations are muddled and confused. They resemble a deer in the headlights of post-modern America, racing inside, but paralyzed by the chaos of the situation, and unable to move in either direction. Interestingly, though Dostoevksy was a staunch advocate of deep faith while fairly exploring doubt, his ultimate message when is comes to family is far less optimistic than the obviously anti-religious Franzen.
This is perhaps dependent on the opposing characters’ abilities to change. Since Dostoevsky’s characters remain of largely the same beliefs and convictions throughout and in spite of their life-changing experiences, they are incapable of true metamorphosis. Franzen’s initially detestable Lambert family is eventually redeemed by each character’s inner-changes, which leads ultimately to a realistically cynical, but still heart-warming loyalty to one-another.
The only character who doesn’t change for the better is Alfred, who simply loses his mind, and though the reader is respectful of his work ethic, he is obviously the yoke of the family, whose death is seen as ultimately positive for his wife and children. There is a sense of triumph by the end of the novel, when Enid, who initially looked like an idiot compared to Alfred, is really just in need of independence, and proves to be a lot smarter than she seems. If anyone in The Corrections is radically transformed—and all of them are turned like sucklings on a spit— it’s Enid at age seventy-five.
When Alfred at last is safely dead, she puts on her sudden freedom like a jaunty hat. (Leonard, 8) When the charismatic and brilliant defense attorney asserts the child’s right to demand proof that he should love his father, the audience wholeheartedly approves and supports him, even so far as to applaud despite the judge. The audience, like a Shakespearean chorus, representing the author’s prediction of the reader’s reaction, is totally in favor of Dimitri’s salvation despite full knowledge of past offenses. The reader blames his father for raising a violent deviant.
Franzen, on the other hand, provokes a feeling of pity for Enid that makes the reader want to scold her children, understandably irritated though they may be, for not treating their mother with more kindness. The result is a surprising one. Franzen, the postmodern critic of just about everything, takes the route of sympathy and even optimism. His characters change for the better in a very real way. They don’t proclaim that they have decided to devote themselves to God, they have no fear of damnation, they just genuinely have tried and succeeded in improving their relationships.
Dostoevsky is focused much more on religion, for a variety of justifiable reasons, but his characters are less fluid. Though each of his characters transforms throughout the novel, it is only by way of rigorous philosophical inquiry. Franzen’s characters, on the other hand, are merely growing up. Enid does not plan to improve her life when her husband dies- she just does. It is a natural progression as opposed to a constant battle fought with violent imagery and empty threats.
Franzen frees his characters from every limit set by Dostoevsky- especially God and the fear of moral judgment. The result is not a depressing tale of a family who does not feel an obligated loyalty to one another. On the contrary, the Lambert family transforms only for love. They are not motivated by religion or society. They simply learn to love one another for no other reason than their shared DNA. This is far more optimistic than the picture of a family according to Dostoevsky, because it is universally attainable.
SOURCES Hruska, Anne. “The Sins of Children in the Brothers Karamazov. ” Christianity and Literature 54 (2005): 471-495. Parenthetical Citation Leonard, John. “Nuclear Fission. ” Rev. of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. New York Review of Books 20 Sept. 2001. Parenthetical Citation Polka, Brayton. “Psychology and Theology in the Brothers Karamazov. ” Journal of Literature and Theology 5 (1991): 1-24. Parenthetical Citation Sayers, Valerie. “Caffeinated Realism. ” Commonweal 21 Dec. 2001: 23-24. Parenthetical Citation
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