Status battles in The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov is one of the most famous books in the history of literature. It was also Einstein’s favorite book. However, my appreciation for the book proves that (much) lesser mortals also have much to gain from reading it.

The book swings primarily between the author’s third person narration of events, and the psychoanalysis of the characters responsible for those events. The narration of events can sometimes be boring and dated. A gentleman of high rank goes to visit a lady, who looks upon him with suspicion because he is not adequately respectful in her esteemed presence. A lady of pure virtue wants to sacrifice herself to a man she doesn’t love out of the goodness of her heart. There are some allusions to “feminine” jealousy, the differences between the artificially sophisticated Europeans and the living, breathing Russians, etc. We don’t live in a world with nobility and fainting ladies and such anymore. Hence, this book can be very dated at times, and the reader begins to question Einstein’s sanity in recommending this book (I mean, he was also wrong about Quantum Physics, wasn’t he?).

Interspersed between the narration of said events is the author’s psychoanalysis of the characters, which by extension provides for a wide ranging discussion on philosophy, religion, etc. These sections are mind numbingly brilliant. I am not a sophisticated reader. I don’t know my Nietzsche from my Deepak Chopra. Even for idiots like me, the insights that Dostoevsky communicates, sometimes almost as an afterthought, make me stop reading and highlight furiously, amazed that someone could have this level of insight into the human mind. In my opinion, Dostoevsky anticipates both Freud and Carl Jung, and their philosophies lie embedded in this novel. Towards the end of this novel, I was basically highlighting whole pages on my Kindle. However, my intention in writing this post is not just to praise the book. I feel that Dostoevsky needed a little Robin Hanson to make some of his points about human nature even more transparent.

The main plot of the book is that a lowlife landlord by the name of Fyodor Karamazov is killed, and his eldest son Dmitri Karamazov is blamed for the murder. Both father and son were after the same woman, Grushenka, who was playing them off each other for sport. The father Fyodor had cheated his son of a sum of 3000 roubles, and had told Grushenka that he would give that money to her if she decided to choose him and become his wife. Dmitri, suspicious that Grushenka would indeed choose his father, breaks into his father’s property to prevent this. When the gardener of the property confronts him, Dmitri hits him in a moment of madness, and then runs away.

Let us delve a little deeper into Dmitri’s past. He was born into a high rank, and was a decorated army officer. However, he was loose with his money and morals, and tried to seduce virginal teenagers wherever he could, often abandoning them later. On the flipside, when a poor but beautiful woman asks him for 4000 roubles to save her ailing father, and was ready to sleep with him and do his bidding, he gives her all his property without asking her for any favors. That poor girl later becomes rich due to an unexpected inheritance, and also his fiancé. She tolerates his unfaithfulness, and also gives him 3000 roubles when Dmitri is penniless, despite knowing that he would only use the money to seduce the prostitute Grushenka. He takes the money, lowering his status to the lowest dregs, and does exactly that- try to seduce Grushenka. However, he also finds it beneath him to not try and return his fiancé’s money. Hence, he asks his father Fyodor for his 3000 roubles that he is rightfully owed. He is denied this, and then beats up his own father, threatening to kill him later. And so on.

When Dmitri is later accused in court of killing his father, the prosecutor explains his behavior to be like that of a pendulum, capable of containing both the highest of virtue and the lowest of vice. He gave away his last penny to a lady he didn’t ask anything of. However, he later took money from the same lady to cheat on her. He was ready to stoop to any kind of manipulation to get money from people. However, he only wanted the money to pay back his debt to his fiancé, so that she would not think he was a thief. Hence, he was a man who could be swayed by wild passions of any color, whether right or wrong, and he would be completely consumed with them without moderation. A man perpetually in control of his instincts and devoid of rational thought. An animal.

This is a fantastic explanation. However, a simpler explanation would probably suffice. Dmitri always wanted to maintain a higher status than anybody else. When he fought his father for those 3000 roubles, he didn’t really do it out of greed. Dmitri was famously generous with his money, and had reportedly spent 3000 roubles in a single night while partying with the villagers and raining champagne and chocolates on them. Also remember that he had given away all his money to his now fiancé without expecting anything from her. He didn’t need money for any expensive purchases for himself. However, he felt slighted by his father’s manipulation and control, and felt that his status had been lowered relative to his father’s. He had been outmaneuvered, and proven stupid. Hence, he beats his father and threatens him for the money so that he could prove himself to be the alpha, thereby raising his status in the process.

When he gave his now fiancé all his money, he didn’t do it out of a sense of generosity or love. In fact, it was implicitly understood between them that she would have to sleep with him for the money. However, at the last moment, he gives her the money and turns away, mocking her and sneering at her. He had gained something far more precious than intimacy- a clear status superiority in relation to another human being. She was ready to do whatever he said. And he turned her down on a whim. This was as big a status victory for him as he’d ever experience.

The only person that Dmitri didn’t try to defraud or bestow generous gifts upon was Alyosha. This was mostly because Alyosha never challenged Dmitri to a status duel. Whenever Dmitri talked to him, Alyosha never passed judgement or him or ask him for any assistance. Hence, Dmitri was never in a position to lose or gain status. Alyosha only lent a patient ear. Dmitri could be himself in front of him, without engaging in status battles.

Another person who engaged in frequent status battles was Grushenka, the prostitute who was playing with both father Fyodor and son Dmitri. She was abandoned by her husband-to-be, thereby lowering her status to the dregs. To compensate for this, she would charm men (like Fyodor and his son Dmitri), and then laugh at them as they would kill and maim each other to gain her affections. In this way, she would elevate her status to be above theirs. Her current status grab was in compensation for her status loss in the past.

I think that a lot of the world and people’s actions become simplified when looked at through the length of status. We don’t really need to work 12 hours a day at jobs we hate to earn buckets of money that we’ll only stash in the bank, or perhaps buy houses that are too big for us or cars that are too fancy for us that we’ll mostly only drive at 60 to jobs that we hate. We need the status that comes with all of that. We want the people in our lives to think that we managed to amount to something. That we have something that no one else has. That we are special. And The Brothers Karamazov shows that the fainting ladies and chivalrous gentlemen of the past centuries also had the same needs. Perhaps Robin Hanson and Keith Johnstone are on to something here when they say that society is mostly about status signaling and status battles.

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Graduate student

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