Monday, January 04, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: Introducing our hero

Early on, the narrator of the Brothers Karamazov explicitly states that Alyosha (Alexey) Karamazov is the hero of the story. However, as many critics and readers have pointed out, he's the least interesting of the three brothers--probably because he is so innocent, so good, so willing to believe the best of others and of God. No one wants to read about a guy like that, really. The narrator himself seems to recognize the problem unconsciously. Alyosha's name begins the novel, but then the story immediately diverts to his awful father. We do not see Alyosha, except in passing, until the very end of Chapter Three, after the narrator has provided detailed descriptions of Dmitri and Ivan, his older, more flawed, and more compelling brothers. Finally, the narrator tells us:

It is of that brother Alexey I find it most difficult to speak in this introduction. Yet I must give some preliminary account of him, if only to explain one queer fact, which is that I have to introduce my hero to the reader wearing the cassock of a novice. Yes, he had been for the last year in our monastery, and seemed willing to be cloistered there for the rest of his life.

Why the difficulty? Is it Alyosha's relative blandness? Or is it his innocence and deep vulnerability, which make speaking about him seem indecent, even violent? The answer is not entirely evident. But the narrator's reluctance to speak about the man he claims to be his central character is intriguing--and helps make up for Alyosha's possible lack of inherent interest. In fact, at these early stages of the novel, the sense of drama surrounding Alyosha arises largely through the narrator's tenderness toward him, and apparent fear that by bringing him into the novel, he is putting Alyosha at risk. Perhaps readers won't understand him or accept him; we'll want gossip and dirt (which we've received in spades already about the other characters); we'll poke and prod and mock him, when all he wants is to be cloistered in the monastery. He isn't like the other characters, see--we must handle, or read, him with special care.

Alyosha's initial characterization is striking in another way, though it's not unique to him. Apart from the cassock, and the announcement of his age (twenty) at the beginning of Chapter Four, we are given no physical description of him. This is true of the father and the other brothers as well. And this flies in the face (pun sort of intended) of what we're generally expected to do when we introduce characters. I, for one, have long felt that I have to work in a physical description of a new character as soon as possible. The reader needs something to picture right off the bat. You don't want a laundry list of characteristics, but a few telling details. Oakley Hall's Art and Craft of Novel Writing suggests putting "detail in motion": the image of a man popping a candy in his mouth allows you to show his big mustache working as he chews.

But there are no such representative visual details about Alyosha. Instead, we get this:

First of all, I must explain that this young man, Alyosha, was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion at least, was not even a mystic. I may as well give my full opinion from the beginning. He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love. And the reason this life struck him in this way was that he found in it at that time, as he thought, an extraordinary being, our celebrated elder, Zossima, to whom he became attached with all the warm first love of his ardent heart. But I do not dispute that he was very strange even at that time, and had been so indeed from his cradle. I have mentioned already, by the way, that though he lost his mother in his fourth year he remembered her all his life—her face, her caresses, “as though she stood living before me.” Such memories may persist, as every one knows, from an even earlier age, even from two years old, but scarcely standing out through a whole lifetime like spots of light out of darkness, like a corner torn out of a huge picture, which has all faded and disappeared except that fragment. That is how it was with him. He remembered one still summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (that he recalled most vividly of all); in a corner of the room the holy image, before it a lighted lamp, and on her knees before the image his mother, sobbing hysterically with cries and moans, snatching him up in both arms, squeezing him close till it hurt, and praying for him to the Mother of God, holding him out in both arms to the image as though to put him under the Mother's protection ... and suddenly a nurse runs in and snatches him from her in terror. That was the picture! And Alyosha remembered his mother's face at that minute. He used to say that it was frenzied but beautiful as he remembered. But he rarely cared to speak of this memory to any one.

The first vivid image we have of Alyosha is his memory of his mother. But it's not even his memory of his mother's face, which we are only told is "frenzied but beautiful." It's the light of the setting sun, and the pain of her squeezing him; her terror, and the nurse's, as the nurse snatches him away. It's an astonishing little scene.

If we have all this, do we really need to see Alyosha's mustache (if he has one, which I doubt) before we can proceed? What we've learned instead is there's something about Alyosha that inspires both the narrator and his mother to protect him fiercely. And that certainly makes an impression. Whether that impression will remain throughout the novel (or whether I as a reader am willing to take up the cause of protecting Alyosha, and what that decision might mean, either way) is not clear yet. However, this inside-out introduction of a character, either via the narrator's attitude, and / or a powerful childhood memory, seems worth trying. I would like to try something of the sort, rather than racking up physical traits, which now look pretty pedestrian in contrast. Especially hair. I am really tired of describing people's hair.

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