Friday, February 05, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: Multiple characterization

This week in The Brothers Karamazov, we learn an excellent method for depicting not only individual characters, but two or more characters at once, while subtly drawing out aspects of their relationships. I am sure I've talked about this with regard to some other book, but have not done it recently, so here we go again.

The basic idea is to reveal a character indirectly, via what another character thinks about her. Dostoevsky does a spectacular job of it in describing Katerina Ivanovna through Alyosha's eyes. You may recall that Katerina is the fiancee of Dmitri, Alyosha's brother. Dmitri has sent Alyosha (who really is kind of a drip for doing this) to break off the engagement, because he has fallen for Grushenka, about whom more later. Having already staggered through a series of embarrassing scenes involving various family members--all the action has thus far taken place in a single day, a day that would make an ordinary man renounce all contact with his family for all time--Alyosha arrives at Katerina's to deliver the good news.

Alyosha has met her before, and our first view of her, when he encounters her again, is a memory of his first impression:
He was struck by the imperiousness, proud ease, and self-confidence of the haughty girl. And all that was certain, Alyosha felt that he was not exaggerating it. He thought her great glowing black eyes were very fine, especially with her pale, even rather sallow, longish face. But in those eyes and in the lines of her exquisite lips there was something with which his brother might well be passionately in love, but which perhaps could not be loved for long.
Dostoevsky, not particularly known for verbal efficiency, is getting a lot done here. First off, he's setting Alyosha up for a change of heart about Katerina. Alyosha recalls that he "felt he was not exaggerating" his sense of her imperiousness, which shows he is already rethinking that impression. He now senses that, although he is not necessarily going to reverse his opinion entirely, he will develop a deeper understanding of what is behind this appearance of haughtiness. A nice aspect of this technique is that it tells us readers that Katerina is complex--there's more to her than first meets the eye, although we don't yet know what that "more" is. Which reminds us that character need not be revealed all at once; it can unfold over time. We also see here how willing Alyosha is to change his opinions. He's not perfect; he passes harsh judgments on people just like everybody else, but he doesn't like doing that and is open to more information.

I also like how Dostoevsky uses Alyosha's point of view to work in a solid physical description of Katerina--her black eyes, pale complexion, and longish face. Because Alyosha's thoughts are swirling around this description, it becomes less static than the usual laundry list of features. It also reminds us how much a character's appearance is in the eye (or under the control of) the beholder. If we were meant to see Katerina as a villain, we might get a straightforwardly harsh description of her, either via Alyosha (whose opinions we are largely supposed to trust) or the author. It would be easy to make her angular face look witchy. But here the nature of these features is in play, as Alyosha reconsiders them. He discovers, as we do, that Katerina's face is expressive, and that what it expresses is complex and changeable and somewhat mysterious. This seems to me an aspect of physical characterization that many writers don't do enough of--show the character's features in a state of flux, without actually pinning down what sentiment those features express. Again, we come away with the notion that Katerina is complex. She can't be pinned like a gassed butterfly to a board in just a few sentences. We are going to have to learn more about her over time--as is the case with real people. This is why she feels real to us.

What I originally planned to write about in this post is this line: "But in those eyes and in the lines of her exquisite lips there was something with which his brother might well be passionately in love, but which perhaps could not be loved for long." Here Dostoevsky pulls off a threefer. He's told us quite a bit about Katerina, Alyosha, and Dmitri, plus how they all relate to one another.
  • We see more of Katerina's face, particularly her "exquisite" lips, and some hint of a puzzling expression thereon.
  • We see that Alyosha finds her beautiful and is even drawn to her, but then promptly inserts Dmitri into the picture in order to push himself away. Alyosha values his chastity and is highly nervous around women. He's also loyal to his brother, even as his brother is trying to ditch this woman.
  • We are reminded (because we already know this) that Dmitri's passions are changeable. We gather that there is something particular about Katerina that might ignite his passion but will not hold it forever. What is that something? We don't exactly know as of yet.
  • We see Alyosha's understanding and forgiveness of his brother. He is able to see why Dmitri might want to leave her.
  • The ambiguity of the passive voice--"could not be loved for long"--is also intriguing. (I'm too lazy to look this up in the Russian, so let's just assume this is what Dostoevsky intended.) The passive construction puts the onus for losing Dmitri's love somewhere between Katerina and Dmitri. It's possible that no one could love Katerina for long, or it's possible that it's just Dmitri who can't. The passive suggests the former, but at the same time, it does not make Katerina fully responsible for the problem. She doesn't make people stop loving her; she just possesses some quality that cannot be loved for long. That makes her tragic, not a mere bitch.
Apparently I could go on and on about this short passage. However, the take-away for us writers is to try revealing one character through another's eyes. And when doing this, I'd suggest showing the point-of-view character being somewhat foiled in his attempt to "know" the character he's considering. As long as the POV character's opinions are in flux, the reader remains curious about both characters, and senses them as complex, changeable, and more fully human.

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