NER DIGITAL | On Dostoevsky | Emma Lieber


000600 Two Boys - BarcelonaI have been in love with The Brothers Karamazov for a long time, but for a long time I was unable to write about it. Dostoevsky’s last novel is about many important things—sin and salvation and crime and justice and neighborly love—but, to me, it has always been mostly about the death of a child. Dostoevsky dedicated it to his wife; their son had died at age three two years before it was published, and every page of it screams their shared anguish and their passion.

There is beauty here in the death of innocents. At the end of the book, when Ilyusha, dead at age ten of tuberculosis, is lying in his grave, flowers are blooming, and a crowd of his schoolmates has gathered; they promise to love and remember each other, and they are full of grace and lust for life and boyish exuberance and appetite for the funeral feast and in their excitement they shout “Hurrah!” The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov is taken from the same lines in the Gospel of John that, a year after the novel’s publication, would become the author’s own epitaph: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” There is a fellowship and a flourishing to be found in death; a single death can feed a multitude. Yet Dostoevsky offers no easy assurances, and The Brothers Karamazov is equally about Ivan Karamazov, who hates God for letting children suffer. If God’s kingdom is one in which even one child dies, then Ivan will return his entrance ticket, and while his nauseous rebellion is the flipside of the novel’s concluding picture, it is equally as passionate and true. The most haunting figures in the book are the mothers of dead children, women who cannot be consoled.

Several years ago, I was in the middle of a long dissertation, the last chapter of which was supposed to be on The Brothers Karamazov. That year, we also wanted a child, and I found that I could not start writing the Dostoevsky chapter until I was pregnant. By the end of our son’s first year I understood why I had been saving the book for so long. With the birth of any child, parents are confronted, in their very joy, with the fact of mortality, the “Hurrah” of life always echoing with the murmurings of death: the dangers of childbirth, the pitfalls of infancy, the simple fact that all children are born to die. Amongst all of the triumphs of modern medicine, which assures us that so very many of our babies will survive childhood, one of the few drawbacks is how infrequently parents are able to avow their fears. We have been left unable to mourn the births of our children, and the anguished cries that would have been so familiar in Dostoevsky’s era have been muted into an underground melancholia, or a free-floating anxiety. I think I was saving The Brothers Karamazov until I had a child of my own as a way of making me confront head-on my horror at my baby’s mortality. What I couldn’t have known was that my son would have made me do that anyway, and that the intensity of my need for Dostoevsky’s novel was more profound than I had imagined.

He was born on December 30, in the evening. It was a difficult and strange time. The doctors put him in the NICU, and once, as my husband and I entered the room to visit him, we heard shouting and panicked; we were relieved to realize that it was the sound of New Year congratulation, a few moments of well-wishing, the only celebration the staff allowed themselves. We were able to leave the hospital within a few days, though over the course of the next year we were back often, twice for long and complicated surgeries, the first longer and more complicated but the second—because he was older and, when the mask descended to put him to sleep, knew something scary was happening—more harrowing. After it was over someone asked me whether at any point during those hours in the waiting room I thought he might die, and I responded that I didn’t know what “think” meant in that context, although I do remember one day, shortly before the first operation—the one that changed his face most visibly, took away the gaps in his upper lip and smoothed the skin under his nose and corrected the beautiful defect that made his smile preternaturally wide and joyful, my baby—when the weather was stunning and we played outside nearly all day and I only brought him in when it was time for a late-afternoon nap, planning on heading out again once he was awake to walk our “loop”—a route in Central Park that I used to amble with him in the Snugli, the first times in my life that I have felt things to be as they should—and as the nap went on and on, and five o’clock turned to six and six to seven, I realized he was down for the night, and in the hollow of his unplanned absence I felt horribly and mutely bereft. In that moment, perhaps, I dimly thought the unthinkable.

Readers often cry at the scene in which Ilyusha’s father, having just lost the boy, notices his child-sized boots still standing in the corner and is overwhelmed by hysterical pity: for his dead son, for himself, for the shoes that are too small to go forever unworn. The year that my son was born I was surprised to find myself crying at an earlier scene in which Alyosha Karamazov, Ivan’s brother, approaches the group of schoolboys—Dostoevsky has no illusions about children, they are seething with childhood perversity, tormenting the already sickly Ilyusha, no sublime brotherhood yet—and, by way of intervention, starts making conversation with them about their school bags: “I used to carry a bag just like yours, but we always wore it on the left side,” for easy access. Just the right way to speak to a child, practical and kind. In my imagination, when Alyosha walks up to the boys their brows unfurl and they begin to smile. It is Alyosha who, along with Ilyusha, will teach the children to love each other better.

My dissertation adviser was the mother of two now-grown sons and once told me that when her boys were little and they lived in California she always had to send them to their first day of school with two backpacks each: the one that they would use all year, to carry snacks and number two pencils and maybe a calculator when they were big enough, and one red one, with meaningful trinkets and a note, to be stored away in a special locker, in case at some point during a school day an earthquake were to sunder parents and child. I thought that if I could paint I would paint a child, back facing the viewer, walking away, wearing a red backpack, taking with him his things, the instruments for his life. My son starts school this year; just preschool, so maybe too early for a backpack, although maybe not. He may need to carry snacks, and I think he will enjoy the feeling of independence and responsibility. I hope people talk to him in just the right way, and that they make him smile. I hope he will have everything that he needs.

Emma Lieber teaches Russian literature at Rutgers University.  Her work has appeared in New England Review, her essay Realism’s Housewives” in 33.4The Massachusetts ReviewSlavic ReviewSlavic and East European Journal, and Nabokov Studies Journal.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. 




  1. Carol Schwalberg says

    Your piece, which is both moving and learned, touched me more than you can believe.

  2. John King says

    I love the same Dostoevsky characters you love, and my first grader just crashed for the night (before dinner) the way your son’s nap lasted all night.