One of my English professors at UMass once asked if we thought Bartley Hubbard of A Modern Instance was a bad guy. The question, no doubt, was prompted by our painting a rather unsavory picture of Bartley, but there was something deeper at play. So, God is dead. Well, yes. Well, no. It is tempting to speak of the death of God as some unified shift in thinking, neatly applying to everyone and at the same time, but the reality is messier. Where was God in China at the height of our European Middle Ages? It is all very difficult and assuming. At any rate, the professor’s question stuck with me. It’s been a while since I read A Modern Instance. Was Bartley Hubbard a bad guy? Well, I seem to remember that he did not spend much time with a child he had… he barely gave it any attention. Does that make him a bad guy? Is this a question that depends on God? Is this a question that may be answered one way while God existed, but now another way that God is dead?
In his biography of the 18th century American religious leader Jonathon Edwards, George Marsden informs us that Edwards spent sixteen hours a day in his study. We also know that Edwards had several children. It is, no doubt, difficult to spend time with your children if you are working 16 hours a day. But does not spending a lot of time with your children necessarily make you a bad guy? Marsden supplies us with several rather meaningful interactions Edwards had with his children. Perhaps it is an issue of quality versus quantity. Then again, let’s suppose Edwards was a good provider, but never had any meaningful interactions with his children. Would that make Edwards a bad guy? What about Bartley Hubbard?
I thought again of this issue of what makes us good or bad as I encountered Fyodor Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I have to admit that I thought Fyodor was a terribly engaging fellow, and every time he raised his cognac glass I wished I were there with him, talking, and having a good time. “But all his life, as a matter of fact, Fyodor Pavlovich was fond of play-acting, of suddenly taking up some unexpected role right in front of you, often when there was no need for it, and even to his own real disadvantage…” What a character! Who would not enjoy being with him!? Certainly, however, there was no substance to the man and you could not take him seriously. Ah, but perhaps that is the problem… Of course, he is one of those fellows that you could spend a night of revelry with but then, the next day, well… But perhaps the question of Fyodor being good or bad is not a fair one.
Here is the prosecutor speaking toward the end of the novel during closing arguments:
“Most likely in the first instance he was sincerely noble, and in the second just as sincerely base. Why? Precisely because we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature – and this is what I am driving at – capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.”
He is speaking, of course, about Dmitri. The upshot of it all is that Dmitri Karamazov, like Bartley Hubbard or Jonathon Edwards, may be neither good nor bad – he is all that we can think someone is capable of being, whatever we wish to term that or either extreme of it.
During the Middle Ages, and even in our country’s more recent Puritan past, the prevailing notion was that judgement was doled out by God. Any calamity that fell upon a person(or community), if not a simple check to keep him humble, was a punishment sent by God for some evil that the person committed. The theme of forgiveness figures prominently in The Brothers Karamazov. The novel pulsates with the Christ-like acceptance of all of humanity. We have the image of Alyosha kissing the Earth with delight and happiness, embracing and welcoming the all of it. “He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything.” We have two sides. There is Alyosha, who accepts God and believes that, ultimately, there is a reason and order in the world despite evil and suffering. Then we have Ivan, who does not believe in God and believes that the world is a chaotic mess. Ivan, then, represents our new man, our enlightened thinker. Ivan says that he is a sensualist, but will tear himself from the cup when he is thirty. His impression seems to be that a young sensualist has a “tinge of nobility” while an old sensualist, like his father, is simply base. I am not sure I agree with the distinction, but it seems to imply a romantic “live fast, die fast” James Dean kind of attitude.
It is paramount to note, of course, that the novel is about judgement. Who should be judged? Who should judge? The novel, in fact, builds up to and ends with a trial — that is, a judgement. But who is capable of judging Dmitri? And what purpose does it serve? I am reminded of Joseph Enzweiler’s poem “Karla Faye”. Here are the closing lines.
Maybe you watch the cotton fields pass,
the farms of heaven. Maybe he tells you
of Abraham, his friend, who obeyed
the voice of God though his heart
was breaking to lift the knife, how the boy
was spared at last, his hands unbound,
how good things die sometimes
and what is owed the sky and what the ground.