The Elder’s Touch: A Scene from The Brothers Karamazov | Cat Pierro | The Hypocrite Reader

Cat Pierro

The Elder’s Touch: A Scene from The Brothers Karamazov


Illustration by Emily Balsamo

There is a very pathetic scene in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. A woman whose last little boy has died comes to the monastery from far away. She tells the elder how sad she is. She shows him her little boy’s belt. Her three other children have already died, she says, but none affected her as much as this one. For three months she has traveled from monastery to monastery, leaving home and husband behind, looking in vain for some kind of consolation. She hardly remembers her husband now, and she can’t imagine going back.

The elder gives the mother some counsel. He explains that her son is in Heaven, looking down upon her. She already knows her son is in Heaven, but she doesn’t realize until now what this means. When he looks down, he sees his mother’s tears, and he rejoices in them. It is her duty to mourn, and she will mourn for a long time. But her son also sees that his parents are separated, and this troubles him. She must therefore go back home as soon as she can.

The mother is—in a sense—consoled. You’ve touched my heart. She thanks the elder and promises to go back to her husband.

This piece wonders how it was that she succeeded in being consoled.

How should we think about mourning?

1. We could treat mourning as an event with some sort of natural passage (for instance, toward being relieved).

2. We could treat the loss of a son and the lack of a son as holding something in common.

These seem opposed. If we grieve (as in option 1) because of an event (a loss), we do not grieve because we don’t have something (option 2), only because we’ve lost it. Option 1, in which it’s easy to see how we could return to normal happiness after a period of mourning, seems more in keeping with traditional ways of thinking about mourning. But shown in contrast with option 2, it threatens to trivialize the act of child rearing. Returning to the first option:

1a. We could suppose that people become attached to one another all the time as a fact of life, that these attachments do not fulfill any particular functions, that they are acquired in a somewhat contingent, happenstance manner, and that finding oneself attached to someone who is no longer there adequately accounts for grief. The passage of mourning then becomes a gradual movement toward independence from the son, upon whom the mother was unfortunately dependent. Such a view presumes that a happy independence is possible and not terribly problematic to achieve, and that there was a certain contingency in the mother’s attachment to her son.

1b. We could suppose that the mother had some need for the living child, that he was integral to his mother’s happiness for some reason that has to do with his what he is or what a son is, some reason that might relate to her reasons for wanting to start a family and have a child in the first place—but that something or someone else could have made a similar contribution to his mother’s happiness in his stead. The passage of mourning then becomes the gradual realignment of attachments.

Option 2 and option 1b seem not mutually exclusive. New questions get unearthed in their intersection: I. What is avoided by attaching oneself to things? That is, what is at stake here? What happens if no one or nothing is given us to fulfil our needs? Or (should we say instead) to distract us from our freedom? The answer will influence the manner of posing the question. II. What are the things a person needs in general, independent of a particular set of attachments? That is, given that attachments seem to shift in light of what is available to us, what is held in common between all stable states of the totality of a person’s attachments? III. In light of these general needs, what exactly is given a person by having a son? IV. To go in a different direction, why do our attachments seems to crystallize? Why might the movement from one set of attachments to another involve pain? (This question is a Freudian one; cf. “Mourning and Melancholia.”) V. What sort of talking cure might end this pain or reduce it or (what may well be different) make it easier to bear?

These questions will not be adequately addressed in what follows. I leave them as exercises for the reader.

In What Sense Does the Elder Console the Mother?

Asking what the elder succeeded in doing is different from asking how he succeeded in doing it. The first question comes first. In what sense did the elder’s words console the mother? They did not end her mourning. How could they? Most of us know what it’s like to miss someone, to discover that our surroundings don’t hold much interest for us without that person there. Few of us know what it’s like to miss a three-year-old son who has died. But we can suppose it’s at least as involuntary, as consuming, as wordless as the general experience of missing someone. So in what sense could the elder help the mother with words?

Grief is complex. There is first of all, for the mother, the lamentation for her son, which by itself poses many questions. Then also she laments for herself; she cannot imagine a continued life. She seems tormented by the spiritual questions, What do I do? What do I do next? What do I do with all this?—not by the words of these questions, of course; but a question may be a close approximation to unrest of a different medium. Great happiness answers these questions in abundance: there are so many things to do! Great unhappiness gives the bearer not only a sorrowful heart but a frantic soul. And so the mother moves restlessly from monastery to monastery, making a temporary life of perpetual asking.

What do I do? Well, what does she do? What do people generally do? They try to make some happiness for themselves. But if there’s none to be found? Well, in that case they try to honor their commitments to others, to those people who still walk with life. Even if only as ghosts, lifelessly, mechanically, still they trudge forward, they do what is expected of them. And what if this is too much of an effort? What if with each step the soul cries out—but why am I doing this? And how? How can I?

When the elder tells her, you will mourn for a long time yet, but here is what you must do, he leaves her to her sadness but quiets her soul.

The Mother’s Needs, According to the Mother

It doesn’t help to know that her son is with God. (It doesn’t help until she also recognizes that her son is looking down on her.) When the elder first tries this tack she acknowledges the fact with a heavy heart: I know he’s there, I know. She’s heard it all before. When her husband tried saying to her, foolish woman, stop your crying, there is nothing to cry about, our little boy is in heaven, she believed him, but it didn’t help her at all. It didn’t help her husband either; she could see that he was crying too while he said it; he was just as upset as she was. It didn’t help either of them that their son still existed somewhere, if he wasn’t here with us. His mere existence was not enough.

What would have been enough? In her lamentation to the elder, the boy’s mother makes many claims about what would be enough. I only want to see him one last time, she says. Or even just hear him. Hear the pitter-patter of his feet, hear him say Mama, where are you? as he runs in from outside. I wouldn’t even go up to him, I’d hide in a corner. That is all I want.

The Mother’s Needs, According to the Elder

When she professes that she wants him not to be in heaven but to be here with us, it sounds a little like she is confessing and apologizing. She wants to be gratified by a last glimpse of him. She wants it for her, not for her son, who is surely happy where he is; she wants because she cannot help being selfish. I am skeptical that she is really being selfish here. So is the elder: he tells her, you are just as a mother should be, you refuse to be consoled, because your child is not consoled.

When the elder describes her son rejoicing at her tears and pointing them out to God, he gives her something like this one last little glimpse she begs for. She can picture little Alexei, laughing and pointing. But the key part of the picture, that he is watching her, was not something she thought to hope for.

Mama, where are you? Is this not a telling detail in her speech? Before her son died, it was not mother who looked for son, but son who looked for mother. It is a great source of sadness, no doubt, that he will no longer grace her with his presence, but equally unfortunate is that she has no one to protect. All that’s left for her is to care for herself, and happiness for herself seems impossible.

The elder’s counsel amounts to saying: you are not required to be selfish. You have a duty to your son even now.

What if She Hadn’t Believed in God?

The image of her little boy, watching her from heaven, pointing at various things and talking to God; her little boy who lives still and to whom she owes something: this image gives her permission to live unselfishly. What could replace this? Without her faith in God, without heaven, could there be any way to convince her to build her life and her home?

My friend Lena told me an old joke about a lodger who comes into a hotel and puts down $100 for the night. The hotel manager gives him keys and sends him up to his room to verify that everything is to his liking. Then straightaway the hotel manager runs to the grocery and pays the grocer the $100 he owes him for hotel food. The grocer runs to the butcher and pays him the $100 he owes him, and so on, and finally someone runs to the prostitute and pays the $100 he owes her, and the prostitute runs to the hotel manager and pays the $100 she owes him. Then the lodger comes downstairs and says, after all, he does not like the room. So the hotel manager gives him back his $100 and the entire town is better off.

What’s key to the joke is how dispensable the lodger is. After he has come and gone, the town finds that it possessed entirely within itself the means to settle its debts. Was it not, therefore, in some real way, debt-free? Couldn’t someone announce “the lodger has come with his $100, and you have all already returned your debts.” In what sense would he be lying? Couldn’t we say that in some mystical sense, or better some technical sense, the lodger really did come, the lodger really was real?

And if so, isn’t God real, too?

What I mean is this: the mother possesses the means within her to return to her husband, manage her home, and care about her life. This is proved by the fact that she succeeds in it, after the elder’s speech, even though her son is not there for her in any concrete way. She need only conjure him in her mind.

It is important to understand that she invented him in the first place. Children are not born believing their parents ought to love each other; they are taught it. Long ago, she assigned her son his role in her life, the role of someone who is protected by certain actions of hers. What she came to understand as his needs, and his corresponding judgment upon her and her way of living—all of this came from her, from what she supposed him to want from her; indeed, from what she needed him to want from her. The existence of her son does work for her and always has—it produces someone who she can suppose to be rewarded by her correct living.

It is also important to point out how totally indisputable it is that people do not just go away when they die. They leave something behind; at the very least our memories of them remain. It seems she rightly realizes, when the elder speaks to her, that a great deal more of her son remains than just the silence that echoes through their house where his feet once pattered.

But Still, We Can’t Just Decide to Believe in God, Right?

We have not even begun to scratch the surface. Can’t she suppose herself to be the person rewarded by her correct living—since, indeed, she is? And if she can’t now, could she have done this before, when she was not overcome by grief—or did she need, even then, such an excuse? What does it take to make a life without children?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I welcome your afterthoughts.