THE SCIENCE OF ENDINGS -- Part One: "The Speech at the Stone" in "The Brothers Karamazov"

In this ongoing series, I will ask myself: what recipe makes for the greatest endings in all of fiction?

Today, I answer: the greatest fictional endings are those which hate Death the most.

In real life, great endings are almost non-existent. Lives almost always end in a grim anticlimax that lets everybody down, without even the ambiguity of a Zen koan to give the survivors something to chew on. Even the dramatic deaths like those atop barricades are sullied by the gruesome facts of biology like a.) the undignified release of bodily fluids, or b.) the fact that the recipient of the heroic death is not around to revel in it.

And like us, even the greatest fictions must one day come to an end. The difference is that, while we have no hope at all, fiction can go out in a glorious manner!

"Leave them wanting more?" This is not the way. Instead, leave them begging you to stop as they turn the pages faster and faster!

In other words, a great ending is the kind of ending that you would give to your own life: the perfect end to just the right amount of meaningful story. Am I attempting to reduce the value of literature to a vicarious death-cheating thrill?

Am I?

This first ending that I've chosen to write about will probably be the most difficult one that I do in this series, since it is the ending to one of the greatest novels of all time.

Appropriately, it's all downhill from here.


We begin this series of endings with "The Brothers Karamazov."

As readers of publications with questionable literary chops, you may disdain this choice. To you, I say "pish posh pshaw," and continue merrily on my way.

"The Brothers Karamazov" is both a literary masterpiece and a novel of the highest order. It contains all of the elements that make for a grand story: there are scenes of savage violence, forbidden love, self-mutilation, children lying under speeding trains to prove that they care about NOTHING, shocking twists of fate, dramatic suicides, gun-fighting priests, and even an appearance by the Devil.

By the same token, it contains a wealth of deep philosophical insight into matters like the existence of God, faith versus reason, the problem of Evil, and all the other topics that people have been killing each other over for thousands of years.

The prevailing scholarly opinion is that the conclusion of the book is a failure that neglects to sufficiently comment on the preceding material. My opinion runs contrary to this scholarly line; I consider the ending to be the high point of the book, and the perfect summation of what comes before it.

In order to see exactly why the ending is so great, though, a little explanation is necessary.


"Karamazov" was originally intended to be the first part in a series, a plan that was cut short by Dostoevsky's sudden (and anticlimactic) demise.

Essentially, the story is about a slobbering, detestable old man and his four sons. Each of the first three sons is stifled and neglected by old Fyodor pretty much from the point of birth, and the fourth isn't even acknowledged by him at all, being the result of his drunken rape of the village idiot.

The eldest is Dmitri, whose passion for fleshly delights knows no bounds: he is a hedonist, but one tempered by a certain nobility.

Next is Ivan, the harshly rational academic with a personal vendetta against God.

After him comes Alyosha, the naive and saintly favourite of everybody who is trying to do good in the world by becoming a monk.

Lastly is the unclaimed son Smerdyakov, who shares the most in common with his father and displays an absurd capacity for sycophantic, manipulative behaviour.

There is much bad blood between the grown Dmitri and his father due to the fact that Dmitri feels that Fyodor owes him a great deal of money, and because they're both in love with the same woman. As this conflict rages on, Alyosha tries to bring some peace and unity to his brothers, but is confounded on all fronts by the philosophical attacks of Ivan. In one of the book's most celebrated passages, Ivan expounds upon the reason for his atheism by citing the various atrocities that are routinely visited upon innocent children around the world. If, he says, God were real and allowed this kind of evil to exist, he would return his ticket to Paradise on general principle. As Alyosha struggles to respond, Ivan recites for him a long narrative poem that he has composed called the Grand Inquisitor.

The Grand Inquisitor is one of those excellent touches that I love wherein the author of a long novel lapses into the "third person intrusive" and just barges in on the story with social commentary that has little or nothing to do with the actual plot. It tells a parable of Jesus returning to life and resurrecting a recently deceased young girl, only to be arrested and sentenced to death by the Grand Inquisitor of the Church. In an extended monologue in Jesus' cell, the Grand Inquisitor rants and raves about how the Church cannot allow Him to exist on the grounds that their worldly agenda depends on His absence. He cites the various points throughout the Bible where Jesus "failed" to make use of his sorcerer's ways to prove himself to his persecutors. His believers merely asked for a small piece of bread, something to sustain them through times of doubt, but they were denied that. That bread, along with quite a few circuses, is what the Church has been giving them ever since.

In summary, the Grand Inquisitor claims that people are unhappy with the uncertainty of faith, and that they demand to be told what is right and wrong by a higher authority. Jesus responds to this verbal onslaught by wordlessly kissing his accuser on the forehead, and the poem ends there.

Meanwhile, as Alyosha ponders how to help his brothers, his mentor at the monastery dies a pitiful death after telling Alyosha that he must quit the monastery and live in the world as a layman, working to do good there among the populace, instead of behind cloistered walls. Alyosha runs across a gang of schoolboys throwing stones at a ragged and sickly child by the name of Illyusha.

He gradually befriends all of the schoolboys by way of treating them as adults, and seems most concerned with their leader, Kolya, who is an avowed nihilist and charismatic scallywag.

Some time later, Fyodor is savagely murdered, which comes as no big surprise to anyone. For various reasons, Dmitri is cited as the most likely suspect and is immediately placed into custody. Alyosha is racked with guilt at the notion that he should have foreseen his brother's intentions and put a stop to it. Ivan tries to rationalize the whole matter as just another example of the horrible atrocities of man until Smerdyakov insinuates that he too is to blame because the death of his horrible, immensely hated father would provide the evidence of a just universe that he has secretly been longing for all along.

Smerdyakov hangs himself, Ivan has a big argument with the Devil and goes crazy, and then the trial begins.


It's at the trial itself that all of the disparate elements of the story coalesce together into one meaningful whole. Alyosha observes the proceedings and thinks back to the philosophy expounded by his monk at the monastery, that everyone is equally complicit in all crimes because everyone is charged with taking care of everyone else. He contrasts this with Ivan's take on the subject, which is that horrible things just happen for meaningless reasons.

As the trial unfolds, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney are represented as long-winded, bumbling clowns. It becomes clear that the trial is really not so much about Dmitri's guilt or innocence (and indeed the reader is given to believe that he is innocent), but rather about which of those prevailing philosophies is the true one. Is it the case that one man can be held responsible for something like a murder, or is it the case that everyone is equally responsible and that forgiveness should rule our lives? Does God exist, or doesn't he?

The audience at the trial has their opinion swayed back and forth a thousand times based on which of the two lawyers is giving the best performance at that point. This echoes with the Grand Inquisitor's warning that uncertain faith isn't enough for people, and that they demand answers even if those answers are a lie. This become clear as the verdict is handed down, and Dmitri is judged guilty.

In a three-part epilogue, the other characters begin to make elaborate plans for helping Dmitri escape from jail and flee to America, while Alyosha tends to a much more private matter.

It turns out that the young boy Illyusha has died and Alyosha goes to attend his funeral with the rest of the schoolboys. It would seem that, partly through Illyusha's courage in standing up to them, and partly through Alyosha's own influence, the schoolboys managed to become good friends with Illyusha in his last days.

What is of vast importance is that we saw none of this happening. While we and the narrator of the book were caught up in the big story of the murdered father, Alyosha was evidently sparing a few moments here and there to step out of the plot, visit with the children, talk to them, and become friends with them.

After the services, Alyosha and the children walk down the road leading away from the funeral and come to a stop in front of a large stone. Here, Alyosha delivers something like an impromptu sermon to the children. He urges them to pay attention to the good feelings that they have for befriending Illyusha and having been there with him in the end. He begs them to take this one memory where they feel connected with one another and on good terms with the world, this one memory where they did something undeniably good, and to take it with them throughout their lives, remembering it always. Even if they are tempted to do great evil, he says, they'll think back to that moment and remember that goodness is possible and the faith in that potential for goodness will save them.

Kolya the nihilist leads the other children in a brief but puissant chant: "Hurrah for Karamazov!" Those are the final words in the book.


To be sure, it's a subtle and mellow way to end such an exciting story. But those who claim that it's "too little, too late" are missing the point completely. To grasp how excellent the ending really is, it's necessary to draw some correlations between the big mid-point parable of the Grand Inquisitor and the final scenes of the book.

The trial represents the argument between the existence of God and the non-existence of God, between the world being a harsh and indifferent place, and some place where suffering is just a path that leads to an ultimate salvation. The final answer it gives us is completely unsatisfying and meaningless. The audience at the trial is desperate to hear the answer, as is the reader, but when it comes, we know that it's a false answer, and even though it carries the weight of authority, it ceases to matter. That, coupled with the comic figures of the lawyers, cause us to undertake the slow, painful realization that the question being debated by the trial is stupid and senseless to begin with.

At that point, Alyosha walks away from it, and goes to be with his friends, to comfort some people who lost their son, and to try and help the schoolboys to the best of his ability based with what little he ultimately knows.

That's the secret.

The trial represents the endless pontificating by the Grand Inquisitor. The "Speech at the Stone" is Alyosha's wordless kiss. Despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, he is still capable of acting out of love and doing some tiny good deed, and that's as close to an answer as anyone is going to get. To expect more is both juvenile and futile.

To say that Dostoevsky sides with this position is a proposition that's fairly easy to defend. After all, notice that the event happening at the very end of the book, the death of the innocent child Illyusha, is the very thing that Ivan cited as the cause of his rebellion against God and faith earlier in the novel. The key difference lies in their reactions. When Ivan witnesses the horrors of life, he rationalizes it and philosophizes about it to the point that he can justify turning away from it, withdrawing into himself, reaching out to no one, and ultimately doing nothing until the point that he's driven insane by his own demons. When Alyosha witnesses that exact same thing, he responds by trying to offer what tiny shred of goodness he can, in spite of how disheartening and terrible the situation may be. Just as Alyosha's monk probably intended to convey to him when he cast him out of the monastery to work in the world, the difference isn't between God and no God, faith and reason, but rather in how we react to the evil that is obviously there: by shutting ourselves up inside walls, or by going out to face it and doing what little we can.

Certainly, it's a strange and understated way to end the novel. Certainly, it leaves a lot of loose ends still dangling (and probably for the better). Certainly, we never know whether Ivan recovers from his insanity, or whether or not Dmitri escapes from prison. Answering those questions would not satisfy, however. They would merely provoke more questons.

In his decision to back away at the last minute from the absurdity of the big concerns and tighten his focus onto one insignificant little funeral and a cluster of half a dozen boys standing around a rock, Dostoevsky has instead given us an ending that could speak to the heart of even the most nihilistic. A great ending to a great book, and a direct challenge to the idea of Death itself.


Posted by harlock on Tue, 25 Mar 2008 22:41:10 -0400 -- permanent link

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