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I'm re-reading The Brothers Karamazov and was struck again by a strange scene whose meaning isn't immediately clear to me.

In "Lyagavy", Part 3, Book 8, Chapter 2 of The Brothers Karamazov, Mitya rushes to Tchermashnya at the underhanded suggestion of Samsonov, in a desperate attempt to come up with money. Finding Lyagavy drunk, he decides after an unsuccessful effort to speak to him that he needs to stay the night until Lyagavy becomes sober. In the middle of that night, he awakes with a searing headache and realizes that he almost died because of the fire fumes:

But his head ached more and more. He sat without moving, and unconsciously dozed off and fell asleep as he sat. He seemed to have slept for two hours or more. He was waked up by his head aching so unbearably that he could have screamed. There was a hammering in his temples, and the top of his head ached. It was a long time before he could wake up fully and understand what had happened to him.

At last he realized that the room was full of charcoal fumes from the stove, and that he might die of suffocation. And the drunken peasant still lay snoring. The candle guttered and was about to go out. Mitya cried out, and ran staggering across the passage into the forester's room. The forester waked up at once, but hearing that the other room was full of fumes, to Mitya's surprise and annoyance, accepted the fact with strange unconcern, though he did go to see to it.

“But he's dead, he's dead! and ... what am I to do then?” cried Mitya frantically.

They threw open the doors, opened a window and the chimney. Mitya brought a pail of water from the passage. First he wetted his own head, then, finding a rag of some sort, dipped it into the water, and put it on Lyagavy's head. The forester still treated the matter contemptuously, and when he opened the window said grumpily:

“It'll be all right, now.”

Mitya eventually goes back to sleep, and (as far as I know) the incident goes no further and is never mentioned again.

Dostoevsky is such a purposeful writer that I have a hard time believing that this is just a throwaway incident. Is there any special significance, symbolic or otherwise, to this event? Is it only meant to exacerbate the extreme mental turmoil Mitya is going through at the time?

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    Dostoevsky was great at juxtaposing comedy with tragedy. If you remove Dmitry from the Lyagavy scene altogether, you have left the classic stock character of the drunken buffoon. Thanks to Dostoevsky’s detailed description, I can just picture a falling down, semi-conscious, then unconscious, self-absorbed drunk. However, when you add back in Dmitry’s involvement with Lyagavy, you get, as Mitya declaims, a “tragedy!” and an “irony of fate.” It is the mark of great art, that every time you look at it, you see something new. Thanks again for this question! – Vekzhivi May 15 '17 at 15:20
  • @Vekzhivi You should add that to your answer! – brianpck May 15 '17 at 15:21
  • @ brianpck Probably, but it seemed like I was just rambling on, so I wasn't sure if it pertains to answering your question or not. – Vekzhivi May 15 '17 at 15:25
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First, congratulations on having read so far in Brothers Karamazov. It takes determination, at the very least, to suffer through the excruciating detail that is characteristic of Dostoevsky’s style.

Dostoevsky gives us many character portraits of people in Russia at that time, many of them negative. So, in general, the scene with Lygavy portrays another type of typical personage, the drunken and malicious Russian peasant.

In the novel, the suffocation scene of Lyagavy is a piece of the puzzle, a stroke of the brush in painting, for the illustration of hopelessness, and absurdity, of Dimitry’s situation in this part of the novel. It is indicative of not only the hopeless affair with Grushenka, but of the sea of aggressive, but petty buffoonery in which he is practically drowning. When he is shown holding a wet cloth to some drunken peasant, it just shows how low he has sunken.

To answer your question: This whole scene may actually focus Dimitry’s mind on his entire situation, by sinking him so low, so close to suffocation himself, as to begin to ask himself serious questions. However, he has yet, in the novel, to focus on higher minded objectives.

NOTE: To me it is interesting to see the meaning of some Russian names, i.e. Lyagavy can mean, in Russian, one who has lied. In this scene, Lyagavy also called Mitya a liar, thus adding another small layer to the portrayal of absurdity. Dostoevsky is indeed a master of this form.

  • Having read just your first paragraph: this is my third time "suffering through" the Brothers K, and it is certainly worth it! – brianpck May 12 '17 at 19:23
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    I agree, but it is not easy. It takes a lot of squeezing to get the juice out of it. In 20 years of living in the former Soviet Union, I rarely met a Russian who enjoyed reading Dostoevsky. I also have an MA and PhD in Russian literature and have read BK several times. My compliments to you, and my respect for Fyodor Mikhailovich. – Vekzhivi May 12 '17 at 19:29
  • A note in the edition I am reading says that "Lyagavy" translates as "bird dog"...does that sound right to you? – brianpck May 12 '17 at 19:30
  • @brianpck. it comes from the verb лгать lie, tell lies, and the -av ending is a past participle form, the -y an adjectival ending. . – Vekzhivi May 12 '17 at 19:37
  • @brianpck btw, I was referring to reading BK in Russian. The original Russian is somewhat archaic, and not always fun to read, even for native speakers. – Vekzhivi May 19 '17 at 12:01
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In my reading of this passage, a few things have always struck me:

  1. Mitya alerts the forester who is relatively uninterested in the entire ordeal, though he still is intrigued enough to take a peek inside and say everything will be OK. Perhaps this mirrors the interest others take in the juicy debauchery of Mitya's own struggle without being concerned enough to offer him help.

Further still, Dostoyevsky may be commenting on a sad aspect of human nature in the reaction of the forester. How often do characters in both literature and reality see the plight of another and turn away?

  1. In my first reading of the novel I thought the scene depicted Mitya's own feeling of suffocation by the situation within he finds himself, although that may be too simplistic! His frenzied pacing, staring down at the sleeping peasant all has such a frenetic rush - it is only magnified by the physical choking on charcoal fumes.

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