“Not with a bang but a whimper”
Generally, and sentimentally, endings are some of the most difficult notions a human must contend with. Try as one might, endings are inescapable and are inevitable. Since our existence, we humans have been attempting to grapple and come to terms with our endings, and as Geoffrey Chaucer closely said in 1374, all good things must come to an end. In this instance, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, comes to an end; an end which some are unsatisfied with, as humans sometimes are. In contrast to his Crime and Punishment, wherein Raskolnikov’s fate is eternally sealed with the ice of Siberia, the fates of the characters in The Brother Karamazov are unrevealed to the reader and remain more fluid. Alyosha’s final message, the thematic closing of the novel, has also come under literary scrutiny and dissatisfaction. Although this novel does indeed end, one must remember that Dostoevsky exhaustingly discusses life and how it should be lived. Each brother represents an aspect of humanity: Dmitri is the body, Ivan is the mind, and Alyosha is the soul. Dostoevsky examines the intricate weaving of these aspects that makes up humanity, and counsels us readers with a suggestion as to how to properly live. Thus, Dostoevsky’s ending to The Brothers Karamazov is absolute and complete ending in that mimics how life truly is, after instructing readers how to make the most of their own lives.
Both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov have had their endings scrutinized and criticized. David Matual claims that “[s]ome critics have condemned [the ending of Crime and Punishment] as all undesirable addition, accusing Dostoevsky of concocting a deus ex machina in order to save his hero from a permanent state of alienation and moral corruption.” In Dostoevsky’s defense, what is wrong with saving his main character from eternal doom and a stagnant character? Through his writing, readers must realize that Dostoevsky strongly believes that a man can change, as long as he sincerely wants to change and works for it. Therefore, it is fitting, and is essential, that the ending of the novel reflects this belief. He closes with “But here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality” (Crime and Punishment 551). Dostoevsky finishes with movement towards grace, towards healing, and towards hope, movement that he sincerely believes, and thus must sincerely include. Matual agreeably supports this ending, claiming that “the possibility of [Raskolnikov’s] conversion should be obvious to those who read carefully and without prejudice, allowing themselves to be persuaded by the tendency of Dostoevsky’s thought and by the numerous clues that point to the inevitability of happy conclusion…it is also true that much of this material does not admit of ambiguity at all and contributes mightily to the plausibility of the ending.”
Although some were dissatisfied with the neatly wrapped ending of Crime and Punishment, some were dissatisfied with the ambiguous loose ends of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky never elaborates or specifies if Dmitri is able to successfully escape to America, if Ivan will survive his fever, if Katerina Ivanovna eventually marries either Ivan or Dmitri, or if Alyosha marries Lise. Although Daniel Burt claims that Fyodor Dostoevsky actually had planned to elaborate on the three brothers’ fates, but passed away before he was able to accomplish his goal, some are pleased with a vague and unclear ending. In fact, after Dostoevsky has spent the entire novel analyzing the relationship between the body, the mind, and the soul, and attempting to outline a successful way to live life, the ending of his novel mirrors how life actually is. The unrecognized fate of the characters highlights the unrecognized and undocumented lives and fates of many humans who have lived and died. The ambiguous ending of the brothers’ fates is how the fates of many typically end: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper” as T.S. Eliots writes in his “The Hollow Men.” Just as events happen quietly and without recognition, and days, months, and year slip and whisper without mankind’s notice, so too the end of a novel dedicated to the lives of these three brothers must slip away. Similarly, because Dostoevsky has so successfully created the brothers’ characters, the characters have grown and have taken lives of their own, a symbolic ending that man must take charge of his own future, and must try to create his own ending, to control and make the most of his life. Also, as The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s magnus opus, he has grown as a writer and is entitled to try a different conclusion from Crime and Punishment’s neatly wrapped ending. Although the ending is vague, there are still hints to a resolution, as Daniel Burt argues that “[a]s the novel closes, reconstituted family groupings take shape, along the principles of love, suffering, and Christian faith, as Aloysha and Grushenka plan to accompany Dmitri in his exile, and Katerina ministers to Ivan. By the end of the novel each of the brothers’ characteristic initial responses to life has been exposed as inadequate. Dmitri’s emotional sensuality has led to enmity and despair; Ivan’s cold rationalism is incapable of contending with mixed human nature”. Dostoevsky artfully reestablishes a set up, but prompts readers to take a leap of faith and believe in the miracle of change in a man’s heart and character.
Alyosha represents the soul of mankind, the faith that Dostoevsky values so much. Just as his brothers have grown, he “must reassess his simple assumptions about faith to accommodate a wider conception of the world’s disorder as well as the existence of evil in the world and humanity’s susceptibility to it” (Burt). Alyosha has changed from the naïve young man who could not discuss religion and faith with his brother Ivan, to a more mature understanding that “each [must] accept the notion that we are all guilt, all conjoined, all a mixture of animal and angel,” (Burt). Alyosha thus appropriately has the final thematic message in the novel, in which he implores the young boys to remember good things from childhood, saying “You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home…some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up so many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation” (The Brothers Karamazov 774). These penultimate words harken back to the story of the lady with the onion, whose only good deed gave her the chance to be pulled out of hell by an onion. Alyosha is saying that a single good memory can save a person. The meaning of this theme is infinitely deeper when taken into context of Dmitri’s falling out with his father: if Dmitri had had a memory of a happy childhood, how would his relationship with his father been different? The same question can also be applied to Ivan. Dostoevsky, through Alyosha, is saying that a good memory, any semblance of any good in a person, allows that person the opportunity to turn towards change and hope. Bloom believes that “[t]his, finally, is Alyosha’s and Zosima’s – and Dostoevsky’s – answer to Ivan’s rebellion: not the denial of our guilt, but its redemption in forgiveness and love.” Dostoevsky’s final message is that a person, with even a seed of goodness, has the opportunity to change.
According to Burt, “[f]ew other novels have dared to ask so many essential questions, including whether God exists, the origins of evil, and how faith is possible in a world full of suffering and injustice. Fewer still manage to combine metaphysical speculation with the visceral power of human tragedy.” Dostoevsky manages to address many of these questions, from both points of view. Ivan discusses the existence of God and God’s purpose through “The Grand Inquisitor” story. Alyosha represents faith, and grows into a better understanding of faith and God. Dmitri’s dream discusses his own view of suffering, while “Alyosha (not intellectually, but emotionally) finds a way out of suffering in the joyful acceptance of ‘God’s world,’ and in union with everything and everyone. This loving union with people, the intimate inclusion of them all (including the most sinful) in his soul eliminates the contradiction between lobe of God and love of people” (Vetlovskaya). Therefore, Dostoevsky does answer his quintessential questions, through his Russian Orthodox Christian point of view, in an attempt to provide the option of a path to redemption for himself and others.
Although the conclusions of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Dostoevsky are structurally different, they both deal with mankind’s life – how it should be lived, how it is, and how it can be saved. Ultimately, Dostoevsky comes “to terms with the knottiest problems of the human heart, mind, and soul” in arguably, most influential novels of his time (Burt).