Faces in "The Brothers Karamazov"

An Essay By Ben // 12/26/2003

The Face of Alyosha:
A study of faces in The Brothers Karamazov

From the impression made on Fyodor Pavlovich when he looks at his son Alyosha, one can see that Alyosha is young in heart, cheerful yet quiet, rather sincere, and apparently harmless. "I can’t resist it when he looks me in the eyes like that and laughs, I simply can’t. My whole insides begin to laugh with him, I love him so!" says Fyodor (The Brothers Karamazov, 123). And again, as the story progresses, gradually it comes out, one person after another, that Alyosha’s face is beloved to everyone closest to him. When Zosima gathers his closest companions together at his deathbed he looks at Alyosha and tells the gathering, "you, Alexei, I have blessed in my thoughts many times in my life for your face" (285). Later, when Grushenka sits beside Alyosha on the sofa, she confesses it to him: "you’d walk by me with your eyes on the ground, but I looked at you a hundred times before. […] Your face stayed in my heart" (353-354). Kolya "could see even from several paces away that Alyosha’s face was somehow quite joyful. ‘Can it be he’s so glad to see me?’" (533). Dmitri calls him a cherub (651). And Ivan, too, admits, "I love your face, Alyosha. Did you know that I love your face?" (652).

In the face of Alyosha Karamazov there plays something beyond the sum total of all his features, and it is this which evokes special love in those around him. When his father looks at him, he unwittingly finds a face from his own past. "‘Do you know,’ he now often said to Alyosha, studying him intently, ‘you resemble her, the ‘shrieker’?’" (22). Ivan, on the other hand, does not call up this memory of his mother. When Zosima, Alyosha’s spiritual father, looks at Alyosha, he sees his 17-year-old brother who died in his youth living again:

Only now do I say: his face has been, as it were, a reminder and a prophecy for me. […] It is a wonder, fathers and teachers, that while he does not resemble him very much in appearance, but only slightly, Alexei seemed to me to resemble him so much spiritually that many times I have actually taken him, as it were, for that youth, my brother, come to me mysteriously at the end of my way, for a certain remembrance and perception, so that I was even surprised at myself and this strange fancy of mine […] for there has been no appearance in all my life more precious than this one, more prophetic and moving. (285-286)

Beyond physical resemblance lies another kind of likeness for Zosima, which he calls "spiritual." The "spiritual" that plays on Alyosha’s face reveals a lost wife and a long-missed brother. Who knows what it discloses to other characters? We only know that many who meet him respond to his face with delight, a joy one might expect at the sight of a young child’s face.

All these scattered, separate impressions of his face so complement each other, so correspond to each other, as in a beautiful painting, that one impression leads the eye to the next until the reader himself sees a layered, shadowed, brush-stroked portrait of Alyosha. We do not even need to know what the Narrator tells us early on: that Alyosha was a healthy 19-year-old with red cheeks and clear eyes (25). We cannot guess (or remember) all that is said: that he was "even quite handsome, slender, of above-average height, with dark brown hair, a regular though slightly elongated face, and bright, deep gray, widely set eyes, rather thoughtful, and apparently rather serene." The Narrator’s description may help us to imagine Alyosha’s features, but it does not contribute much in terms of seeing his "spiritual" face.

What makes a face? The impressions made by Alyosha’s face indicate that it is something far more whole than a physical object or a means to getting at the soul. In his face we sense who Alyosha is as a person. No longer can we define a face as simply eyes, lips, and nose – no longer can we comfortably define it at all. For Dostoevsky the face reveals the whole person and is bound up in personhood itself. It is something looked for and looking, a place where the spiritual plays. This could be called Dostoevsky’s insight into the face.

With the exception of Alyosha, we come to know most of Dostoevsky’s characters through the words they speak, seeing their faces through that speech. "Dostoevsky," writes Merejkowski, "has no need to describe the appearances of his characters, for by their peculiar form of language and tones of voices they themselves depict, not only their thoughts and feelings, but their faces and bodies" (243). And Bakhtin writes, "[a] character’s word about himself and his world is just as fully weighted as the author’s word usually is" (7).

But with Alyosha it is different. We come to know Alyosha in terms of the face alone. When he speaks, his words flow from his perception of faces and speak of those faces. It is only through the impressions made by his face and his own responses to faces that we encounter his face. We have a mystery and a paradox here, for we realize that we can only see his face by watching the faces of other characters when they face him or when they talk about him. Yet, we do see Alyosha’s face, and it is so personal it would be difficult not to love. It is as though Dostoevsky had reserved the mystery of the face for this character most of all. In what follows we will discuss the part faces play in The Brothers Karamazov through a study of Alyosha.

Alyosha is a listener. Pevear writes, "[h]e is not much of a speaker, but he is a hearer of words, and he is almost the only one in the novel who can hear. That is his great gift: the word can come to life in him" (The Brothers Karamazov, xviii). We add that he also listens to faces. While everyone talks about faces, it is only Zosima, Alyosha, and the Narrator who allow faces to speak. When Ivan goes up as a witness at Mitya’s trial, "there was in his face something, as it were, touched with clay, something resembling the face of a dying man" (684). Only Alyosha and the Narrator notice, for Alyosha "suddenly jumped up from his chair and groaned," and the Narrator says about Alyosha, "aah! I remember it. But not many people caught that either."

It is a characteristic of Alyosha that he shows a deep knowledge of the faces of other characters and is moved more by their faces than by words. At Snegiryov’s dirty house he is most struck "by the look in the poor lady’s eyes" (198). When Zosima comes into the room, "Alyosha, who had learned almost every expression of his face, saw clearly that he was terribly tired and was forcing himself" (60). When Ivan breaks the strain in Katerina’s drawing room, he has "an expression on his face that Alyosha had never seen there before" (192). Later, Alyosha comments on it: "you are just a young man, exactly like all other young men of twenty-three—yes, a young, very young, fresh and nice boy, still green, in fact!" (229). "‘You’re also speaking quite cheerfully, now,’" Alyosha remarked, looking closely at his face, which indeed had suddenly turned cheerful" (232). Earlier, Ivan’s face had been "somewhat pale, and Alyosha looked at him anxiously" (186).

Another remarkable trait of Alyosha’s is his complete faith in the face – that it will not deceive. When asked in court why he believes Mitya’s story that it was Smerdyakov who killed their father and not him, Alyosha only says, "I could not but believe my brother. I know he would not lie to me. I saw by his face that he was not lying to me" (677). To which the prosecutor asks, "[o]nly by his face? That’s all the proof you have?" But Alyosha needs no more: "I have no other proof." Zosima might be a living proof for Alyosha that the face reveals the whole man. For we learn early on what many people say of Zosima:

that, having for so many years received all those who came to him to open their hearts, thirsting for advice and for a healing word, having taken into his soul so many confessions, sorrows, confidences, he acquired in the end such fine discernment that he could tell, from the first glance at a visiting stranger’s face, what was in his mind, what he needed, and even what kind of suffering tormented his conscience; and he sometimes astonished, perplexed, and almost frightened the visitor by this knowledge of his secret even before he had spoken a word. (29)

No one else understands or trusts the face so well. Ivan gives us the best example of lack of trust when he reduces himself to a kind of madness of brain fever. He ends in the courtroom, calling people to their faces "all these . . . m-mugs" and telling the world: "They pull faces to each other. Liars! Everyone wants his father dead" (686). When Mitya sees his father’s face through the window the night of the murder he still has to check for Grushenka in Fyodor’s room, although he acknowledges that "[i]f she were here, his face would be different" (392). On the other hand, we hear that he is one of those jealous lovers who will rush back to the beloved, sure she has betrayed him, but "with the first look at her face, at the gay, laughing, tender face of this woman, his spirits would at once revive" (380). Kolya, too, has a mixed understanding of the face, and this results in some rather foolish attacks on it. "Isn’t it written all over that peasant’s face that he’s a fool, eh?" he cries, only to admit after talking to the peasant that he’s a "smart one" after all (531). Meanwhile, Miusov finds in Zosima’s face "a malicious and pettily arrogant little soul," but thinks so at a time when "[i]n general he felt very displeased with himself" (40).

Alyosha’s connection to faces becomes even more noteworthy when we remember that the whole novel is "the biography of my hero, Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov" (3). That anyone can seriously consider Alyosha a hero has entered into more minds than just the Narrator’s, who says, "I myself know that he is by no means a great man, so that I can foresee the inevitable questions." Even Eliseo Vivas writes that Alyosha, "who is called the hero of the book," "is not fully enough developed" (87). The Narrator’s main defense of Alyosha lies in his hope that his readers will understand that an odd man sometimes "bears within himself the heart of the whole, while the other people of his epoch have all for some reason been torn away from it" (The Brothers Karamazov, 3). Faces lie close to this hero’s heart, close to "the heart of the whole."

Myshkin, the hero of The Idiot, has so much to do with faces that we can say exactly the same thing of him: that the face lies close to his heart. We see his face at once, noticing especially that his eyes are filled with "that strange expression by which some are able to guess at first sight that the subject has the falling sickness" (The Idiot, 6). Throughout the novel, people disagree about his face, whether it reveals idiocy or not. Some of his impressions of the face are moments of peace, as when he analyzes the Empanchin’s (75-77). But most prove painful for Myshkin, beginning with Nastasya’s portrait: "It was as if he wanted to unriddle something hidden in that face. […] That dazzling beauty was even unbearable, the beauty of the pale face, the nearly hollow cheeks and burning eyes—strange beauty! The prince […] put the portrait to his lips and kissed it" (79-80). Pevear writes, "[b]y the end he will have moved from naïve candor to an anguished silence in the face of the unspeakable" (xvi). The "face of the unspeakable" literally becomes Nastasya’s face, Rogozhin’s "burning eyes in the crowd" (190), and, ultimately, the face of death in the corpse of Christ painted by Hans Holbein (218). Linked to the problem of the unspeakable face is Dosteovsky’s idea for the novel – which he loved but admitted he failed in (Miller, 89) – "to portray a completely beautiful man – and try to put it into words" (225).

However, what finally clinches the importance of faces for us in The Brothers Karamazov is not only that its hero or Myshkin love faces. Rather, it is the overwhelming evidence that faces are important to the novel, that they are both a battleground and a stage of drama. We remember that the impetus for the movement of the novel is Alyosha’s memory of his mother’s "frenzied, but beautiful" face and her prayers which causes him to look for her grave (The Brothers Karamazov, 19). We recall that Fyodor at his worst moments sometimes felt a shock that "resounded physically in his soul" and at these moments needed another man "so that he could look him in the face" (93). We see Mitya kick his father "in the face two or three times with his heel" (139) and hear Ivan’s words echoing: "[i]f we’re to come to love a man, the man himself should stay hidden, because as soon as he shows his face—love vanishes" (237). We watch Zosima dying, "bowed down with his face to the ground" and "kissing the earth and praying (as he himself taught)" (324). No one can bear Ilyusha’s face, "thin and yellow little face, such eyes, which burned with fever and seemed to have become terribly big" (542), or the sad change in Liza’s face (563). Alyosha loves meeting Grushenka after her illness: "Something firm and aware seemed to have settled in her eyes. Some spiritual turnabout told in her" (563). Yet, most powerful is the moment when we watch the face of Fyodor with Mitya who hates "the whole of his drooping Adam’s apple, his hooked nose, smiling in sweet expectation, his lips" (392).

The problem of the face is a problem of love. Ivan explains it perfectly at the beginning of the chapter called Rebellion when he says, "as soon as [a man] shows his face—love vanishes" (237). Alyosha responds, "[t]he elder Zosima has spoken of that more than once." "He also says that a man’s face often prevents many people, who are as yet inexperienced in love, from loving him." Coming from Zosima, who knows the sins of men simply by looking at their faces, this statement cannot be forgotten.

In the chapters Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor Ivan sets forth the great and terrible problem of evil and indifference at man’s core. D. H. Lawrence wrote that reading The Grand Inquisitor his "heart sinks right through his shoes" because of the "final and unanswerable criticism of Christ" (90). But Eliseo Vivas in affect responds to Lawrence, saying that Dostoevsky "knew perfectly well that in his own terms Ivan could not be answered" (84). The terms of Ivan are those of facts and the stirring up of emotions. "What is the answer?" writes Vivas (85). "It is found in Father Zosima, and that means in our acceptance of our condition as creatures. This calls for love at the heart of human existence; but not the abstract and self-deceived love of your rationalistic liberal, your Miusov, but the personal love of Father Zosima."

If Vivas is correct in his evaluation, Ivan actually provides the answer to his own criticism within his poem in the form of a kiss. For when the Grand Inquisitor finishes admonishing Christ to his face:

The old man would have liked him to say something, even something bitter, terrible. But suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. This is the whole answer. The old man shudders. Something stirs at the corners of his mouth; he walks to the door, opens it, and says to him: ‘Go and do not come again.’ (The Brothers Karamazov, 262)

"And the old man?" asks Alyosha. Ivan responds: "The kiss burns in his heart, but the old man holds to his former idea." Yet, the kiss – an act of personal love – begins to destroy the enemy idea precisely because it never attempts to meet it on its own plain. Alyosha intuits this, and when Ivan asks him, "[w]ill you renounce me for that?" he stands, goes over to him in silence, and "gently kissed him on the lips" (263). "‘Literary theft!’ Ivan cried, suddenly going into some kind of rapture." And, as they go out, Ivan says, "if, indeed, I hold out for the sticky little leaves, I shall love them only remembering you. It’s enough for me that you are here somewhere, and I shall not stop wanting to live."

Mitya faces his own problems. Whereas Ivan cannot live with the human face in general, Mitya struggles terribly with a personal hatred of his father’s face. At the window of Fyodor on the night of the murder, Dostoevsky suddenly gives us a vivid, memorable picture:

Mitya watched from the side, and did not move. The whole of the old man’s profile, which he found so loathsome, the whole of his drooping Adam’s apple, his hooked nose, smiling in sweet expectation, his lips—all was brightly lit from the left by the slanting light of the lamp shining from the room. Terrible, furious anger suddenly boiled up in Mitya’s heart: "There he was, his rival, his tormentor, the tormentor of his life!" It was a surge of that same sudden, vengeful, and furious anger of which he had spoken, as if in anticipation, to Alyosha during their conversation in the gazebo four days earlier, in response to Alyosha’s question, "How can you say you will kill father?"

"I don’t know, I don’t know," he had said then. "Maybe I won’t kill him, and maybe I will. I’m afraid that his face at that moment will suddenly become hateful to me. I hate his Adam’s apple, his nose, his eyes, his shameless sneer. I feel a personal loathing. I’m afraid of that, I may not be able to help myself . . ."

The personal loathing was increasing unbearably. Mitya was beside himself, and suddenly he snatched up the brass pestle from his pocket . . . (392-393)

But Mitya does not kill his father. He does not smash Fyodor’s face in with the brass pestle. Later, Mitya says, "[w]hether it was someone’s tears, or God heard my mother’s prayers, or a bright spirit kissed me at that moment, I don’t know—but the devil was overcome" (472).

One of the reasons Mitya lists – "a bright spirit kissed me at that moment" – involves another kiss. Twice hatred of the face has been resolved by a kiss: the bright spirit to Mitya, and Alyosha to Ivan. The kiss of the face is an answer to evil. Planting a kiss on the lips of another person requires that two faces touch, come together, join. One person may be taken by surprise by the kiss, yet even if he had not loved at all before, now some love wells up in his heart. Christ’s kiss in Ivan’s poem (or the Biblical kiss of Judas) set the standard for this love. Dostoevsky even has a name for it: "proniknovenie, which properly means ‘intuitive seeing through’ or ‘spiritual penetration’" (Ivanov, 26). Ivanov describes it as "the unconditional acceptance with our full will and thought of the other-existence" of another person (27), a way of thinking "not based upon theoretical cognition, with its constant antithesis of subject and object, but upon an act of will and faith" (26). We might say that Alyosha’s face itself "kisses" whoever looks at him because of the love showing in his face for the other’s face – the full acceptance of his or her person.

The Brothers Karamazov has the upward motion in it so much that even Alyosha’s final speech does not feel like the final word that will be spoken. However, the book does end well and fittingly. For Alyosha’s speech to the boys at the end even achieves the level of "words for the hero" that Bakhtin believes Dostoevsky seeks above all in his novels (39). Such words would "express not the hero’s character (or his typicality) and not his position under given real-life circumstances, but rather his ultimate semantic (ideological) position in the world, his point of view on the world." With these words irrevocably spoken, the babble of words coming before would be transformed, explained, even resolved to some extent. Bakhtin does not believe anyone in The Brothers Karamazov reaches such words, but we beg to differ.

Alyosha stands there at the stone and speaks to the boys about what has just happened to them, about Ilyusha’s death and their coming together, about their own lives. "My little doves" he begins, "—let me call you that—little doves, because you are very much like those pretty gray blue birds, now, at this moment, as I look at your kind, dear faces" (The Brothers Karamazov, 774). Already, his speech is about faces. He continues: "perhaps you will not understand what I am going to say to you, because I often speak very incomprehensibly, but still you will remember and some day agree with my words. 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." And we remember that, even as he speaks these words, his face – which perhaps we have come to love, too – is the face of his mother, the "shrieker," Fyodor Pavlovich’s wife, and the face of Zosima’s 17-year-old brother. Here, on his face, those faces are not only preserved through the memories of others, but living there still. "You hear a lot said about your education," Alyosha goes on speaking to the boys, "yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life." Then Alyosha speaks from his own experience of his one good memory of his mother’s face and prayers. "And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation."

In the solemnity of "this moment" Alyosha returns to faces. "I give you my word, gentlemen, that for my part I will never forget any one of you; each face that is looking at me now" (775). He asks, "how can I forget that Kartashov exists and that he is no longer blushing now, as when he discovered Troy, but is looking at me with his nice, kind, happy eyes?" And on Ilyusha: "Let us remember his face, and his clothes, and his poor boots, and his little coffin, and his unfortunate, sinful father, and how he bravely rose up against the whole class for him!" After listening to Alyosha, the boys respond "with deep feeling in their faces."

Alyosha knows his face is also his mother’s face and the 17-year-old brother’s face, for this mystery of the book has much to do with Alyosha, himself. It has to do with his capacity to listen, to take words in and let them live in him. His memory of his mother’s prayers changes his face. His receptivity to the words of Zosima, which are indeed a repetition of his older brother’s words – even these enter into Alyosha and form his spiritual face, so that he resembles the brother. But, at heart, Alyosha’s face has to do with love: his for his mother, his father, Zosima, his brothers – all of their loves for him – a dying brother’s love for his younger brother. This is Alyosha’s "hero speech," a silly, short speech that tells us where his hidden strength rests. And the speech, not surprisingly, has much to do with faces.

Works Cited
(let me know if you want the others)

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

I wrote this essay for my Russian Novel class and finished it about 15 days ago. The more I wrote, the more I realized how much more there is to be said about faces in Dostoevsky's novels (something that most people would not usually think of as an important aspect of the works). Merry Christmas!




Bravo. I read Brothers Karamazov when I was 18. It was a wonderful experience. I am now 35, lost most of my books from moving around, and often I recall the beautiful quote:

"You hear a lot said about your education," Alyosha goes on speaking to the boys, "yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life."

I keep coming back to this quote in my life. There are many great themes and moments in this book, but this quote struck me right in the heart, after you've read all of the massive events of the novel.

So tonight, with some wine, I simply google searched "Brothers Karamazov" + "memories", and your blog came up. Thanks.

facebook: Dale Robichaud
email: [email protected]

Anonymous | Fri, 11/16/2007

Faces essay

Wow! I hope you got an "A" on that piece! I am a home school mom and am enjoying apricotpie having stumbled onto it.

My oldest child is in college, and our nine years of homeschooling are bearing fruit. A year ago after taking his first college lit class (World Lit at a state school that interestingly was taught by a believing Catholic), he came home and gave me his copy of Brothers Karamasov and said, "Here, Mom, you might like to read this." The son teaching the mother!

I'll use your site to show my younger home schoolers some examples of quality writing.

Mrs. M

Anonymous | Sun, 12/16/2007

The Brothers Karamazov

Just found your essay while googling what Alyosha said in his final speech. It is a beautiful representation of the novel, and I was deeply touched by your tender insights. Thank you. Amazing what can happen with a blog posted six years ago. --Kathy

Anonymous | Mon, 05/18/2009


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