times when reading a story, readers are faced with a multitude of characters
and personalities that they must keep in mind. These characters range from the protagonists,
antagonists to even the minor characters. Although it may seem that some
characters are more important than others, minor characters in any story serve significant
roles in all narratives. In The Brothers of Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky successfully
created numerous minor characters that were able to play important roles and help
advance the plot. More specifically, Mikhail Osipovich Rakitin is one of those
minor characters that Dostoevsky heavily developed in order to help support the
growth of certain main characters such as Alyosha, as well as the overall theme
of faith vs. reason.
The Brothers of Karamazov, Dostoevsky first introduces Rakitin, a cleverly devious
young seminarian student inside Zosima’s cell. Alyosha, on the verge of tears, watched
his brother Ivan sit “unmoved, with downcast eyes, apparently waiting with
interest to see how it would end, as though he had nothing to do with it”. At that
moment, Alyosha did “not dare to look at Rakitin, the divinity student, whom he
knew almost intimately. He alone in the monastery knew Rakitin’s thoughts. (bk. II, ch. 2) Later on, Ivan and the monks begin to debate
about ecclesiastical courts and Ivan justifies why he does not believe in the
separation of the church and state. Ivan believed that by including the state
with the church, it would change the idea of crime within society and that
people would be less likely to commit crimes because they would be cognizant of
the fact that they would be acting against God when committing crimes. Miusov ,on the other hand, countered Ivan’s argument by
saying that the inclusion of the state would lead to Ultramontanism.
Surprisingly, Zosima agreed with parts of Ivan’s analysis. While all of this was
happening, Alyosha “glanced casually
at Rakitin, who was standing immovable in his place by the door listening and
watching intently though with downcast eyes. But from the color in his cheeks,
Alyosha guessed that Rakitin was probably no less excited, and he knew what
caused his excitement.” (bk. III, ch. 5)
Within the first
two books of the novel, we see Rakitin appear only a couple of times, both of
which was when Alyosha looked at him across the room. Right away, it is evident
that Alyosha only “considers” Rakitin as a friend because deep down he secretly
despised him. Similar to how two newly introduced step brothers would look at
each other in an uncomfortable family situation. Rakitin never spoke throughout
the scenes, only serving as another character in the room, simply observing. It
is also evident that Alyosha knows Rakitin pretty well because of the fact that
he could tell Rakitin was not excited just by the color in his cheeks as he
quietly listened to the debate.
The first real encounter of Rakitin
is when Alyosha is leaving Father Zossima’s
and notices Rakitin waiting for him. Alyosha asks Rakitin, “are you waiting for me?”
and Rakitin grinningly responds, “yes”. Explaining to Alyosha, “you are hurrying to the Father Superior, I
know; he has a banquet. There’s not been such a banquet since the
Superior entertained the Bishop and General Pahatov, do you remember? I shan’t
be there, but you go and hand the sauces. Tell me one thing, Alexey, what does
that vision mean? That’s what I want to ask you.” (bk.
III, ch. 7 Although a very small detail, the
personality, and appearance of Rakitin is slowly revealed as Dostoevsky begins
to input specific adjectives such as “grinned” to foreshadow how he portrays himself to
other characters such as Alyosha.
Alyosha explains to
Rakitin that he does not know what the vision meant and Rakitin then goes on to
proudly say, “I knew he wouldn’t explain it to
you! There’s nothing wonderful about it, of course, only the usual holy
mummery. But there was an object in the performance. All the pious people in
the town will talk about it and spread the story through the province,
wondering what it meant. To my thinking the old man really has a keen nose; he
sniffed a crime. Your house stinks of it.” (bk. III, ch. 7) Leaving Alyosha very confused, Rakitin does
a good job of convincing Alyosha to misinterpret Zossima and over exaggerate it.
Even though the Zossima’s bow was a message for
Alyosha, Rakitin convinced him otherwise by continuing to explain that, “It’ll be in your family, this crime. Between your brothers and your
rich old father. So Father Zossima flopped down to be ready for
what may turn up. If something happens later on, it’ll be: ‘Ah, the holy man foresaw it, prophesied it!’ though
it’s a poor sort of prophecy, flopping like that. ‘Ah, but it was symbolic,’ they’ll say, ‘an allegory,’ and the devil knows what all!
It’ll be remembered to his glory: ‘He predicted
the crime and marked the criminal!’ That’s always the way with
these crazy fanatics; they cross themselves at the tavern and throw stones at
the temple. Like your elder, he takes a stick to a just man and falls at the
feet of a murderer.” (bk.
III, ch. 7)
After hearing all
of this Alyosha is driven to think about acts he normally kept to himself.
Rakitin is able to present Alyosha – an important character in the novel – with information
that heightens the tension within the plot. Alyosha at first acts naive and
questions the murder, but Rakitin quickly intervenes saying how, “”What
murderer? As though you didn’t know! I’ll bet you’ve thought of it before.
That’s interesting, too, by the way. Listen, Alyosha, you always speak the
truth, though you’re always between two stools. Have you thought of it or
not? Answer.” (bk. III, ch. 7) Alyosha quietly answers, “I have”. To his surprise, Rakitin
questions Alyosha and gets from, “I fancied I had thought of it myself.” (bk.
III, ch. 7) As Rakitin continues to deviously get more
out of Alyosha, Rakitin subtly supports him and says, “You see? (And how well you expressed
it!) Looking at your father and your brother Mitya to-day you thought of a
crime. Then I’m not mistaken?” (bk. III, ch. 7) Without this conversation with Rakitin,
Alyosha would never have questioned himself. After realizing all of this,
Alyosha questions Rakitin, “what has led you to see all this? Why does
it interest you? That’s the first question.” (bk. III, ch. 7) Rakitin then replies, “two
questions, disconnected, but natural. I’ll deal with them separately. What led
me to see it? I shouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t suddenly understood your
brother Dmitri, seen right into the very heart of him all at once. I caught the
whole man from one trait. These very honest but passionate people have a line
which mustn’t be crossed. If it were, he’d run at your father with a knife. But
your father’s a drunken and abandoned old sinner, who can never draw the line—if they both let themselves go, they’ll both
come to grief.” (bk. III, ch. 7)
From this scene and
many others, it is evident that Rakitin tries to bring out sin within Alyosha.
Rakitin is doing all of this because he believes he is too smart for religion,
as he rather buys into the other philosophical theories such as Nietzsche’s. Mainly because
his theory of “will to power” goes against Dostoevsky’s “if there is no God,
everything is permissible” Rakitin believes that if he is able to get Alyosha, the kind
and genuine individual with a love for mankind to commit sin, then his theories
would stand true and he could openly live how he wants to. This is why Rakitin
tries really hard to invite Alyosha to Grushenka’s house, as
Grushenka has the same intentions to corrupt Alyosha as well.
novel, Dostoevsky reminds the readers of the Christian ideals and fundamentals
of Alyosha and does this by comparing and contrasting the good and bad of
accepting and denying God. Although, Rakitin is not exactly a direct antagonist
in the story, Rakitin and Alyosha serve as perfect representations for each
side. Rakitin does not necessarily bring out the best in the other characters,
however he does a very good job of revealing the truth and exposing certain
characters. As Rakitin accepts that Alyosha is set on the monastery life to,
Rakitin’s pessimism is brought to life as he knows that Alyosha is
not as educated as Zosima.
Another key reason, Rakitin is a minor
character that tests other major characters is how Rakitin’s personality perfectly matches that of the Grand Inquisitor.
Ivan explains this story to Alyosha and pushes the idea of individuals having
to trust religion and faith instead of believing in science.
overall theme of faith vs. reason is brought into light from the Grand
Inquisitor. Rakitin is a skeptical character that questions pretty much
everything and wants others to buy into his ideas. After silently listening to
the story from Ivan, Alyosha rushes to say, “but … that’s absurd!” he
cried, flushing. “Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not
in blame of Him—as you meant
it to be. And who will believe you about freedom? Is that the way to understand
it? That’s not the idea of it in the Orthodox Church…. That’s Rome, and not
even the whole of Rome, it’s false—those are
the worst of the Catholics, the Inquisitors, the Jesuits!… And there could not
be such a fantastic creature as your Inquisitor. What are these sins of mankind
they take on themselves? Who are these keepers of the mystery who have taken
some curse upon themselves for the happiness of mankind?
When have they been seen? We know the Jesuits, they are spoken ill of, but
surely they are not what you describe? They are not that at all, not at all….
They are simply the Romish army for the earthly sovereignty of the world in the
future, with the Pontiff of Rome for Emperor … that’s their ideal, but
there’s no sort of mystery or lofty melancholy about it…. It’s simple lust of
power, of filthy earthly gain, of domination—something
like a universal serfdom with them as masters—that’s all they stand for. They don’t even believe in
God perhaps. Your suffering Inquisitor is a mere fantasy.” (bk. V, ch.
Ivan laughingly listened to Alyosha, he explained, “how
hot you are! A fantasy you say, let it be so! Of course it’s a fantasy. But
allow me to say: do you really think that the Roman Catholic movement of the
is actually nothing but the lust of power, of filthy earthly gain? Is that
Father Païssy’s teaching?” (bk. V, ch.
5) In this scene, Ivan plays devil’s advocate and almost seems to be supporting Rakitin. Rakitin
learns and is more convinced that it is simply impossible for an individual,
however holy he is to live strictly by the laws and fundamentals of the Bible.
This reoccurring belief is the driving factor for Rakitin’s sickening desire to contradict everything Zosima and
it is this exact conflict between faith and reason that is the difference
between the Bible and the Grand Inquisitor. In the Bible, the three temptations
place a light on society’s power to
be right and wrong, whereas in the Grand Inquisitor, the idea that the right
path of life is already pre-determined by an outsider. Alyosha is not able to
provide a concrete response to the Grand Inquisitor, however this scene is able
to imply how the idea of God and religion itself is very hard to comprehend and
is the reason why Dostoevsky chose to use Ivan to portray the idea of doubt and
Rakitin as a big supporter.
back to Rakitin and his actual appearance and personality, Dostoevsky uses
specific words such as grin, smelly and other similar descriptions when describing
and showcasing Rakitin. After learning about Grushenka’s history, Alyosha listens to Grushenka, “why I am so glad to see you, Alyosha, I couldn’t say myself! If you
ask me, I couldn’t tell you. “Come, don’t you know why you’re glad?” said Rakitin, grinning. “You used to be always pestering me to bring him, you’d some object,
I suppose.” (bk. VII, ch. 3) After speaking with each other, Alyosha and
Grushenka begin to trust one another, which angers Rakitin because his plan did
not go as planned. All the fake smiles and grins that used when showcasing Rakitin
create the Bible contradictor that he is. In regards to the word smelly,
Rakitin uses the word when describing his elder and also when referring to the
corruption within the Karamazov family. Rakitin’s pessimism is able to see the bad and ugly in his
surroundings which is why he uses the sense of smell in a negative manner.
Rakitin does this when he explained how he “smelled crime” or how it “stinks in your family”
or when he said, “he sniffed a crime. Your
house stinks of it.” (bk. III, ch. 7)
Rakitin’s character is one that was extremely necessary within the
novel, especially with regards to the growth of certain characters such as
Alyosha. Although Rakitin sees the bad in everything, he can be seen as the
devil even though he claims to be a Christian. Ultimately, I believe Dostoevsky
included a character such as Rakitin to show both sides of the story. By doing
so, it allowed readers to almost make their own decision when deciding who’s side to take or believe. Often times I see pieces of writing
that simply showcases one side and bashes on any other perspective, but that
poses a very bias argument. Dostoevsky was very technical and able to set a
neutral tone and inputted his own beliefs where he could, allowing for other
minor characters throughout the novel to play their part.
I believe it is crucial in any piece of writing to include minor characters and
give them personalities that may be different from other characters. The use of
minor characters allows other characters to grow as minor characters such as
Rakitin push characters to think or act differently. In the case of The Brothers of Karamazov, Rakitin was
able to entice characters such as Alyosha and bring out certain reactions and
emotions from them. At the end of the day, the role of minor characters is to
showcase the main characters, however, there is a lot to learn from the minor
characters and their role should never go underestimated.