(Warning that this post may contain some spoilers for those who are completely unfamiliar with the plot of The Brothers Karamazov.)
In a letter dated March 16th, 1878 Dostoevsky describes to V.V. Mikhailov his preparations for writing The Brothers Karamazov (trans. by Michael A. Minihan for Mochulsky’s Biography):
In your letter, I was very interested in the fact that you love children, have lived a great deal with children, and even now spend time with them. Well, here is my request, dear Vladimir Vasilyevich: I have planned, and soon will begin a big novel in which, among other things, children will play a large part, especially young ones from 7 to 15 years, approximately. Many children will be introduced. I am studying and have studied them all my life, love them very much, and have some of my own. But the observations of a man such as yourself (I understand this) will be invaluable to me. And so write me what you yourself know about the children in Petersburg who have called you dear uncle and about the Yelisavetrad children and about what you know. Things that happen, their habits, answers, words and little sayings, traits of character, their relations to their families, faith, misdeeds, and innocence; nature and the teacher, the Latin language and so forth, and so forth—in a word what you yourself know.
Dostoeveky’s children theme is particularly important in the last part of his novel where he explores the relationships between father and son; Fyodor Karamazov’s rearing of his three sons stands in sharp contrast to the poor and destitute Staff Captain Snegiroyov who displays a great deal of love and affection for his little boy. During the trial that takes place in the final books of the novel, the defense attorney argues that patricide has not taken place because one has to actually be a father in order for this to be true. The attorney goes on to recount the heartbreaking neglect that all three Karamazov brothers suffered during childhood when, once their mothers died, they were cared for by their father’s servant. The local doctor takes pity on the eldest brother whom he sees barefoot, wearing tattered clothes and playing alone in the yard by giving him a pound of nuts. This simple act of kindness shown to him by a stranger stays with Dmitry Karamazov for his entire life. The saddest aspect of this whole tragedy is that no one is surprised that one of the Karamazov brothers could be angry and bitter enough to want to kill their degenerate, cruel and heartless old father. The defense attorney’s emotional and stunning rhetoric, I think, is comparable to the likes of Cicero: “Gentlemen of the jury, what is a father, a true father? What an august title, what an awesome concept is contained in the very word itself! I have indicated something of the nature of a true father and what he should be. In the present case with which we are so preoccupied and which is causing us so much heartache—in the present case, the father, the late Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, bore no resemblance whatsoever to that idealization of a father that we have been picturing in our minds. That is the trouble.” And further on in his speech he continues to describe the horrible childhood of the Karamazovs: “Did anyone ever teach him what life was all about, attend to his education, love him—even just a little—in his childhood? My client was left to God’s tender care, like an animal in the wild.”
But Dostoevsky does indeed provide us with a positive answer as to what a true father ought to be. At the beginning of the novel, Dmitry Karamazov gives the Staff Captain a horrible and humiliating beating at the local pub that his young son, Ilyusha, witnesses. The mutual devotion between father and son is a tender and severe contrast to anything we witness among the Karamozovs; Ilyusha quarrels with his friends at school in order to defend his father from local gossip and ridicule. And the Staff Captain spends time every day walking with his son, trying to quell his anger. The author fully displays that he has, in fact, as he said in his letter, done some intense research about a child’s innocence and “nature and the teacher” which he uses to demonstrate true paternal care and its resulting love and devotion.
Dostoevsky returns, at great length, to this father-son relationship at the end of the book when the small boy is very ill. The caring father is beside himself with grief and will do anything to make his child happy and healthy: “His father could not do enough for him—he even stopped drinking completely—he nearly went out of his mind from fear that his little boy was going to die, and often, especially after supporting him by his arm so that he could walk a few steps and then helping him back to bed, he would suddenly rush out into the hallway and, leaning his head against the wall in a dark corner, break down, convulsed by sobs, which he stifled so that Ilyuskenchka should not hear.” The Chapter “The Boys” which describes this doting father as well as Ilyusha’s school friends that visit to comfort him was my favorite in the novel.
The book ends, fittingly, with a heart wrenching yet hopeful scene in which Dostoevsky, once again, shows us what it means to be a good father to one’s son; Ilyushka’s dying request is that crumbs of bread be spread upon his grave so that sparrows will flock to him and keep him company in the afterlife. As the small coffin is being carried to the church by his friends, the Staff Captain unexpectedly stops the entire funeral procession: “‘The crust, we’ve forgotten the crust,’ he cried suddenly in a panic. But the boys immediately reminded him that he had already picked up the bread, and that it was now in his pocket. He took it out of his pocket for a moment and, having reassured himself, became calmer.”