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The Epileptic Loophole: Self-control and the Judiciary in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

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  1. Introduction
  2. Smerdyakov's condition
  3. His disease of impulsivity
  4. Conclusion
  5. Works cited

Epilepsy and the punitive system?two seemingly unrelated items that Fyodor Dostoevsky juxtaposes in order to make a point about Russia and the futility of the judiciary. In his giant oeuvre The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky exemplifies the tension between rational and irrational behavior by putting Dmitri Karamazov and Pavel Smerdyakov at trial. Though they are to a large extent very different, both have something in common: their actions and thoughts are somewhat out of their control. It seems that ?impulses? often govern the course of their lives. Interestingly, the epileptic Smerdyakov has an incredibly ironic function in the novel; his condition should render him an impulsive mess, subject to unpredictable fits, but he is often more successful at achieving his ends and keeping his ?disease? under his own control than Dmitri. Ultimately, the ironic contrast between Dmitri's impulsivity and Smerdyakov's rationality is crucial in conveying Dostoevsky's message that the judicial system and, by extension, the Russian notion of justice are flawed. From this, a Dostoevskian system of universal justice emerges.

[...] The rational ?Euclidean nonsense? of cause and effect, crime and retribution would give way to occasional Khokhlakovian aberrations, bits of chaos thrown into the ?physics of the In this revision of justice, the trial?if there were one?would be a holistic process in which the Karamazov family and the town at large would reassess themselves. The epileptic loophole would be insignificant, since the responsibility rests not with natural or induced impulses, but with the social structure and environment that bred this type of behavior. [...]


[...] One gets the impression that the first fit of epilepsy is a deliberate experiment by the dejected adolescent, an experiment which successfully results in increased attention and an opportunity for schooling in Moscow. Thus, due to the suddenness and convenience of his epilepsy and his confession about the shammed fit, the authenticity of Smerdyakov's neurological disorder should be called into question. With this suspicion in mind, we turn to the absurd court proceedings, by which Dostoevsky suggests the futility of the punitive system. [...]

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