Tiny Details in a Big World: Robin Feuer Miller’s “Dostoevsky Writ Small”

By Natasha Netzorg and Izzy Tice

On October 18, 2021, Dr. Robin Feuer Miller delivered the third lecture in the Havighurst Center Fall Colloquium Series, Dostoevsky at 200. Miller, Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities at Brandeis University and is a scholar in Russian and Comparative Literature, entitled her talk “Dostoevsky Writ Small”. The lecture focused on themes of symbolism, animals, love, and the devil within two of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s renowned novels, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. Although students in the colloquium class had read and discussed both novels extensively before the lecture, Miller presented many new ideas and approaches to analyzing these works, some of which were surprising and inspiring. Especially interesting in Miller’s research is her focus on the minutiae of literature, and the otherwise seemingly irrelevant details she describes as intentionally chosen and written into each story.

Dr. Miller’s argument focused on the small details that Dostoevsky includes in his novels such as children, animals, “funny” digressions, and all the tiny things in between. The small details are outlined even in Dostoevsky’s notebooks, exemplified by a comment that the idea of a “burned finger” was in his head when he began The Idiot. One of the central ideas that Miller presented was the recurring imagery and inclusion of animals in The Idiot, and why Dostoevsky chose each animal for their respective roles. Miller jumped to the end of The Idiot and cited the description of the “buzzing fly” around the corpse of Nastasya Filippovna and pointed out that within the text, these small creatures are meant to play an intricate role. Ippolit speaks of the fly that is “a participant” while he alone is “an outcast.” Prince Myshkin finds that he is recalling Ippolit’s words while at the green bench. Myshkin comes to the conclusion that Ippolit’s words were not his own but rather Myshkin’s that Ippolit had taken from his “words and tears at the time.” The fly perceived as a lively surrogate in place of Myshkin and Ippolit is not the only role it can take on. On a basis that is much easier to recognize for most, the fly can take on the role of death. Miller returns to the solemn scene of Nastasya Flippovna “flanked” by Rogozhin and Prince Myshkin. The analysis of her visage, soon followed by the fly which “settled on the pillow” and broke the tangible silence is easy to follow. Miller quotes that it “comes to stand in its sinister abundance of life” present there for Nastasya’s lack of life, and that “life stands for death by means of the fly.”

Another example Miller concentrates on is the appearance of a hedgehog in The Idiot. The hedgehog stands to break from the “looming tragedy” and returns the mood to “everyday life of the ordinary” and much like the donkey, it “serves as [an] agent that restores balance.” It is a way of “communication without words” much like the fly. While it is never made clear by the “increasingly unreliable narrator,” as Miller claims, there are hints that it represented a duality of forgiveness and a “throwing of the gauntlet” from Aglaya to Prince Myshkin, as well as embodying Myshkin’s double thoughts and acting as a Hermeneutic parable.

Besides animals, Dr. Miller also focused on the role of memories, especially those from the characters’ childhoods, and how Dostoevsky transforms feelings of pain into love. Switching to an analysis of The Brothers Karamazov, she referenced the fragmented memory that Alyosha has from his own childhood, where his birth mother is sobbing, and a nurse runs into the room and snatches Alyosha from her. To a typical person, this memory of a stolen future would be heartbreaking and obviously upsetting, but to the tender Alyosha, this is the singular memory of his mom that he cherishes for the entirety of his life, one which he never identifies as being painful or traumatic. In doing so, Miller described Alyosha’s memory as one morphing into a positive reminiscence, one which is not emblematic of child abuse, but “divine motherly love”. Tying into themes of God within each individual Miller also introduced a very interesting subject, wherein Dostoevsky uses irony and juxtaposition to represent the aura of the mystical through simple objects and people.

Dr. Miller followed her thesis by providing small details to the bigger picture she provided to the audience. Her examples from The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov bookend Dostoevsky’s bigger ideas, which appear as “portals” that act as the “building blocks of his realism,” magnifying the “prosaic and sublime,” and showing that we borrow pieces of ourselves from the world we engage in. The small pieces that make us up, that make up the world, are the same small pieces that Dostoevsky uses to make up his worlds.

Natasha Netzorg and Izzy Tice are both undergraduate fellows at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.

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