Why Is The Babe Weeping?


The Brothers Karamazov, illustration by William Sharp


Some refer to Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazovas the greatest novel ever written.  It is the story of three brothers – the brilliant and cold Ivan, the dashing impetuous soldier Dmitri, and the gentle Alexey whom all love. Their profligate father is found murdered and all evidence points to Dmitri.  He is apprehended at an inn where he has spent the evening carousing. The preliminary investigation begins there with witnesses still present.

Dmitri (known as Mitya) asserts his innocence, but witness testimony is against him. As the inquisition is finishing he moves from his chair to a corner, lies down on a chest covered with a rug, and falls instantly asleep

He had a strange dream, utterly out of keeping with the place and time.

He was driving somewhere in the steppes, where he had been stationed long ago, and a peasant was driving him in a cart with a pair of horses, through snow and sleet.  He was cold, it was early in November and the snow was falling in big wet flakes, melting as soon as it touched the earth.  And the peasant drove him smartly, he had a fair, long beard.  He was not an old man, somewhere about fifty, and he had on a grey peasant’s smock.  Not far off was a village, he could see the black huts, and half the huts were burnt down, there were only the charred beams sticking up.  And as they drove in, there were peasant women drawn up along the road, a lot of women, a whole row, all thin and wan, with their faces a sort of brownish color, especially one at the edge, a tall, bony woman, who looked forty, but might have been only twenty, with a long thin face.  And in her arms was a little baby crying.  And her breasts seemed so dried up that there was not a drop of milk in them.  And the child cried  and cried, and held out its little bare arms, with its little fists blue from cold.

“Why are they crying?  Why are they crying?” Mitya asked as they dashed gaily by.

“It’s the babe,” answered the driver, “the babe weeping.”

And Mitya was struck by his saying, in his peasant way,, “the babe,” and he liked the peasant’s calling it a “babe.”  There seemed more pity in it.

“But why is it weeping?” Mitya persisted stupidly, “why are its little arms bare?  Why don’t they wrap it up?”

“The babe’s cold, its little clothes are frozen and don’t warm it.”

“But why is it?  Why?” foolish Mitya still persisted.

“Why, they’re poor people, burnt out.  They’ve no bread.  They’re begging because they’ve been burnt out.”

“No, no,” Mitya, as it were, still did not understand. “Tell me why it is those poor mothers stand there.  Why are people poor?  Why is the babe poor?  Why is the steppe barren?  Why don’t they hug and kiss?  Why don’t they sing songs of joy?  Why are they so dark from black misery?  Why don’t they feed the babe?”

And he felt that, though his questions were unreasonable and senseless, yet he wanted to ask just that, and he had to ask it just in that way.  And he felt that a passion of pity, such as he had never known before, was rising in his heart, and he wanted to cry, that he wanted to do something for them all, so that the babe should weep no more, so that the dark-faced, dried-up mother should not weep, that no one should shed tears again from that moment, and he wanted to do it at once, at once, regardless of all obstacles, with all the recklessness of the Karamazovs.

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky, in the 1945 llustrated Modern Library edition by Random House, translated by Constance Garnett.


In the very moment when facing almost certain exile and imprisonment in Siberia, Dmitri poses the great existential question asked by every human being — Why is there suffering?  Why are people poor?  It raises in him a profound empathy for others and the wish to immediately do something so that “the babe should weep no more.”

May we also, each one, find and act from our deepest common humanity in these perilous times.