'The Falling Sickness' in Literature

Jeffrey M. Jones, MD, Neurology of Battle Creek, Battle Creek, Mich.

South Med J. 2000;93(12) 

In This Article

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov[13] was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, thought to be one of the greatest of all Russian novelists. He had an exceptional insight into the human mind and heart, and he profoundly influenced the modern intellectual climate. He also had epilepsy, and many believe this significantly affected his writings and contributed to his genius.

Dostoevsky created several multidimensional characters with epilepsy. One was Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Another is the orphaned waif Nellie, in The Insulted and the Injured. Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov is a Dostoevsky character who has epilepsy and commits murder.

The Brothers Karamazov, published in 1879, was written toward the end of Dostoevsky's life and is thought by many to be his greatest work. It is a story about Fyodor Karamazov, who can best be described as a dirty old man, and his four sons: the eldest, Dmitri, whose mother died when he was young, two middle sons who had a different mother, and Smerdyakov, who is the youngest. He is an illegitimate son and a servant in the house, resenting the three brothers who enjoy the privilege of their birthright.

Smerdyakov is described as having seizures repeatedly through the years. As a young man, he murders the Karamazov patriarch, feigning a seizure and subsequent sleep to establish an alibi for himself. Smerdyakov gloats when the eldest Karamazov son, Dmitri, is accused of the murder. This is an example in which epilepsy is used as an alibi as opposed to an excuse for committing a crime, an issue raised in the case of Othello. In more modern literature that issue is further addressed.

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