The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov
© 1879 Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. 1992 Pevear & Volkonsky
840 pages

Fathers and teachers, I ask myself: “What is hell?”
And I answer thus: “The suffering of being no longer able to love.”

The Brothers Karamazov has the unusual distinction of having been recommended to me, repeatedly, over a course of fifteen years, by both hardened atheists and arch-traditional Catholics. First appearing as a family drama and murder mystery, it quickly proves to be far more substantial than that, doubling as a medium for philosophical debate about the nature of man, God, and the cosmos. In this first reading, I’m almost certain that there’s much I’ve missed, and yet even so I suspect I’ll be thinking about it for a long while to come.

I didn’t think much of the Brothers K at the start, peopled as it was by some fairly odious characters. Fyodor Karamazov, for instance, is a man so void of principle he cannot even rise to the level of villain; he is merely a pig, divided between appetite and filth. He’d somehow married twice, and driven both women away, and between the two had three legitimate children — there being a fourth, if you believe the town gossips. The brothers Karamazov are archtypes of a sort, all with extreme personalities; Dmitri is the most his father’s son, and is another of creature and appetite — though as the narrative progresses, he proves to have something worthier inside. Then follows Ivan — the rationalist and skeptic, who struggles with his sanity late in the novel and strikes me as a sorrowful figure. Last, and for me the most likable, is Aloysha,the faithful, who at the book’s beginning is planning on joining a monastery. All of the brothers are thrown into self doubt throughout the story, and there is considerable interest in their debates with one another.

The debates are a welcome distraction from the drama which pushes the story forward: Karamazov’s feud with his oldest son Dmitri over both money and a woman. Karamazov himself is almost pathetic, an old man going moony over the same woman as his son, and when the men all seek the advice of a monastery elder over their conflict, he makes even more of an ass himself in front of the elder….who sees him for the fraud he is, and doesn’t believe his flannel for a minute. Eventually, the feud between Karamazov and Dmitri comes to a head, blood is spilled, and a trial ensues.

There’s so much more to the book than the fighting between two dogs over a bone, though, particularly the ongoing debate about God, man, and morality. A few characters, most notably Ivan, do not believe in God or a moral universe, and while some see this as as a license to do whatever they can get away with, Ivan himself is troubled by that possibility, especially when he believes that his observation about atheism and license lead to the murder that marks the latter half the story. For all his doubt, Ivan seems to believe in something — one of the more interesting chapters in the novel is his poem, “The Grand Inquisitor”, in which Jesus reappears in Spain and is immediately apprehended by the Inquisition….which recognizes and rejects Jesus for what he is, arguing that the Son of Man’s trust in humanity was misplaced, and that the church’s embrace of Caesar has proven an easier cross to bear. Ivan’s moral analysis of the church’s embrace of what Christ shunned is surely based in an understanding of moral order: if there is none, the church was merely being pragmatic and clever. There are several side stories throughout the book, my favorite being the history of the monastery elder, Zosima, who never appears but to offer wisdom of a kind well worth remembering. One of the monastery scenes has an extended debate about the nature of church and state, in which it is argued that Rome tried to make the Church the state, when the correct approach is to make the State become the church. I found this especially interesting given the cult/state religion status of communism in Russia following the fall of the tsar. Dostoevsky weaves insights and arguments of interest throughout the story.

Although at novel’s end I still found myself preferring the obvious character evolution within War and Peace — and its connection to a history I knew well enough to follow along with — this more intimate village moral & legal drama had many winsome moments, and my appreciation for several of the characters grew throughout the work — particularly Dmitri, who proved that he could rise to the occasion when truly put to the fire.

A worthy end to my first Classics Club challenge!

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Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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10 Responses to The Brothers Karamazov

  1. Sharon Barrow Wilfong says:

    I must confess this is one of my favorite novels ever. I first read it in my twenties and it really challenged my beliefs in God, especially Ivan’s arguments about child abuse. I was glad to be confronted with such arguments, however, because it made me think through why I believe the way I do and my faith came out stronger for it.

    Ivan is right. If there is no God, there is no right and wrong. I know atheists will argue that evolution can produce morals as a survival method, but they reason backwards. “I am a moral person, therefore evolution produced my sense of morality.”

    But since there is so much immorality in the world, how is that so? And sometimes it’s the most immoral that survive and the moral who are destroyed.

    I also think that all the brothers were different aspects of Dostoevsky’s personality that struggled within himself.

    • My first brush with theodicy came from the suffering of children, too — I’d just read a play, in 8th grade, based on the diary of Anne Frank. When it ended with boots charging up the stairs, and men pounding on the door, I was shaken and horrified when I thought about the fact that Anne was a real girl, and she and her family really had been abused and abandoned to death in a camp — and might’ve have been rescued, had she been able to endure a few weeks longer. But then again, I know the cosmos doesn’t bow to human expectations, God or no god. Maybe our demanding that the universe make immediate sense — rational AND moral — is just presumptuous. I tend to be more fatalistic & Stoic about these things as I age.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Well, the Universe *does* make sense (if not of the immediate variety) otherwise Science couldn’t exist. In only a few hundred years we’ve got a pretty good idea how it all holds together. Imagine how well we’ll understand things in a few more hundred….. The Universe stubbornly refuses to make Moral sense because we are imposing our internal moral beliefs on what is essentially dust, gas and vacuum…. mostly vacuum actually… That kind of projection is bound to fail really. But, hey… What do I know? I’m a Liberal Arts graduate… [lol]

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  3. Marian says:

    Wow, congrats on finishing your Classics Club challenge!! I knew you’d do it! 😀

    Great review, too. I also did not love The Brothers Karamazov as much as I’d have expected, but there’s no doubt it was worth reading and has a lot of great food for thought. The Zosima sections were some of my favorites as well.

    ” Maybe our demanding that the universe make immediate sense — rational AND moral — is just presumptuous.”

    I’ve been thinking similar things recently. Sometimes I’m so appalled by the things that have happened (and are happening currently) that a bit of doubt wants to creep in. But at the same time, it seems to me that this is free will at work. To expect God to intervene at every moment would be a removal of free will and consequences. It doesn’t completely answer the question of evil to me, but I can readily accept it as a factor.

    • I think free will is the closest we can get to an answer, but…it doesn’t bring perfect peace on its own, that’s for sure. For the rest of the suffering we just have to borrow from JP and find a way to make it meaningful.

      I’m glad to know I’m not the only classics reader who wasn’t over the moon for BK on my first try. I may try it again later…I know with “Mere Christianity”, I was unimpressed the first time, and then the second time ,years later, I was thinking “Wow, is this even the same book?”

  4. Brian Joseph says:

    Super review. I first read this a few years ago. It really is brilliant. Dostoevsky did Indeed populated his books with a lot of odious characters. I am an atheist, I love this book, however, I do not think that it was all that complementary towards atheism.

    • From what I’ve read of him and the themes explored in other works, I believe he was concerned about what would happen to society if it lost its grounding, so to speak — ‘unchaining the Earth from its sun’, as Nietzsche put it. Even if he found atheism destructive or harmful, I think he gives Ivan a sympathetic treatment…but he seemed to me to be a man wrapped in sorrow, possibly wanting to believe but not being able to.

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