Friday, January 6, 2012

The Brother's Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I heard someone say once that certain books like War and Peace, or other similarly mammoth works should not be read before the age of thirty. I strongly disagree with that statement. I first read “War and Peace when I was twenty and it was a turning point in my life. It also initiated a life long love affair with Russian authors. Tolstoy led me to another Russian dynamo, Fyodor Dostoevsky. I also read The Brother’s Karamazov in my early twenties. It was one of those books of my youth that hit me like a lightening stroke.

Now I will agree that certain books can be read in different seasons of one’s life and affect you in entirely different ways. This was my experience with the book that has been called the summation of Dostoevsky’s life and work. I will not attempt to describe every detail of this masterpiece in the brief space I have here but what I do want to do is describe the impact the work has had on me each time I read it.

It’s hard to briefly summarize this book because there are so many characters with subplots intertwined around the main one but I will try: Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov- a real swine of a man- marries twice and produces three sons, one from the first marriage, two from the second. He treats both wives abominably, probably drives them to their early graves out of stress and grief and completely abandons his sons.
The first son, Dmitri, is cared for by his father’s man servant and the other two, Ivan and Alyosha, are raised by an eccentric old woman who used to keep their mother as a maid servant.

Dmitri, grows up wild and unprincipled and is completely controlled by his passions. He is forever conniving to get more money from his father-whom he firmly believes owes him but he immediately loses whatever he gets through impulsive and extravagant living. To further add to an already flammable and hostile relationship, both father and son have fallen in love with the same woman, Grushenka. Dmitri is determined to get money from his father in order to run away with Grushenka and Fyodor is equally determined to spend his money in persuading her to come live with him.

Everything comes to a head when one night, Fyodor is found in his bedroom, murdered, his head smashed in. Dmitri is found in another town, with Grushenka, where he is throwing around a great deal of money-money that he supposedly didn’t have before that night. He also, unfortunately, has a bloodied pestle in his pocket. Naturally, he is the number one suspect since not only does he suddenly have so much money, but for the past few weeks he had been going around town breathing threats against his father-even at one point in a drunken rage writing a confession of his intention to murder him. And did I mention that he had already beaten his father to a bloody pulp once before?

Needless to say, Dmitri is arrested and put on trial.

Now. That is the plot outline and, in my opinion, the least interesting part of the whole book. What makes this book so fascinating are the characters and the universal truths about human nature and God that Dostoevsky reveals through his characters.

Let’s examine each character:

We’ve already met Fyodor –who personifies the ultimate slime ball. He’s selfish, he’s unprincipled-he lives to take advantage of others and has no sense of mercy or compassion on anyone’s suffering not even his own blood relatives. He is Dostoevsky’s Unregenerate Man Character.

Dmitri possesses the same unbridled animal passions as his father, but he’s different. Through it all he knows he’s a scoundrel and hates himself for it. He is Man at the point when he knows he is desperately wicked and cannot save himself yet arrives at the place-in Dmitri’s case when he’s on trial for murder-when he seeks that salvation.

But what about Ivan and Alyosha?

Ivan is an atheist. Through his own means he became university educated and lost any faith he may once have had in God. He is sardonic towards any belief in the metaphysical. He detests his father and Dmitri and more than once remarks that two animals trying to destroy each other is no sin but an inevitable, and in fact, desirable conclusion to their unworthy lives.

And then there’s Alyosha. He is the most lovable Karamazov because he so guilelessly and unconditionally loves everyone. He at first wears a monk habit and is mentored by a venerable and godly monk, the Elder Zozima. Through Zozima, Alyosha sees the love of Christ in practice. He in turn practices that love, authentically and passionately on his family members as well as everyone else he comes in contact with-more than one that doesn’t deserve such love.

Alyosha is the staple of the Karamazov family, even if the others aren’t consciously aware of it. All of them, father, brothers, as well as many other characters that come into play in this novel, turn to Alyosha as the means for a solution to their turmoil.

When I was twenty-one, I read Brother’s Karamazov for the first time. As a Christian, I trusted the author, also a Christian, to gently guide me to a nice tidy conclusion as to why my beliefs are right. That is not what happened. In a certain scene, Ivan throws every dart of Satan at Alyosha, explaining to him why there can be no God. I was not prepared for his attacks. They were not absurd. They were highly reasonable and at the time, for me, unanswerable. I didn’t lose my faith, but Ivan did give me a punch in the stomach.

I now realize that God wanted me to be confronted with these arguments so I could think my faith through and give a reasonable defense for it-not only to others but to myself as well.

The second time I read the book I was in my thirties. I must confess it was the wrong season to read it. My mind was so distracted with many problems that I couldn’t focus on what I was reading. It made me sad that a book that so excited and mesmerized me in my youth packed no punch. Had I become so jaded?

I am now in my forties and have just finished reading Brother’s Karamazov for the third time. With the eyes of maturity and wisdom and a peace and joy that I didn’t possess in my thirties, I was able to read this wonderful story with fresh insight and understanding. For one thing, I can see the genius of Dostoevsky as he uses the atheist, Ivan, with all his arguments to actually prove the existence of God.

He does this through a number of ways but I’ll point out one:

Ivan tells Alyosha that since there is no God, all things are permitted, even murder. It’s only when God exists that an established right and wrong can be put into practice. Of course this whole argument caves in on Ivan’s head when it IS put into practice and by an unexpected person.

You see, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha are not the only sons of Karamazov. There is a fourth son who was produced by a woman whom Fyodor raped. This son is raised in Fyodor’s house as a humiliated servant, treated with contempt and neglect by his own father. This son, Smerdyakov- becomes a devoted disciple of Ivan’s teaching and puts it into practice. Ivan realizes that to pontificate about no God, no morals is one thing.  But to actually live in a society that ignores God and uses no absolute morals to govern themselves produces a lawlessness where no one is safe. After that, Ivan is visited nightly by a demon who mocks him and throws back in his face every smug tirade he ever made against God and drives him insane.

I hope I haven’t given the book away. One still needs to read it for oneself to receive the full impact of Dostoevsky’s genius, besides I’ve left most of the characters out and many of them are the most interesting.

Stepping into a novel by Dostoevsky is like falling into a whirlwind and it is certainly worth the ride.


  1. I have not yet tackled a Dostoevsky novel, but read War and Peace and Anna Karenina in my early twenties. I loved both of those then, I am now in my late thirties. Last year I read Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and found it very moving. For something like Jude I think I needed to be older, but as I didn't read it as a very young woman, I can't really say for sure. I really enjoyed reading your review, and will aim to read The Brothers Karamazov hopefully by the time I am forty, in a year or so :)

  2. Great review. This is one of hose books I always wanted to read but never got a chance to - but I will.

  3. Mel and MolB: Yes you really have to read this book. I gave the merest of skeletal outlines of the plot. It's main force is in the dialogue and character development. You want to jump into the book and interact with the people.

  4. I have never read this book- but now I know I must. From this post it sounds like a fascinating book with so much to offer the reader. Thank you so much for sharing!


  5. Fairday: I think many people shy away from "highbrow" lit but it's the most exciting, rewarding stuff to read. This book certainly is.

  6. Wow, awesome review. I love me some literary criticism, and Dostoevsky is a wonderful author. Thank you for posting!

    You've just earned yourself a new follower. ;)

    Jonathan -

  7. Thanks, Johnathan. You've a cool blog yourself!

  8. Thank you for sharing this book in the way that you did. It adds a flavor that a regular, dry book review does not. I think that I will add it to my list of books to read. Blessings,

  9. Thanks, Kathy. That's my main objective when reviewing my personal books. I want to whet others' appetite so they'll want to read them for themselves.

  10. I am glad that you mentioned your post. Insightful as always Sharon.

    The one thing that I felt frustrated about with Ivan was that while his arguments were clever, they do not reflect my own nor based upon my observations, many other non — believers. I strongly doubt the existence of God. I also strongly believe in morality. I believe morality comes from human biology and culture. It's human origins are in no way a diminishment of morality. I think that it actually is one of the wonderful and astonishing things about it. I would also argue that while it is a human concept, at least some aspects of morality are absolute. Of course there is room for disagreement when pondering details about what is right and what is wrong.

    1. I have to confess, Brian, that I agree with Ivan. If there is no God, anything goes. You can say you believe in right and wrong and that your belief is based on your genetic code or evolutionary biology produced it but I see no evidence for that.

      Evolution is all about survival and yet I see mankind closer to blowing themselves up than ever before.

      Also, to believe in morals implies that we have a model of perfection to compare our behavior to. That's why we know something's wrong. Evil is a corruption of goodness. But we can't know what is deviant unless we know what is perfect.

      There is no one, no human being that is perfect. So where does this knowledge come from? It has to come from Someone outside of ourselves.

      You can be an atheist or agnostic and still be moral because the same God who made me made you and instilled the same moral code in both of us.

      For that matter, how did evolution biologically produce a belief in God, if He doesn't exist?

      I'm glad you and I can talk about these things. I really appreciate your comments and the respectful way you present them.

      Take care! I look forward to reading more of your reviews.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.