Major Work: The Brothers Karamazov
Publication date: 1880
Length (time to read): 37hrs 8mins
Influences: Shakespeare, Pushkin, Cervantes, Balzac, Dickens
Themes: Faith, Free Will, Crime, Justice, Morality, Suffering, Family
Quotes (a selection from The Brothers Karamazov): “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular” / “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man” / “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others” / “Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love” / “Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything? … Everything is permitted to the intelligent man”
Literary Echoes: His influence extends far and wide, from Russian writers like Tolstoy and Bulgakov to contemporary Americans like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Some famous devotees include Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, Kafka, Sartre and Camus
Album accompaniment: After the murder of Fyodor, Mitya’s desire to preserve his reputation rather than prove his innocence is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s live performance of Long Black Veil on At Folsom Prison, when he sings: “The judge said: Son, what is your alibi? / If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die / I spoke not a word, though it meant my life / For I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”
Film accompaniment: Two of the more famous film adaptations of The Brothers Karamazov are Richard Brooks’ 1958 version, starring Yul Brynner, and the 1968 Soviet version by Ivan Pyryev
Translation: The two best options in English are Constance Garnett or the more recent double act of Pevear & Volokhonsky. This article gives a bit more context. I went for PV; I don’t think they’re always the best option for Russian novels, but in this case perhaps yes.
Rating (out of 100): 95
A good visual summary of Dostoevsky life & works can be seen here:
Crime & Punishment might be Dostoevsky’s most famous work, but The Brothers Karamazov is undoubtedly his greatest. The novel was serialised from January 1879 until November 1880, a period of almost two years; I read the book in just over 2 months with a Goodreads group. I’m not sure I would have managed without that extra bit of support and encouragement. Most of the themes explored throughout Dostoevsky’s career are brought together here in this book, as though he were engaging in a personal “last judgment”. Personal tragedy (death of his young son) and his sense of the Church as a “positive social idea” form the backdrop to the novel, giving all its themes added intensity.
Set in a nondescript town in rural Russia in the 1860s, the story centres around the “nice little family” (note the sarcasm) of Fyodor Karamazov and is told by a narrator of uncertain identity, who focuses a lot on “strange types”, as though the characters
introduced in the first book are more emblematic of Russian social types than fully-drawn personalities that are grounded in reality. Of the three main brothers, Mitya (Dmitri) is the sensualist, Ivan is the intellectual and Alyosha (Alexei) is the spiritualist; the one thing that unites them all is how their characters have been determined, and damaged, by their irresponsible father. The elder Zosima seems to represent the other end of the spectrum to Fyodor in terms of a father figure.
Though Fyodor is carnal and self-centred, there’s an earthiness about him that is quite sympathetic, such as his mocking of the haughty and self-important Miusov. A line in the last chapter of Book 2, when Fyodor excuses his scandalous behaviour by saying that “I’m taking revenge for my lost youth, for all my humiliations!”, suggests some character-forming events in his early life that we don’t know about. That said, nothing should excuse his bad behaviour – for example, competing with his son Mitya for the affections of Grushenka, or treating his fourth son Smerdyakov like an underling – and one of the key themes in the book is fathers & sons, and the damage passed down from one generation to the next. This is echoed in Ivan’s discussion of the suffering of children in the famous Rebellion passage in Book 5, when he lists a variety of evil crimes including “floggers who get more excited with every stroke, to the point of sensuality, literal sensuality, more and more, progressively, with each new stroke”. Ivan’s sincerity here makes it sound as though he’s talking from personal experience. Some view Ivan’s long monologues in Rebellion and the Grand Inquisitor as purely the expression of a vast intellect, but I think there are strong emotions that underpin his words.
From the moment Alyosha and Ivan sit down together and talk in Book 5, the novel does start to feel more substantial and less plot-driven. I re-read Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor a few times and noticed it’s also dense with literary references, to classics like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and great authors such as Flaubert, Hugo, Schiller and Pushkin. It’s almost as if Dostoevsky is staking his own claim here for literary immortality, intending Book 6 to be a response to the thorny issues of freedom, free will and human suffering raised in Book 5, but I have to confess that I found the life & teachings of Father Zosima a rather weak rebuttal. Zosima’s call for brotherly love (or “sobornost”), as the basis of a communal life where we all take responsibility for each other – as opposed to the fragmentation and isolation he sees in the west – seems only to extend to Christians and Russians. Any brotherly love he feels certainly doesn’t extend to non-believers; rather than espousing universal human values, Zosima seems to me to embody much of what is divisive about any religion.
To my mind, it’s possible to think rationally and question authority (religious or otherwise), without being immoral and devoid of love for the world and humanity, but Ivan is obviously not a good example of that, more a vehicle for Dostoevsky to voice some of the doubts that plague him. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says (in the video below) that Dostoevsky felt that, as a Christian, he could put the case against God better than any atheist and set about doing so in The Brothers Karamazov.
Albert Camus, in his 1956 work Rebel, says: “Ivan Karamazov … does not absolutely deny the existence of God. He refutes Him in the name of a moral value … God, in His turn, is put on trial. If evil is essential to divine creation, then creation is unacceptable. Ivan will no longer have recourse to this mysterious God, but to a higher principle – namely, justice. He launches the essential undertaking of rebellion, which is that of replacing the reign of grace by the reign of justice.”
Woven through the pages of the novel are the prophetic words of Father Zosima: “Each of us is guilty in everything before everyone”. This teaching about taking responsibility for all started to make more sense to me near the end of the book. All those who act selfishly, perform evil deeds or engage in rebellious thought appear to become increasingly isolated, whereas a surrender of the self and an awareness of the needs and hopes of others offer a route out of this despair. Two of the brothers experience epiphanies – Mitya’s dream and Ivan’s second encounter with the drunk peasant – that make them more aware of this sense of a wider responsibility to humanity, offering them hope of redemption from their isolation. Looking back to Book 10, Ilyusha and Kolya benefit from Alyosha’s guidance and deeply ingrained sense of responsibility to others, but Smerdyakov is left alone without any support, notably from his family. So, I guess the thing that troubles me most is: why doesn’t anyone take responsibility for Smerdyakov?
As well as being a book about faith, freedom and morality, The Brothers Karamazov is also on a more surface level a murder mystery and courtroom drama. It’s hard to say how original readers of the serialised book might have reacted to the preliminary investigation, though I’m sure the more astute ones wouldn’t have rushed to judgment as quickly as the assembled officials. For me, it was a fascinating insight into the Russian criminal justice system of the time. Why was Mitya not offered legal counsel? Why was he interviewed while still drunk and coming down from a state of delirium? Why was the preliminary investigation conducted immediately, while passions were still high? Kalganov seemed to be the most sober and measured of all the witnesses. He was alone in admitting that he couldn’t be sure whether Mitya had 3,000 roubles (or less) and unwilling to give into the hearsay about how much money he had. Grushenka also seems willing to give Mitya the benefit of the doubt, though why she’s interviewed while suffering from a feverish chill is again open to question. Dostoevsky seems to be criticising Russia’s justice system from various angles (see also Zosima’s comments in Book 2 about how ineffective hard labour and exile can be in reforming criminals) and no doubt this comes from bitter experience.
For fear of spoilers, I won’t say any more about the ending of the book, but I will confess that I was genuinely moved by Alyosha’s willingness to shoulder the responsibility for his brothers during their difficult episodes at the end of the novel, and not to judge them, but instead just simply to be present for them. Despite the book’s considerable length, Alyosha remained an elusive character to me, often the recipient of long speeches or merely the go-between, but in the epilogue I got a sense of his flowering as an individual, as well as being a leader to the next generation. If Dostoevsky had lived to write a sequel (as was his plan), I’m sure we would have seen Alyosha’s potential realised fully.
If I had to point to any minor flaws in the book, they would be: 1) Arguably it’s too long and a bit repetitive, 2) All the female characters are unstable and prone to hysteria, 3) Dostoevsky can come across as quite preachy at times, and very conservative in his religious views. In particular, he’s outspoke in his dislike of European progressive thought – notably, Claude Bernard (medicine), Charles Lyell (geology) and Charles Darwin (evolution) – though this seems to be out of a fear of its impact on young radicals, like Kolya. That said, I was a bit shocked by his conservatism at times. He can’t stand would-be revolutionaries that offer a salvation that only Christ can offer; nobody is more humane to him than Jesus. Living in such a revolutionary age, it’s easy to understand why Dostoevsky would have become so reactionary, making this novel so passionate and psychologically and morally intense. There is something to be said for the “active grace” of Zosima, and networkers like Alyosha, and this yearning for connectivity in an increasingly atomised world is as strong as ever. All this fits too with Dostoevsky’s bleak but humane outlook; we’ll always have suffering, and science certainly can’t save us.
For a better sense of how suffering pervades the Russian novel, this infographic sorting many great Russian works by depressing theme, is worth checking out.