Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner of our district, who became notorious in his own day (and is still remembered among us) because of his tragic and mysterious death, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall relate in its proper place."

What a marvellously mysterious first sentence which brings all sorts of questions to mind.  Why was the Karamazov father only remembered because of his horrific death?  What else did he do in life?  Why has the narrator waited thirteen years to tell the story?  And why does it need to be told in its "proper place"?

The Brothers Karamazov centers around three brothers, Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha, each of whom appear to represent different aspects of human beliefs: sensual materialism, rational nihilism and faith.  Within the framework of their relationships with their father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov a harsh and unyielding man, their characters are illuminated and these philosophies highlighted. In the case of Ivan Karamazov, his worldview has been formed through the legends and mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, and Christ's return to earth and his temptations by Satan.  On the other hand, Dimitry Karamazov is wrapped in the atmosphere of the Hellenism of Schiller and the struggles of the Olympian gods with the dark forces that proceeded them.  Father Zosimas embodies the beliefs and rituals of the Eastern Church, and likewise Alyosha Karamazov his protégé, yet doubt creeps into Alyosha's faith and is only overcome by his realization of earth being linked to heaven.

The author brings into relief the struggle of reconciling a just God with a fallen and depraved world.  With Ivan, we see a mutiny against a Christian ideology that allows free will to cause suffering, and with the speech of the Grand Inquisitor, even an indictment against Christ.  Father Zosima answers Ivan’s torment with his insistence on a faith in God being the only way to express an active love for humanity.  We see each character struggling to make a leap of faith in consequence of their actions, a putting aside of “self” for something greater, a struggle for each to interact with his conscience in spite of outside influences. 

Dostoyevsky's notes for Chapter 5
of The Brothers Karamazov
source Wikipedia

With his sparse expository setting and minimal action, Dostoyevsky's story unfolds mainly through his characters and their thoughts, their internal monologues often being more revealing than any physical action.  With great acumen, he examines the breakdown of a Russian family from a social-psychological level, which itself points to a breakdown of moral values of society as a whole and the consequences arising from this underlying issue.  Values within the construct of faith are what make a healthy society and without them, a sickness pervades, culminating in tragedy.

Reason is set against the intangible mystery of human behaviour and an inexorable conflict is evaluated as reason encounters Christian faith.  Dostoyevsky sets about illustrating the limitations of reason.  At the end of the novel, even though reason points to an inevitable conclusion, it does not allow the people in judgement to discover the truth, and its failure is effectively apparent.

Sketch of a Russian Village
Konstantin Alexseevich Korovin
source ArtUK
While the book is rife with questions about faith, strife, family disharmony and moral failings in a most human form, it also has echoes of positive aspects of life.  The monastery is a fortress of true faith and hope, and even the children in this story are able to overcome prejudices and act in a manner of love and reconciliation. Unlike some of his other novels, the author leaves us with a hope for humanity.

Dostoyevsky is a master of the psychological novel and I suspect that I still have not come close to penetrating the fascinating workings of his unique mind.  One finishes his novels, sits down to review them, and then wonders "where on earth do I start?"  The minute psychological details that embellish each character's thoughts kept me in mental gymnastics from beginning to end.  His novels are not easy reads and the first read through it seems as if you only peal off a layer at a time, however the deeper that you slide into them, you find that they change you in a way that you never expected.

I've seen some reviews that express frustration with this book and Dostoyevsky's treatment of the themes but I wonder if its presentation, to a certain extent, mirrors life with its disjointed narrative and its sometimes apparent dead ends which pick up later and lead to something revelatory.  The author presents mystery .... both the mystery of God and the mystery of human psychology ---- and as 21st century intellectually influenced moderns, we simply have difficulty understanding this approach.  His works are certainly challenging, but as I sit with them and let Dostoyevsky's narrative percolate within me, I know that I have much more to discover about, not only the novels but life itself.  I will, without a doubt, read this particular book again!

A View of the Solevyetski Monastery with its Founders
Saints. Zossim and Savatti
unknown artist
source ArtUK

Some favourite quotes:

We are responsible for everyone else in this world, apart from their sins.

" .... but first the period of human isolation will have to come to an end .......  the sort of isolation  that exists everywhere now, and especially in our age, but which hasn't reached its final development .... For today everyone is still striving to keep his individuality as far apart as possible, everyone still wishes to experience the fullness of life in himself alone, and yet instead of achieving the fullness of life, all his efforts merely lead to the fullness of self-destruction, for instead of full self-realization they relapse into complete isolation.  For in our age all men are separated into self-contained units, everyone crawls into his own hole, and hides away everything he possesses, and ends up by keeping himself at a distance from people and keeping other people at a distance from him.  He accumulates riches by himself and thinks how strong he is now and how secure, and does not realize, madman that he is, that the more he accumulates the more deeply does he sink into self-destroying impotence.  For he is used to relying on himself alone and has separated himself as a self-contained unit from the whole.  He has trained his mind not to believe in the help of other people, in men and mankind, and is in constant fear of losing his money and the rights he has won for himself.  Everywhere today the mind of man has ceased, ironically, to understand that true security of the individual does not lie in isolated personal efforts but in general human solidarity .....  a man has to set an example at least once and draw his soul out of its isolation and work for some great act of human intercourse based on brotherly love, even if he is to be regarded as a saintly fool for his pains.  He has to do so that the great idea may not die ......"

I was quite surprised by the mysterious visitor's revelation, as my thoughts had been percolating on the same ideas for a week or so before I read it.  Still in somewhat of a pensive, philosophical mood left over from my summer vacation, I wondered why we appear so engaged with people, when, if you truly gaze into people's hearts, we are really very alone.  Why, when we think someone is suffering, do we feel sympathy for them and wish them well in our minds, yet walk away because we either do not have the time, or don't honestly want to become involved in something that might require effort, or compassion, or sacrifice for someone other than ourselves?  We're more connected with our work, or our possessions, or our own perceived needs than we are with people, blind to the personal connections and the deeper caring that will truly make us happy .... truly make us human.  It's all very sad ....

"And what's strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man." 

"Above all, don't lie to yourself.  The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.  And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself" 

"What is hell?  I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love." 

"Be not forgetful of prayer.  Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education." 

"Life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it." 

"Love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.  Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance." 

"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." 

"They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less." 

"Love all God's creation, both the whole and every grain of sand.  Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing.  If thou love each thing, thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it; until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal." 

"Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people's sins.  Go, and do not be afraid."

Further Reading:

The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank


  1. This is on my list for next year I'm really looking forward to it and your review makes me want to immediately pick it up.

    1. I'm glad that I've inspired you. I must admit that I didn't realize how much I enjoyed it until I finished. I'm sure you'll be quicker on the uptake than I was. Have fun! :-)

  2. "The author presents mystery .... both the mystery of God and the mystery of human psychology ---- and as 21st century intellectually influenced moderns, we simply have difficulty understanding this approach."

    Hadn't realized this before, but I think you really hit upon it. We readers want things to be perfectly defined in human terms, and some things just can't be.

    Enjoyed reading what you discovered in BK...I just read it, and yet it sounds new again!

    1. I've been fortunate enough to be part of an Eastern Orthodox book group for the past year, and they really emphasize the mystery of God, and how broken we are as people who need Him, so it made it easier for me to see these particular aspects within the story. I'm glad it sounded new to you. I think when I read it again, I'll find all sorts of new things as well!

  3. it's an extraordinary work, of course... after reading it i was stunned for quite a while... looking back, now, i believe it's easier to view D as a poet more than a novelist; that slight change of pov places his ideas in a broader, to me, context and makes what he's saying more approachable. the ideas center around ethical and religious concepts, of course, whereas today the general human mind-set has more to do with science and politics; i guess i see D's work as a whirlpool in the middle of an ocean: tight and controlled and internally cohesive, but unaware of all the reality outside of his focus... wonderful post, that really pinned down in a comprehensive way what D was trying to get across... tx

    1. I love the way you describe Dostoyevsky's writing and the label of a poet fits well. He is not easy to understand if you approach him in the conventional way and your description offers a unique yet sensible way to access him. And thanks so much for the compliment! :-)

  4. Excellent review! Well done, good job :) I loved this when I read it a few years ago, but I've got it on my re-read list for 2017. After your review I'll make sure it's the first Dostoyevsky I read (got 4 on my Classics Club list!).

    1. I thought that you'd read it already, but I looked on your reviews and couldn't find one, otherwise I would have linked you. As I said, it's not an easy read, but you're used to difficult books, so have fun! I'll be looking for your review! :-)

  5. Where on earth to start a review of Dostoyevsky indeed. This book was my first of the Russian authors and I loved it. Nice review. My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-brothers-karamazov-by-fyodor.html

    1. You did excellent with your review! The more I read of Dostoyevsky, the more I like him, although I still can't say I understand him. I can't wait to read Crime and Punishment.

    2. Do you have C&P coming up? I'll be reading it probably around February.

    3. Oh, good to know! I have Keely's Russian Literature Challenge that I'm doing next year, so I'd like to fit it in. Perhaps we can read along together, although I think that you read faster than I do!