So This is What Everyone is Always Talking About: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov


Between moving and the release of Fallout 4, reading has been tough in the last month. I started The Brothers Karamazov over a month ago, and I probably should have had it finished two weeks ago, maybe earlier. It was a slow start, as Dostoevsky’s prose is rough and estranged. Combine this with my inability to grasp the use of nicknames until about thirty pages in, and that adds up to my restarting the book three times before page fifty. I am not lying even slightly when I tell you that I had counted eight brothers from two fathers who had married the same women in the first twenty or so pages. So in case you are a person who is fearful of starting the fantastic trek through literary fiction because you fear yourself not mentally apt, you should know we’re all the same. That, as a reader of Pynchon, Foster Wallace, Delillo, Dostoevsky, Chabon, and other difficult authors, I still get totally bewildered at times and find the prose frustrating and dense. In the end, reading these novelists is difficult, but I don’t know any enterprise that has offered me better rewards.

If you are unfamiliar with The Brothers Karamazov, it is the last novel of the famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, and is generally understood to be his magnum opus. From my understanding, nearly all of his novels seem to be revered in at least a few circles as masterpieces, but Karamazov is the one in which he lays out his philosophy and theology, questioning them both endlessly. In the end, it is a Christian Existentialist argument, but we will approach that later. The novel’s plot concerns three brothers, Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha Karamazov, the sons of a wealthy landowner, Fyodor Karamazov. Dmitry is a hot-headed ex-military man who is a drunkard and womanizer. Ivan is a rational atheist who tends to attempt to leave his family be yet continually finds himself coming home. Alyosha is the youngest and begins the novel in a monastery. Dmitry and the father begin the novel in a fight over Dmitry’s inheritance, and it is this fight that serves as the macguffin to the plot. I don’t mean to undermine the nature of the role of the money, but truly this novel is mainly an expression of Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christianity through the characters he creates. The plot, while taking the forefront after about page 600, is almost nonexistent until the moment of Dmitry’s confrontation to his lover Grushenka.

The novel is primarily focused on what it means to exist in a world in which God does or does not exist. Ivan and Alyosha have what is perhaps one of the most famous conversations in literature in which Ivan tells Alyosha a poem entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” In this poem, Jesus comes back to give people freedom and the church rejects him, arguing instead that people don’t actually want freedom, they want the one that feeds them or keeps them safe from harm. Essentially, humanity cannot possibility live by Jesus’s declaration that “man cannot live by bread alone” and instead chooses the bread because it it is safe. The novel and Dostoevsky care not for “proofs” of God, that is the wrong question. Through Ivan, the expression is care about in world in light of the idea of God:

“And I advise you to never think about either, my dear Alyosha, especially about God, whether he exists or not. All such questions are utterly inappropriate for a mind with an idea of only three dimensions… yet, would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and, although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by him I don’t and cannot accept.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The response to such an indictment is quite brilliant, being that I think it is the only worthwhile response to the problem of suffering. It is essentially this: that the world is a terrible place, but it is up to us to make it a better one. This relates to belief in God due to wanting to believe in something outside of ourselves that can not be exhausted and can always keep a person going. Alyosha’s belief in God is not a selfish belief. Dostoevsky symbolizes this through the final teaching of Alyosha’s teacher, Father Zosima, in which Zosima instructs Alyosha to leave the monastery and take the love of the people to the world itself. The message becomes clearly that keeping the Christian message in the confines of the institution of the church has negative results. It is upon Zosima’s death that other members of the monastery, solely preoccupied with holiness, declare Zosima a minion of the devil. Dostoevsky repeatedly criticizes the church, this being a more subtle one that resonated with me a bit more than his more outright writing.

Nonetheless, I found Dostoevsky’s conclusion of Ivan’s story unfulfilling, as he makes an unbelievably cliched move that I will not spoil here. The book is clearly a masterpiece that is impossible to forget, but I must also criticize it for being much too long. I found the final 100 pages before the epilogue completely unnecessary. The book has moments of being fast paced, but for the most part is a steady walk with brief absconces down rabbit holes that serve no purpose I can discern. None of these are reasons to not read the book, but they definitely can mire a reader in details.

In the end, The Brothers Karamazov is ridiculously good, if a bit too long with portions that obviously could have been removed; but it is the treatment of Ivan at the end that does the book a disservice, even if I understand why Dostoevsky did it.

Recommended to: Those interested in Christian Existentialism, those who haven’t read Dostoevsky before (it’s long, but well worth it), and those who are fans of David Foster Wallace and want to see where he pulled a decent amount of the skeleton of Infinite Jest from.

Avoid as if it was remembering conversing about politics with your family at Thanksgiving: Those who do not like long winded writers, those who need paragraph breaks on every page, and those who would critique a book by using the phrase, “people don’t talk like this!”


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