The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Finishing the last page of Dostoyevsky’s last book can be regarded as a personal milestone. You are entitled to congratulate yourself for having had the courage to tackle it in the first place (no such kudos for finishing though – that’s a given). In attempting to write a review however, the milestone becomes a millstone. Many have shared their opinions before you – Kafka liked it and Hemingway did not; atheists and Popes have applauded it antithetically; historians and ethicists have polarised and galvanised opinions while many persons of universally accepted wisdom have referred to it has the greatest book ever written.
Descriptions of the story abound so I will not retell it – it is merely the pinhead on which Dostoyevsky’s angels dance. The plot is only the portent of the themes and these are exposed by the players. To convey what he seeks to deliver, Dostoyevsky uses his exceptional gift for characterisation to portray the contradictions of the human condition. The entire cast are used to act out some of the many psychological traits of mankind, the attitudes and ethos of society, prevailing philosophies, religious beliefs and a sphere of emotions. The characters’ natural leanings in these dimensions are emphasised as part of their psyche, or they undergo transformation in these orbits as the story unfolds.
The setting is a small rural town in the Russia of the 1870s. The Karamazov patriarch is a moderately well off, selfish and boisterous widower who neglected his children of three mothers, leaving their rearing to his servants. The brothers and half-brothers are (from eldest) Dmitri – an ex-military officer; Ivan – a philosopher; Alyosha – a novice monk, and the illegitimate Smerdyakov – the father’s household servant. The main characters are the first three brothers.
The reader first meets Alyosha because much of the opening deals with the relationship between Alyosha and his dying mentor, Father Zosima – an ageing monk who lives his orthodox religion by the contrastingly secular philosophy of loving the beauty and nature of all life, espousing faith, tolerance and goodwill to all, particularly the poor. The exchanges between this pair show us how Alyosha’s conscience and spiritualism have been formed: “…how good life is when one does something good and just!” His brothers admire him and seek out his counsel and he seeks to please everybody. He evolves to discover his first sense of self only in the very closing pages.
Dmitri hides his sensitive side with wild and irresponsible behaviour – often harmless, sometimes brutal. He is a serial romantic, which gets him into complicated relationships with women that bring out both his inherent nobility and his base selfishness. He rampages through the book with his great passions, stopping occasionally to blame his nature on various things like his father’s lack of love for him as a child. Basically he’s a decent fellow but his own worst enemy.
Ivan is a philosopher who lives in Moscow and makes increasingly rare visits to his family in the country. He is struggling with his atheism, a conflict that leaves him at least manic-depressive, possibly psychotic. His demons eventually come to haunt him. Dostoyevsky uses Ivan’s self-rancour to pen some of the most meaningful and psychologically deep episodes in the book. The well-educated Ivan has the high intellect that is sometimes associated with bordering madness.
A cast of other characters is created for specific effect as the author uses each to voice parts of his message, or act as a catalyst to achieve a similar result. In these, he continues to display his genius for bringing his characters palpable life.
Father Zosima encourages Alyosha to leave the monastery for a secular life where his natural goodness will be of greater benefit. This is the device that the author uses to introduce the cast to the reader – Alyosha moves between the characters for the remaining pages, introducing, conversing with, and revealing them. He weaves the common thread into the human fabric that binds all the players in the story.
All of the foregoing is just the construct – interpretation now becomes an individual matter. I think that Dostoyevsky wants the reader to know that Alyosha will one day, beyond the covers of this book (he had planned it as a series of four), evolve into a composite of himself and the dying Father Zosima, thus restoring the world’s moral balance following the old monk’s death. A revealing early part of the book is a reflection by Zosima on the counter-productivity of the church and the state, and their failure to achieve an impartial society of common ethical values with justice for all. He derides the demands made on the people by church leaders and the bullying ruthlessness of Tsardom. It is possible that Dostoyevsky personally saw a Zosima/Alyosha-like figure as the optimal leader for his troubled Russia, calming revolt, promoting social conscience and encouraging higher moral standards. This may also explain why Zosima is viewed as an “Elder’ in his monastery and in the community – a title (we are told) bestowed by his peers and local citizenry that the Orthodox Church does not endorse. It is possible that the author may be telling the Russian people what type of leader they need. The answer to this conjecture would end the still-contested issue of which character in this work is the principal one, but it is worth remembering that the entire book raises more questions than it answers.
In Ivan, the author takes full advantage of his philosopher, in particular Ivan’s quandary about his atheism. His doubt about his beliefs must be an extraordinary incongruity for one who makes a career of his intellectualism. His attempts at resolution lead to what some readers consider to be the most important passages in the book. Ivan is angry with injustice – something that he believes no God would tolerate. One of his problems with this is that he also considers a God who is deliberately being unjust. If that is so, God must be evil, but….there is no God. There is a defining debate between Ivan and Alyosha on the subject. Alyosha tries to persuade Ivan that his argument is too limited, too black-and-white when compared to the holistic greyness of divinity. Later Ivan has cause to wonder whether he imagines or actually sees the devil – “I think the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.” Heady stuff indeed.
With Dmitri we see individual traits common to all the Karamazov’s but rather than these traits forming a whole person, they create a sort of schizophrenic Dmitri who carries each trait to extremes, failing to achieve a complete personality. He gives in to impulsiveness, displays his moral conscience, rapidly changes his mind on important issues, expresses love and emotion, and acts on instinct (especially when drunk). While he would like to have some of Ivan’s intelligence and Alyosha’s spiritualism, his actions describe the religious concept of ‘free will’. He loves two women at the same time and feels trapped by his lust and their beauty – “… beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting…and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Dmitri’s charm and faults, mistakes and atonements, viciousness and suffering, show him representative of mankind in general – constantly striving to do the right thing but falling short of the expectations of self and others.
And that is just a trickle from some of the tributaries that feed Dostoyevsky’s great, turbulent river of life with its sheltering banks, cataracts and fatal whirlpools. It has deep currents of polemic deliberation that could have influenced me positively had I embarked on it at the age when my adult personality was evolving, because I think I can detect a small shift in my centre of gravity since finishing it. The book now feels like more of a happening than a reading experience.