The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoyevsky

The Brothers Karamazov

Reading Dostoyevsky is like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

I probably have that reaction most whenever I read The Possessed. The characters in that book really come alive and amuse and fascinate me, in spite of the fact that it’s not considered one of Dostoyevsky’s stronger works. But I also get that feeling to a lesser extent with The Brothers Karamazov and some of his other books. It’s fun spending time with Alyosha and all the rest of these folks again.

The Brothers Karamazov, for those not already familiar with it, tells the story of family patriarch Fyodor Karamazov—a repellent crooked voluptuary—and his four sons. Three were raised primarily away from his household, and have only recently returned to his town. These are Dmitri, as debauchery-loving a sensualist as his father, but more of a tortured soul striving for a higher purpose and a life of honor; Ivan, a sullen rationalist skeptic who at times manifests a contempt for others and even himself, and whose sanity is threatened by the implications of the conclusions his intellect compels him toward; and Alyosha, a goody-goody aspirant to monkhood, who seeks to be as tolerant, helpful and healing as possible toward others, but who worries how much the passionate nature he shares with the other males in his family will deflect him from his spiritual path. The fourth is the unacknowledged illegitimate son Pavel Smerdyakov, who works as a servant in the household of his father.

Reading this book, you realize why Dostoyevsky is one of a handful of figures vying for the title of greatest novelist of all time. There are writers who are very good with limited stories, and there are writers who attempt massively ambitious stories, but there are extremely few who are very good at massively ambitious stories.

It’s hard to find anything to really criticize about this book. It seems so much more appropriate just to sit back and marvel at the fact that someone could have this much to say about so many subjects, display such psychological and social insight, create fascinating multi-dimensional characters, tell a story with plenty of action and suspense, include laugh out loud moments of absurdity, be willing to risk being maudlin by including moments of touching sadness and emotional intensity, create a world that somehow feels realistic in spite of the extraordinariness of so many of the events and characters, and somehow keep track of it all and have it make sense as a coherent whole for almost a thousand pages.

I suppose one could say that the characters at times veer too much into caricature when Dostoyevsky wants to go for a laugh, or to hold up a certain ideology to ridicule, but as I say, even the extraordinary things in this book somehow feel realistic to me. I think when we open our eyes and really look at people in the real world—and not just what we want to see, or what is relevant to us in interacting with them successfully—we’ll see that this level of eccentricity, and this kind of foolishness that’s comical, disturbing, or both, is really not so unusual after all.

And seeing the goofy things people have believed and done in service to the ideologies of the 20th century—from Stalin to Ayn Rand to L. Ron Hubbard—is it even possible for a lampoon of ideology to go so far as to be implausible? Dostoyevsky was arguably more prescient than unfair, too mild rather than too dismissive.

One possible criticism of the book is that Dostoyevsky makes too many of his characters of the same general type. That is, the kind of person whose strongest and most fully developed facet is his or her passions.

A Dostoyevsky novel is wall-to-wall fury, grand and noble gestures, uncontrollable romantic love, wild parties, suicidal despair, willingness to take one’s principles and philosophy to any extreme they happen to lead to, religious fervor, scandal, insanity, etc. People burst into song, recite poetry, declare their undying love for each other, literally beg forgiveness while kissing the foot of their beloved, etc. However good or evil they are, everyone is extroverted, uninhibited, full of life. Everyone follows a philosophy of “Why react, when you can overreact?”

Dostoyevsky presents these traits as part of the Russian character, but somehow I doubt all Russians are quite like this.

As a philosopher, I also would quibble with some of Dostoyevsky’s forays into philosophy. Most notably, this notion that “If there were no God, then all would be permitted.” This is a common claim from religious folks, one that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Unfortunately there are no interpretations under which is it both true and significant. A religious moral hypothesis no more grounds or adds to morality than a religious creationist hypothesis grounds or adds to science (for reasons that would take a lot more space to explain than I care to use here).

What I appreciate as much as anything about this book and about Dostoyevsky’s novels in general is that they aren’t just good for you the way eating unpleasant vegetables is good for you. The Brothers Karamazov is not just something to read because you’re supposed to if you want to consider yourself a well-read intellectual. Purely on an entertainment level, it’s a genuine page turner. So you get all the deep, powerful, psychologically insightful stuff of a “great book,” but at the same time it’s a compelling story with wonderful characters.

A lot of people who in principle could enjoy The Brothers Karamazov probably will never give it a chance because it’s very long, it’s foreign, it’s old, and it’s regarded as a classic, and thus surely must be dry, difficult, boring, and complicated to the point of incomprehensibility. Too bad.


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