One of My Favourites — The Brothers Karamazov

Song of the Day: ‘Ne rasstavaites’ by Machete

Any avid book reader (and perhaps even those not as avid) has heard of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He is one of the more well-known Russian authors. Funny thing, I bought a copy of The Brothers Karamazov years ago, but for some reason or other it joined all the other books that I never got a chance to read and had been on my bookshelf. It was not till a random discussion with some friends that made me realise that it was perhaps time I read it. 

Moving on, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, if anything, was a phenomenal author and philosopher (he is credited as one of the founders of Existentialism). He led a most interesting life (by any standards) and should be greatly admired as a result. Someday I will write on him as a philosopher but for now, let’s move to the subject at hand.

images (1)The Brothers Karamazov is not only Dostoyevsky’s last book but also his greatest. It is set in a small town in Russia around 1870 which is brought to life by the main characters – the Karamazov family which consists of father (Fyodor), and three sons: Dmitry (Mitya), Ivan, and Alexei (Lyosha).  We can divide the book into two halves: the first is largely the story of the interactions of the Karamazov family with Father Zossima (and others in the monastery), and with a number of women; the second is mainly focused on the quest to find the murderer of Fyodor Karamazov and the trial of his son, Mitya, for the crime. Beyond this, it is a book full of discussions of man, society, psychology, crime, social order, the Russian character, religion and God. One of the main central themes of the book is the relation of God to Morality.

Dostoyevsky’s genius lies in both delivering a brilliantly told crime story and a passionate philosophical debate all in one novel. When the flagrant and dissolute land-owner reviled by all, Fyodor Pavlovich is murdered; his sons are all at some level involved. Bound up with this intense family drama is the Dostoyevsky’s exploration of many deeply felt ideas about the existence of God, the question of human freedom, the collective nature of guilt, the disastrous consequences of rationalism. The novel is richly comic: the Russian Orthodox Church, the legal system, and even the author’s most cherished causes and beliefs are presented with a note of irreverence, so that orthodoxy and radicalism, sanity and madness, love and hatred, right and wrong are no longer mutually exclusive. For example, the deliverance of one of the central themes – the conflict between faith and disbelief – is astounding. This conflict is accentuated by the personality duality of Ivan Karamazov and his dreamy encounter with the devil.

The novel is an accumulation of Dostoyevsky’s life that in the topography of which his memories of childhood are united with the impressions of his final years. He did say that it was whilst in exile (running from creditors – the poor man was quite the profligate gambler) that he conceived the idea of editing ‘something in the shape of a paper’ so that he ‘could for once say the last word’ on his convictions. . He carried out his plan in 1876 with the publication of An Author’s Diary (more of this later). In 1877 he suspended his publication to compose a vast cycle called The Life of a Great Sinner, which was to deal with the existence of God: that is ‘the problems that has consciously and unconsciously tormented me all my life’. The Brothers Karamazov, the sole part of the work that he completed was published in 1880. He died the following year and never got the chance to write the other two parts of the work.

Keeping that in mind, the three brothers, Mitya, Ivan, and Lyosha are aspects of Dostoyevsky’s personality: three stages of his spirituality.  It is interesting how he posits the brothers as a ‘collective hero’ in whom are dispersed the mind (Ivan), the body (Mitya), and the soul (Lyosha) of a single, integral hero. We could use the same to posit them as a spiritual unity with some collective personality. The principle of reason is embodied in Ivan, the atheist, logician, and innate sceptic. Mitya represents the principle of feeling in whome one finds the rawness of sensuality and passion. And finally, the principle of will realising itself in active love as an ideal is represented by Lyosha.

The philosophical discussion – the struggle between atheism and religion presented in the book is challenging and fascinating. Two chapters stand out – ‘Rebellion’ and ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. The latter is often reprinted separately, for example, in The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought and in Religion from Tolstoy to Camus (which also contains ‘Rebellion’). Together these chapters present a dialogue between Ivan and Lyosha, though Ivan does almost all of the talking. In ‘Rebellion’ the main points seems to be that Christianity is based on freedom, but freedom entails suffering of children. It is a difficult and disturbing chapter to read especially considering the horrors described. In ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ the story is told of Jesus’ return to earth during the Spanish inquisition. The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he is not needed, that men have taken what he left and perfected it. This story is highly suggestive and can be taken as an indictment of the Catholic Church or as a prophecy of the socialist state.

I have to note here that however much the novel resembles a psychological treatise and theological epistle; Dostoyevsky merely meant it to be a novel. Religious-philosophical material was introduced into the framework of the novel and treated accordingly. A tense dramatic plot is constructed at the centre of which stand an enigmatic crime, a murder mystery, rivalry within family, and an entangled love affair. Notwithstanding all its depth in philosophical treatise and the musing on immortality and existence of God, the novel is one of the most captivating and popular works of Russian literature.

Tension instantly builds up as the novel opens. The gathering at the Elder’s Zossima’s abode is an exposition of the characters and complication of the plot, as well as foreshadowing of the imminent fatality. The main protagonists are all presented together in this dramatic scene. The first clash between old Fyodor Karamazov and Mitya takes place here. Ivan, whose essay establishes atheism, reason and logic, exposes his idea of the impossibility to loving mankind. The scandal anticipates the novel’s tragic denouement. Tension mounts with each scene, and one inevitably becomes convinced of the possibility of the murder both practically and psychologically. The murder is a mystery for it seems only that the false denouement with Mitya’s stormy, unbridled character by contrast prepares the tragic tone of catastrophe. Here we have to congratulate Dostoyevsky in how skillfully he posits the false murderer Mitya in opposition to the moral murderer, Ivan. The frenzy of the former is not so terrible as the latter’s cold hatred.

Conflict between faith and disbelief is brought to the full actuality in Ivan’s nightmarish encounter with the devil. It is obvious that Ivan’s consciousness is torn between faith and disbelief for the idea is not resolved in his heart and fretted him. Ivan longs for a world riddled with rational consciousness as opposed to evil and suffering. In a way, proportionally as the apparent atheist withdrew into the shadows, the wrestler with God steps out into illumination. In other words, Ivan is not an atheist but a one who struggles in the faith. The keenness of Ivan’s reasoning lied in that he renounces God out of love for mankind comes forward against God in the role of the advocate of all suffering creation. He asserts the existence of evil in the world shows that there is no God and denying sin, he absolves man of any responsibility for evil and fixes it upon God.

Ivan Karamazov echoes ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ whose monologue culminates the work of Dostoevsky’s whole life: his struggle for man. In it he discloses the religious foundation of the personality and the inseparability of faith in man from faith in God. To the atheist, freedom is a torment for freedom leads to evil. Under the false compassion for the sufferings of mankind is hidden a diabolic hatred of human freedom and God. This is what struck Ivan Karamazov.

Since Ivan is with the Inquisitor against God, he must follow the road of apostasy and struggle with God to the end. The dichotomy of his consciousness between faith and disbelief is shown in his dialogue with the devil, which did everything in his power to compel the atheist to accept his reality. The devil might have been the product of Ivan’s disbelief. The question of the devil’s enigmatic visit will remain unresolved in Ivan’s heart. Reality might have escaped the man who has lost the highest reality – God; fact merges with delirium, nothing exists but everything only seems.

The overall framework of the novel prepares for the pro and contra that enters into Lyosha’s very soul, becomes his inner struggle, temptation, and victory over the temptation. While Ivan’s revolt ends in his struggle with God and negation of God’s world, Lyosha’s revolt is overcome through a feat of personal love. After all, The Brothers Karamazov, in light of its violent nature, calls for love and the miracle it brings about in life.

If you’re one of those who read to escape this is not the book for you. It requires plenty of attention, and will definitely shake any beliefs you might have held whilst ineluctably drawing you into the eddy of the convoluted action which will leave you confounded. I fully and completely recommend it.

Till Next Post!

PS: As a little side-note to all. If you were to read the book please do not get the translation by Constance Garett who translated Dostoyevsky’s books between 1912 and 1920. when his work became well-known on the Continent. Her knowledge of Russian was not particularly good and she was apt to leave out the bits she could not quite get the sense of, but she adored her work and her style had a natural animation and flow. She also translated Turgenev, and her version of Dostoyevsky remained the standard one until fairly recently, though there were more accurate renderings by David Magarshak and others. The edition to receive the most scholarly critical acclaim is that by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.


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