The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The tangled fates of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and his four sons, three legitimate, one a bastard, culminating in a trial for murder.

I’d be a fool if I tried to pretend I were anywhere up to the task of critiquing The Brothers Karamazov. I can honestly say I’m a little freaked out by what I’ve just been through. Karamazov is a rollicking glory of human depravity shot through with tastes of the divine. Dostoevsky doesn’t hesitate to put theology and intellectual arguments adjacent to lively carnality. I read the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, which really moves, showing off the Pantagruelian aspect of Dostoevsky’s endeavor.

I loved the characters, but became frustrated when they made choices that seemed arbitrary or just plain stupid. I felt sorry for Smerdyakov, the bastard son, born to Stinking Lizaveta–but then again, I felt some measure of pity for all of Fyodor Karamazov’s sons. He’s the original deadbeat dad, though his attempts at involvement in Alyosha’s life prove almost as destructive than his abandonment of oldest son Dmitri.

There were long passages that frustrated me, and I know I didn’t glean from this book even a quarter of the riches it contains. I don’t often say this, but I wish that I’d read it for a class in college, so as to get the context and a window into its meaning. Lectures and class discussion sure helped me love Moby-Dick, for example.

The book I was most reminded of while reading Karamazov was John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Both are superficially comedies that mask deeply serious ambitions. Neither offers a classic emotional experience (my preference), but couldn’t be called dry or bloodless by any stretch.

I think I basically need to reread this in about 10 years.

Maybe 20.

13 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky”

  1. Oh I love this book. I wrote my honours thesis on the holy fool in Dostoevsky’s works – Brothers K and The Idiot mainly, but I touched on the others. I guess it’s not for everyone. Did you like the Ivan-Alyosha discussion though?

  2. Please tell me more! I felt like a lot of Ivan’s discourse to Alyosha went over my head. It took place within the context of theology I’m just not familiar with. Honestly I didn’t know what to do with it, and I know it’s the centerpiece of the book in many ways.

    Who’s the holy fool in Brothers K? Dmitri?

  3. Sorry I prematurely clicked the button. As I said, I love your admission. Personally I feel I’m not in the mood for reading it at the moment, and maybe I need ten years before I even approach it. I definitely need minimal distractions to take it on.

  4. Have you ever read it before? I definitely wasn’t ready to read it now. I thought because I enjoyed Anna Karenina so much that I could handle Brothers K, but I realize now that’s like comparing James Joyce to Charles Dickens. I should’ve gone for War and Peace next. That’s definitely the queue for later this summer–if anything, I want to read it even more than I did before.

  5. Hey Annie,

    I actually did read the Brothers K in college but I’m not sure the class discussions really illuminated too much for me, although I did learn one interesting fact, which might be useful to you to know, both as a reader, and as a writer, which is that Dostoyevsky thought of the Brothers K as only the prequel to the book he really wanted to write– which was about the still as-yet untouched topic of the struggles of a man post-conversion.. D. actually thought his great work (which he never wrote) would be about Dmitri’s life and the growth of his faith post-trial. I actually have thought about trying to write that story (Carl Henry, who was a friend of my dad’s, once told me he thought it would be a topic for a truly great novel)– but I think one of the difficulties with it is that the real action of God in a life is unguessable and while totally predictable in some ways, still totally surprising and idiosyncratic in others– which is why I think so much Xian fiction reads so untrue.. I’m not sure a human writer could believably write God’s part in any serious literary conversion story. I could be wrong about this. I don’t think I’m wrong about the fact that I’m not the writer who could do it.

    The one thing I’d say about your experience of the brothers K is just to let it wash over you the next time you read it.. its a massively imperfect book, written & published in serial form, and with characters & entire plot lines that peter out before they get to the ending– but its still arguably the best book ever written– and it seems like with a lot of russian novels people get bogged down in worrying about what’s happening, who’s who, when even the authors themselves (esp. D.) are not that concerned with those questions… if they were, they’d to a better job keeping track of those details.. I think the central concerns of the book are feelings and ideas, not events & details.. and if you give yourself permission to let go of the events & details you may find yourself more able to absorb more of the feelings & ideas..

    At any rate, congratulations on finishing it.. for me, it answers some really fundamental questions that the bible leaves open, like Father Zossima’s meditation on Job– that the great scandal of that book is that Job IS happy again, that time & God do heal massive losses.. and of course the answer to the problem of suffering in the grand inquisitor.

  6. Okay… Holy fools: Zosima and Alyosha (though Dmitry too I guess!). The holy fool or yuridivi is a very popular from of Russian saint (dating back to the Middle Ages) who performed foolish acts to convey the ‘foolishness of God’. One of Dostoevsky’s great ambitions was to portray a ‘perfectly good man’, which is pretty difficult, as good characters are often boring or unconvincing. Myshkin in The Idiot was in a way too good for the world and went mad – Alyosha was supposed to be a more integrated version of him.

    I think of Tolstoy as rolling hills, and Dostoevsky as craggy mountains – I think I prefer D but you have to be in the right frame of mind. D is very theological indeed, and dialogues between hope and despair are very common in his work. Ivan basically rejects God because God allows terrible things to happen to innocent people. Alyosha wants to be able to accept God despite this. He begins to find this difficult, but as Carey points out the answer is in Zosima and Job, and particularly in the vision A. has of the wedding of Cana as he watches over Zosima’s stinking dead body, which heals his crisis of faith. I really love this vision. I don’t know if it would mean so much to me now but it really spoke to me when I read it. All the stuff about seeds falling to the earth and being born again. Russian Orthodox theology is much more incarnational and physical than its Western counterparts.

  7. Okay, this is officially the best comment thread ever.

    I promise to chime in with longer responses after I’ve digested all your words of wisdom, Carey and Meli and anyone else who has insights into Brothers K–

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