The Brothers Karamazov

By Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1880)

We can safely say that Dostoevsky never got free from the feelings of guilt arising from his intention of murdering his father.”* In this sprawling Dickensian fable with a true Russian heart (Priestley called Dostoevsky “Dickens without comic genius but with the lid off“^) Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov poses something of a hurdle, a challenge, a provocation to his sons. There are moments in the life of old liars who have been play-acting all their lives when they are so carried away by the part they’re playing that they really do weep and tremble with excitement, in spite of the fact that at that very moment (or a second later) they could have whispered to themselves: ‘You’re lying, you shameless old fool Now, too you’re just acting a part in spite of all your “sacred” wrath and the “sacred” moment of your wrath.’ 

The lads themselves are a monumental achievement, as characters: they convince both as siblings and as real humans (a neat trick). We confess to liking Dmitri best, the eldest, perhaps most like his feckless father, given to wild exegeses, spending the bulk of his expected inheritance on wine, women and song (and just wasting the rest). The dour Ivan is also of great interest, trying to live the life of the mind while reality keeps blundering in. The illegitimate Pavel Smerdyakov (the Judas-figure, hanging around with his cats) wears the damage of a difficult life on his face and tunic. And then there’s Alyosha, (a prototype Jesus until the real thing comes along to silently face the Grand Inquisitor), possibly the least interesting son, a kind of Nick Carroway figure, but without doubt the only Karamazov you’d accompany on a houseboat holiday.

To grumble that this saga is full of overheated, dense urgency is to complain about the Russian in a great Russian novel. What shine here are passion, doubt, compassion and hate. In other words, all the contradictions of man. Of the author, “we may guess that he himself swung wildly between…dizzy antitheses, now in blazing light, now in deepest darkness…It is the divided men, torn between the opposites, that he creates with all his energy, Ivan Karamazov, not Alyosha…His stage is crowded with screaming and cursing psychopaths, vivid projections of his own inner divisions, his bewilderment, angry frustration, so that we can forgive the French writer who called him the “Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum.””^  As George Steiner points out, “Karamazov” is the Tartar word for “black.”^^

The book is long (our serviceable David Magarshack translation runs to 913 pages) but worth the trek. Full of rich psychological insight and grand human squalor, posing as a whodunit, it is actually a colossal meditation on faith, in some ways one of the first post-modern novels, with its less than reliable and almost Omni-present narrator, and its segues into first-hand accounts or parables by others. The sequence entitled ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ was described as “the marrow of the book“#, “one of the peaks in the literature of the world“* and “an unanswerable attack on the cruelty of God’s hiddenness“**:

We have corrected your great work and have based it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And men rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep and that the terrible gift which had brought them so much suffering had at last been lifted from their hearts…Why, then, have you come to meddle with us now?

Whilst you can’t really trust Dominicans and their crafty, blood-thirsty ways, it is important to notice Dostoevsky’s purpose in telling this fable, which appears throughout Western literature, and here, borders on blasphemy. Despite Alyosha’s sorrowful accusation that Ivan doesn’t believe in God, rather it appears that Ivan does – he just doesn’t have use for her, or the wares she has to sell. (One pictures Stalin, making notes in his copy of The Brothers Karamazov, and issuing edicts to burn all others.)

Rich poetic realism abounds throughout the book: A sort of idea was gaining ascendancy over his mind – and that for the rest of his life, for ever and ever. He had fallen upon the earth a weak youth, but he rose from it a resolute fighter for the rest of his life, and he realized  and felt it suddenly, at the very moment of his rapture. And never, never for the rest of his life could Alyosha forget that moment. ‘Someone visited my soul at that hour!’ he used to say afterwards with firm faith in his words….

Ivan resignedly confronts the old conundrum – why does an all-powerful, all-seeing, Omni-present divine force called ‘Love’ allow sickness, cruelty and pain? – “I don’t want harmony. I don’t want it, out of the love I bear to mankind. I want to remain with my suffering unavenged. I’d rather remain with my suffering unavenged and my indignation unappeased, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission. And indeed, if I am an honest man, I’m bound to hand it back as soon as possible. This I am doing. It is not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him my ticket.” “This is rebellion.” Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

There is a large, empowering humanity about the book (conversely, one might argue that the most lovable person depicted is Stinking Lizaveta) – the perverse tendency inherent in the Russian character provides both hilarity and gloom. The brothers bear affection as well as the resentment of sibling rivalry. The murdered evoke small pity – the guilty and psychologically crippled garner our admiration. Perverse, yet so very true. In short, The Brothers Karamazov is a masterpiece. Dostoevsky went to heaven a mere season after completing it, knowing that, whatever charges he might face there, he had found his grail, kissed his godhead, and completed his quest “To find the man in man.”

(portrait of FD by Vasily Perov)

(portrait of FD by Vasily Perov)

[*Freud, Dostoevsky and Parricide (1928).] [#Kenneth Tynan, He That Plays the King (1950) p. 55.] [^J.B. Priestley, Literature and Western Man (1960) p. 246, p. 247.] [^^George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959) p. 272.] [** James Wood, The Broken Estate (1999) p.253-4.]


  1. Reply

    Richie Ho

    April 20, 2017

    Did you know William Shatner once played one of the brothers?

  2. Reply

    Thomas Schuhmann

    October 27, 2019

    I studied Dostoevsky when I was expelled from a Catholic boarding school. Dostoevsky's views on Catholicism helped me to understand what's wrong with the system. I have never had a single doubt that the Grand Inquistor would kill Christ at his Second Coming.

  3. Reply

    Lesley Jakobsen

    November 7, 2019

    Thanks for that incisive comment Thomas. (We'd love to know why you were expelled, but then, at TVC, we're just nosey).

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