The Brothers Karamazov


I regret not reading The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) years earlier. I was always intimidated by its immense length. After having tackled Les Miserables several years earlier however, I felt prepared.

My first impression was that the story moved very quickly and in a very entertaining manner. Although the book is quite long, the main story takes place in a relatively short period of time, and encompasses only a reasonable number of main characters.

I was surprised –perhaps unreasonably –at how much the book was oriented around questions of philosophy and theology. In fact, my one complaint against the realism of the book was how many characters seemed to have fully developed theological positions they were eager to argue over at the drop of a hat. Perhaps that is true to the Russian character of that era. At any rate, it was perfect for someone of my tastes and interests.

I had long heard Dostoevsky referenced as a forefather of existentialism, but I never realized how strongly he was influenced by his Christian beliefs. Since those two factors are combined with a strongly humane perspective, I would not hesitate to call The Brothers Karamazov the paradigmatic exemplar of a Christian Existential Humanist novel. Filled with psychological insight, wit, and a sometimes lurid plot, the book makes a strong case for the value of faith even in the presence of the cruel absurdities of the world.

For a taste of the book at its most memorable, follow this link to “The Grand Inquisitor“, a chilling fable told by one of the characters of the book, an nihilistic atheist, which advances the argument that the Christian church would unhesitatingly murder Christ again in the event of his return.

3 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov

  1. Brothers Karamazov is an impressive book! Most striking to me was the goodness of Alyosha. Also, it was nice to see echoes of the Russian Pilgrim in the starets Zosima.

    Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor, though, needs its context. If Dostoevsky’ s thesis were a syllogism, maybe an isolated story could imply its direction; however, BK is not formal apology: it is a vehicle for the perfume of Grace. I found the novel to be a collection of serious arguments against Truth, transformed into a resounding appeal to the Intellect. Fyodor is an authentic lecher; Dmitri is truly passionate; Ivan is an honest freethinking youth. Yet, despite their dissipation, the world built around their interaction transmits an overwhelming nostalgia for the Divine. “The more he blasphemes, the more he praises God.”

    The problem is that, due to the genius of Dostoevsky’s prose, reading The Grand Inquisitor in isolation makes it seem like a major philosophical movement of the book. However, though central, The Grand Inquisitor is really the novel at its most mundane. The tale is serious and chilling, yes; but it is ordinary. It is a typical example of reason forsaking its Intelligence. The mode is impressive, but the content is elementary.

    Dostoevsky is aware of this. His characters put the story in its place. Ivan is a 20-something, right out of university, looking to make a stir in prestigious journals and a woman’s heart. The conversation housing the “fable” is one-sided, held over drinks in a tavern. A few chapters earlier we were listening to the dying words a saint.

    The excerpt is smart. It shows Dostoevsky’s mastery of the psychology and philosophy of a secular (liberal? progressive?) tendency. Just know that the book operates on a different plane. The Inquisitor is a ripple; Brothers Karamazov is a day at the beach in its totality. When you finish, you’ll find it criminal that Ivan’s monologue is better known than Ilyusha’s defense.

    The Point: If you like The Grand Inquisitor, the full novel will blow your mind.

  2. I’ve seen different interpretations of the kiss by Jesus and the subsequent kiss by Alyosha. I thought it to be an acknowledgement of the limits of reason and argument. Even after the Grand Inquisitors and Ivans argument, the kiss – an act of love, leaves them speechless, lost in the mystery of the divine. I’m not finished with the book but have been loving it.

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