Home > Books > Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

So much to love here. Not Dostoyevsky’s prose style–which is: loquacious; firmly prosaic. Not his characters–who are maybe not types, but certainly universals. Hard to have real dramatic action, perhaps, in a novel that above all makes philosophical ideas incarnate in the flesh.

And there’s the speciality of the novel: putting full-blooded ideas, theories, discussions of God and the fate of Russia in the mouths of the drunks, the peasants, the idlers outside the courtroom before the verdict is decided. There’s no narrator including allusions and references to make his characters look dumb by comparison: the narrator takes on the person of a humble witness to his characters, and it’s the characters themselves who wrestle with their heady ideas, not in writing or half-jesting while drunk, but whenever they meet. Even the children think. There is talk of the Russian soul and the national character: and this is maybe the one moment where I’ll grant weight to that talk, because the transformations in Russia at the time are immense and easily felt at every level–there’s no Zeitgeist being invoked, but rather the rapid transformations that are so evident that they are plain for all to see. The characters are trying to create, not invoke, the Russian spirit, imagine what it will be like with the pulls of atheism and the end of feudalism and people like Ivan coming back from the universities while people like Fyodor Pavlovitch are still the dominant model for the family.

The defense counsel’s query as to what makes a father fits naturally in this setting, where it’d be so hard to pull off almost anywhere else. The wrenching, rending scene at the end with Ilusha’s funeral and Alyosha gathering together the children to remember this time when they were good forevermore is a perfect cap for a novel about where beauty and salvation can be found amidst the vagaries of human actions and the chaos of the social fabric. And it is fitting that children are wise men in this new time, that Alyosha left the monastery and went out into the world and the message he learns to bring is the practical solution to Ivan’s question about a world where children suffer–his practical solution is spiritual. And Alyosha laughs gaily with the children, he learns how to do that while out in the world, where in the beginning he felt all lost when Father Zossima’s body decayed. The children are the answer: Ilusha’s body doesn’t decay, and a kind of new covenant is made with the children at the stone where Ilusha wanted to be buried, even as the holy rites continue to be said over Ilusha’s orthodox grave.

I suppose I’ll have to talk about “The Grand Inquisitor” at some point–but honestly, it didn’t strike me too much, except as beautiful prose and something I can relate to. Dostoyevsky is on so many existentialism syllabi, and I have to admit I don’t really understand why. Yes, Ivan is asking what we can do good in a world without God–but he certainly isn’t nihilistic about the solution! It’s Pushkin’s “sticky little leaves” that he clings to, not barren philosophy, and he’s keenly interested in the answer for how to find meaning. He’s basically a romantic atheist. He sounds most like Alyosha when the two brothers are talking, and he speaks of loving humanity so much–not so different from his novice brother. Alyosha has to learn to find the practical solution to how to treat the children: Ivan, though he’s seen the world, retains his novice-like love for it, and though maybe he struggles with the philosophical questions, he doesn’t get too occupied with them–it comes back to people and love. Alyosha kisses the ground for faith; Ivan for love.

Easily the funniest section of the novel: Ivan, in his delirium, talking to the devil-that-may-or-mayn’t-be-him. So great! One of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Even better because he’s up to the task, and he’s playing even as he’s tormented–something that can’t be said for the second funniest scene, Fyodor Pavlovitch in Zossima’s chambers at the initial family meeting, where we just see a fawning idiot.

I can’t believe how little really happens in this 800-odd page book. There’s no doubt as to who committed the murder on the reader’s part (maybe there should be, but anyway, we’re led from the beginning to think it’s by far not the point). Sure, there is a large cast of characters and triangles between them, and the many variants of Dmitri’s story are all rich in detail. But it’s hardly a real murder mystery. Maybe it’s a history of the brothers, as Dostoyevsky mentions–but it’s a very thin history, really. Mostly people just talk a lot about ideas, and get caught up in conversations and confabulations with each other. Even as Dmitri’s statement is being taken, we are privy to how the prosecutor writes it down, and know what acrobatics he’ll do at trial. We have several versions of the facts, none related as that actual night is related–who knows about the pouch with 1500 rubles being sown into Dmitri’s cap? We know he’s innocent of the crime, though we’re not sure how, and we know he might as well be guilty.

So where’s the interest? In the endless varieties of talk, the justifications and defenses by the characters of their own behavior, and the best courtroom speeches I’ve read in a while. In the sense of aliveness and action we get at only one place in the book, as the audience are talking outside before the jury reaches its decision–the only clipped conversation in the book. In each character anticipating the tricks the other is going to pull and falling for them anyway, but only half-way (when the prosecutor warns the jury that the defense will try to call for mercy, and he doesn’t use an emotional style at all, but gets the same effect; when Dmitri interprets what he’s saying in terms of what the prosecutor will undoubtedly think, coherent or not). A grand psychological novel with no fleshed out characters, a mystery where facts don’t matter much and nothing much happens–what a book.

I have to agree with the people who uphold this as a document of faith: why say Dostoyevsky must really have had strong faith if he can write Ivan’s critique of God and still believe. The ideas in this book go beyond political and philosphical–even mathematics comes in, and I was surprised that Lobachevsky had reached popular culture (or learned culture only?) by then:

” If God really exists and if he really has created the world, then, as we all know, he created it in accordance with the Euclidean geometry, and he created the human mind with the conception of only the three dimensions of space. And yet there have been and there still are mathematicians and philosophers, some of them indeed men of extraordinary genius, who doubt whether the whole universe, or, to put it more wildly, all existence was created only according to Euclidean geometry and they even dare to dream that two parallel lines which, according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I, my dear chap, have come to the conclusion that if I can’t understand even that, then how can I be expected to understand about God?” – Ivan, p. 274 in Penguin edition

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