What was I thinking? What can I even say about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov except that never again will I commit to write about such a sweeping novel with ideas so intricately laid down with the precision of a master architect who has weighed and measured every stick. Unless maybe I give myself a whole uninterrupted year. Or 25 years, like Joseph Frank (professor emeritus at Princeton and Stanford Universities) did, who finished his fifth and final volume on the life of Dostoevsky, a monumental biography at 800 pages for just that volume, back in 2002.
It’s not that Dostoevsky is unreadable for the lay person. Yes, degrees in psychology and Russian history would help, but for a writer who is considered to be one of the world’s greatest authors and this his greatest novel, he’s very accessible.
You may find yourself asking, “How could he know me?” To read Dostoevsky is to stand naked-hearted before a wise and piercing being and it’s quite uncomfortable to be so exposed. The major themes that course through The Brothers Karamozov are broad but it’s uncanny how they light in a small place of your own nature and prick your conscience. He is a master. Were he alive today, or had I lived 150 years ago, I’d have wanted him for a friend and confidante during my darkest inner battles, and he would look straight through me and diagnose me and make such sense that I’d be well just for having been diagnosed and having seen such stark and beautiful truth.
The Brothers Karamozov is a big book of ideas, nearly 900 pages of dialogued postulations on love, guilt, forgiveness, responsibility for one another, money, the existence of God, atheism, socialism, freedom. And who among us hasn’t grappled with those big ideas in some small or grand way?
And there’s an intriguing story, too, that weaves these big ideas all together, a family tale that follows the lives of the Karamozov brothers and their father and surrounding characters. There is a love story, a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and always deeper meaning. Indeed, the entire nation of Russia is a character in the story, as is God himself, as even a cursory read reveals.
The allegorical depth of The Brothers Karamozov is part of its richness and acclaim. The brothers each are emblems and caricatures–Ivan is the intellectual atheist; Dmitri is the worldly sensualist, Alyosha is the spiritual soul. Other allegories include each of the Karamozov brothers being subjected to three temptations, as in the biblical story of the temptation of Christ, each with varying degrees of success according to their character.
In fact, it is this story of the temptation of Christ in the chapter on Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor that was one of my favorite parts. I had never read a more complete or compelling account of how Jesus was tested in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). The first temptation, for the hungry Jesus to turn the stones into bread, Dostoevsky extends and shows himself to be a brilliant theologian. Jesus said no, that man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God.
And Dostoevsky conveys this was an issue of freedom, as his Grand Inquisitor promises man, as Satan promised Jesus, everything in exchange for freedom, that single thing that defines man. The Grand Inquisitor tells the man that people are too simple and unruly for freedom, that what they really need is bread, to “feed men, and then ask of them virtue.” The Grand Inquisitor goes on to claim that “freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together.” His indictment against Christ is that He turned down social justice for the sake of freedom and the bread of heaven.
The Grand Inquisitor makes such an eloquent case in this chapter that any atheist who reads it champions this as his proof. But Dostoevsky, having travelled through atheism and out the other end to Christianity, is in an uncommonly opportune position to be exquisitely credible to both sides, and still win. He thus commented on his own faith and responds to atheists and critics of The Brothers Karamozov:
The dolts have ridiculed my obscurantism and the reactionary character of my faith. These fools could not even conceive so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression… The whole book is an answer to that…. You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess Him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s own life informed his writing of The Brothers Karamozov in many ways. As a young man, he was a socialist revolutionary who ended up arrested by the Tsarist police for associating with a secret socialist group. Dostoevsky claimed to not be against the Russian government but against the institution of serfdom. The next decade found him in prison and labor camps in Siberia. He emerged from the experience, having nothing to read but the gospels, one of the few books allowed, not a social revolutionary, but a spiritually awakened man.
A journalist recounting Joseph Frank’s staggering biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky offered this insight into the theme of The Brothers Karamozov:
Dostoyevsky, in Frank’s view, is comparable to Dante, Shakespeare and Milton in the grandeur of his thought and the power of his spiritual vision. His goal in this novel, Frank says, was both to portray the breakdown of social and family life (the principal theme of the much weaker ”Raw Youth”) and to warn, through the three Karamazov brothers, Ivan, Dimitri and Alyosha, and their corrupt father, Fyodor, against the impending collapse of Western civilization, which was inevitable unless humankind embraced a return to the (Orthodox) Christian faith.
Dostoevsky indeed believed that the only salvation for us all is not found in politics, but in faith. There are so many more characters for you to meet in The Brothers Karamozov, countless conversations and incidents, that will illuminate this truth and more. There is Father Zossima, the crazy Father Ferapont, Katerina Ivanovna, Grushenka. There is this:
Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!
If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground. One cannot exist in prison without God; it’s even more impossible than out of prison. And then we men underground will sing from the bowels of the earth a glorious hymn to God, with Whom is joy. Hail to God and His joy! I love Him!
Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears.
As the book’s final line echoes, “Hurrah for Karamozov!” Read it, you will be flattened, raised, amazed, challenged. This is the best I can do, for I have a long way to go in really understanding it all.