I selected The Brothers Karamazov for my Classics club list because I read it many years ago for Russian Literature and found it fascinating. I was curious how I would regard it now.
The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, but it is complicated by the characters’ relationships and several subplots, some of which are only tangentially related. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons whom as children he left to be raised by the servants. The oldest, Dmitri (or Mitya), is an ex-soldier whom Fyodor has cheated of part of his inheritance from his mother. Now, although Dmitri is engaged to Katarina, a girl of high moral values, he has fallen madly in love with Grushenka, a girl with an unsavory past, and Fyodor is trying to compete for her. The second oldest, Ivan, is a cold intellectual atheist. The third son, Alexei or Alyosha, is studying to be a monk.
In my old Penguin Classics edition, the novel is split into two volumes. It is not until the second volume that the action takes place that is the centerpiece of the novel. Fyodor is murdered. Mitya has been working himself into a frenzy and making threats so is immediately the prime suspect. Did Mitya kill his father or was it someone else? If so, who?
We readers know what Mitya did that night, so we can answer the first part of that question but not the second part, at least not right away. Dostoevsky (I’m going to use the spelling of his name that I’m accustomed to, and that indeed is on my old Penguin copy rather than the one shown on the title page above) isn’t interested so much in that but in what happens next. And ultimately he is engaged in pitting atheism against belief in God.
In my student days, I found the long philosophical passages in this novel fascinating. These days, I don’t have as much patience with them and I actually skipped a couple of chapters once I got their drift. The amount of time spent on Father Zossima, for example, a relatively minor character who dies in Book One, is a little inexplicable to me now. I can’t help feeling he might have been based on a real person whom Dostoevsky revered, but his presence in the novel doesn’t seem important enough to warrant several chapters being devoted to his life and sayings.
This is not to say that I didn’t find the novel compelling. Although it is long and sometimes difficult, there was something about it that made me want to keep reading it.
The novel is written with an unusual approach to point of view. The narrator is an unidentified person from “our town.” But the narrator is privy to scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. Yet, the point of view is not omniscient. For example, we see what Mitya does on the night of the murder even though there is no actual witness to that, but we don’t see the murder.
As usual with Dostoevsky, most of his characters are in a frenzy. Were 19th century Russians really this excited? Well, they’re not in Tolstoy, but most of Tolstoy’s characters are upper class, while Dostoevsky’s are not. So, I don’t know whether this is a class difference or a difference in the author’s perceptions or what. And speaking of class, the attitude toward peasants here is not great, and there are also other politically incorrect comments on occasion. Just a warning.
The Brothers Karamazov is considered Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, so if you are interested in Russian literature, you should definitely read it. Dostoevsky’s preoccupations are not mine, however, and I think even less so as I get older. I couldn’t help parsing some of the arguments and thinking about an implicit slant to them. The best example is an assumption—a sort of cognitive leap—that is very important to the plot and is stated several times by different characters. The cognitive leap is that if God doesn’t exist, “everything is permitted.” Only one character questions this assumption—that there is nothing within humans besides religion to stop them from doing horrendous things. But his suggestion is brushed aside because Dostoevsky wants you to conclude that there is a God and his arguments don’t work as well if you believe in inner goodness or inherently moral or ethical behavior. I guess.