Some Thoughts on Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

Well, I finally did it. I read Dostoevsky. It wasn’t a joyride, so I don’t think I’ll pick up Crime and Punishment anytime soon. After chewing through a meal like Karamazov, I’m doing dessert reading for a while (the book equivalent of Concrete Mixers from Culvers—minimally nutritious, over too soon, but yummy and chunky).

What follows is pretty much thrown together. These are fresh impressions from having just finished the book. They’re also “fresh” in the sense of untainted by much background knowledge. (This is a way of saying “ignorant.” I’m not humblebragging. It’s context for some of my speculations below.) Before reading The Brothers Karamazov I knew only this as background:

  • Fyodor Dostoevsky (hereafter, FD) is famous.
  • Brothers Karamzov (BK) is a long (!) Russian novel nobody reads for fun.
  • You have to read a translation.
  • Several Christian writers over the years have alluded to portions of the novel in ways that intrigued me and helped get the title onto my “read someday” list.

I think I was vaguely aware that FD was 19th century but I looked that, and several other things, up while my reading of the novel was in progress. (He died in 1881).

Goodreads wanted some stars from me, but how I can rate such a book? I can’t say I “enjoyed” it, though I suppose, on the whole, I did. But it’s sort of like enjoying raw spinach. I felt it was doing me good, and enjoyed that, but it was noticeably bitter pretty often, and I’m glad it’s over.

It did have enjoyable stretches though—like dressing on the raw spinach.

Parts of the story still don’t quite add up in my mind, so I’ll probably go read some analysis shortly.

Intentionally cryptic impressions

Some stream of consciousness, as it were, to avoid spoilers. But if you read it, these will probably make some sense.

  • Fools and bad choices
  • Dysfunctional (!) families
  • The unlovableness of mankind
  • The obligation to love mankind
  • Self destructive sins
  • Each human guilty of the sins of all?
  • Wait for it
  • What it means to love life
  • Really, really wait, a lot for it
  • The contradictory minds of sinners
  • Romans 7
  • Girl trouble
  • So many lies
  • So much guilt to go around
  • People falling apart
  • Proverbs 18:17

Some surprises

  • BK is kind of a murder mystery, but in many ways not.
  • It’s much more Christian than I expected.
  • It’s quite psychological, which I didn’t expect at all.

Not surprising, but not exactly expected

  • FD seems to have had an unusually active and inquisitive mind.
  • BK reminds me a lot of Dickens novels (very quirky characters, sometimes-horrific cruelty, madness, strange illnesses, melodramatic scenes of affection, painful scenes of poverty).
  • Reminds me of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Other than the monastic stuff, I’m not sure why—maybe characters debating ideas, sometimes obscure ideas at great length, but with passion and some sharp reasoning.
  • Reminds me too of the tiny bit of Solzhenitsyn I’ve read, though not just because it’s Russian—because it’s about human nature. (This may also be an Eco connection. But Eco’s Rose ends in despair, as I understood it. BK doesn’t.)
  • Back to surprising: The book also reminded me of J.K. Rowling (very quirky characters, sometimes-horrific cruelty, long and complicated character backstories with a lot of pain and loss in them).

A bit on meaning

I don’t think “message” is usually very clear in the best novels. To me, the novel is a better tool for asking questions than for answering them. On that score, the book asks a pile of questions, some of them as big as the ages.

A few ideas came through for me, though:

  • Humans are all pretty messed up.
  • There’s a lot of beauty mixed in with human ugliness. FD gave even his nastiest characters moments of decency and even nobility (though, in a few cases, it’s pretty hard to tell if they were genuine). Some of these moments are surprising, but to me they didn’t come off as unbelievable or even unlikely.
  • We’re all a pretty easily confused and hateful bunch.
  • A philosophy can drive you to despair, rob you of your wits, and maybe even kill you from the inside out.

For me, the book was convicting in a couple of ways. I’ll try to explain one of them without spoilers. Let’s just say that someone ends up dead and many have a measure of guilt in his death. It might be fair to say that multiple individuals are, in spirit, 100% guilty of the same act. It almost doesn’t matter who literally ended the victim’s life. I eventually felt that I was sort of among the guilty, because by the time the character was killed I’d long wished him dead and was rooting for someone to do the deed, though nobody really seemed worthy to do it.

I’m pretty sure FD hoped readers would experience this and probably also hoped that they’d be a bit ashamed of that later. At least a little. (Like one of the characters, I might insist that I wanted him dead but that I would never actually kill him.)

BK includes some exploration of nihilism and atheism that I found super interesting. FD’s theology and philosophy aren’t clear to me from the book—which I usually prefer with novels. I like to read them without confirmation bias.

But he does seem to come down on the side of the necessity of God as an idea, if not necessarily the fact of a “God who is there,” to borrow Francis Schaeffer’s phrase. Schaeffer didn’t have a high view of the notion of God as a necessary fiction, to put it mildly. So, on my research list: what can I find out about FD’s beliefs on these things, if that’s even known?

The characters in BK argue multiple perspectives on the existence and nature of God, and other questions, and each of them make strong arguments. FD apparently didn’t want to take cheap shots at anything or hack at straw men.

This and that

There’s a long courtroom drama that’s truly brilliant. By the end, I honestly couldn’t decide if I agreed with the prosecution or the defense! (Also on the research list: find out more about that.) But it’s brilliant in another way: the two lawyers eloquently defend different views of human nature and the role of law and justice and mercy in society. I’m not sure it’s fair to say either of them represents a particular whole philosophy, because they both seem to mix and match—but this is a first impression from an audiobook read. It seemed to me that part of FD’s genius in that section is that just when you think you have the character’s point of view figured out, he goes somewhere else, but somehow still seems coherent.

Lots of FD’s characters seemed insane or nearly insane to me—much self-contradictory raving. I confess, I would have appreciated less of that.

Random thought: Maybe this is widely known and debated, etc., I wouldn’t know—but FD seems pretty misogynistic. Maybe he was no more so than the times in general. The women don’t earn much respect in this story. Then again, neither do the men, for the most part. But FD’s version of female flaws seemed pretty stereotypical. In his defense, there was a long tradition of that by his time I think.

Another random thought: I wonder if FD meant to write a sequel. The end of BK could certainly have worked as a hook for one. But he died about a year later.

Recommendation

Do I recommend the book? Well, that depends. You’re unlikely to enjoy it, though it does have moments. Some of the debates might actually shake your faith a bit if you aren’t well rooted. But then, sometimes, a bit of shaking followed by some doubt, followed by some study, is how “well rooted” happens. If you’re looking for light and entertaining reading, no I don’t recommend it. If you want your patience tried, definitely do! But I do think the slogging pays off. I may even read it again.

2021 reads

There are 21 Comments

Don Johnson's picture

I have read most of his work. Read a lot of them in high school then read some again in the last few years. Dostoyevsky is thoroughly Orthodox in his beliefs. That's the theology behind his writing. He had an incredible ability to get inside people's head, really understood psychological aspects. 
 

Crime and Punishment has similar insights, but is chilling. I was probably 16 when I read it. Tried it again a few years ago, just couldn't go through with it.

Another (shorter) psychological one is The Gambler. About the French roulette tables. Dostoyevsky had a gambling problem too. He really does a good job describing it. 
 

last, there is a lecture series in the Great Courses on the Russian novelists. Really good, covers more than Dostoyevsky of course but very well done and really helps understanding the Russian writers 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Nord Zootman's picture

Thanks Aaron,

I have read Crime and Punishment (which I thought was profitable) but not the Brothers Karamazov. I may try to slog through it this summer.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

@Don: Good to know about his Orthodoxy. I'm capitalizing the word, since he would have been Russian Orthodox. I think it's fair to say that the son named Ivan seems to be atheist then agnostic but later, well, who knows... but almost certainly neither of those. The characters certainly all have trajectories.

It's not a tale I'll soon forget.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

AndyE wrote:

I started but couldn't make it through...too much of a slog for me.

Well, at least you've picked it up.  Because of the reports of "slogging," I've never even picked up or started any of his work.  This article makes me a little more interested, though, especially since I've been wanting to read some of the "great literary works" that I avoided when younger.

Dave Barnhart

Don Johnson's picture

Never found any of Dostoyevsky to be a slog. Tolstoy's War and Peace on the other hand... that was a slog. Tried it three times. Never could get going at it. I've read other books by Tolstoy, though, and they weren't so hard. 
I love the Russian authors, found them to think deeply and surprisingly about the human condition. They often take turns of thought that are quite unexpected from our Western point of view 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

josh p's picture

Agree with Don. Listened through twice and this is making me want to tackle it again! Aaron you capture what is so great about Russian literature. You keep thinking about it far after you're done. If you want to tackle a book with a similar ability to make you think, I highly recommend "In the First Circle" by Solzhenitsyn. [Note: Careful not to get "The First Circle" which is a Russian censored version.]
It's by far the best secular book I've read. 

josh p's picture

Also, the Great Courses on Russian lit that Don recommends is indeed great. I listened to it after he recommended it here and it gave me several more enjoyable books to read.

Bert Perry's picture

I read, and enjoyed, War and Peace.  Even took it to the dentist's office as a joke--and of course, I think that time my appointment was totally on time.  One of those authors that make the reader do a lot of thinking.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Don Johnson wrote:

They often take turns of thought that are quite unexpected from our Western point of view 

This I completely believe.  On my one trip to Russia a few years ago, I decided that that country is far less "western" than Korea, which I also visited.  This was completely opposite of what I (and probably most Americans who haven't either lived in Asia or had extensive experience with the various cultures there) would expect.  It was a real eye-opener, and gave me much more insight into the ministry of the missionary friend I was visiting in Russia.

Dave Barnhart

TylerR's picture

Editor

I had similar reactions after I read Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim." A sad tale of a man who is tortured by regret and shame, and finds some sort of absolution in his own tragic death. I won't read it again,  but I'm glad I did. Trouble is that few others have read it, so I'm not sure what practical value it has for me. But, it's a wonderful snapshot of what it looks like to live without hope of forgiveness, to be crippled with shame without a means to find release for it.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

josh p's picture

Lord Jim is at least well-written, albeit wretched. For more depressing "why am I reading this" fun, try a Thomas Hardy novel sometime. I've read all of his books and "enjoyed" them all. 

M. Osborne's picture

I read The Brothers Karamazov in the 9th grade and it was, in a sense, life changing.

I went to a Christian school that emphasized writing and literary criticism, so working through Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Beowulf was par for the course, but somehow it was reading The Brothers Karamazov on my own that opened my eyes to the potential of using novels to discuss big ideas as they played out in the lives of super-charged characters.

So I went on to read a lot of Dostoyevsky in high school and early college: Crime and PunishmentNotes from the House of the DeadThe GamblerThe Possessed...a few others I can't remember. Probably a very big portion of it went straight over my head, for my lack of having a historical context. But some of the basic ideas hit home, especially Ivan's wrestling with, "If there is no God, then everything is lawful...but there is a devil...does this mean there is a God too?" (Terrible paraphrase.)

I did write a paper on Dostoyevsky in high school Trying to cough up memories: I don't think he was misogynistic. I believe he was happily married and relied on his wife. He was himself epileptic and so you find plenty of epileptic characters in his books. He had a gambling problem. I believe he himself passed through progressivism and atheism into Christianity. He wrote his books serially, and I too find him like Dickens because they are so sprawling. (Although I never grew to appreciate Dickens that much...found it pretty moralistic.)

People find it dark, but I find it dark with hope, which I think is critical. I find this easier to read than so-called "comic" and light novels that are at-bottom nihilistic.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

About the slog factor, my experience was that it lagged in places, but then it would get really interesting again. It helps a lot to take it on faith that the author is eventually going to tie what seems like a long diversion into the main story. It's going to matter. But at times it takes a lot of faith to believe that it could have anything to do with what's happening.

About "misogynistic"... I doubt he stands out by the standards of the time, but I think every single woman in the story has fits of "hysteria" at one point or another, and all of them come across as scatter brained. It's true though, that quite a few of the men do also. At times I was kind of laughing to myself thinking "was everybody in those days teetering on the brink of utter madness?"

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

M. Osborne's picture

Reading things like Pride and Prejudice, I get the impression that their health must have been much more fragile back then, and/or they took colds way more seriously.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

JohnS's picture

I read BK 15-20 years ago, opting for the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation.  It was very long and took willpower to get through parts of it.  But worth the experience. FD's ability to make you think - all from a story and most of which is psychological - is extraordinary.

The many names and nicknames were a challenge for me, especially since they're all Russian.  Were not like Joseph, Joe, Joey  Much more foreign sounding and some were not obviously shortened versions of a longer name.

Don Johnson's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

At times I was kind of laughing to myself thinking "was everybody in those days teetering on the brink of utter madness?"

Well, the Russians are known for heavy use of vodka, so maybe.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Dave White's picture

Don Johnson wrote:
Well, the Russians are known for heavy use of vodka, so maybe.

Time to hijack this thread - true Christians abstain!

[someone had to do it]

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for that, Dave!  (Maybe we need a debate on wine vs. vodka... is vodka ever "moderate"? I wouldn't know, but I have the impression the stuff is almost instantly intoxicating.)

I think I may have used "misogynistic" incorrectly above. My meaning was just "somewhat negative toward women," but I think the term is historically stronger than that. At the moment, Google--drawing from some Oxford source--says "strongly prejudiced against women." I think I've seen it more often along the lines of "hating women." 

So, due credit to ol' Fyodor (the author not the character in the novel): I didn't see hatred at all, and "prejudice" would only apply in the sense of "guilty of a few negative stereotypes."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

About 40% alcohol, many people do use it responsibly.  More or less, for an average sized person, it takes 3-4 shots (132-177ml, about 2/3-3/4 of a cup) to get a person too drunk to drive, and about twice that to get to the symptoms discussed in Proverbs 23.  In short, given that distilled liquor causes a "burn" in the mouth, a serious amount of liquor.

Vodka gets a bad rap, often deservedly, not because one is drunk from the first sip, but rather because it doesn't have as strong a taste as whiskey, cognac, brandy, and other hard liquors.  It also is hard to detect as a smell on one's breath, and hence it's often the liquor of choice for alcoholics because they can hide their addiction, and because it goes down a little easier.   A hospital where my mom worked had a rehab center when I was growing up, and they always watched out for vodka bottles because that made their job a lot harder.

And in light of eastern Europe and Russian fiction, those works reflect the reality that the temptation to get drunk was often strong because living under the authority of the Tsars left a lot to be desired.  As the Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof noted, the proper prayer for the Tsar was "God bless and keep the Tsar....far away from us!".

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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