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
- 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.
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.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.