Review: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”

by Miles Raymer


I first read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov about a decade ago, and shortly thereafter forgot almost everything about it. Upon revisiting this long and strange book, the reasons I found it so forgettable are more obvious, as are the fine qualities that make it an indisputable classic.

This story of three brothers––of their flaws, torments, and moments of nobility––is simultaneously enriching and exasperating. As I’ve encountered in his other writings, Dostoevsky’s style is incredibly challenging, with much of the description and dialog feeling superfluous to the greater narrative. It’s quite possible that I simply lack the esoteric knowledge of the author’s time and place to unlock the grand significance of his every uttering, but in any case the activity of reading this book was not very enjoyable. Even so, some wonderful thematic messages shine through, several of which I’ll discuss below.

The eponymous brothers are Alexei, Dmitri, and Ivan. Each betokens a core component of human nature, with Alexei signifying spirit, Dmitri embodying emotion, and Ivan representing rationality. Put together, they symbolize all of humanity––supportive and interdependent but also driving each other mad. Dostoevsky wastes no time informing the reader that Alexei is the novel’s hero:

One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless: he is a strange man, even an odd one…I shall take heart concerning the significance of my hero, Alexei Fyodorovich. For not only is an odd man “not always” a particular and isolated case, but, on the contrary, it sometimes happens that it is precisely he, perhaps, who bears within himself the heart of the whole, while the other people of his epoch have all for some reason been torn away from it for a time by some kind of flooding wind. (3)

Alexei is indeed a heroic character––a steady pillar of virtue holding up a community of hardscrabble and sometimes-dissembling Russians. Worst among them is the brothers’ own father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. One would be hard-pressed to find a more pathetic and loathsome creature. Keeping with our symbolic interpretation, the elder Karamazov approximates the dark side of nature, with all its insatiable appetites, moral apathy, and irrepressible fecundity. There is also a fourth “brother,” Smerdyakov, who lives as a servant in Karamazov’s home and is suspected by the townsfolk of being his illegitimate son. Smerdyakov is harder to pin down symbolically, and doing so might get us into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that he’s an enigmatic wretch.

The Brothers Karamazov gets off to a very slow start, and doesn’t really pick up the pace until about page 400. The book’s latter half is better than what precedes it, focusing on a gruesome crime that one of the brothers is accused of committing. It is through his characters’ various reactions to this situation that Dostoevsky conveys his thematic ambitions, which concern the consequences of losing religious faith, the rise of humanism, and the role of skepticism and psychology in criminal justice and life more generally.

One of the book’s most striking qualities is how it plays with the reader’s sense of reality. At one point, Dmitri laments, “What terrible tragedies realism inflicts on people” (376). Dmitri and Ivan struggle endlessly to articulate and live according to their divergent interpretations of reality, each of which exerts a strong influence on the criminal proceedings. At the novel’s end we are treated to a pair of terrific speeches by the prosecutor and defense attorney. Both remind us that even seemingly-irrefutable evidence is always subject to interpretation and manipulation, and also that we must always be mindful of the inherently-murky character of human motive:

Here, above all, the triumphant novelist can be brought up short and demolished by details, those very details in which reality is always so rich, and which are always neglected by such unfortunate and unwilling authors, as if they were utterly insignificant and unnecessary trifles, if indeed they even occur to them. Oh, they cannot be bothered with that at the moment, their mind creates only the grandiose whole––and then someone dares suggest such a trifle to them! But that is where they get caught! (721)

Psychology, gentlemen, though a profound thing, is still like a stick with two ends…I myself, gentlemen of the jury, have resorted to psychology now, in order to demonstrate that one can draw whatever conclusions one likes from it. It all depends on whose hands it is in. Psychology prompts novels even from the most serious people, and quite unintentionally. I am speaking of excessive psychology, gentlemen of the jury, of a certain abuse of it. (727-8)

These passages not only forecast the central role that psychology and skepticism would come to play in humanity’s future, but also display delightful metafictive flair by comparing criminal psychology to novel-writing. Dostoevsky’s brilliance hits the reader with full force in these moments.

All the while, Alexei is in the middle trying to engineer the best possible outcome for everyone. Despite his implacable religious commitments, he is remarkably flexible in his practical and ethical conduct, always putting the general betterment of humankind ahead of dogma. As Alexei’s noble efforts contend with the tempting but fallacious assumption that “everything is permitted,” the bud of 19th-century humanism begins to blossom (263). Dostoevsky employs this phrase repeatedly as a way of saying that, without God, no basis for morality exists. I’m not sure what the author himself thought about the validity of this position, but from a modern and secular perspective, Alexei’s morality seems to stem from a core basic decency on which religion merely capitalizes, rather than from religion itself. This is perhaps the main reason why The Brothers Karamazov continues to have lasting significance today.

I’ll leave you with a couple of the most book’s most heartfelt and uplifting quotes:

Paradise…is hidden in each one of us, it is concealed within me, too, right now, and if I wish, it will come for me in reality, tomorrow even, and for the rest of my life…When people understand this thought, the Kingdom of Heaven will come to them, no longer in a dream but in reality…In order to make the world over anew, people themselves must turn onto a different path psychically. Until one has indeed become brother of all, there will be no brotherhood…Everywhere now the human mind has begun laughably not to understand that a man’s true security lies not in his own solitary effort, but in the general wholeness of humanity. (303-4)

Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then––let us never forget one another…Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and rightful! (775-6)

Rating: 7/10