Fyodor Dostoesvky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov (1880) is many things at once. It has elements of a murder mystery and a courtroom procedural drama, set in 19th-century small-town Russia. It is also a dark melodrama about what are now called intergenerational curses, narcissistic behavior patterns, the toxic traits of our parents, and post-traumatic stress. It is a philosophical novel, asking and proposing answers to life’s hardest questions about what kind of God may or may not exist, what he wants with the world, and how we should live. It features the classic triad of the Sinner, the Skeptic, and the Saint. Most of all, I think, Dostoevsky intended to tell a modern redemption story about sin and forgiveness, death and resurrection, working themselves out in a fractured family. The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps the most explicitly Christian and thoroughly modern in theme and outlook of any of the books thus far reviewed in these pages; and for those who appreciate these pages, I would recommend the novel as essential reading.
Despite the fact that all the major characters of the novel are written to embody big ideas, big questions and answers, they are nevertheless painted vividly and colorfully human. Often, in fact, the many players of Dostoevsky’s drama are larger than life, almost superhuman in feeling and action, expressing themselves in profound gestures. My own experience suggests that, to read for maximum profit, it is helpful to come at the novel from the outset with a list of the main names of the story, in their relations to each other. Many are known by several combinations of name, surname, and nickname, and here I am going to refer to those most used for each person.
The main crisis of the novel is the murder of Fyodor Karamazov. Fyodor is certainly the father of the three brothers Karamazov, and probably of a fourth. He caused misery for both his wives, the mothers of his sons, who are long dead by the opening of action. He has spent his life amassing a fortune, making enemies, and pursuing sexual debauchery. Greedy, boorish, and selfish, equally adept at victimizing as playing the victim, he has few to mourn his death.
Dimitri Karamzov, most often called Mitya, is Fyodor’s oldest son, of his first wife. As a child, Mitya was neglected by father and mother and cared for by a relative, Mr. Miusov. This Miusov, who despises Fyodor, appears in a few scenes. Like his father, Dimitri is gripped by emotional enthusiasms for women and money. Through this common concupiscence, he implicates himself in and is tried for the murder of his father. Unlike his father, however, Mitya is frequently repentant and desirous to overcome his deep flaws. He spends his life turbulently poised between degradation and reformation, and he finds the beginning of redemption only when he is on trial.
Ivan Karamazov is Fyodor’s second son, from his second wife. In the novel, he makes the most vigorous case against Dostoevsky’s own vision of faith and life. Personally moral but intellectually amoral, Ivan is not a blithe atheist, but a sincere skeptic, who cannot mentally reconcile the specter of tortured children with the proposition of a loving God. But how then can Ivan justify his rejection of his father’s degeneracy? His own love for humanity is abstract and does not seem to extend to real human beings. He brilliantly theorizes about what makes for human flourishing, but is without warmth or compassion. He expresses his conflicted convictions most famously in “The Grand Inquisitor” (Bk. 5, ch. 5), which has earned its place as a standalone essay in anthologies of religious thought. As he learns the truth about his father’s murder, Ivan must contend concretely with the consequences of his ideas.
Alexei Karamazov, often Alyosha, Fyodor’s third son, is the hero of the story. His purity and his perceptive, sympathetic love for the people in his life flow from his genuine faith. He lives at the Russian Orthodox monastery in town under the mentorship of Father Zosima, and is entangled with and for a time engaged to the capricious and superficial Lise, the daughter of the family acquaintance Madame Khokhlakov. Through the course of the story, Alyosha grows more and more into the embodiment of Zosima’s teaching, which is to love and forgive everyone and hope tirelessly for their salvation, to suffer cheerfully, and cherish creation. As he experiences the death of both Fyodor and Zosima, Alyosha himself becomes a spiritual father to young boys of the town, among them Ilyusha and Nicolai (often Kolya). He is contrasted in the novel with the cynical seminarian Mikhail Rakitin, who jealously desires to corrupt Alyosha, just as Zosima is antagonized in death by the rigorist Father Ferapont, who hates him. These two counterpoint the guileless love to which Alyosha and Zosima aspire.
Fyodor’s fourth son is only suspected to be such, though we are meant to believe the suspicions are true. Pavel Smerdyakov was born of Stinking Lizaveta, a mentally handicapped girl in the village who died in childbirth. It is assumed that only Fyodor Karamazov is sufficiently degenerate to have forced himself upon the poor girl. Smerdyakov was raised by Fyodor’s servants, Grigory and his wife Marfa. He is malicious and hateful, but hides behind displays of deference and loyalty. As the true murderer of Fyodor, Smerdyakov is the consequence of both his father’s thoughtless debauchery as well as Ivan’s thoughtful amorality.
The source of much of the antagonism between Fyodor and Dimitri is the beautiful Grushenka. Before the opening of the novel, she was brought to the Karamazov hometown by Kuzma Samsonov. By the time we meet him, Dimitri has already abandoned his fiancee, Katerina (Katya), to compete with his lascivious father for Grushenka’s affections. This unseemly rivalry, together with disputes about inheritance, brings explosive scenes and threats of murder. However, Mitya never actually consummates his homicidal feelings, just as Grushenka herself is too proud and ambitious to live up to her promiscuous reputation. Katya, for her part, is determined to play the martyr of Mitya’s ill treatment; so determined, in fact, that she cannot act on the barely-concealed feelings that she and Ivan share. Thus Ivan and Katya, Mitya and Grushenka are all psychologically frozen into their personal betrayals and spiritual conflicts, their unrequited, unexpressed desires and resentments. Though desperate to do so, none can move past the moment of life in which they find themselves on the eve of Fyodor’s murder. Families are complicated things, sometimes in need of death and resurrection.
In this review, I have spoiled some of the surprises of The Brothers Karamazov, but I have done so in order that a new reader might have a clear path through the tightly wound scenes, the fraught revelations, and the golden thread of redemptive love at play. However, a few things here I will not spoil.
First, I will not tell you the outcome of Dmitri’s trial, whether or not he is convicted of the murder of Fyodor, his father. As the final scenes play themselves out, pay attention to the way the novel has been wrestling all along with the question of accountability: for whom, and for whose fate and faith, am I responsible? And recognize that, in raising the question of guilt and innocence, the novel wants to do more than gesture at mere technical, forensic answers to “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Rather, the deeper question posed to Christian culture might be: If the guiding star of my life is “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” then for whom must I voluntarily assume responsibility? See what you make of Dostoevsky’s answer.
Second, I will not tell you whether this answer is a compelling rebuttal to the rigorous, clear-eyed, full-hearted skepticism of Ivan, in his age or ours. Obviously, the author means to put forward the way of life of Zosima and Alyosha as the antidote to what ails the world of the Karamazovs. Is this enough? Don’t assume anything until you’ve read the book. And, if I may suggest, attend not so much to who wins the argument of ideas, but rather weigh each idea by the fruit it brings through those who live it.