The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Reading The Brothers Karamazov is no simple task. The edition I read clocked in at 776 tough pages, but for that reason among many, it is a very rewarding challenge. While there are numerous themes to discuss, I will focus on what I believe to be the novel’s central theme: human nature. The novel poses the question: what is the nature of humankind? In a laborious few chapters, Dostoevsky illustrates the reader’s two options.
First, there is the argument of Ivan Karamazov, the pensive middle Karamazov brother. Through his heady prose poem “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan declares that God and religion are inventions of a past ruling class, created in order to keep the commoners in line. Essentially, the creation of religion works, according to Ivan, because it forces the public to self-police, with the promise of heaven if they behave. Ivan argues that while this is an illusion, it does the average person no harm. The harm, however, is found in the individual who discovers the farce and is thereby forced to live a tortured lie. However, there is a caveat to this theory and what results is a third class of individual. This individual does not believe in the farce and chooses not to live the lie. This being is embodied in Fyodor Karamazov, the murdered patriarch of the titular clan. Fyodor Pavlovich lives a life in which “everything is permitted”: including cheating, debauchery, rape, etc. Ivan loathes the idea that a world can support such a character, but nonetheless believes in its existence. Throughout the novel, many of the central characters are tempted with the notion that this worldview may be accurate.
The second option is provided by the elusive Elder Zosima. Zosima, who dies a natural death about a third into the novel, is the mentor of the novel’s protagonist, Alysosha, the youngest Karamazov. On his deathbed, Zosima preaches a different theory of human nature. Zosima allows that the nature of the individual is good, and though it can seem hopeless, will more often than not redeem itself. Just as Ivan provides an analogy in the Grand Inquisitor, Zosima tells the story of an official who has killed his former lover, stolen from her, hidden the crimes for decades, but ultimately finds the power within himself to come clean. In doing so Zosima illustrates the power of faith and redemption. The Brothers Karamozov is Dostoevsky’s sounding board for this worldview and advocates it through the redemption of his central characters.
If the question of nature of humankind is the debate posed by the novel, the book’s overarching theme is redemption. The story itself covers the action of the main characters’ attempts at this. While Alyosha is pre-redeemed, Ivan only heads in that direction near the end of the novel. However, the reader does bear witness to Dmitri Karamazov’s redemption. Throughout the novel he comes to realize his human penchant to sin and seeks to purify himself through suffering. The two primary female characters, Katerina Ivanovna, Dmitri’s fiancee at the beginning of the action, and Grushenka, the love of his life and ultimate partner, also experience attempts at redemption. Katerina Ivanovna achieves this once she is able to let go of her pride and confess her own sins to the court, and finally, forgive Dmitri, who is the cause of her shame. Grushenka, however, does not reach spiritual maturity by the novel’s close. However, due to the faith that is placed in her by Alyosha, the reader is hopeful that she will at some point achieve redemption.
A final point of discussion of The Brothers Karamazov is the novel’s hero, Alyosha. The narrator and author both claim early on that he is the hero and decisively, he makes something of a victory speech in the novel’s closing scene. Alyosha is the human representation of Zosima’s teachings. He is living proof that the nature of man is good and through his actions, others are awarded the opportunity to do the same. He is the spiritual adviser to his brothers and the women of the novel and is ultimately successful in exemplifying the novel’s thesis.
The Brothers Karamazov is a much discussed classic, and due to its sheer volume alone, offers many points not even lightly touched upon in my analysis. Because the characters and plot are so rich, I expect to think about this novel long after the next one concludes.