The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner of our district, who became notorious in his own day (and is still remembered among us) because of his tragic and mysterious death, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall relate in its proper place.”

What a marvellously mysterious first sentence which brings all sorts of questions to mind.  Why was the Karamazov father only remembered because of his horrific death?  What else did he do in life?  Why has the narrator waited thirteen years to tell the story?  And why does it need to be told in its “proper place”?

The Brothers Karamazov centers around three brothers, Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha, each of whom appear to represent different aspects of human beliefs: sensual materialism, rational nihilism and faith.  Within the framework of their relationships with their father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov a harsh and unyielding man, their characters are illuminated and these philosophies highlighted. In the case of Ivan Karamazov, his worldview has been formed through the legends and mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, and Christ’s return to earth and his temptations by Satan.  On the other hand, Dimitry Karamazov is wrapped in the atmosphere of the Hellenism of Schiller and the struggles of the Olympian gods with the dark forces that proceeded them.  Father Zosimas embodies the beliefs and rituals of the Eastern Church, and likewise Alyosha Karamazov his protégé, yet doubt creeps into Alyosha’s faith and is only overcome by his realization of earth being linked to heaven.

The author brings into relief the struggle of reconciling a just God with a fallen and depraved world.  With Ivan, we see a mutiny against a Christian ideology that allows free will to cause suffering, and with the speech of the Grand Inquisitor, even an indictment against Christ.  Father Zosima answers Ivan’s torment with his insistence on a faith in God being the only way to express an active love for humanity.  We see each character struggling to make a leap of faith in consequence of their actions, a putting aside of “self” for something greater, a struggle for each to interact with his conscience in spite of outside influences. 

Dostoyevsky’s notes for Chapter 5
of The Brothers Karamazov
source Wikipedia

With his sparse expository setting and minimal action, Dostoyevsky’s story unfolds mainly through his characters and their thoughts, their internal monologues often being more revealing than any physical action.  With great acumen, he examines the breakdown of a Russian family from a social-psychological level, which itself points to a breakdown of moral values of society as a whole and the consequences arising from this underlying issue.  Values within the construct of faith are what make a healthy society and without them, a sickness pervades, culminating in tragedy.

Reason is set against the intangible mystery of human behaviour and an inexorable conflict is evaluated as reason encounters Christian faith.  Dostoyevsky sets about illustrating the limitations of reason.  At the end of the novel, even though reason points to an inevitable conclusion, it does not allow the people in judgement to discover the truth, and its failure is effectively apparent.

Sketch of a Russian Village
Konstantin Alexseevich Korovin
source ArtUK

While the book is rife with questions about faith, strife, family disharmony and moral failings in a most human form, it also has echoes of positive aspects of life.  The monastery is a fortress of true faith and hope, and even the children in this story are able to overcome prejudices and act in a manner of love and reconciliation. Unlike some of his other novels, the author leaves us with a hope for humanity.

Dostoyevsky is a master of the psychological novel and I suspect that I still have not come close to penetrating the fascinating workings of his unique mind.  One finishes his novels, sits down to review them, and then wonders “where on earth do I start?”  The minute psychological details that embellish each character’s thoughts kept me in mental gymnastics from beginning to end.  His novels are not easy reads and the first read through it seems as if you only peal off a layer at a time, however the deeper that you slide into them, you find that they change you in a way that you never expected.

I’ve seen some reviews that express frustration with this book and Dostoyevsky’s treatment of the themes but I wonder if its presentation, to a certain extent, mirrors life with its disjointed narrative and its sometimes apparent dead ends which pick up later and lead to something revelatory.  The author presents mystery …. both the mystery of God and the mystery of human psychology —- and as 21st century intellectually influenced moderns, we simply have difficulty understanding this approach.  His works are certainly challenging, but as I sit with them and let Dostoyevsky’s narrative percolate within me, I know that I have much more to discover about, not only the novels but life itself.  I will, without a doubt, read this particular book again!

A View of the Solevyetski Monastery with its Founders
Saints. Zossim and Savatti
unknown artist
source ArtUK

Some favourite quotes:

We are responsible for everyone else in this world, apart from their sins.

” …. but first the period of human isolation will have to come to an end …….  the sort of isolation  that exists everywhere now, and especially in our age, but which hasn’t reached its final development …. For today everyone is still striving to keep his individuality as far apart as possible, everyone still wishes to experience the fullness of life in himself alone, and yet instead of achieving the fullness of life, all his efforts merely lead to the fullness of self-destruction, for instead of full self-realization they relapse into complete isolation.  For in our age all men are separated into self-contained units, everyone crawls into his own hole, and hides away everything he possesses, and ends up by keeping himself at a distance from people and keeping other people at a distance from him.  He accumulates riches by himself and thinks how strong he is now and how secure, and does not realize, madman that he is, that the more he accumulates the more deeply does he sink into self-destroying impotence.  For he is used to relying on himself alone and has separated himself as a self-contained unit from the whole.  He has trained his mind not to believe in the help of other people, in men and mankind, and is in constant fear of losing his money and the rights he has won for himself.  Everywhere today the mind of man has ceased, ironically, to understand that true security of the individual does not lie in isolated personal efforts but in general human solidarity …..  a man has to set an example at least once and draw his soul out of its isolation and work for some great act of human intercourse based on brotherly love, even if he is to be regarded as a saintly fool for his pains.  He has to do so that the great idea may not die ……”

I was quite surprised by the mysterious visitor’s revelation, as my thoughts had been percolating on the same ideas for a week or so before I read it.  Still in somewhat of a pensive, philosophical mood left over from my summer vacation, I wondered why we appear so engaged with people, when, if you truly gaze into people’s hearts, we are really very alone.  Why, when we think someone is suffering, do we feel sympathy for them and wish them well in our minds, yet walk away because we either do not have the time, or don’t honestly want to become involved in something that might require effort, or compassion, or sacrifice for someone other than ourselves?  We’re more connected with our work, or our possessions, or our own perceived needs than we are with people, blind to the personal connections and the deeper caring that will truly make us happy …. truly make us human.  It’s all very sad ….

“And what’s strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.” 

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.  The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.  And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself” 

“What is hell?  I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” 

“Be not forgetful of prayer.  Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.” 

“Life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it.” 

“Love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.  Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance.” 

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.  God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” 

“They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.” 

“Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand.  Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing.  If thou love each thing, thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it; until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.” 

“Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people’s sins.  Go, and do not be afraid.”

Further Reading:
The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“I am a sick man …….. I am an angry man.”

Notes from The Underground is the third book in my unannounced and (spur of the moment) Turgenev/ Chernyshevsky/ Dostoyevsky challenge.  After reading Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote in response to it, his then politically persuasive novel, What Is To Be Done? , and in response to Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky wrote his powerful Notes from the Underground.  I assumed that it would be an interesting literary, political and philosophical conversation.

Dostoyevsky begins this book with a monologue from a retired 40-year-old civil servant, living in St. Petersburg.  He is our man from the Underground.  His ramblings appear to be disjointed, sometimes silly and then, disturbingly insightful.  But in this novel, is anything as it really appears?

” ….. doesn’t there, in fact, exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, or — not to violate logic — some best good …. which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared if necessary to go against all the laws, against, that is, reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — in short against all those fine and advantageous things — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else? ….. to justify his logic he is prepared to distort the truth intentionally.”


The Soul of the Underground (1959)
Jean Dubuffet
source Wikiart

The Underground Man argues that perhaps science is not the highest good. The behaviour of man under the laws of nature and of reason does not confirm them; man has a perplexing innate inclination to destroy his own happiness and well-being.  One may argue that man needs to be brought into order, to conform to demands that will improve his life.   But what if man does not want that, and further, what makes one think that this is even good for man?

“Even if we assume it as a rule of logic, it may not be a law for all mankind at all …… And why are you so firmly and triumphantly certain that only what is normal and positive —- in short, only well-being —- is good?  After all, perhaps prosperity isn’t the only thing that pleases mankind, perhaps he is just as attracted to suffering.  Perhaps suffering is just as good for him as prosperity.”

Using historical examples, the Underground Man strengthens his argument. Man is beyond nature, and beyond reality; he is infinitely more complex than science, and therefore beyond the ability of science to completely understand him.

With his Underground Man, Dostoyevsky is attempting to shatter the philosophy seen in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s, What is To Be Done?, a novel that promoted a type of monistic materialism brought about through a rational egoism: if only one used reason to discern the higher purpose of man, working through enlightened self-interest the perfect society would be created. Chernyshevsky’s dogmatic ideology excluded the possibility of “free will”, labelling it as a mistaken perception of what was simply a causal process. However Dostoyevsky, from his years in a prison camp, had continually witnessed the innate human desire to express individual free will, often to the person’s own detriment, and with his Underground Man, he strove to prove the ridiculousness of Chernyshevsky’s philosophy:

“all the beautiful systems, these theories of explaining his best interests to man ……. are nothing but sophistry.  Isn’t there something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, some best good which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared, if necessary, to go against all the laws — that is against reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else?”


“One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness — that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the commission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil.  Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable?  What a man meeds is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”


Underground Chud (1928)
Nicolas Roerich
source Wikiart

The second part of the novel, entitled “Falling Sleet”, tells of the experiences of the Undergound Man.  First, he is disrespected by an officer on the street who will not give way to him and the Underground Man plots a revenge of deliberately bumping into him.  The narrative then moves to the Underground Man’s presence at a party for old school mates and his contentious behaviour towards them, as he feels the strength his inadequacies in their presence. Finally, he falls into a type of relationship with a sympathetic prostitute named Liza.  In the Underground Man’s interactions with the outside world, the reader sees a man struggling to use his faculties to assimilate himself into the situations around him, and failing in his attempts. Dostoyevsky created a character who believed in Chernyshevsky’s ideals, but demonstrated through his actions, his inability to live up to them.

And so finishes my “trilogy” of conversation between these three authors.  I have been educated not only historically, but politically and philosophically, and encourage anyone who wants to read any of these books, to read the three in sequence.  With Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky particularly, you can sense the antagonism within their writing, yet their passion for their ideologies are very effective and make for enlightening reading.




Further Reading:
Dostoyevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet by Joseph Frank