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The Brothers Karamazov

July 3, 2021

There’s nothing I love more than reading books that people I love give me or recommend to me. Lately I’ve been reading and re-reading Russian novels, trying to remember why I was fascinated by them as a teenager and also trying to think about the ideas they suggest as my son is in graduate school studying Russian literature. In addition, I wanted to hop on this summer’s book blogger discussion of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I read the Constance Garnett translation, since that’s one of the ones my son recommended, saying that Garnett is very clear–the only criticism of her is that she “cleans up” some of Dostoyevsky’s messier language.

I didn’t remember how much of the novel is about religion and class society, and I’m pretty sure that the first time I read it, I didn’t appreciate some of the characterization, like the curmudgeonly fellow who “had a high opinion of his own insight, a weakness excusable in him as he was fifty, an age at which a clever man of the world of established position can hardly help taking himself rather seriously.” Or the prosecutor who is suffering from imposter syndrome–he “was vain and irritable, though he had a good intellect, and even a kind heart. It seemed all that was wrong with him was that he had a better opinion of himself than his ability warranted. And that made him seem constantly uneasy.”

There’s not a lot of plot—the novel centers on a dissolute old father, Fyodor Pavlovitch, who has three sons: Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexey. There’s a fourth illegitimate son too, Smerdyakov. The oldest son is trying to claim an inheritance left to him by his mother and both he and his father have declared themselves to be in love with the same woman, Grushenka. When the father is found dead, Dmitri, the oldest, is put on trial for his murder. Ivan is searching for the truth while Alexey is trying to do what’s right.

Two of the women in the novel, Katarina Ivanovna and Madame Hohlakov, have access to money and try to manipulate the Karamazov brothers, hoping to change their own lives. Some of the things Madame Hohlakov says have a comic effect, as she repeats something that has previously been said seriously–like when she throws up her hands at the idea of judgment, saying “Let them acquit [Dmitri]—that’s so humane, and would show what a blessing reformed law courts are….And if he is acquitted, make him come straight from the law courts to dinner with me, and I’ll have a party of friends, and we’ll drink to the reformed law courts. I don’t believe he’d be dangerous; besides, I’ll invite a great many friends, so that he could always be led out if he did anything. And then he might be made a justice of the peace or something in another town, for those who have been in trouble themselves make the best judges.”

One of the memorable characters is a poor father who has been hired by Fyodor Pavlovitch to threaten Dmitri into paying his debts and who Dmitri has insulted. Alexey tries to help the father as his son, Ilusha, is falling ill, seemingly because of his father’s shame at Dmitri’s insult and partly because he feels guilty about hurting (perhaps even killing) a stray dog. Ilusha’s sickness and eventual death indicate that even small actions can have a big effect on others.

Most of the ideas of the novel are carried by a series of statements. Some of them are worked out in discussion while others are qualified or refuted by what follows. At one point, for example, Ivan gives a long speech about the Russian character, saying that
“our historical pastime is the direct satisfaction of inflicting pain. There are lines in Nekrassov describing how a peasant lashes a horse on the eyes….it’s peculiarly Russian….But men, too, can be beaten. A well-educated, cultured gentleman and his wife beat their own child with a birch-rod, a girl of seven. ….I know for a fact there are people who at every blow are worked up to sensuality, to literal sensuality, which increases progressively at every blow they inflict. They beat for a minute, for five minutes, for ten minutes, more often and more savagely….it’s just their defencelessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets his vile blood on fire. In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain.”
His speech takes a theological turn when he asks what the meaning of children suffering can be:
“what do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”
This is Ivan’s introduction to what he calls “his poem,” the story of “The Grand Inquisitor.” And it is this story that leads Ivan to his conclusions about “the strength of the Karamazov baseness,” the corruption that all three brothers fear, in varying degrees.

The novel is so dense with speeches, observations, and philosophy that the unwary reader might be forced into the attitude of a half-comprehending peasant watching the antics of the nobles, whose actions are absurd and comic, if that reader skips from one observation to another without understanding the causes of such extreme reactions. Alexey is at one point described as he
“threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever….what was he weeping over?”
Dmitri, at another point, “was at that moment in a condition of feverish agitation and activity. For the last two days he had been in such an inconceivable state of mind that he might easily have fallen ill with brain fever.” Grushenka, when she declares her love for Dmitri, says “what does money matter? We shall waste it anyway…folks like us are bound to waste money. But we’d better go and work the land. I want to dig the earth with my own hands. We must work, do you hear. Alyosha said so. I won’t be your mistress, I’ll be faithful to you, I’ll be your slave, I’ll work for you.” A girl who sends Alexey with a message to his brother Dmitri declares that he must “give it to him, you must give it to him….Today, at once, or I’ll poison myself!” When Ivan meets a peasant who is singing on the road, he “felt an irresistible urge to knock him down” and indulges in it, finding him “without movement or consciousness” afterwards and thinking to himself “he will be frozen” as he “went on his way.” At the end of the novel, Ivan almost entirely succumbs to “brain fever” and hallucinates in such detail that he has an extended dialogue with the devil.

When he is arrested for his father’s murder, Dmitri’s reaction is that of a half-comprehending nobleman who has always believed his privileged position will protect him from any consequences. He says to the arresting officers
“I am, after all, in the position of a criminal, and so, far from being on equal terms with you. And it’s your business to watch me. I can’t expect you to pat me on the head for what I did to Grigory, for one can’t break old men’s heads with impunity. I suppose you’ll put me away for him for six months, or a year perhaps, in a house of correction. I don’t know what the punishment is—but it will be without loss of the rights of my rank, with loss of my rank, won’t it?”
A bit later his indignation is also based on his idea of what is due to a person of his rank, when he says
“if I had really been the murderer of my father, when the very thought of having accidentally killed Grigory gave me no peace all night—not from fear—oh, not simply from fear of your punishment! The disgrace of it! And you expect me to be open with such scoffers as you, who see nothing and believe in nothing, blind moles and scoffers, and to tell you another nasty thing I’ve done, another disgrace, even if that would save me from your accusation! No, better Siberia!”
Even when he appears for his trial “he looked an awful dandy in a brand-new frock coat. I heard afterwards that he has ordered it in Moscow expressly for the occasion from his own tailor, who had his measure.”

We find out who committed the murder, having concluded from things Ivan said that “all things are lawful….For if there’s no everlasting God, there’s no such thing as virtue, and there’s no need of it.” The devil himself comments “that’s our modern Russian all over. He can’t bring himself to swindle without a moral sanction.”

The prosecutor makes a great speech about “this Karamazov family, which has gained such an unenviable notoriety throughout Russia….it seems to me that certain fundamental features of the educated class of to-day are reflected in this family picture—only, of course, in miniature, ‘like the sun in a drop of water.’” When he focuses on Dmitri, the prosecutor says that
“while his brothers seem to stand for ‘Europeanism’ and ‘the principles of the people,’ he seems to represent Russia as she is….he is spontaneous, he is a marvelous mingling of good and evil, he is a lover of culture and Schiller, yet he brawls in taverns and plucks out the beards of his boon companions. Oh, he, too, can be good and noble, but only when all goes well with him. What is more, he can be carried off his feet, positively carried off his feet by noble ideals, but only if they come of themselves, if they fall from heaven for him, if they need not be paid for. He dislikes paying for anything, but is very fond of receiving, and that’s so with him in everything. Oh, give him every possible good in life (he couldn’t be content with less), and put no obstacle in his way, and he will show that he, too, can be noble.”

The speeches, observations and philosophy are summed up by Dmitri’s courtroom defender, who observes that “it’s a fearful thing to shed a father’s blood” but also that “some fathers are a misfortune.” The novelist distills ideas from the panorama of human nature he presents–not to live by, but of use to readers like taking a drink at the end of the day can be of use in helping us to live with what has been revealed.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Lemming permalink
    July 3, 2021 10:40 am

    For reasons I will never understand, a lot of people in my friend group read this novel our senior year in high school. I remember being more interested in the philosophy than the plot.

    • July 6, 2021 11:28 am

      I think it’s a good choice for high school–the emotions are so intense, and the domestic details so life-changing! But yeah, there just isn’t a lot of plot.

  2. July 3, 2021 11:37 am

    Thanks for participating and posting this detailed analysis of the book. Indeed this is quite a mixed bag of a novel, while there are long speeches on some serious subject matters, it’s also at times, very funny. D. sure has a way of writing to keep readers awake and surprisingly, I find some comedic scenes and humorous dialogue exchanges like those between Dmitri and Madame K. The latter part of the book is probably a classic murder mystery and court trial that has likely inspired our contemporary legal mystery writers say, e.g. John Grisham. 🙂

    • July 6, 2021 11:30 am

      Hmm. I find that the comedy extends to the courtroom scenes at the end, which in a peculiar way makes them even more serious–here’s a man faced with exile to Siberia and no one in the courtroom can decide when his girlfriend is lying, either to save him or condemn him. She and his brother will concoct a scheme to save him in the end, though!
      We’ll see what you think when you get there.

  3. July 3, 2021 12:09 pm

    Forgive me for having skimmed: I haven’t read this but had vaguely considered it for the future, and seeing that your review grabbed me from the start I think I may discover this novel for myself now. Thanks!

    • July 6, 2021 11:31 am

      That’s always one of my goals–to get someone to read the book! So hurrah!

  4. July 7, 2021 11:00 am

    I tried to read this with a book club of work colleagues, but we failed to finish it. We were reading a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Perhaps I should try a different translation.

    • July 7, 2021 11:23 am

      I think it’s always a good idea to try a different translation when you find a book like this heavy going.
      My son says that the major translations are P+V, David McDuff, and Constance Garnett. “But of those three, I must say I prefer McDuff and Garnett. Garnett is very clear – the only criticism made of her is that she “cleans up” some of Dostoevsky’s messier language. McDuff also has a more natural style in comparison to P+V, who try to reproduce the Russian more closely.”

  5. July 12, 2021 10:06 am

    Great review! This one is on my list. I love Russian literature.

  6. July 23, 2021 11:13 pm

    I just found out that I’d posted Part III on the wrong date, three days earlier! Didn’t know what I was thinking! Anyway, tomorrow July 24 is our concluding post for TBK Book IV and Epilogue. Looking forward to your thoughts. 🙂


  1. The Brothers Karamazov Part III: The Murder Mystery Begins – Ripple Effects

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