A Taste of the Classics: The Brothers Karamazov

In the series, we’re excerpting summaries Ken Boa has produced over the years on classic works of literature. See the first post for a list of 16 classics every Christian should know. 


No other novelist explored the souls of his characters so completely as did the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881).

I believe The Brothers Karamazov is his finest achievement, although he may be better known for Crime and Punishment.

The Brothers Karamazov was completed in the last two years of his life. Dostoevsky, however, did not regard the novel as complete, and he had planned to conclude some of the novel’s unfinished themes. In a letter to his publisher upon its initial submission, he anticipated living another 20 years, but he died within two months of making that statement. Yet, as it stands, The Brothers Karamazov is a remarkable work that explores the whole human range of behavior, from the depths of depravity to the heights of exultation and from the meanness of the human spirit to the great nobility of which it is capable.

A Misunderstood Novel?

The Brothers Karamazov is a grave and absorbing literary accomplishment, and yet I believe that it is often misunderstood. Many literary critics refuse to take the novel on its own terms. Instead, they impose external ideas and assert that it is too didactic, misinterpret it as being Slavophilic, or deem it too politically conservative, accusing the author of trying to nostalgically reconstruct a past that never existed.

I believe these criticisms to be faulty because they fail to accept the novel for what it is. They fail to appreciate Dostoevsky’s own vision of the novel, a vision clearly outlined in many of his letters. The honest reader can actually discover the author’s purpose.

One of the fundamental errors some have made when analyzing this novel is to extract the story of the Grand Inquisitor from its context and regard his accusations as the central theme. The account of the Grand Inquisitor is, more accurately, the great argument against God’s existence and love, which the rest of the novel rebuts. The chapter that introduces the Grand Inquisitor is followed by one about the elder, Zosima, and the Christian vision of sacrificial love and suffering that can lead to redemption. The author promoted the Christian view of redemption through the experiences of his characters, particularly three central characters—the Karamazov brothers.

The author promoted the Christian view of redemption through the experiences of his characters.

The novel’s literary structure is extraordinarily subtle because it is indirect. In his refutation of the arguments Ivan raises in the story of the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky used a plurality of voices—by means of an omniscient, third-person narration—to deny the scandalous claims against God. In doing so, Dostoevsky detached himself from his characters. The reader is forced to interact with the plot without preconceptions and to question where all these discordant voices are moving as they go about their journeys. The book introduces significant theological and political issues relevant to readers of all time periods.

The book introduces significant theological and political issues relevant to readers of all time periods.

Author’s Background

Dostoevsky’s life and writings were transformed by his imprisonment and exile. As a young man, he became a member of the Petroshevsky Circle, a revolutionary group that plotted against the czarist regime. As a result of his association with this subversive group, he was arrested and brought to trial. He was sentenced to be executed on December 22, 1849; however, as he and his coconspirators stood before a firing squad, their sentences were unexpectedly commuted to Siberian exile by the czar.

Image of Dostoevsky's New Testament
The New Testament that Dostoevsky took with him to prison in Siberia. Courtesy of Wikipedia (public domain image).

During four years of exile, followed by another four years during which he was forbidden to return to Moscow, he diligently read the New Testament. As he reflected on the futility of the kind of idealism that he had formerly embraced, he gradually moved away from rational humanism and political idealism—that all human problems can be solved politically—and returned from exile with a religious mission.

After this experience all of Dostoevsky’s novels demonstrate the decisive change he experienced, politically and spiritually.1 His writings promote the theme that moral transformation can be brought about only by an encounter with Christ and an understanding of love and sacrificial suffering.

The Plot

The main plot of The Brothers Karamazov has to do with murder and money, yet a complex network of subplots helps to illuminate its theme. The murder is patricide—the death of a father—Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov.

Fyodor Karamazov is a corrupt and lascivious provincial landowner and the father of three sons. The novel is structured around these sons:

  1. Dmitri: Son of Karamazov’s first wife; a sensual man with a passionate nature, he is following in his father’s footsteps with his life of selfish debauchery. He is betrothed to Katerina.
  2. Ivan: First son by Fyodor’s second wife; Ivan is a brilliant and intellectual skeptic who rejects sensuality for rationality. He argues that reason alone governs human actions and rejects the existence of any divinity.
  3. Alyosha: Second son by Fyodor’s second wife; a novice monk under the tutelage of the local monastic elder, Father Zosima. Alyosha embraces traditional Christian orthodoxy and serves as a bridge between his father and brothers. He attempts to unite his family and bestows both love and forgiveness liberally.

3 Brothers, 3 Aspects of Human Nature

It’s worth noting here that the three very different brothers represent the three central aspects of human nature: intellect/reason, experience/emotion, and conscience/morality.* C.S. Lewis argued that only when a person acknowledges all three aspects of their personhood and yields them to God can they live in right relationship with God and other people.

The novel also introduces another character named Smerdyakov, a servant in the household who is suspected of being Fyodor’s son by a local, mentally-ill girl. He represents a distorted image of the character of the three legitimate sons and serves as a foil in the novel.

When Fyodor Karamazov is found murdered, suspicion immediately falls on Dmitri for various reasons. He is ultimately found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment in Siberia despite the fact that it is discovered that Smerdyakov, not Dmitri, killed Fyodor.

As the novel develops, although Smerdyakov is the known murderer, it becomes obvious that the brothers bear some responsibility for their father’s death. At the novel’s conclusion, Dostoevsky’s redemptive purpose is most evident. Katerina chooses to remain and look after Ivan, who has suffered a mental breakdown following his realization of the part he played in his father’s murder. Ivan grasps that it was his faulty ideology that led to the crime, and his conscience leads him to confess to the crime during the trial. Yet when there is no corroborating evidence and after Smerdyakov has committed suicide, Dmitri is still convicted.

Grushenka, a local seductress over whom Fyodor and Dmitri had a sexual rivalry, reforms as the result of an encounter with Alyosha and decides to accompany Dmitri into exile in Siberia, where suffering proves powerfully instructive to him.

The novel ends with Alyosha leaving the refuge of the monastery to go out into the world and live and serve as a Christian monk.

Themes

The Cosmic Battle of Good vs. Evil

The novel provides powerful images that illustrate that the human heart is the battlefield between the forces of good and evil; the locus of spiritual warfare is in the human soul. Each brother comes to grips with his own fallen nature and discovers the path to redemption.

Alienation

One modern theme that makes this novel resonate with current culture is that of alienation. I am convinced that The Brothers Karamazov has influenced the development of the 20th-century novel more than any other, principally because of this theme of alienation. Alienation is presented as a result of the loss of spiritual certainty, faith, and the power of reason, all of which sustained people in previous ages.

I am convinced that The Brothers Karamazov has influenced the development of the 20th-century novel more than any other, principally because of this theme …

The demise of human connectedness then becomes inevitable, for uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt about the human condition pervade life. This vacuum produces a longing for new certainties—a desire for clarity, moral certainty, and a significance that we cannot seem to find. Dostoevsky’s novels continue to speak powerfully to the human predicament, for they chronicle the schism created when human beings eradicate God from life and law.

Antitheses

There is a powerful antithetical structure employed in this novel, including contrasts between:

  • The monastery, a reminder of God’s presence in his world, and the town, Chermashnya, which means “cattle pen”—establishing a contrast between the biblical image of the shepherd protecting his sheep within the fold with the mere containment of cattle awaiting death (an existentialist view of life).
  • The Grand Inquisitor and the elder monk, Father Zosima. The Grand Inquisitor seeks to prove Christ’s death a resounding defeat, while Father Zosima presents sacrificial love as the only means by which redemption is possible.

The antithetical parallels of the novel are further observed in Dostoevsky’s exploration of humanity’s moral disintegration. Dostoevsky viewed the fragmentation of the family as the symptom of a growing secular culture and held it largely responsible for the loss of a sense of moral continuity, community, and collective good in the world.

This post only skims the surface of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece. Read more of Ken Boa’s analysis of the novel’s conflicts, themes, and symbolism in my Taste of the Classics, Volume I. 

Anticipating the 20th Century—and Beyond

One of the striking aspects of this novel is the anticipation of totalitarian states based on illusory philosophies of an idealized humanity. Dostoevsky foresaw that this, in fact, would inevitably lead to the oppression of people and destructive ruin of society, as later affirmed by the events of the 20th century—the bloodiest in human history. This destruction was empowered by the totalitarian ideologies of existentialism, Marxism, and national socialism. These misguided philosophies produced societies where all freedom was lost and life was regarded as cheap—all in the name of an idealized and humanitarian vision. Why? Each of these worldviews elevates the human to divine status and entrusts the person with self-governance while eradicating all absolute foundations for moral behavior. The lessons of classical tragedy and biblical truth were forgotten: humanity is incapable of self-restraint. Hubris is the endemic condition of humanity; catastrophe is the inevitable consequence of such arrogance; redemption through Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection offers the only cure.

Dostoevsky foresaw … [the destructive consequences of] the totalitarian ideologies of existentialism, Marxism, and national socialism. Each of these worldviews elevates the human to divine status and entrusts the person with self-governance while eradicating all absolute foundations for moral behavior.

Theme: John 12:24

In the preface of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky dedicated this work to his wife, Anna, and then he quoted from John 12:24. I believe it is impossible to understand this novel without grasping the significance of this Scripture:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

The Bible clearly teaches that new life is possible only through the death of the old nature. Christ did not come to reform humans; he came to bring new life. This is Paul’s message in Galatians 2:20.

The brokenness and fragmentation of the human condition can be redeemed only through Christ’s active love. It is not theoretical at all but active. This love explodes in and through us as we surrender and continue to die to self and live in Christ daily. This is a central theme in The Brothers Karamazov.

Active Love

There is a marvelous passage in the novel that illustrates this concept of active love. The text shows the contrast between knowledge about God and faith in God. Father Zosima is engaged in a conversation with a woman who confesses that she is in distress. Fearing that immortality may be fiction and death may be final, she asks how an afterlife can be proved. The elder responds, “How can it be proven, how can one be convinced it is true? . . . By the experience of active love. … In the degree to which you succeed in that love, you will also be convinced of God’s existence and of your soul’s immortality.” As Father Zosima continues speaking, Dostoevsky establishes a concept of a love that is alive and active, as opposed to a kind of theoretical love often associated with intellectualism and those illusory philosophies that deny the fallen nature of humanity. He reminds his reader that love is only possible through God, not apart from him.

Concluding Thoughts

Even though the author felt that his novel was incomplete, it vividly describes the triumphal movement away from fragmentation, disorder, cacophony, and injustice to wholeness, order, harmony, and justice through salvation and sanctification. The Karamazov brothers serve to illustrate God’s pursuit of us, in order that he might love us and remake our broken natures.

The Brothers Karamazov inflames in me a desire for God’s kingdom, when Christ will come and reign and deliver us from the corporate unrighteousness from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Christ will again invade human history. In the meantime, we are called to be a people who walk by faith in what the Lord has done, in the hope of what he will do, and in love during this intervening period. As we await the fullness of our redemption, we are called to walk in faith, hope, and love.

I want to live for immortality, and I will accept no halfway compromise.
—Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov

Image credit: Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872. Public domain image via Wikipedia Commons.

Ken Boa’s four-volume Taste of the Classics series offers summaries and analysis of 16 classic works of literature. All are available in the online store here

Series Navigation<< A Taste of the Classics: Pride & Prejudice

Footnotes

  1. These novels include House of the Dead (1862), Notes from the Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), and The Idiot (1869). I briefly touch on the themes of each of these novels as well in my book A Taste of the Classics, Volume I.