“… we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature- capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.”
The first time I had heard of this literary classic was from the leader of my college small group when I was going to a protestant church. Having read it, I am a little surprised at the wide appeal of the Brothers Karamazov- I thought it was a thoroughly Orthodox Christian book, and a lot of its themes resonate most deeply to someone fully immersed in Orthodox life. It speaks to the author’s skill that this book has become an enduring favorite nevertheless, even for people completely unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Brothers Karamazov is a story set in late 19th century Russia, centered around the dysfunctions of the titular Karamazov family. The main driver of the plot is a dispute between the father, Fyodor and his eldest son Dmitri, a tussle that escalates quickly into tragedy.
I enjoyed greatly the strong characterization in this book. In particular, the four Karamazovs are very different people, and Dostoyevsky fleshes them all out beautifully. The patriarch, Fyodor is an amoral old rascal. His eldest son, Dmitri, is a hot-tempered and passionate young man bound by a quixotic sense of honour. The middle child, Ivan is a reserved, cynical intellectual coping with some deep neuroses. Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, is a sensitive, thoughtful novice at the local monastery. The interactions between these four thoroughly different people create some delightfully memorable scenes.
Alyosha Karamazov is the main character of the story, and we see the events of the story mostly through his eyes. This works a little strangely, since he is the Karamazov brother least directly involved with the central conflict of the book. He influences the story in subtle but decisive ways, and his interactions with the elderly monk Zosima form the spiritual heart of the novel.
The scenes at Alyosha’s monastery are based on Dostoevsky’s visits to the real-life Optina monastery, and Elder Zosima is based loosely on Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk. My favorite passages in the book are Elder Zosima’s homilies, which delve rather deeply into Orthodox thought and theology. These, at the surface rather unrelated to the principal plot of the book, but we see later how they drive Alysoha’s actions in important ways. The monastery scenes contain beautiful discourses on love, forgiveness, refraining from judging others. These discourses are ever more beautiful and necessary given how dark other parts of the book can be.
“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love…”
“Brothers, 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.”
There are other very strong philosophical discourses in the book. A chapter where Ivan Karamazov explains his objections to Christianity, the Grand Inquisitor, is prominent enough to get its own Wikipedia page. It is a credit to the author that he is able to articulate compellingly both Ivan’s arguments against the existence of a benevolent God, and Zosima’s stirring homilies on the necessity of Christian faith.
The story itself feels a little incomplete however, and most of the character arcs seem unfinished. Apparently people think that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that Dostoevsky was unable to continue before he died. But this is not to say that the novel ends without resolution. We are treated to a wonderful epilogue at the end, at the funeral of a young child, where Alyosha and the dead boy’s friends talk of the hope that they will see him again in the resurrection. This hopeful ending, rather unrelated to the main events of the book, nevertheless ties all the themes of the book together.
This novel is a classic, with a very profound portrayal of Orthodox thinking, and of Christian lives lived well. I think Orthodox Christians especially would get a lot out of the Brothers Karamazov.