The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A review by Alan Nicoll

Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, his last book, is also generally considered his greatest. It is the lengthy tale of a family I would characterize as follows: an elderly father, Fyodor (the "old buffoon"), and his three grown sons, Dmitri (the rake), Ivan (the intellectual), and Alyosha (the saint). The setting is in a small town in Russia around 1870 (the book was published in 1880). The first half is largely the story of the interactions of the Karamazov family with Father Zosima and with a number of women. Zosima is an elder or holy man in the local monastery, and there is a lengthy digression into Zosima's history. The second half of the book mostly tells of the murder of the elder Karamazov and the trial of his son, Dmitri, for the crime. Dostoyevsky intended to continue the story in a second novel, but he died before this was begun.

Beyond this bare plot, the book is full of discussions and ruminations about God and man, society, psychology, the Russian character, and so on. I would call it a deeply religious book. One of the central concepts is the relation of God to morality, often expressed as "if there is no God, everything is permitted." It could be argued that in this book Dostoyevsky's main purpose is to demonstrate this concept. Given that I'm an atheist, it's a concept I reject.

When I was about half way through the book I told a friend "I wouldn't cut a word of it." The second half of the book I found distinctly less interesting, and frequently tedious.

Two chapters in particular stand out in my mind; in the Everyman's Library edition, these are called "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor." The latter is often reprinted separately, for example, in The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought and in Religion from Tolstoy to Camus (which also contains "Rebellion"). Together these chapters present a dialog between Ivan and Alyosha, though Ivan does almost all the talking. In "Rebellion" the main point seems to be that Christianity is based on freedom, but freedom entails the suffering of children. Horrors are described in this chapter, and it is a most disturbing thing to read. In "The Grand Inquisitor," the story is told of Christ's return to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisitor tells Christ that He is not needed, that men have taken what He left and perfected it. This story is richly suggestive and can be taken as an indictment of the Catholic Church or as a prophecy of the socialist state.

The Brothers Karamazov was one of the great reading experiences of my life, largely for two reasons. First, I appreciate all the philosophy, the discussions of religion and so on. Second, I was inspired by the portrait of Father Zosima.

First, the philosophy. The discussion--the struggle--between atheism and religion presented in the book is challenging and fascinating. Dostoyevsky does not set up a "straw man" atheist as a lesser writer might do. On the contrary, if anything, Dostoyevsky sets himself an impossible task: to refute Ivan's words in "Rebellion." In fact this is never done. So, one point I appreciated about this book was to have these eloquent words of Ivan's as reinforcement of my own world view. But there is much more, much I don't remember aside from a general feeling of intellectual excitement over the many ideas in this book.

Beyond the philosophical interest, I was also moved and inspired by the portrait of Father Zosima, his wisdom and humanity, his experiences, and his stories. In addition to being an atheist, I also consider myself a humanist (though not necessarily fitting someone else's definition of humanist). I take Zosima as an ideal human being, doing good and being good, helping others and enjoying life. That his theology and my philosophy are at odds does not bother me--he is a man before he is a Christian, and it is the man and his actions I praise, not his rationalized reasons and explanations for himself and his deeds.

The deeds are inspiring; the reasons are unimportant. I realize that this is a controversial statement; that we generally think the reasons for an action are equally as important as the action itself. But I reject the latter view, because, given the post-Freud, post-Darwin picture of man, it seems inescapable to me that our explanations of our behavior are inevitably shallow and virtually worthless. Zosima might say that he is a good man because he is a Christian; I say he is a good man and a Christian. No one would claim that all self-labeled Christians are good; all would agree that there are "good Christians and bad Christians." Clearly, then, the mere belief in Christianity of itself does not make a good man, though the Christians would have us believe so.

Regardless of the arguments that can be made on one side or the other, I was inspired by Zosima and I remain a convinced atheist. I think the religion could be pared away and the man left behind would be much like what I consider an ideal human being, but of course this is entirely speculative.

The Brothers Karamazov Who's Who, my list of characters with brief descriptions, organized by family relationships.

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