Friday, July 19, 2013

249. The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Karamazov Brothers (870; 1880)* is the second book by Fyodor Dostoevsky I have read, in addition to Crime and Punishment. The book counts towards two reading challenges: the Year of Russian Literature and Top 100 Books to be Read in Five Years. In this book, which happened to be the author's last work, Dostoevsky traversed several grounds and themes and perhaps knowing (or through serendipity) completely and fully invested himself and his knowledge in this book. I am not sure of this, but The Karamazov Brothers could be a cauldron of a major part of Dostoevsky's ideas. In effect, this author-researcher, this psychologist of a novelist, this student of human nature and thoughts, produced a seminal work, worth studying in different fields of social sciences, in this novel. Thus, to describe The Karamazov Brothers as a novel is an understatement. It does the book a huge injustice and undermines its quality. This is a compendium of human thoughts, psyche, and behaviour, morality, God and Devil, good and evil, societal decadence, belief and non-belief, the hereafter, and more.

The story is narrated by an unnamed character who lives in a monastery and in the town - Skotoprigonyevsk - where the Karamazov brothers and the patriarch, Fyodor Pavlovitch, live. Though this unnamed narrator reports directly what he saw and heard, he could possibly be described as a quasi-omniscient narrator. For he knew and reported more than a mere third person could possibly have known. The Karamazovs were sensualists and were ruled by it; and they lived their lives with reckless abandon. They were neither at the top of Russian society nor at the bottom. The patriarch began with nothing, struggled to earn some income, through marriage, and through hard work built up his wealth. But the patriarch was also egoistic and thought not about anyone more than himself, including his children. The Karamazov sons - Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha - were therefore bereft of familial love and unity, from having lived in diverse families. As sensual as the Karamazovs were, they were also prone to act on whims and when gripped by a single idea, remained its slave until that idea was realised.

These variables collided when Fyodor and Dmitri both fell in love with a young woman, Grushenka - who was herself carrying the poison of a rejected. The struggle between the father and son in the matter of who would earn this young woman's love set the premise for the novel and the events that lie therein. It is this struggle for love, this obsession on both sides, that would define the future of the Karamazovs. For there would be murder and a man would be charged for it, and another would fall into psychosis. 

Through this the author discussed several issues germane to the Russian society of the times and of today, for issues of human psyche, thoughts, belief, and behaviour do not change with the times. The questions are relevant even when the times change. Dostoevsky creates scenarios, experimental situations, drops in a variable or two and analyses how the specimens would react to the experimental conditions and through this discusses life and its purpose, God and his existence. It is clear that to Dostoevsky the novel is a means to interrogating life and seeking answers, explanations, and reasons from life's complexities. He builds a theory in the telling of his story.

For instance, Dmitri - the eldest of the Karamazov is reckless, unrestrained in speech and behaviour, and diametric; Ivan is an intellectual and the philosopher who can argue on both sides of issues but has a dark hidden spot in his heart; Alyosha dropped from school to become a novice monk. His naivety and innocence is equal only to his kind heart. And the patriarch is a buffoon who preferred making fun of himself in public. Yet from within this diverse family emanates discussions of the presence or absence of God, immorality and immortality (life after death), and the role of the church in the state. Thus through these incongruent characters Dostoevsky discusses both the merits and demerits of having the church morphing into a state,  arguments for and against the existence of God and his importance, and more of such dipolar views.

In studying the human behaviour and psyche, Dostoevsky analyses the inner and outer being and which dominates the other. For instance, he showed that though one may be sordid, slothful and sloven in his appearance, he could have an inner being that is pure, gentle, matured, and priceless. Example is Dmitri, whose inner life became clearer during his trial for parricide and Nikolay Ilyitch Snegiryov, the disgraced captain whom Dmitri beat out of rage. On the other hand, Ivan, respected by all for his gentle manners, and Smerdyakov, trusted by all, later proved to be far from what their appearances suggested. Dostoevsky has an almost unparalleled ability to describe human anguish and the ontogenesis of evil and ponerology itself. The gradual development of Dmitri's near psychotic state arising from his singular obsession of love towards Grushenka was superb, in its treatment. Can an idea - its realisation, its execution - lead one to damnation? Dmitri's his love for Grushenka bred a deadly jealousy for anybody including his father Fyodor leading almost to a parricide. And this is where Dmitri's duality comes clear. For whereas he was not afraid of what he says, even those things that would implicate him in his fathers death, he was afraid to giving information that would make him dishonourable in the sight of his betrothed, Katerina Ivanovna. It is that which led the description 
You have to deal with a man of honour, a man of the highest honour; above all don't lose sight of it - a man who's done a lot of nasty things, but has always been, and still is, honourable at bottom, in his inner being. [518]
Thus, there is a clear disconnect between the inner and outer beings of Dmitri resulting from that single obsessive and possessive idea. Dmitri also suffered because he couldn't lie. Or couldn't hide his feelings. For if he were cunning even for a second he might have come out of his problem unscathed. But he was not! Mitya (Dmitri) spoke freely and with reckless abandon. He spoke from his heart without the restraint of those who know of their guilt; even of things that the heart conceives but the hand cannot implement. Thus, with a bit of censure, an ounce of cunning and deception and an ability to restraint his feelings he would have survived. But isn't his unrestrained behaviour a virtue? Isn't restraint, deception; censure, vice? For isn't it deceptive and therefore lies if one thinks of A and speaks B? So Mitya suffered for his frankness, his virtues, and his honesty.

Ivan and Alyosha's discussions on the existence or otherwise of God was based on both the logical and the scientific. According to Ivan it is inconceivable for a mind that perceives the world in only three dimensions of Euclidian geometry to conceptualise the existence of God. He argued that though he accept the existence of God, he does not accept his world in relation to the suffering of the innocent, children, and sometimes animals. Ivan discussed justice on earth, justice for the present evil and justice at some remote infinite time and space. People who play wickedness, who wreak havoc on the innocent (including children) must be made to face justice; however, the class system has shown that if one were an aristocrat there will be no such justice and if one were to have a good lawyer one may go free though one might have committed a grievous crime. For instance, Ivan questions why people - including children - face tribulations for some future harmony. He argues that an unfair, unjust, evil world was not a necessity for heaven and that's why he might accept God but will not accept the world he has created. He saw it as unnecessary for for an evil world to be a conduit to eternal peace or eternal suffering. That for a God to create a world where children and the innocent and the unprotected could suffer and be tortured only for them to be resurrected and be judged to heaven (harmony) or hell (suffering) is unjustifiable. That no man should create such a world; so why should God of whom it is said "Thou art just, o Lord" do that? And yet children pray to him and address him "dear, kind God", even in their suffering. He argues that man could not accept eternal happiness built on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of little children (victim).

However, the crunch of Ivan's argument, which is also a central part of The Karamazov Brothers, is his invocation and discussion of the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. This parable of the Grand Inquisitor is set during the period of the Spanish Inquisition with Christ having come back to earth and performing his miracles. He is arrested by the ninety-year old Grand Inquisitor who imprisons him pending his sentence of auto-da-fé. However, the GI visits Christ in prison and holds a conversation with him centring more on why Christ is not necessary at this point in time. Using the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan showed how God, through his demonstration of freedom, left many a man to their doom only to be rescued by the church. The parable of the GI is based on the three temptations of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament. For instance, on Jesus' refusal to turn stone into bread, the GI informed him that in refusing this, he left the majority of the people to their doom. For how many of them could live without food? In doing that, he set the kingdom of God for a few to the detriment of the masses. The section discusses the idea of an infallible man with divine powers to act God on earth; whose words are final. Like the entire story, this section is also ambiguous, diametric in spirit, and amenable to different interpretations. For instance, The Grand Inquisitor was at once an atheist and Satan and Alyosha (to whom this is being told) was almost Christ-like. Further, whereas the GI blames God for handing over a thing as harmful as freedom to man, knowing that freedom is man's burden, he also blamed the inhumane and power-seeking posture of the GI, who has assumed for himself a God-position on earth and who know well enough that he is leading the masses to him (possibly the Devil) but not to God. In fact, the GI would have crucified Jesus Christ again.
But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they've slain each other with the sword. They have set up gods and challenged one another, 'Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!' And so it will be to the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same. [278]
Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. [279]
The GI concluded that the three temptations Christ refused contained miracle, mystery, and authority - the forces or power required to conquer and hold the conscience of men captive. The GI says 
Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar's purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? [282]
According to Ivan and Father Zossima, the church with its ethics provide the moral compass that direct society away from crime. Thus, the non-belief in God and church erases the idea of sin and crime, making any act permissible and it is this permissibility introduced into the weaker mind of Smerdyakov by Ivan that spelt Dmitri's doom. Dostoevsky, through Father Zossima (the mentor of Alyosha), discusses the concept of modern freedom embedded in individuality and self-aggrandisement and communality in Christ. Arguing that today's kind of freedom leads to trouble and catastrophe.
They have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being, is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: 'You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.' That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, even and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. [346]
The devil as a physical manifestation (or projection) of Ivan's thoughts played a role in this beautiful work. As events unfolded and Ivan, realising the extent of his role in the crime, lapsed into psychosis, he began seeing the devil, who held conversations with him, using Dmitri's ideas to debate him. The devil explains (or argues) why his existence is required. He says that without him life will be monotonous that he was commanded to be so there would be events and things that are irrational. He says that life will be one tedious and endless church service without suffering. He defends himself that his destiny was carved out for him; such that unlike Mephistopheles, he only desired good but receives only bad; that somebody (probably God) takes all that is good whilst he is blamed for all that is bad. That though there is the secret that will make him do good they won't show him lest the 
indispensable minus disappear at once and good sense reigns supreme throughout the whole world. [728]
There were also issues of existentialism and socialism. For instance, does Mitya accepting to be sentenced for all the suffering babes he saw who had no one to care for them and saying that we must care and be responsible for all an indication of his socialist stand and his condemnation of us as a people? Issues of existentialism run subtly or overtly through the stories. They are found in the addresses of both the defence and prosecution lawyers. In Fetyukovitch's defence of Dmitri, he says, in proving that evidence, real evidence not conjectural and anecdotal evidence, is all that is required to prove guilt
That's what I call evidence, gentlemen of the jury! In that case I know, I see, I touch the money, and cannot deny its existence. [821]
Just as the book is a duality of ideas, of belief and non-belief, of the presence and absence of God, there was also the opposite of this Thomasian phenomenon of seeing expressing itself into believing. On the two occasions that they appear, they were narrated by Ivan. The first instance this appeared was in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor where Ivan told Alyosha that one need not to see to believe; that he who believes after seeing has already made up his mind to believe in the first place and that any good atheist could find several reasons to explain what he was seeing.
One who does not not believe in God's people will not believe in God's people. He who believes in God's people will see His Holiness, even though he had not believed in it till then. Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists., who have torn themselves away from their native soil. [323]
In the other instance where such anti-existentialist discussion cropped up, it was Ivan's phantasmagorical doppelganger who appeared to him in the form of the devil and held discussions with him. During these encounters the devil used Ivan's own arguments against him. Responding to an issue of belief, the Devil says
Besides, proofs are no help to believing, especially material proofs. Thomas believed, not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to believe, before he saw. [715]
Prior to this meeting with the Devil, Ivan in his earlier discussions had categorically stated that one need not see to believe; that belief in itself is a decision made prior to seeing.
It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognised by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, 'My Lord and my God!' Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, 'I do not not believe till I see.' [24]
 The Karamazov Brothers is a criticism of the morality of Russia of the time. It is Russia with its extremes; these extremes did exist and manifest within the same time and space. And the pendulum swung from pole to pole. Dostoevsky also brought out the discriminatory class system embedded in feudal Russia at the time - the difference between peasants and the educated elite or aristocrats. This created two somewhat distinct strands of conversations: the peasant-like conversation, which concentrated on equality and the unfairness of the Russian class system, including such discussants as Smerdyakov and Snegiryov; and the aristocratic talk which mostly concentrated on the presence or otherwise of God.

Dostoevsky's dramatic characterisation is interesting and brings out, albeit comedic, the exact situation he is describing. His descriptions of people, places and spaces is so vivid that the picture easily builds in the reader's mind. He provides the minutest detail down to 'half-eaten piece of bread, and a small bottle with a few drops of vodka' on the table. Also making the narrator remind the reader of earlier events was helpful; especially for such a long story, this helped the reader to keeping track of events that are relevant as the story progresses.

This is a beautiful novel. It has a lot more than just a story in its pages. Personally, I think this novel is under-hyped. For what it is worth, more noise should have been made about it, especially since we make useless noise about novels of inferior quality. If you have not read this novel, you are losing out.
i. *Version published by Wordsworth Classics and translated by Constance Garnett
ii. Read Quotes I and II from The Karamazov Brothers
iii. Dmitri vs Rodya: Rodya was the main character in Crime and Punishment. There are some similarities, and of course differences, between these two characters. Both Rodya and Dmitri were gripped by a single idea; for Rodya, it was the idea of an ordinary and extraordinary man. And both came to grief from that. Even in TKB the idea of ordinary and extraordinary man came to the fore, somewhat:
"Didn't you know?" he said laughing, "a clever man can do what he likes,"
In C&P Rodya committed the crime; he killed the Ivanovna sisters but because of his universal kindness attested to by many, no one believed him and each wanted to keep him from jail. Thus, his outward appearance saved him. Testaments from witnesses gave him a lessened sentence though he didn't defend himself. Mitya, on the other hand, didn't commit the crime but his demeanour, his poor outward behaviour made him guilty in the eyes of the people and all believed that he was a criminal even when he put up a strong defence of an honour unknown to them.


  1. Dostoevsky is so amazing. Really, and you're right, this isn't one of his marquee books but it's so incredible!

  2. Brilliant and in-depth review, as usual. You have demystified this book for me and I must read it. Bravo, my friend


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