#11 The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

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There’s no time like the holidays to remind us that it’s rough, having siblings. Family, in general, is just one huge tree of problems. The branches multiply every year, and the leaves come and go with the seasons, and when the apples fall—near or far—they rot.

Just ask the Karamazovs.

Start with Alexei (better known as Alyosha). He’ll find a way to tell you about his family and withhold the bitter cynicism. A fresh-faced and humble young novice, Alyosha would tell you that families aren’t perfect—but they stick together in the tough times, and they cherish each other even when they don’t show it. Then he would listen politely while you talked for 10 pages hours about your family.

Cool and clever Ivan, his older brother, will give a sarcastic laugh at the very notion of family. Then he will launch into a rambling monologue about the nature of good and evil, and the ways families bring out both. During your tea break, he may hallucinate conversations with the devil. Don’t be alarmed.

Or do, because that’s reasonable.

Dmitri (Mitya), the stormy and passionate eldest brother, will alternately beg, weep, and shout that family is as essential as air—or the very grounds of deceit and betrayal. It depends entirely on his mood.

And while there’s really no telling what their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, will say, you can bet your last ruble that it will be loud, it will be rude, and it will cause a scene.

“Dysfunctional” doesn’t even begin to cover it with this family. “Self-destructive” would be more accurate. The consequences of an inheritance dispute (and a romantic dispute) between Mitya and Fyodor Pavlovich are as numerous as they are dramatic: Fyodor Pavlovich, notably, winds up dead, and Mitya’s unbridled spirit lands him in a steaming heap of trouble. Also jail.

We spend much of the novel following the Karamazovs around town meeting all of the characters tied to the fate(s) of this unruly brood. But the Karamazovs themselves are only half the story—the other half being wrapped up in philosophical questions about God, free will, human nature, morality, and happiness.

All of this takes place in the 1860s in a town called Skotoprigonyevsk. (…Yeah.) Russia was, at the time, a nation distracted by social and political upheaval: Serfdom had just been abolished, Western European culture was quickly invading, and radicalism reared its ugly head in more ways than one. Is the tempestuous Karamazov family a metaphor for Russia’s volatility, as witnessed by Dostoevsky himself?

I dunno. But that sounds insightful, so let’s go with YES.

Some fun grim facts about Fyodor Dostoevsky:

  • Dostoevsky’s father was thought to have been murdered by his own serfs.
  • Dostoevsky himself was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death by firing squad for illegally distributing socialist propaganda. The execution was all a ruse, however—intended by the authorities as a psychological punishment. His physical punishment followed: four years at a Siberian labor camp and four years of military service.
  • While in prison, Dostoevsky began suffering from epileptic seizures. The seizures affected him for the rest of his life; he had four in March of 1877 alone.

So if you suspect that Dostoevsky had a preoccupation with criminal justice (he also authored a little-known beach read by the name of Crime and Punishment), just know that the rest of the jury reached that verdict a long time ago.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

The Brothers Karamazov is as ambitious as they come. But if anyone could pull it off, it’s Dostoevsky.

Favorite Quotes:

The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen. 

I recently read a comment by a foreigner, a German, who used to live in Russia, about our young students these days. “Show a Russian schoolboy a chart of the heavens,” he writes, “of which hitherto he had no idea at all, and the next day he will return the chart to you with corrections.” No knowledge and boundless conceit—that’s what the German meant to say about the Russian schoolboy.

A woman—devil knows what a woman is.

He felt, as I picture it to myself, something similar to what a criminal feels on his way to execution, to the gallows: he still has to go down a long, long street, and at a slow pace, past thousands of people, then turn down another street, and only at the end of that other street—the terrible square! I precisely think that at the start of the procession the condemned man, sitting in the cart of shame, must feel precisely that there is still an endless life ahead of him.

I am writing a curse, yet I adore you! I hear it in my heart. One string is left, and it sings.

Truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.

We will fight. But love—oh, I will love her infinitely.

Read: 2015

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3 thoughts on “#11 The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

    • So glad you enjoyed the review! The book doesn’t exactly fly by, but I genuinely enjoyed it for the fascinating character development and philosophical themes. Let me know what you think when you get around to it!

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