Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky’s final novel and undisputed masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, was completed in late 1880, less than half a year before his own death. It could not have been otherwise. This one book is a summa of his entire life’s investigation into the nature and importance of Christianity, a final testament to the centrality of our belief systems, and a bequest, to all of Russia, offering the potential for religious renewal at a time when its cultural and civic order was strained to the breaking point. It has few peers in world literature, but one is certainly Milton’s Paradise Lost, for Dostoevsky shares the blind poet’s ambition “to justify the ways of God to man.”

Our protagonists are the titular brothers Karamazov: Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan (Vanya) and Alexei (Alyosha), each of whom embodies a certain attitude towards existence: Dmitri is a “sensualist,” a man of appetites and unbridled passions; Ivan is brilliant and morose, cerebral to a fault, and angry with what he perceives to be the cruel nature of the universe; and Alexei, the youngest of the brothers, is a noviciate in the local monastery, described by the narrator as “an early lover of mankind” searching for “an ideal way out for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness towards the light of love.” In the prefatory note “From the author,” Dostoevsky explicitly designates Alyosha as the hero of his tale, and no character will be treated so kindly or described in such loving detail:

[…] he did love people; he lived all his life, it seemed, with complete faith in people, and yet no one ever considered him either naive or a simpleton. There was something in him that told one, that convinced one (and it was so all his life afterwards) that he did not want to be a judge of men, that he would not take judgment upon himself and would not condemn anyone for anything. It seemed, even, that he accepted everything without the least condemnation.

For the purposes of this brief review, two other characters need mentioning: Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the wealthy pater familias whose reputation for debauchery, drunkenness and wealth-seeking has made him notorious in his part of Russia, and Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, a servant in Fyodor’s household suspected of being Fyodor’s illegitimate son, and therefore the fourth brother.

The title of the novel’s first book, “A Nice Little Family,” is quickly revealed to be sardonic: Fyodor Pavlovich is a monster of egoism and self-indulgence, and his sons have been raised in a state of almost total neglect. “Of course, one can imagine what sort of father and mentor such a man would be. As a father he did precisely what was expected of him; that is, he totally and utterly abandoned his child […].” Dostoevsky has great fun in his physical descriptions of Fyodor:

I have already mentioned that he had grown very bloated. His physiognomy by that time presented something that testified acutely to the characteristics and essence of his whole being. Besides the long, fleshy bags under his eternally insolent, suspicious, and leering little eyes, besides the multitude of deep wrinkles on his fat little face, a big Adam’s apple, fleshy and oblong like a purse, hung below his sharp chin, giving him a sort of repulsively sensual appearance. Add to that a long, carnivorous mouth with plump limps, behind which could be seen the little stumps of black, almost decayed teeth.

This bloated louche is far from done, however: we quickly learn that he is in direct conflict with his eldest son, Dmitri, over a question of inheritance, as well as over the affections of a young woman both men wish to marry. But beneath his egoism and his sensual appetites and his penchant for playing the buffoon lies an intelligence and canny comprehension that becomes the truest inheritance of each of his sons, and manifests differently in each of them.

I will make of Ivan a case study, for in many ways he is the character closest to my own heart. He is bookish and cerebral, an active participant in the kinds of Russian literary circles in which Dostoevsky made his name, but he is also spiritually tormented by what he sees as a paradox: his rational mind prevents him from believing in god or the immortality of the soul, and yet that same rational mind has cut down all ethical doctrines as insubstantial without that vision of god and immortality. One of the locals describes Ivan’s position for us:

No more than five days ago, at a local gathering, predominantly of ladies, he solemnly announced in the discussion that there is decidedly nothing in the whole world that would make men love their fellow men; that there exists no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that if there is and has been any love on earth up to now, it has come not from natural law but solely from people’s belief in their immortality. Ivan Fyodorovich added parenthetically that this is what all natural law consists of, so that were mankind’s belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy. And even that is not all: he ended with the assertion that for every separate person, like ourselves for instance, who believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation.

Ivan himself summarizes his position more tersely: “There is no virtue if there is no immortality.” The trouble, as Ivan sees it, is that man’s egotism will overwhelm all lesser commitments, converting his reason and his principles into mere self-interest. In his brother Dmitri, we see the terrible drama enacted in the human breast between the demands of sensuality and the longings of the soul. Dmitri debauches himself with women and wine, and in the moments of debauchery, enjoys himself: “Because when I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I’m even pleased that I’m falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful.” What Dmitri begins to articulate is exactly the dilemma laid out by Ivan, of man confusing right and wrong out of sheer self-interest, but Dostoevsky sets it down in such sympathetic terms that we recognize ourselves in the description:

Beauty is a fearful and terrible thing! Fearful because it’s undefinable, and it cannot be defined, because here God gave us only riddles. Here the shores converge, here all contradictions live together. I’m a very uneducated man, brother, but I’ve thought about it a lot. So terribly many mysteries! Too many riddles oppress man on earth. Solve them if you can without getting your feet wet. Beauty! Besides, I can’t bear it that some man, even with a lofty heart and the highest mind, should start from the ideal of the Madonna and end with the ideal of Sodom. It’s even more fearful when someone who already has the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not deny the ideal of the Madonna either, and his heart burns with it, verily, verily burns, as in his young, blameless years. No, man is broad, even too broad, I would narrow him down. Devil knows even what to make of him, that’s the thing! What’s shame for the mind is beauty all over for the heart, that’s just where beauty lies – did you know that secret? The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but also mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.

Every character in this book is undergoing such a struggle, to a greater or lesser degree, and as if to confirm that this is the case, Alyosha – Dmitri’s interlocutor, and the novel’s most noble character – confirms that he, too, feels himself involved in the very same struggle: “I blushed not at your words, and not at your deeds, but because I’m the same as you.”

Thematically, the novel’s climax comes roughly a quarter of the way through its 800 pages, when Ivan takes Alyosha into a tavern (the scene of all Dostoevsky’s characters’ great duels with faith and philosophy) and delivers his indictment of God. The argument predates Dostoevsky, and has been made many times since: that a just God would not allow a universe in which innocent children are made to suffer – but never before or since has it been set down so forcefully, so articulately, so persuasively.

Can you understand that a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and the cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for ‘dear God’ to protect her – can you understand such nonsense, my friend and my brother, my godly and humble novice, can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’

He enriches his argument with stories of the sufferings of children, and these Dostoevsky did not invent but borrowed, in all their horrifying details, from the Russian newspapers he was reading while composing: a child punished by her hateful parents, beaten and starved and smeared with excrement, and left overnight in a cold outhouse; another child, the son of a serf, is fed to the hounds of a wealthy Russian landowner, in front of his own mother, for some minor indiscretion. The resulting indictment is so powerful that Dostoevsky and his publishers were both concerned that his attack would prove too decisive, that he wouldn’t have it in him to redeem God from the charges Ivan lays against him:

Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering. Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone’s future harmony with themselves? I understand solidarity in sin among men; solidarity in retribution I also understand; but what solidarity in sin do little children have? And if it is really true that they, too, are in solidarity with their fathers in all the fathers’ evildoings, that truth certainly is not of this world and is incomprehensible to me. Some joker will say, perhaps, that in any case the child will grow up and have time enough to sin, but there’s this boy who didn’t grow up but was torn apart by dogs at the age of eight.

He recoils in horror at the thought that any future happiness or understanding – however paradisiacal – could be founded on the torture and suffering of a child:

[…] I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little first and prayed to ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! Not worth it, because her tears remain unredeemed. They must be redeemed, otherwise there can be no harmony. But how, how will you redeem them? Is it possible? Can they be redeemed by being avenged? But what do I care if they are avenged, what do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right here, if these ones have already been tormented? And where is the harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace, I don’t want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price.

In his rage against God, Ivan Karamazov far surpasses anything laid down by the pens of history’s most famous rationalists and blasphemers. Dostoevsky endowed Ivan with the full weight of his imaginative genius, and the result is an almost unanswerable indictment.

Readers will search in vain through the book’s concluding chapters for anything like a counter-argument on God’s behalf. The Devil makes an appearance (as apparition or hallucination, we cannot say); two very eloquent lawyers will argue over whether or not murder might, under the right circumstances, be forgivable – but no one takes up Ivan’s challenge and refutes his indictment. Even Alyosha, the most spiritual by far of the brothers, asked if he would consent to be chief architect of a world founded on the suffering of children, declines the burden. Dostoevsky’s rebuttal lies in the form of the novel itself, and in what becomes of the various characters as a result of their beliefs. The construction is intricate beyond imagining, a complex of characters acting as prisms, refracting the same idea in different directions based on their own unique moral sensibilities, and showing the reader, by the example of their lives, where each unique philosophy reaches its conclusion. The result is the richest and most ambitious novel I have ever read, or am ever likely to read, as comprehensive and self-contained as it is possible for a work of literature to be, addressing itself to the weightiest themes the human mind can tackle.