Title: The Brothers Karamazov
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Genre(s): fiction, classics, literary, historical, Russian literature
Length: 720/1,013 pages (varies based on edition)
Published: November 1880
Generally, I don’t think that classic novels need much introduction. They’ve been out so long and are so widely-read that most people have a general idea of the story. But despite being a self-proclaimed “lover of classic novels,” I knew very little about The Brothers Karamazov when I first purchased it in the summer of 2018. The only Russian author I had read up to that point was Tolstoy (Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich). So, I picked up TBK based on the suggestion of a friend of mine who loves the novel and because the sheer size of the book made me giddy—I love a long book when they’re well-written. The synopsis of the book of course interested me too—I also love family sagas and murder mysteries. I fully expected to enjoy the book since it was basically a poster child for what I like to read and write.
And yet, I was not prepared to enjoy it as much as I did. This book is a delight.
In case you are like 2018-summer me and are not familiar with the premise of the story, The Brothers Karamazov follows the lives of the three Karamazov brothers—Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan, and Alexey (Alyosha)—leading up to and after the unfortunate murder of their unfortunate father, Fyodor Karamazov. I promise that’s not spoiler; Dostoyevsky alerts the reader to Mr. Karamazov’s death on the first page of the novel. Of course, there is a lot more going on: tentative engagements, unrequited love, disputes over money, debt, and inheritance, philosophical discussions, and a cast of characters who are all extremely emotional (I say this in an endeared, amused sort of way). The family saga that unfolds is not only compelling and blissfully dramatic, but continually raises important thematic questions that cause the reader to reflect upon their own morality, faith, and character.
I expected The Brothers Karamazov to read like a classic—that is, I expected that it’d take me a while to learn the cadence of Dostoyevsky’s prose before it became natural to read. This isn’t something that is a turn-off for me (I usually like older writing styles). But part of what pleasantly surprised me was the readability of TBK’s prose. The third-person narrator, taking the form of a local townsman recalling the story of the Karamazov brothers, has a conversational tone with simple language and sentence structures. Take this example from one of my favorite paragraphs, Part One, Book Three, Chapter 9 – The Sensualists (page 134 in my edition):
“Grigory and Smerdyakov ran into the room after Dmitri. They had been struggling with him in the passage, refusing to admit him, acting on instructions given them by Fyodor Pavlovitch some days before. Taking advantage of the fact that Dmitri stopped a moment on entering the room to look about him, Grigory ran round the table, closed the double doors on the opposite side of the room leading to the inner apartments, and stood before the closed doors, stretching wide his arms, prepared to defend the entrance, so to speak, with the last drop of his blood. Seeing this, Dmitri uttered a scream rather than a shout and rushed at Grigory.”
First of all, this paragraph amuses me to no end. But more importantly, although this clearly isn’t a paragraph written by a 21st-century writer, it also isn’t hard to understand or (in my opinion) enjoy. Is it the most poetic prose I’ve read? No. But I don’t think that lingering on descriptions of colors, smells, sensations, etc. would have served the purpose of the story. All eyes are on the characters; in fact, the most of the time is spent in long paragraphs of dialogue as the characters interact with each other. The narrator only breaks from dialogue when some backstory is necessary to understanding the upcoming dialogue. Despite the “imbalance” of prose vs. dialogue, it works. There are only a few sections where the story seems to slow down, and those tended to be when the dialogue stopped, not when it continued for pages and pages.
Also, another aspect that makes the book so accessible is how the chapters are structured. The book is divided into four smaller books with individual sections that are further divided into chapters. This helps the reader feel like they are making progress and makes the large page number a little less daunting (even for those of us who like long books).
The Brothers Karamazov is a character-driven story and I could spend thousands of words describing the different arcs in novel. In the interest of not spoiling the most important developments, though, I will keep my descriptions brief. Dostoyevsky has a knack for showing how people can be so consistent in personality and yet reactionary and surprising in how they react to different circumstances—what better way to showcase that fact than through a highly dysfunctional family unit?
Fyodor Karamazov, the father, is described as a “buffoon:” greedy, self-serving, cunning, neglectful of his parental duties, prone to mood swings, and possessing seemingly no ability to resist his sensual desires. There is not much about him that’s sympathetic, and I don’t think we’re meant to try to sympathize with him anyway. His oldest son, Dmitri, on the surface appears to share a lot in common with his father: he is impulsive and lives in the moment, allowing his feelings to be swayed depending on immediate desires, given to losing his temper and drinking too much. He does, however, have a deep desire to be seen as honorable and to do the right thing—a combination that causes a lot of issues for him but also causes him to be a likable, albeit frustrating, character. The second son, Ivan, is a reserved, intellectual type; a self-proclaimed atheist who nevertheless continues to entertain questions of faith and morality and often plays the devil’s advocate in debates. He comes across as the most sensible by today’s standards, yet is a tormented, questioning, uncertain soul beneath his calm exterior. His arc is one of the most interesting to watch, especially as the story progresses. The youngest son, Alyosha, almost doesn’t seem to be related to the rest of the Karamazovs. He is gentle, devoutly religious, attuned to the needs of others, and possesses a non-judgmental air that makes the people around him trust him and open up to him. While this may seem to make him too “perfect,” he is not without his flaws, and undergoes interesting character change as he deals with the problems the rest of his family faces (he also turned out to be my favorite of the three brothers).
Many other important side characters are introduced over the course of the novel: Smerdyakov, the epileptic cook/servant to Fyodor Karamazov who is rumored to be his illegitimate son; Grigory, Fyodor Karamazov’s loyal servant, and his wife Marfa; Grushenka, the mischievous, alluring young woman from town who wins the affection of both Fyodor and Dmitri and decides to toy with them; Katerina, the proud aristocratic fiancée of Dmitri who harbors a stubborn, jealous streak beneath her tightly-composed exterior; Father Zossima, the elderly monk who serves as a mentor to Alyosha during his time at the local monastery; Madame Khokhlakov, a young-ish widow with a penchant for dramatic rambling and meddling whose daughter, Lise, wants to marry Alyosha even though she often makes fun of him; and Ilyusha, a local schoolboy who falls ill and is befriended/mentored by Alyosha.
There are many other characters throughout the book—as is expected for a book so long—and at times it’s difficult to keep track of who is related to who and how they are related. Nevertheless, the build of characterization and the way in which the relationships are woven together is incredibly well-done. The drama that ensues from the combination of the characters’ actions and missteps propels the story forward and is, other than the themes, the main reason the novel is so compelling.
As a side note, I can foresee one objection to this story from modern readers: that all of the female characters, without fail, end up being hysterical, silly, or jealous at some point in the story. Although this is the case, I would venture to say that all of the characters, at some point in the story, end up in a similar state (the elder Karamazov and Dmitri being especially prone to this). Even dear Alyosha cries or is vexed in nearly every chapter in which he is present. No one is immune to being swayed by their passions. So while it may be frustrating to the modern reader, I don’t think it merits any severe criticism, unless the criticism is applied to everyone’s dramatics.
Since The Brothers Karamazov is so character driven, one might expect the plot to be relatively invisible in comparison. Not so. There are two plot structures—the larger lead up to the father’s murder and the aftermath of the murder, and the individual character arcs and subplots that are woven in around that main structure. Despite knowing from the first page that Fyodor Karamazov is murdered, there is never a moment where the circumstances around his death are obvious or where knowing his fate makes the story uneventful. Plot beats and arcs are methodically, precisely executed. Questions are raised at perfect moments, layering upon each other in a way that produced several moments of dread and/or surprise as I read. No spoilers, of course, so I cannot describe these threads in detail. But because all important plot questions are eventually explained, the ending is fulfilling even though there are other thematic or character-related questions that aren’t answered. That, to me, is the mark of an excellent plot.
The novel is set in in the mid-19th century in the rural Russian town of Skotoprigonyevsk (try saying that three times fast). Dostoyevsky never lingers long on establishing setting, so much of the geography is learned in snippets along the way—in that sense, it’s important to pay attention to when the setting (streets, buildings, distances between locations) is described. Much of the cultural setting—politics, names of larger cities, laws, etc.—are descried in a similar way. But because the novel is so character-driven, and more often than not is focused on the conversations between said characters, the “lack” of setting descriptions does not feel like a void that is too big to fill. You won’t feel like you need to pick up a history book to understand the context.
All objectionable content is low. Sexual content is never shown, usually implied, and only mentioned in dialogue when it does happen to appear. There is a mention of an alleged rape, but again, it’s in passing description and not something lingered upon except for backstory purposes. Mild language in select scenes. Violence is mild as well, though perhaps more prevalent than other types of content—there is a murder, which is described at various points during investigation, as well as other instances of people getting into fights, injuring one another. None of the instances are described beyond what is necessary. A character contemplates and plans suicide at one point in the story, though they do not follow through. One conversation details cases of severe child abuse in order to illustrate a larger philosophical point. Many characters drink alcohol.
Where to begin?
The story, apart from themes, is incredibly well-done. Since finishing the book last weekend, I’ve been pondering the plot mechanics and admiring how Dostoyevsky layered the plot points and revealed new information. I’ve been admiring, too, how well Dostoyevsky captured human nature and wove philosophical and theological conversations into the dialogue to where it seemed natural instead of forced. It is rare to find a story that is solid on both fronts.
But the thematic elements are what make this novel a masterpiece. In the midst of all of the debauchery and chaos and drama and conflict, Dostoyevsky asks important questions about religion, morality, suffering, and justice: what happens to morality when God is removed from the picture? How can the suffering of innocents be reconciled to the necessity of free will? Do inner desires to do evil make one as guilty as the person who acts upon those desires? He does not give you the answers, but he explores them through the lives of his characters, and the story as a whole serves as a road sign to direct the reader toward where the answers can be found. To do this in such a large work takes skill; to do it well takes something far greater.
Now that I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, I know why it is so often considered his best work. That’s why I wholeheartedly rate it 5 stars. If you haven’t already read TBK, I encourage you to do so—don’t be intimidated by the length or the time period in which it was written. Encased in those hundreds of pages is a tale that will delight as well as challenge and will leave a sense of awe when the final line is read.