In Search of Better Stories

The Brothers Karamazov


The story takes place in a small town somewhere in Russia in the late 1800’s. 

  • Fyodor is the dad in the story. He is a terrible man. One of shrewd, wicked, and self-absorbed character.
  • Dmitri is the eldest son, he hates his father and has publicly declared on numerous occasions that he should like to murder him because he feels as though his dad has cheated him out of a large sum of money. Dmitri is an irresponsible brute of a man who is into parties, women and alcohol.  But he can also be incredibly generous and kind. He is the sort of fellow who wears his emotions on his sleeve. 
  • Ivan is smart and rich but haunted by great unanswerable doubts. He has lost his faith and as an atheist believes that “all things are lawful.” He too would not mind seeing his father’s end. 
  • Alexei — Fyodor’s youngest son, he loves all people and has faith but not in a dogmatic sense. He would prefer the quiet calm of the monastery but answers the call to be in the world to help people, most especially his family and their friends. 

The story in a nutshell — Fydor is murdered, Dmitri is blamed, and the evidence is stacked against him. Not only was there a motive for the murder on account of the money but also Fyodor and Dmitri had found themselves in competition for the affection of the same woman. This titillating triangle of love certainly didn’t help Dmitri’s case for innocence. In the end, there is a massive court case, and Dimitri is found guilty, even though he is innocent. This book is not fundamentally a  murder mystery; the story is a mere pretext for a philosophical conversation.

So many names — Each character in the story has about 4 or 5 a.k.a’s It’s a good thing the book is so long because it takes quite a while to get everyone straight. 

I won’t take the time to explain — The book is written in journal format, with the author as one of the townspeople who observed all the events of this sordid story. As he tells this tale, he wanders all over the place going down bunny trails, back stories, and side stories. At several points, he mentions the he “won’t bore the reader with more details” but invariably almost accidentally he does anyway as his mind picks up another story trail too appealing to resist. I found this quite entertaining. 

Are people really that messed up?  The words pile together in masterful, long-winded sentences which are incredible in their descriptions of human nature and the challenging situations that life brings. It’s a literary treat to be sure. He is, however, so thorough in the uncovering of his characters’ thoughts that sometimes I wondered if what they were thinking could be believed! There are some seriously messed up thoughts, emotions, and affections going on with this cast of characters, and to track with every single step of their thought process is a bit mind-bending. The scary thing to me is Dostoyevsky is probably spot on in his analysis and descriptions of the thoughts of humanity. 

When it comes to faith desire always precedes proof – A realist will not just see a miracle and then believe. Alexei believed in God because he wanted to. The story of divine love and immortality struck his imagination as an ideal means of escape from darkness to light. So he went all in for it. That’s why he tried to become a monk. The heart always directs the mind not the other way round. 

Ideas have consequences — Ivan was proud of his intellect and proud that he had finally shed the false skin of religious conviction.  “All is lawful” he declared. Morality is a fiction; there are no actual rules, no grand story to shape our lives. Of course, Ivan wasn’t willing to take these bold new claims to any logical extremes. What he didn’t see coming was that his servant was. Fyodor was a blight to be removed, and since “all is lawful” the servant went ahead with it, and since Dmitri was so violent and volatile why not implicate him with the murder and send him off to Siberia. What could be wrong with this plan? Nothing if one subscribed to Ivans ideology, so the servant did the deed with genius, cunning, and determination. 

Persevering in Love — A minor character in the story wants to believe in God but isn’t sure, the tension tortures her. All that matters says one of the monks is “active love, which is self-forgetfulness in the care of your neighbour…and if through love you are unable to find happiness content your self by knowing you are on the right road.” Somehow love of the sacrificial variety set forth so marvellously in the person of Jesus is the thing around which human life is best shaped. The life of love is infinitely more valuable than the life of personal happiness.  

Alexei is the hero, but he is not the main attraction — Amid the scandal and the hate, the debauchery and the pain, the foolish superstitions of the religious and the blunt rationalism of the non-religious, among the pride and the mental illness (which comes in abundance in this book!) there is this man. He finds himself driven to be in the middle of the mess not as the hero, but as the helper. Alexei is quiet and gentle. He is honest; his heart breaks for the sufferings of others, he doesn’t claim to have answers, doesn’t sit in angry judgment on the wicked, doesn’t take sides, he is just present and available. He is not even a man of great faith necessarily, at multiple points in the story he waivers on questions of belief. However, in his deep heart, Alexei sees a truth that pushes him forward. Love is that priceless treasure that can redeem the whole world. It is love that will expiate not only Alexei’s sins but the sins of others as well and so even in the absence of faith sometimes, even with only the most dimly lit hope Alexei resolutely fashions his life around divine love. For the reader, the emergence of love through this quiet, unassuming man is the real mark of beauty in this book.

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