Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov

KaramazovDostoyevsky is one of those people I’ve thought about reading for a long time, but his works tend to be pretty chunky volumes. However, I did read somewhere not long ago that his books are actually fairly easy to get into, so when I saw his The Brothers Karamazov on Carrie’s  Reading to Know Classics Book Club list, that seemed like the perfect opportunity to give him a try. This book is the selection for August, but I kept thinking it was coming up in July and I wanted to get a head start on it, so I started listening to the audiobook some weeks back and just finished it a few days ago. I wanted to go ahead and write a review wile it was still fresh in my mind.

The first of the title brothers is Dmitri, also called Mitya, the oldest (about 28 when the book begins), passionate, impulsive, tempestuous. He has a running feud with his father over his inheritance and over a woman who is called Grushenka.

The second is Ivan, brilliant, logical, skeptical. He can’t reconcile the idea of God with the suffering he sees in the world, particularly that of children, and feels that if there is a God, He is malevolent. He comes to find out that the logical conclusions of his philosophies have natural but unforeseen consequences.

The youngest is Alexei, also known as Alyosha, about age 20, who lives at the monastery (Russian Orthodox) while training to become a monk. He is kind, reasonable, thoughtful, compassionate, a peacemaker and has a genuine love for people.

It’s widely believed that there is a fourth illegitimate brother called Smerdyakov. His mother was a retarded homeless girl who died in childbirth. He is found and raised by the senior Karamazov’s servant, Grigory, who raises him. He becomes a servant in the Karamazov household as well. He is epileptic and has a mean, warped streak.

The father of this brood is Fyodor (the three sons all have the middle name Fyodorovich, which means “son of Fyodor”). Fydor is wealthy but debauched, wicked, and greedy. He has had little to do with any of his sons’ upbringing, and they all hate him except for Alyosha.

It is not much of a spoiler to say that Fyodor is killed: the author refers to his coming death early on and hints at a terrible event: it’s not much of a stretch to connect the two and realize that Fyodor is going to come to a bad end. And, indeed, he does: he is murdered. One of his sons is arrested for the murder and the evidence seems pretty certain against him (again foreshadowed by the author as he often comments that this or that happened “as so-and-so testified later.”) But the evidence isn’t conclusive, leaving the reader to wonder for a while who actually killed him. Besides being a major factor in the plot, Fyodor’s murder is also a major catalyst in the lives of his sons for different reasons.

Amidst all the action there are several philosophical discussions, notably between Elder Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor, and various people, and later between Ivan and Alyosha, touching on the nature of God, free will and whether it is a burden, moral responsibility, and other subjects.

I am heavily indebted to SparkNotes for getting much more out of this book than I would have from a surface reading/listening. I liked reading the chapter analysis and summaries at intervals (but I have learned from past experience not to  look at the plot overview or character analysis there until finishing a book because they reveal key details of the story). The chapter analyses did help me see the connection between the philosophical discussions and the action: those discussions weren’t isolated rabbit trails: they were integral to the story (possibly the main points of the story), and the action played out the truths discussed. For instance, I hadn’t connected Alyosha’s ministrations to a dying child (Ilyusha) to his earlier discussion with Ivan, but SparkNotes pointed out:

Ivan looks at the abstract idea of suffering children and is unable to reconcile the idea with his rational precepts about how God ought to be. His solution is to reject God. Alyosha, on the other hand, sees an actual suffering child and believes that it is God’s will for him to try to alleviate the child’s suffering to whatever degree he can. His solution is to help Ilyusha. Again, Dostoevsky shows how the psychology of skepticism walls itself off, in elaborate proofs and theorems, from having a positive effect on the world, while the psychology of faith, simplistic though it may be, concerns itself with doing good for others. This very subtle response to the indictment of God presented by Ivan in Book V brings the philosophical debate of the novel onto a plane of real human action, and shows the inadequacy of Ivan’s philosophy—which Ivan himself would readily acknowledge—to do good in the real world.

As with many older classics, this book can seem a little tedious and wordy by today’s standards. Newer stories start off with action that grabs you and makes you want to know what happens next  or causes you to care about a character right away: older books have a lot of explanation and description first. The first style is usually more exciting; the latter takes a little more patience but does usually pay off in the end.

This story that has more layers than one would think at first, and it is causing me to think and make connections long after I’ve finished it – a hallmark of a classic. I didn’t agree with much of the theology, but the overall theme of a quiet faith lived out in everyday life with love and service towards one’s fellow man appealed to me.

I also enjoyed reading more of Dostoyevsky’s background at Wikipedia and SparkNotes.

I usually like audiobooks for classics, for several reasons, but in this case it was probably not the best way to go. For one thing, the multitude of polysyllabic Russian names and nicknames was hard to distinguish at first, but after a while I was able to distinguished who was who (whom?) Secondly, there were a few sections of philosophical discussion that were hard for me to follow just by listening while driving, fixing hair, etc.: those would have benefited from being able to go over them on the printed page a couple of times. Nevertheless I thought the narrator, Constantine Gregory, did a good job telling the story.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

This also completes one of my selections for the  Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.



14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov

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  3. Yes, yes, and yes. Great review, Barbara. I finally finished this one a couple days ago myself. I read SparkNotes too–but strictly the summaries. If I were really diligent, I’d go back and read the analysis because what you shared already sheds more light than what I got using just my own analysis. I listened to a little of this on CD to hear some of the names pronounced, but eventually went back to the book itself because I kept having to go back a few pages to see who’s talking, etc.

  4. Barbara, I admire your discipline in reading! Since I am not into literature though I love to read, YOU have become my window to many classic literary works! I always enjoy reading your insights after you finish reading a book.

  5. It was a hard slog but worth it. Crime & Punishment was easier for me to follow. Keeping the Russian names sorted out was hard even when I could read them.

  6. I’ve been reading this one since the New year for my Classics Club challenge. I was enjoying it, but half way through got a little bogged down by the philosophical asides….which I guess I knew were more than asides, but I was feeling too weary of the whole thing to make the connections.

    Thanks for such an encouraging review…I will finish it, I will!

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