Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
“I love mankind, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”
“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
I’ll open by saying that Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is the greatest book I’ve ever read. I’ll also add that it’s by far the hardest book I’ve ever read, but more on that later.
Many regard it among of the greatest literary works of all time, and I can see why. Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five, wrote that “…there is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life. It’s The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.” Einstein considered The Brothers Karamazov to be “the supreme summit of all literature” and said that he had learned more from Dostoevsky than any other thinker. The book was also hugely inspirational to a number of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, including Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Camus, the last of whom declared that Dostoevsky, not Marx, was the great prophet for the 20th century. So yeah, you get the idea. Lots of cool people recommend it.
But to give you an idea of how long it is: The book is divided into four “parts”, each part being further subdivided into about four “books”, and each book containing usually 8–10 chapters. Oh, and there’s a three chapter epilogue on top of that. The sheer length of the novel (my editions was 776 pages) in conjunction with the density of its text makes it the hardest book I’ve ever read, for sure — and I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this. On the one hand, I see it as a necessary evil: it’s largely the huge amount of development and the crazy complexity of the story which give it so much weight. It’s an epic. But on the other hand, pushing through it was extremely exhausting, and if I wasn’t really determined to finish it, I almost certainly would have quit after a hundred pages.
Quick summary: the story concerns the Karamazov family, namely, the father and his three sons (and potentially a fourth illegitimate son, but this speculation is never confirmed.) The murder and robbery of the Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father and probably most rotten character of the family, is the main driver of the plot.
The main plot is very simple and unfolds incredibly slowly, with the majority of the book being composed of a huge number of subplots and side arcs that all end up finding their way back into the main plot as the story progresses. Dostoevsky’s storytelling is more concerned with the small, day to day interactions between a large cast of characters that occur in parallel. Through these smaller subplots, many of which overlap and come together in unexpected ways. Dostoevsky is primarily concerned with developing nuanced, relatable characters throughout the story, using their behaviors under stress and uncertainty to make more general statements about the human condition in the face of depravity.
Depravity seems to be the most major theme across Dostoevsky’s work; his only other novel I’ve read is Crime and Punishment, but C&P is much the same way. Life in mid-1860’s Russia was hard, and it shows in its literature. Pretty much all of the major characters seem to be mentally unwell in some way, besides Alexei Karamazov, a highly religious figure whose purity of spirit serves as a naive foil to the depravity, sensuality, and violence of the characters around him.
Other major themes in The Brothers Karamazov are morality, redemption, God and atheism, ethics and guilt, jealousy, justice, family, nationality, existentialism, the innocence of children and how society takes it away, etc. Pretty heavy stuff right? Upon further analysis, the book invites meta-analysis into what exactly constitutes sanity, or guilt, or equity. You’re left wondering, to what extent is depravity inherited — does it just run in the family? — and to what extent is it passed on through poor parenting and a struggle to cope with the brutality of being surrounded by depraved people, of being surrounded by (in many ways) a depraved society? To what extent are our struggles born of an inherently depraved existence, and by what means can we develop in ourselves the absolute love it takes to conquer this? Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that you’ll be able to identify with the most vile thoughts and behaviors of some of the characters.
Overall, The Brothers Karamazov is a highly existential work, using haunting narration of of human suffering and insanity to pose questions about the ultimate goals of human existence and the validity of different means by which we might hope to achieve them. On this front is a battle royale between religious fervor, social liberalism, and hedonism/sensuality.
Reading Dostoevsky in general is like watching a train wreck unfold: it’s gruesome and you know that it can’t end well, but you continue to watch in a sort of morbid fascination, in an almost delightful horror. The Brothers Karamazov is just like that, except the train wreck takes 20+ hours to come to completion. But oh man. It is an absolutely glorious mess.
Okay, while we’re here, I want to elaborate more on how grueling of a read this is. If you can power through, it’s more than worth it, but it would be unfair of me not to talk seriously about how tough it is. This is Russian literature published in 1869, with 364,000+ words of long winding syntax. Most of the sentences are run-on sentences. You’ll have to get used to it. To make things worse (really better, but kind of worse) most of the prose is really rich, which, unfortunately also means that it’s really dense. Nearly every sentence seems to have some significant weight to it, and could be pondered over for interpretation. When I was trying to read quickly and just put pages down, I would frequently find myself having to go back to the top of the page to figure out what just happened: if you aren’t paying close attention, most of the story is going to escape you. This is the essence of Dostoevsky: it’s not about the plot, it’s about the implicit details in the dialogue between characters, the humanity in their reactions to new circumstances, and the palpable emotions that they project as things just keep getting crazier.
Another confusing convention: most of the major characters go by 2–3 names, sometimes more than that, and it’s not always clear at first that these aliases are all referencing the same person. For example, Agrafena Alexandrovna is also Grushenka/Grusha/Grushka, and Alexandrovna is actually her middle name; you find out around page 700 that her last name turned out to be Svetlov all along. To make matters worse, Dostoevsky doesn’t explicitly point out “hey, this is another name for so-and-so character” — you’re kind of just supposed to know. This is a cultural-linguistic phenomenon of diminutives of names in the Russian language, which I don’t understand enough to say much more about.
The vocabulary is pretty tough sometimes — do you know what magnanimous means? Because Dostoevsky likes that word a lot — and I feel like there are a plenty of passages where I missed a word or two that would have improved my understanding (alas, I didn’t want to break my flow to look these words up). Furthermore, the dialogue is interspersed with French and occasionally Polish phrases, and lots of Christian and “contemporary” historical and literary references (circa 1860), most of which also happen to be pretty specific to Russian cultural history.
Now that that’s out of the way… If you love character development, this is the book for you. Dostoevsky’s composition style makes heavy use of at first seemingly unrelated vignettes, layering on interactions between characters. The narrator offers little analysis into these interactions and the reader is left to come to their own conclusions about what they say about the characters. As the story progresses, these characters and discrete episodes start to overlap, tangle, and sometimes crash head-on. Because of this, the book usually feels like it’s moving slowly. In my opinion, this makes working through the text a real struggle at times. The only thing that kept me pushing forward was my prior experience with Crime and Punishment and the knowledge that it would all be worth it in the end.
These slow, dense periods of growth are interspersed with moments of extreme drama every hundred pages or so. These hyper-dramatic scenes are incredibly satisfying after drudging through all of the (oftentimes dry) development. It’s as if Dostoevsky wants to make you work for it: “I’ve got a crazy story for you,” he seems to be saying. “But you’re going to have to be patient while I get everything set up, and you’re going to have to work for it.”
Final verdict: I’d highly recommend this book. It’s a masterpiece. It’s one of those books that you read, close the covers, and just lean back in your chair/couch/bed/whatever you were reading on and just think, “Damn.”
I feel that The Brothers Karamazov gives you a feel for the scope of human experience, and how vastly different perspectives can be on what constitutes virtue, purpose in life, and how people ought to behave as a consequence. More than anything, it makes you realize that no matter what you believe, the struggle for virtue is never-ending, and that your conception of virtue is bound to change in response to factors beyond your control.
Dostoevsky’s ultimate message, to me at least, is that no matter how hopeless things feel, the only thing you can’t do is give up, tell yourself that you are broken and consequently that “all is permitted”. Instead, love for humanity is one’s hope for redemption — but you’ll have to figure out, even through blood and tears, what that means to you.