Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (26 down 74 to go)

(translation by Constance Garnett)

Alyosha smiled softly “God will conquer!” he thought.

This is the first time I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky, or any of the Russian authors. It is a philosophic novel told mostly in third-person narrative regarding the lives of the Karamazov brothers in 19th Century Russia. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had almost no expectations, other than perhaps it would be a challenging read. I like that – having no expectations. It was a pleasant surprise and not nearly as challenging as I anticipated.

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains a minor spoiler.

It started a bit slow, as Dostoevsky first introduces you to all of the principal characters, without really beginning the story. The principal principals, if you can believe it, are the Karamazov brothers: the eldest Dimitri (Mitya) is half-brother of Ivan (Vanya) and Alexi (Alyosha). I’ve hinted here, at one of the problems English readers will have with Russian stories. The characters are referred to by several name variations. Alexei has seven variations, and it isn’t always obvious to whom a newly introduced variation refers.

The story takes place in 19th century Russia. The brothers were not raised together and barely know each other until adulthood. Of course, they each have their unique personality, but Alyosha is easily the most likeable – indeed loveable. In fact, and in spite of my lukewarm feelings about The Great Gatsby, I would describe Alyosha in much the same way that Nick described Gatsby: 
...if personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.

But, it would be better to offer Dostoevsky’s description of Alyosha. 
He was simply an early lover of humanity.
...he was fond of people: he seemed throughout his life to put implicit trust in people: yet no one ever looked on him as a simpleton or naïve person. There was something about him which made one feel at once (and it was so all his life afterwards) that he did not care to be a judge of others---that he would never take it upon himself to criticize and would never condemn any one for anything.

My review could easily become an ode to Alyosha, though I should mention a few other things.

Such as their father Fyodor, he was a pig. He is also murdered, and it’s hard to feel too bad about it. The family is embroiled in the investigation and trial, as one of the brothers is the only suspect.

But forget that for a second, because I want to tell you more about Alyosha. One of the most beautiful moments in the story: Alyosha, a man of faith, has a long conversation with his agnostic brother Ivan. Ivan recites a “poem” he has written, "The Grand Inquisitor". It's not really poetry, but more of a parable giving Ivan's view of corrupt religion. Christ returns to earth, is sanctioned, imprisoned, and threatened with execution by the Roman Church. The church inquisitor states that Christ’s gift of freedom to humanity was the worst thing for them, and the church was working to bring humanity back into subservience, if not slavery. In the end, the inquisitor decides to let Christ go. Christ listens to the long rebuke, makes no reply, and when released Christ…
approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips.

Ivan concludes his poem and he and Alyosha debate its merit. It is for the most part friendly, but Alyosha is clearly saddened by his brother’s worldview and Ivan is intentionally goading Alyosha. Ivan asks at the end…will you renounce me for that?
Alyosha got up, went to him and softly kissed him on the lips.

Spiritum Christi Alyosha, Amen!

There is a murder, a trial, and a love triangle. There's sweet young Lise, a crippled girl who's in love with Alyosha...or not so sweet. I admit I don't get Lise. There are a couple of pompous Poles, a German doctor, competing lawyers, a stinking corpse, a corpse that doesn't stink, and a dog. I already mentioned one of the critical chapters, "The Grand Inquisitor". And then, there is Father Zosima, Alyosha's teacher, at the Russian Orthodox monastery. On his deathbed, he gives a long admonition, the antithesis to Ivan's worldview. Next to Alyosha, Father Zosima is my favorite character. Finally, there is a secondary plot line of some schoolboys who befriend Alyosha, which gives the story a hopeful ending.


It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet, tender joy. ~ Father Zosima

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. ~ Father Zosima

They aim at justice, but denying Christ, they will end by flooding the earth with blood. ~ Father Zosima



  1. I've been making my way though this chunkster since the New Year when I got this book as one of my Classic Club spins.
    I'm enjoying, but not 100% in love...which is why it's taking so long. I'd love to send an editor in to give it a good cull!

    I only skimmed the second half of your review to avoid any spoilers, but I am struggling with all the religious talk in the book.
    I want the murder and trial stuff to get going and I'd prefer to learn about human nature that way, through the action of the story, rather than being preached to!

  2. I missed this review. Glad you had it in your sidebar.

    I tried not to read too much of the spoiler b/c I do want to read this. And reading something about it from someone who has read it gets me warmed up to it; I'll want to read it sooner than later. So that's a good thing.

    The Russian name issue is a problem. When I read War and Peace, I tried to give the characters one English name or a name easy to remember, and then I stuck with it. Sometimes I changed it as I read. It helped a little.

    1. This was my first Russian author. It was far more enjoyable, and far less difficult than I anticipated. I definitely recommend it.


Comments are always welcome. In fact, they make my day. You needn't sign in to leave a comment. Just enter your comment, then on the "Comment as:" drop down menu, select "anonymous".