The Brothers Karamazov
By Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
A massive book, and not just because eight hundred pages, while not a patch on Proust, is fat. No, the Brothers Karamazov is full of huge ideas about how people operate, ideas of faith and society and cynicism and idealism and greed and selfishness. I mean, the criticism on this book, and just this book, mind, probably takes up more combined pages than the whole of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. There’s a lot here, and that’s before you factor in the reputation of this book. To a lot of people, Dostoevsky is culture, which means to a lot of people, Dostoevsky is either unapproachable or boring. Plus there are a ton of characters and they’re all referred to by multiple names, in accordance with Russian naming conventions.
So how do you even approach this book? What road leads you into it? Well, I’m here to tell you that Dostoevsky is a lot more accessible than you might think he is. See, his four “major novels,” the long ones he made his name on – Crime and Punishment, the Idiot, Demons, and this one – all have a hook of some kind. Crime and Punishment has the cat-and-mouse game, the Idiot’s got the romantic entanglements, Demons works on the fascination-of-evil principle, and this is a murder mystery. Basically, Fyodor Karamazov, cruel landlord and father of the four brothers – intellectual Ivan, former monk Alexei, hedonist Dmitri, and the oft-forgotten servant Smerdyakov – is murdered, and the clues point to Dmitri. This is used as a jumping-off for a ton of strands: the radical transformation each brother passes through in the wake of their father’s death and the investigation of the murder are just as important as the investigation of human morals.
But it’s the investigation of the morals you stay for. It’s famously heavy stuff, stuff that runs us through the wringer and brings us to the conclusion that it’s worth it to be a good person anyway, without the conclusion being forced or things slipping into tract mode. The trick is through the characters. By some sorcery, Dostoevsky makes the brothers feel like people and stand in for broader ideas. At the same time. So when Ivan and Alexei dish about Christianity in the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, it doesn’t feel like discourse, it feels like two people talking at the bar. That famously devout Christian Dostoevsky was nonetheless able to put a convincing argument against Christianity into the mouths of one of his characters astounds me. This is astonishing characterization, simply put. This is basically the best deal you can ask for from characterization.
And I’m as amazed as ever that Dostoevsky landed this thing. Maybe it’s technically true that he didn’t, seeing as he died before he completed this novel and seeing as he had two sequels planned, but just that Karamazov is a coherent narrative with a coherent philosophy and not an incoherent mess of threads butting up against each other is incredible to me. But pull it off he did, and that’s why we still read it decades later.