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Autumn 2002 | Volume 25, Number 4 | Features
A Mighty Symphony of Ideas

Full of Passion, Intrigue and Faith, The Brothers Karamazov
Explores the Most Powerful of Human Questions


The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a life-changing book — as many Seattle Pacific University students can tell you — and not just for the bragging rights that come with reading a long, dense, 19th-century Russian novel. Rather, The Brothers Karamazov changes lives because it invites readers to enter into a world overflowing with many of life’s most fundamental questions. How do we have faith in a world that values money, power and “scientific reasoning” most of all? What does human love look like, either in families or in potential mates? How do we confront the reality of evil in our world?

All of these questions and more are at the heart of a novel that has been considered a masterpiece almost since the time of its original publication in 1880. For SPU’s University Scholars, The Brothers Karamazov is one of the centerpieces of “Texts and Contexts III,” a course that examines the emerging Modern Period, beginning with the 17th-century Scientific Revolution and ending with the writers and thinkers of the early 20th century.

In this class, as in all of the University Scholars courses, we investigate the texts we read through the lens of four fundamental themes: the problem of evil, the problem of violence, the problem of faith and reason, and the problem of the individual and society. This provides a useful framework to explore the ideas of the modern world as the students read works from Bacon and Descartes to Marx and Freud.

Unlike some of the other texts of modernity, however, The Brothers Karamazov is deeply engaged with all four of these investigatory themes, not just two or three of them. In fact, The Brothers Karamazov is arguably the magnum opus of not just Texts and Contexts III but of the entire University Scholars Curriculum. Each of these themes — evil, violence, faith and reason, the individual and society — contributes to a mighty and interwoven symphony of ideas.

Indeed, Dostoevsky’s masterpiece shows how inextricable these themes are from each other. Can we separate the problem of evil from the problem of violence? Doesn’t the relationship between faith and reason dramatically shape an individual’s understanding of society and his or her place in it? The connections resonate throughout the novel.

“A Nice Little Family”

Yet, above all, this book is a story. Themes and ideas take root only in the context of a gripping and interesting tale. And The Brothers Karamazov has plenty to keep even the most reluctant reader turning pages — everything from affairs of passion, intrigue and murder to the most moving scenes of tenderness, love and faith.

The novel centers around one particular family. There is a crude and wealthy father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, whose selfishness and vulgarity is nearly matched by his overwhelming greed. This father Fyodor has three sons, Dmitri, Ivan and Alexei, whose lives we follow with interest as they enter young manhood and face some of life’s most important and difficult choices, such as what vocation to follow, who to love and marry, what ideals to believe in. In addition, we soon come to suspect that there is a fourth, though illegitimate, Karamazov son: the character called Smerdyakov, who lives and works as a servant. It’s not hard to imagine the many tensions arising from such a “nice little family,” as it is ironically called in the opening section of the book.

The three — or perhaps four — sons we come to know as the “brothers Karamazov” are as different as real-life brothers often are, shaped by the particularities of birth order, family circumstances, education, life experiences and friendships. Dmitri, the eldest, is a military officer prone to passionate outbursts of love and hate, whose good heart is sometimes betrayed by both his thoughtlessness and recklessness. Ivan, the next brother, is the cool, dispassionate intellectual who longs to be more “rational” and “European.”

The third Karamazov son is the ostensible hero of the tale, as the narrator informs us from the very first pages of the novel. Alexei, or “Alyosha” as he is often fondly called, is a gentle and faithful young man, training to be a monk and seeking to follow God throughout the turbulent events of the novel. Alyosha is often the magnet for other characters to confront their own evils or through whom a Christlike redemption and healing is begun. Yet Alyosha is not an unrealistic character, either. We see him struggle with the choices in his own life, as the son and brother of all the Karamazovs.

The Narrator, “The Grand Inquisitor” and Father Zosima

Not surprisingly in such a long novel, there is a lot to keep track of as readers follow the unfolding events. We are guided through these events by another character called “the author,” who is not to be confused with Dostoevsky himself. This narrative technique of “speaking directly to the camera,” as it were — making the narrator a character — is one of Dostoevsky’s greatest gifts as a novelist.

“The author” tells us he is simply “remembering” the events that happened in his town a few years ago and so underlines the realism that is both a hallmark of 19th-century novels and a tool to maximize the effect of the story upon readers. It is, after all, something that “really happened,” testifies the narrator.

The narrator character also allows Dostoevsky the novelist the freedom to comment on events and “the state of Russia today” while not speaking either for himself directly or in the godlike pose of an omniscient narrator. The narrator has the freedom to be wrong in the same way a real-life eyewitness would be likely to misunderstand or forget, and in so doing to introduce comedy and confusion — for example, when he reports on speeches and testimony in a courtroom and says that he’s “probably not saying it all correctly.”

Two other important features of The Brothers Karamazov must be mentioned in an introduction to the novel: first, the famous subsection titled “The Grand Inquisitor,” which has sometimes been published separately as a short story; and, second, the crucial character of Father Zosima, Alexei’s spiritual mentor at the monastery.

“The Grand Inquisitor” is actually a story that Ivan Karamazov has written as his counter to biblical narratives that explain God’s purposes on earth and his relationship to human beings. Without giving too much away, “The Grand Inquisitor” is in itself a masterpiece of psychological literature with a chilling effect on its readers and listeners.

The character of Father Zosima, on the other hand, is a model of love, faith and wisdom. During the first half of the novel, when Alexei is living at the monastery and being closely discipled by the Father, we as readers are privileged to follow along in his teachings, learning as Alexei does about how God brought Father Zosima to this depth of faith and understanding. We, like Alexei, become equipped with the Father’s words: “But on earth we are indeed wandering, as it were, and did we not have the precious image of Christ before us, we would perish and be altogether lost, like the race of men before the flood.”

Father Zosima and Alexei come to model that “secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the … higher heavenly world” — and we are going to need it as our own broken and dangerous world comes crashing into the lives of the Karamazovs.

Reading the Novel

As I often tell SPU students who are encountering the novel for the first time, a person has to be thoughtful and intentional when reading this nearly 800-page book, translated from the Russian and written more than 100 years ago. This won’t be a quick read, naturally, and it won’t have the quick pacing and rapid plot events that contemporary novels and films do. In fact, before we read, we need to think for a minute about what we’ve been conditioned to expect from a novel and then take a deep breath and slow down, changing those unconscious expectations.

It is also important to be aware of the difficulties that arise when readers encounter the differences in cultural behavior and attitudes, and in the Russian Orthodox faith tradition, in The Brothers Karamazov. It might be useful to think of the reading process as one of gradually understanding this different world through a long immersion in its thinking and practices. It takes time to be able to live in this novel’s world, but it is time immensely worth the taking.

Finally, then, read this amazing book as the University Scholars do, asking the questions: “How does it engage the problem of evil, the problem of violence, the problem of faith and reason, and the problem of the individual and society?” Consider each of the characters and events and think through how you’d answer those questions. Then ask yourself — or someone else who can share in the reading and discussion of this novel — “How has your life been changed by reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov?” I hope that the answer is a profound one.


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