books · reading

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Finished by Dostoevsky mere months before he died, The Karamazov Brothers is one of the greatest masterpieces to come from Russian literature, if not from the world over. The version I read was a translation by Constance Garnett, one of the earliest translators for writings by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, among others. Divided into four parts with twelve books, The Karamazov Brothers is a richly loaded novel which deals with several issues including religion, philosophy, socialism, poverty, relationships, love and so on.

It’s a story of four brothers, as uniquely diverse as they are similar and their relationships with each other and with their father are a subject of in-depth analysis in the plot. These four brothers borne of the same father but different mothers are completely neglected by him (their mothers all die young) and left to more or less fend for themselves. The father Fyodor is a lavish spender, a  philanderer and a crudely selfish man. When he gets murdered, all the evidence seems to point straight at the eldest brother though we are never, for a moment left with any chance to suspect that he is the murderer. The plot examines how, in their own ways, all four brothers somehow or the other committed patricide that led to the death of the man who created them but did not, in any way whatsoever, shape them.

The four brothers are drawn out distinctively, as are the many, many other characters this book contains. Despite the chaos of the story of the Karamazov brothers, Dostoevsky succeeds in creating a very organized and almost chronological sequence of events with minor digressions.

In fact, The Karamazov Brothers is not a whodunit, though it may appear to be one from its blurb. The question of who murdered the old man is hardly ever up for examination because it is settled quite early on and there is a little room left for judgement. The book instead, is a monologue on society, justice, truth and God, amidst other topics.

Intense Dramatization

Unlike Crime and Punishment (the only other Dostoevsky book that I’ve read), The Karamazov Brothers is much more intensely dramatized.  Most of the conversations are passionate, heated exchanges. Almost all of them are from the heart and direct. They all seem to be dripping with high levels of pathos and idealism, from the regular conversations between family members, right up to the statements given by the prosecution and defense during the court case.

Religion and Science

Dostoevsky has devoted a large part of the book to religious discussions. In fact, one of the underlying themes throughout the novel is the religious question. Through the character of Alyosha (one of the brothers), Dostoevsky creates a character who believes in God and humanity and is thus an ideal man for him. At the other extreme is the brother Ivan who is an atheist. One of the book’s highest points, for me, was a long exchange between these two brothers followed by a poem in prose put forth by Ivan- The Grand Inquisitor. In this poem, Jesus descends to earth and finds himself lectured by the Grand Inquisitor who complains that God has given human beings too much freedom to exercise their will. If He, instead of leaving them alone to find their way to Him, was to give them their daily bread and in return control every decision of their lives, humanity would not be so degraded.

Besides, through Ivan, Dostoevsky raises other questions such as the reason for the torture of small children, the Bible’s implication that light came first but the stars, moon and sun later and how can a human being be expected to love ALL of mankind, except as an ideal?

Granted these are deep questions and Dostoevsky seems to imply that values and virtues lose their meaning without God; for why are we to restrict ourselves from committing any crime if there is no God?

Indeed, everything I found on this topic within this book is quite valid even in today’s day and age but despite its heavy arguments, Dostoevsky did not convince me on the God question. Can questions of morality not be decided without asking, at every step along the way, whether God exists or not? Is it completely impossible to run the world based on ideals not derived from a holy manual on existence?

Granted, existence may prove to be too complicated for us to examine from our limited post on earth. Granted, there may be a God. But it does not take a God for us to know that we need to love and live. Crime does not automatically become a negation by the presence of a God and it does not automatically become a given in His absence.

Though Dostoevsky talks about the feelings of transcendence and reverence that rise within our hearts and mocks modern science and logic’s arrogant claims to explain everything, perhaps there is a flat element to his examination of the question of atheism.


There is so much in this book that it cannot really be examined in a short summary. I was most struck with The Grand Inquisitor poem and the character of Alyosha appealed to me the most; everyone else seemed flawed and deserving of pity and though Alyosha’s weaknesses were highlighted, he came through as a compassionate human being (and beyond the questions of God, that is what is most important).

Although Dostoevsky notes, with sadness, the tragic metamorphosis of a society embedded in faith to one seemingly ‘limited’ by the theories of logic and science and math, sinking harder and faster into immorality and materialism and moving further and further away from goodwill and faith, I will still continue to look upon the world with hope. Perhaps distance, age, time and difference of opinions and upbringing separates my views so radically from his, I still think one owes it to this novel to read it. It deserves to be read, examined, talked about and interpreted. Good intentions and complex relationships lie at the crux of the culmination of the story of these Karamazov brothers.

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