Recommendation 1: The Brothers Karamazov is not light, fluffy, turn-off-your-brain beach reading. I would recommend having a zippy book on hand for the day you’re stuck on page 792 or 936 and need a break. Still, the work is completely worth it!
Recommendation 2: Unless you do not particularly care about having the main plot spoiled, avoid commentaries or lists of characters. All the ones I have found give away the murderer. Boo. Hiss. Etc.
The Brothers Karamazov action is rather straight-forward. Alexei, his brothers Dmitri and Ivan, and Fyodor, his father, reunite in their hometown. Within a week, Fyodor has been murdered. Who killed him and why? Well, the “why” part on one level is pretty straight-forward: Fyodor lived as a complete &*$# towards everybody in his life; no tears were shed here. The reader needs to explore and answer the “why” from the worldview aspect and the novel’s main theme: ideas have consequences, not only for that one person, but for the rest of the world.
Dostoevsky doesn’t care about physical descriptions or the everyday interactions of ordinary lives; the first scenes with the characters hanging out together will make you think everybody needs to be on psychiatric medication. They all immediately and completely tell their life’s story and soul’s state to one another. Please remember that this character may not be a realistic individual, but he is a completely consistent type of person or thought. Indeed, sometimes you’ll feel like Dostoevsky creates both a deadly serious argument and a parody at the same time. Maybe he understands life is both a tragedy and comedy. Laugh, but keep thinking!
Though he draws his main characters as people we genuinely care about, Dostoevsky primarily uses these characters as embodiments of ideas and worldviews. Dmitri, the eldest brother, is the uncontrolled sensualist. Ivan, the middle brother, is the careful, independent intellectual. Alexei is the self-giving and childlike believer of his God. Through these and other less important characters, Dostoevsky directly forces his readers to confront different views about…
- whether a person can ever find personal peace or happiness – and what worldview might lead to it, the life of unbridled passions, the life of carefully-considered, logical ideas, or the life of loving religiosity
- what duty a person has to the rest of human society and the physical world
- what moral and legal guilt the people surrounding a criminal bear for his crime
- whether God exists and what human suffering tells us about this God
…just to name a few. Heavy material to work with, but Dostoevsky makes each character’s struggle with his worldview and reality so engrossing and moving you are compelled to see what happens next. There’s a reason he is still read 150 years later in the USA, a country he himself despised; Dostoevsky’s just that good!
This is not to say The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t have problems. Hubby, poor dear, had to listen to a tirade once I got to a certain plot point. Also, Dostoevsky clearly promotes one of the worldviews while remaining completely silent on some of the frightening implications. But that is for another day…for making you examine your personal worldview, few books have it beat. Hugely recommended.
This book has fantastic psychological insights. Initially I tried to write down the great quotes from the book…and then realized I was transcribing whole chapters. Here are two of my favorites:
- “Anyway, what does it mean, being ridiculous? There are so many different ways a man may seem funny to someone else. Especially these days when everyone who has any talent seems to be morbidly afraid that he may appear ridiculous. That’s why so many gifted people are so unhappy” Alexei to Dmitri (744).
- “Listen to the rest of it then; let me bare the other half of my soul” (1029). Dmitri says it, but it could have come from any of the characters. Hee.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Andrew R. McAndrew. 1880. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.