Book note: The Brothers Karamazov

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV: A novel in four parts with epilogue by Feodor Dostoyevsky (1880) translated and annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1990)

The Brothers Karamazov is one of the two or three greatest novels by a Russian, possibly one of the two or three greatest novels by anyone.  It will live as an example of the greatness of Russian culture long after current conflicts are forgotten.    

Dostoyevsky states in the first paragraph that the hero of the novel is Aloysha Karamazov, the youngest of the three legitimate sons of the depraved Feodor Karamazov.

He is a monk of the Russian Orthodox Church who tries to live by the literal teachings of Jesus—something that is unfamiliar to almost all respectable people, both now (myself included) and back then.

Aloysha forgives his enemies.  In fact, he doesn’t recognize the concept of enemy. He returns good for evil.  He thinks always of others and never of himself.  He cares nothing for success, possessions or personal gain.  He never argues and hardly ever criticizes, although he always states the truth as he sees it when asked.

He has been like this since his earliest youth.  No explanation is given of how he came to be this way.

He is very different not only from his elder brothers, the brilliant anti-religious intellectual Ivan and the passionate sensualist Dmitri, and from his depraved father, Feodor.

Feodor is as obnoxious as it is possible for a human being to be.  He is greedy, dishonest and malicious.  He openly embraces all the vices, and goes out of his way to be as offensive to others as possible, especially those with a claim to be virtuous.    

He despises his other two sons.  They in turn hate him and don’t like or trust each other.  Yet he trusts and confides in Aloysha.  Ivan and Dmitri, who despise their father and dislike each other, also trust Aloysha.

One day Ivan seeks out Aloysha, invites him to dinner and tries to probe the nature of his faith.

Ivan is an unbeliever, but not exactly an atheist.  “I long ago decided not to think about whether man created God or God created man,” he says.  “I declare that I accept God pure and simple.”  This is probably meant ironically or hypothetically.  But Ivan is full of rage at God, or at least the idea of God, whether or not God actually exists.  

He confronts Aloysha with horrifying accounts of savage cruelty to innocent children, in history and his present day, all based on fact.  He cannot worship the Creator of a world in which innocent children are tortured, and denounces Christian churches for justifying such a deity.  Nor can he apply the Christian idea of forgiveness to torturers of children.

He said he loves life, but he can’t endure the meaninglessness of life.  If he can’t find answers to his questions by the time he is 30 (he is 24 and Aloysha is 20), he will “return his ticket.”  

 But his hypothetical suicide would be a mere gesture.  It would do nothing to reduce the suffering in the world.  It is Aloysha who does things to actually help suffering children.  

One of the novel’s major sub-plots consists of Aloysha’s efforts to alleviate the undeserved suffering of a young boy, who eventually dies, and to steer other young boys away from juvenile delinquency.  The novel ends Aloysha delivering a eulogy at the dead boy’s funeral, with the other boys shouting, “Hooray for Karamazov!”

The next part of the brothers’ dialogue is the most-quoted part of The Brothers Karamazov – Ivan’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor.  During the height of the Spanish Inquisition, amid the burning of heretics, Jesus returns to earth and is brought before the Grand Inquisitor.

The Inquisitor tells Jesus that his message was flawed and had to be corrected by the Church.  He says Jesus demanded a spiritual perfection of which most people are not capable—loving their neighbors as themselves, returning good for evil.

During Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, he refused the devil’s call to perform miracles to prove his divinity, to provide himself with bread and to exercise dominion over the world, in order that people could freely choose to follow him.  

The Inquisitor says this was a mistake, which the Church has corrected.  The mass of humanity don’t want freedom and spiritual bread, the Inquisitor said; they want “magic, mystery and authority” and actual bread; they want consolation, not truth.

Jesus says nothing.  He kisses the Inquisitor on his bloodless lips and walks away.  The Inquisitor says, “Go and do not come again!”

Ivan’s philosophy is a cry of despair.  If, as he says, God does not exist, there is no afterlife and “all is permitted,” he has no standpoint to condemn torturers of children, or anything else.

Aloysha has little to say in reply.  But a few chapters later we are told of the life and teachings of Aloysha’s spiritual mentor, the Elder Zosima.  I think that this, along with the facts of Aloysha’s life, is Dostoyevsky’s answer to Ivan.

Zosima as a young adult was an army officer who lived without religious observance.  The night before he was scheduled to fight a duel, he struck his orderly, an enlisted man, so hard that the blood flowed.  The next morning he somehow was overcome with remorse at what he had done to a fellow human being and begged the orderly’s forgiveness.  He went out to the dueling ground and, after his opponent had shot and missed, threw his gun away and begged forgiveness.

What caused his change?  It could have been his childhood religious teaching, with its emphasis on prayer and the study of the Bible, bearing fruit.  He immediately resolved to become a monk and from then on led a live of poverty and service.

In his teaching, he emphasized the importance of study of the Bible and practice of the rituals, fasts and the other religious observances of the Orthodox Church.  These are not submission to “magic, mystery and authority,” but a means of attaining spiritual freedom. 

Zosima in his preachings was aware of social injustice, including child labor, which he describes in language as poignant as Ivan’s.  But he was not impressed with social reform movements.

He taught that without Christ’s teaching of humility and love, the fight against injustice becomes an expression of hatred and envy and will lead to more suffering.

He talks of gratitude for existence, human equality, the beauty of nature, kindness to animals, universal guilt and sin, and refusal to judge others.  What doesn’t he talk about?  Philosophy.  Theology.   He doesn’t argue.  He only presents his teaching.  The listener is free to take it or leave it.

So Dostoyevsky’s justification of religion comes to this: Who do you want to be like?  A prisoner of intellectual despair, like Ivan?  A slave of passion and impulse, like Dmitri?  A mediocrity, like most people?  Or a lover of God and humanity, like Aloysha and Zosima?

Dostoyevsky was not naive about religion.  He did not think that assent to Christian doctrine necessarily makes you a good person or solves your problems.  His monks are not all Father Zosimas.  There is plenty of self-seeking and jealousy in the monastery.  

Father Ferapont, Zosima’s chief critic, sees the essence of religion, not as love, but as asceticism and self-denial.  But he practices what he preaches. 

Ivan does not practice what he preaches.  His nihilism is theoretical; he lives like an ordinary respectable person.  When the devil comes to Ivan in a dream toward the end of the novel, he says his aim was not to destroy Ivan’s faith, but to keep him perpetually wavering and undecided between belief and unbelief.

Ivan’s despised bastard half-brother, Smerdyakov, picks up on Ivan’s ideas.  He is the one who puts them into practice.  Ivan is appalled when he sees the consquences of his ideas.  When Smerdyakov sees his idol’s lack of seriousness, he is driven to despair and suicide.


The second half of the novel is mainly about the murder of Feodor Karamazov, the lead-up to the crime, and the investigation and trial.  

Dmitri, the sensualist, comes to the fore in this part.  He lives a life of pleasure and dissipation, but he does not enjoy it.  

The purpose of his wild drunken sprees are to cancel out the pain of existence, his feelings of worthlessness.  When he comes out of his sprees, the pain and self-hatred are even more intense. Dostoyevsky depicts his addiction and delirium with great power.  

The Elder Zosima, in an early scene, prostrates himself at Dmitri’s feet in recognition of his great suffering – something no-one else perceives.  

Feodor Dostoyevsky

Dmitri is in love with the beautiful Grushenka.  She, like him, is a creature of passion and impulse.  She had been seduced and betrayed by a Polish officer at the age of 17, and since then used her beauty and cunning to enrich herself and take revenge on society.  She is now torn between marrying Dmitri’s father for financial security and giving in to her desire to respond to Dmitri’s passion.

Her seductive and treacherous quality was captured very well by the actress Maria Schell in the 1958 movie version of The Brothers Karamazov.

Smerdyakov uses Dmitri’s infatuation with Grushenka to set him up to take the blame for Feodor’s murder.  He hints to Ivan that the murder is to take place and persuades him to be out of town when it happens.  

Ivan knows in this heart, or at least suspects, what is going to happen, but persuades himself that he does not know. This is a classic example of what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would call bad faith.  Even though he does not commit the crime, he shares the guilt.  

So does Dmitri.  He hasn’t kiledl his father, but he might well have done so.

All the circumstantial evidence points to Dmitri’s guilt.  His defense lawyer’s arguments are that his guilt is unproven because (1) nobody can know anything and (2) nobody can be held responsible for anything.  Even though Smerdyakov is the actual killer, Dostoyevsky says the jury does the right thing in voting to convict Dmitri, based on what they know.

Dmitri is sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in Siberia.  Aloysha agrees to help Ivan arrange for Dmitri’s escape, because he says Dmitri is not strong enough to bear this cross.  Dmitri fantasizes about what he will do after his escape, but makes no realistic plan.

He is still infatuated with Grushenka and counts on her to follow him wherever he goes, but it is unclear (at least to me) whether she will, or what will become of either of them.  Maybe Dostoyevsky intended to write a sequel, as Tolstoy did with War and Peace.


Like Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, but in a different way, Dostoyevsky is a writer who gives the impression of knowing everything about human life.  Also like Tolstoy, his depictions of human folly can be very funny. 


Dostoyevsky and the Pleasure of Taking Offense by Anthony Eagan for Quillette.

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