The Brothers Karamozov
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started this one, but by the end I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues and the beauty of the writing. It’s part murder mystery, part theological debate and part study of a dysfunctional family. It puts weaker attempts to cover similar ground (like The Corrections) to shame. It manages to draw you into the twisted world of the Karamozov family while at the same time reminding you that you will never fully understand their family.
At the core of The Brothers Karamozov are two plots. The first is a complicated love triangle involving two of the brothers, their father, and two women. The second is a theological dual between two of the brothers. One is an atheist set on denying the existence of god and any need for morality, the other is training to be a priest and struggling with his fate as he watches his family self-destruct.
Fyodor Karamazov is the father of three sons from two marriages (and possibly a third bastard, Smerdyakov, who is the family’s servant). Fyodor and his eldest son, Dmitri, haven’t gotten along for years. There’s bad blood between the two because of some money that Dmitri was meant to inherit. Dmitri wastes his life pining after women and booze. Despite being engaged to the pious Katerina Ivanovna, he falls for the same woman his father is wooing, Grushenka.
The second son, Ivan, is intelligent and logical. He falls for his brother’s fiancé, Katerina and debates morality with his other brother and Smerdyakov. Alexei is the youngest brother and is training to be a monk in the Russian Orthodox Church. He watched all of the events unfold and acts as a lens through which the reader can see the Karamozov family.
That is only the briefest of summaries, but there’s far too much in this book to explain. On the surface we deal with a murder and at that point the story really picks up speed, but it’s the theology and morality questions that provide the heart of the book. Pride, hubris, defiance, selfishness, etc. the Karamozov brothers are famous for these traits, but in the end they can’t save themselves.
BOTTOM LINE: I was surprised by how caught up I was in this novel. There were so many lines that have stayed with me. I found myself missing the characters after the book ended. They aren’t likeable men, but they are fascinating. Each one goes through his own journey, whether he is betrayed by his belief system or brought low by circumstances. It’s an incredible read.
“The more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”
“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.”
“I think the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”
“For the secret of man's being is not only to live but to have something to live for.”
“But I always liked side-paths, little dark back-alleys behind the main road- there one finds adventures and surprises, and precious metal in the dirt.”