The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Critical Evaluation

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Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski’s budding literary career was interrupted in 1849 by a nine-year exile in Siberia and Asian Russia for political subversion, a charge never fully substantiated. When he resumed his career, at the age of thirty-eight, he began to work at a frenetic pace—as novelist, journalist, and editor—a pace that he maintained until his death, only one year after the publication of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevski was an inveterate gambler, frequently indulging in gambling binges of up to two weeks in duration; when his gambling debts mounted and his other creditors became insistent, he wrote, in a furiously intense burst of energy, to pay his bills. In addition, other catastrophes punctuated his hectic life. His first wife died; he began to have epileptic seizures; he got into further trouble with the government; he found it impossible to resist beautiful women. Woven through all this were his epiphanic flights of imagination, which culminated in his superb novels and the agonized soul searching of a man deeply concerned with truth, peace of mind, and religious faith. Indeed, the turbulence of Dostoevski’s life never really subsided, although he did enjoy a relative calm of sorts during the last few years of his life under the careful ministrations of his second wife. That turbulence is reflected in Dostoevski’s novels, particularly The Brothers Karamazov, his last novel and presumably the most mature expression of his style and his thought.

Like the other novels, The Brothers Karamazov is a psychological novel: Less emphasis is placed on plot, action, and setting (although Dostoevski is a master craftsman at all three) than on emotions and thoughts. In fact, Dostoevski’s psychological insights are so sharp that Sigmund Freud selected The Brothers Karamazov as one of the three greatest works in world literature. The other two he picked were Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark(pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603). All three involve a death of a father and an intergenerational love triangle. Moreover, Freud’s essay on The Brothers Karamazov, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” is considered a classic in psychology and literary criticism. In it, Freud gives a thorough explanation of the strong Oedipal theme in the novel, which echoes, according to Freud, Dostoevski’s own unresolved Oedipal conflicts. In this Freudian age, it is most difficult not to cast Dmitri’s hostility toward Fyodor in any other light. Each son resents his father in his own fashion and for his own reasons. All three legitimate sons, however, have less reason to despise Fyodor than his illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, does. All four sons have some justification—stemming largely from greed or vengeance—for wanting Fyodor dead.

It is evident, then, that the story proceeds from something more profound than plot. The loose structure of the novel, however, is offset by its intensity. It is frequently lurid, but Dostoevski never avoids a difficult question; he amalgamates thinking and feeling in a carefully planned interplay between the two. One of the consequences of this technique is an early foreshadowing of events that later come to pass—the creation of an atmosphere of premonition, as it were. There is, for example, frequent and early mention of patricide, especially in the scenes between Ivan and Smerdyakov, revealing a pathological obsession that besets both father and sons. Furthermore, the selection of details and their accretion contribute not only to the novel’s verisimilitude but also to its psychological depth and profundity. Even so seemingly trivial a matter as numerous references to time sequence—all of them accurate—indicates Dostoevski’s meticulous orchestration of his characters’ emotions. However, these techniques serve only to...

(This entire section contains 952 words.)

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enhance a novel whose impact ultimately derives from its head-on confrontation with the larger issues of human existence.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski’s search for truth leads him to the question, “What is the nature of humanity?” The answer takes shape in the characterization of three of the brothers. Dmitri is dominated by sensuality; Ivan prizes the intellectual; Alyosha represents spirituality, although his asceticism sometimes clashes with his incipient sensuality. Together, the three personalities (together with the evil, twisted, and victimized Smerdyakov) are symbolic of humanity. Another question, “Is there a God?” is less easily answered because neither “The Grand Inquisitor” story nor “The Devil: Ivan’s Nightmare” definitively resolves the matter. Likewise, the question of humanity’s relationship to God remains nebulous for the same reasons, Father Zossima notwithstanding. The questions about one’s relationship to another and one’s relationship to society, however, are more concretely dealt with: Hostility, fear, and resentment, commingled with morbid curiosity, characterize the relationship of one to another, appearing to mirror the same qualities in the relationship of the individual to society. Thus, when Dostoevski poses the question “Does humanity have free will?” the tentative answer is that free will, if it exists at all, is very limited. One can hardly see one’s destiny, much less exert substantial control over it, as Dmitri, among others, so tragically learns. Finally, Dostoevski wonders whether human intellect is capable of development or change; but since the entire novel is an exposition of the predestined Karamazov family, the answer is a foregone conclusion. These deeply felt philosophical considerations permeate the book without dwarfing its characters. Indeed, what can diminish the operatic rages and the petty buffoonery of Fyodor, the screaming frustrations of Dmitri, the barely repressed seething indignation of Ivan, and the incredible shock of Alyosha’s losing his spiritual innocence? Thus, philosophy and psychology go hand in hand in The Brothers Karamazov to shape a tale of immense emotional range and profound philosophical depth. The Brothers Karamazov is one of the masterpieces of the world’s literature.

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The Brothers Karamazov