The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Critical Overview

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When The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1881, critics and readers were shocked by the controversial nature of the novel. For example, a negative assessment in Temple Bar contends that the work would "add nothing to [Dostoyevsky's] reputation." Vladimir Nabakov was even less impressed. He deems the novel "quaint" and "weird" though he liked the random phraseology of the chapter headings. Furthermore, a review in The Spectator deems the novel "disordered," although it is "the most carefully composed of [Dostoyevsky's] novels, the constructions seems often to collapse entirely; there are the strangest digressions and the most curious prolixities."

Not surprisingly, most of the critical commentary on the novel focuses on the problem of faith and religion. There is quite a bit of commentary discussing the ideas presented by the fable of the "Grand Inquisitor" alone.

D. H. Lawrence, in his Preface to "The Grand Inquisitor," maintains that complete devotion to Christianity is impossible because it expects too much from its followers. Accordingly, Ivan's position is not evil but honest. Ivan rediscovered something "known until … the illusion of the perfectibility of men, of all men, took hold of the imagination of the civilised nations." That something is, "that most men cannot choose between good and evil."

Hans Kung, in his "Religion in the Controversy over the End of Religion," views Dostoyevsky as a prophet who "was convinced that the Europe of Western science, technology, and democracy needs Russia's spirituality and conciliating power in order to find its way to a new, free unity."

The novel interests psychologists because they are concerned not with the crime, as Sigmund Freud maintains, but with "who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done." According to Freud, in Dostoyevsky and Parricide, The Brothers Karamazov is the "most magnificent novel ever written."

Freud asserts that the artistic "formula for Dostoyevsky is as follows: a person of specially strong bisexual predisposition, who can defend himself with special intensity against dependence on a specially severe father." Even more profound, "it can scarcely be owing to chance that three of the masterpieces of the literature of all time—the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, should all deal with the same subject, parricide."

Besides discussions regarding the novel's themes of religion and psychology, critics consider the characters of the story. Prince Kropotkin contends that with so many characters suffering from "brain and nervous diseases," the novel appears unnatural and fabricated. Further, he asserts that the novel has "here, a bit of morals, there some abominable character taken from a psycho-pathological hospital ….. that a few good pages scattered here and there do not compensate the reader for the hard task of reading these two volumes."

Camus views The Brothers Karamazov as "a work which, in a chiaroscuro more gripping than the light of day, permits us to seize man's struggle against his hopes." Some critics assert that allegory is more important than characters in the novel. Others note the appearance of the twentieth-century hero—solitary, rebellious, and possibly dangerous.

Critical commentary also focuses on Dostoyevsky's narrative technique. J. Middleton Murray, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Critical Study, asserts that The Brothers Karamazov is not "an encyclopedia of Russian life" but a confused and chaotic symbolic tale.

Ralph E. Matlaw disagrees with this assessment in his The Brothers Karamazov: Novelistic Technique. He maintains that "the minutiae of the novel are as carefully controlled … as the thematic and structural lines."

Victor Terras, in A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoyevsky's Novel , agrees...

(This entire section contains 708 words.)

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with Matlaw and employs Mikhail Bakhtin's (inFyodor Dostoyevsky) concept of narrative polyphonics. Terras traces the many layers and subtleties of meaning in the novel, asserting that, "the trial of Dmitri … is an allegory of Dostoyevsky's effort" to persuade the jury of mankind that the "cognitive power of the creative imagination" is the most powerful.

Throughout the years, critics grew to appreciate Dostoyevsky's accomplishments with The Brothers Karamazov. In particular, his use of multiple voices is viewed as an effective and innovative narrative technique. Furthermore, his exploration of religious and psychological issues is considered influential for many twentieth century authors and philosophers. Today, The Brothers Karamazov is considered one of the more important works of world literature.

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