The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Religious Faith in The Brothers Karamazov

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If you have watched any television, you know that murder mysteries and courtroom dramas are popular shows. You also know that real murder trials are televised. The issue with these shows is often not whether the defendant is guilty or innocent, but if the trial is entertaining. Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is an entertaining murder mystery, both for the reader and for the characters in the novel.

The question of whether Dmitri Karamazov is guilty or innocent of his father's murder is treated very seriously. Critics have typically focused on the novel's presentation of the crisis of religious faith in the nineteenth century; in particular, the characters debate the very existence of God and the implications of the answer. For example, if God does not exist, then guilt, innocence, and sin are meaningless. The critics note that Dostoevsky refuses to give a simple answer to this universal question. Instead, there is a compromise: if God's existence cannot be accepted, then people must accept the world as it is.

Dostoevsky attempted to write a novel that incorporated all aspects of Russian society: rich and poor, men and women, believers and non-believers. Since the character of Dmitri seems to represent the average Russian, the question of his guilt can be perceived as a question of the nation's guilt. If Dmitri is judged guilty, then all are guilty. If he is judged innocent, then all are innocent.

Dmitri is "wrongly" judged guilty. His attorney maintains that "the overwhelming totality of the facts is against the defendant, and at the same time there is not one fact that will stand up to criticism." In other words, the Russian people are guilty, but the individual is innocent.

Novels influenced by The Brothers Karamazov provide insight into Dostoevsky's book. Franz Kafka for example, loved Dostoevsky's novel; his novel The Trial (1925) chronicles the story of Joseph K., or just K., who wakes up one morning to find that he is under arrest. Yet no one can tell him exactly what crime he committed. His attempts to find information are circumvented by a confusing legal system that functions to hinder, not help, defendants.

K. never learns the nature of his crime; therefore, he cannot adequately defend himself. He meets other defendants whose trials drag on for months and years with no final verdict in sight. K. realizes that the court assumes his guilt and that he is in danger of lingering in the complex legal system for years.

However, a certain logic is at play here: if everyone is guilty, then no one person can be held responsible. Since you cannot punish everyone, no one is punished. The final verdict—everyone is under arrest, and also innocent—has for many readers become prophetic, symbolically describing the world today.

Realistically, someone has to be guilty since we always look for someone to blame—usually a person without power. The verdict in The Trial contradicts the Christian account of original sin in the first family: after Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden for disobedience to God, they became mortal and passed on that mortality to their children. Children are born guilty of their parents' sin. For this reason there is animosity between generations, since many children blame their parents for the burden of guilt. Inevitably, children will rebel against their parents.

According to Sigmund Freud's account of human origins, which describes the tension within the Karamazov family, a son or a group of sons desire to kill the father because the father has exclusive privilege over all women. Competitive instinct governs family interaction. Dmitri is...

(This entire section contains 2194 words.)

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charged, however, with parricide (the killing of a family member), not patricide (the killing of the father). Parricide opens itself to the possibility that any murder is like a family murder.

Adam and Eve's first son, Cain, commits parricide when he kills his brother Abel out of sibling rivalry. And in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Claudius kills his brother—Hamlet's father—to gain the throne of Denmark. Parricide emphasizes that a murder affects more than just the victim. It affects the other family members—like the members (people) of a body (nation). So much attention has been given to the family in literature because the family can be regarded as a small community, or miniature nation. What happens in a family can be said to mirror—with the distortions that all mirrors create—the state of a nation.

An account of the world that claims everyone is innocent then argues against Christian scripture, and claims also that God is dead. This conclusion is likely true of The Trial, but The Brothers Karamazov is more ambiguous. Three characters in Dostoyevsky's novel quote Voltaire an eighteenth-century French philosopher: "If God did not exist, he would have to be invented." This hypothesis has lingered and turned up in the most unlikely places, such as on the wall of a New Orleans brothel in the 1969 film Easy Rider.

The solution to this hypothesis is of course beyond us; we can only speculate. Fyodor, Ivan and young Kolya all invoke Voltaire's popular hypothesis, and all three are mocked at times for their credulity—believing that if it comes from a book, it must be true. Kolya also asks a question at the heart of the novel: "It's possible to love mankind even without believing in God, don't you think?" Ivan provides an answer that each character will test for himself and herself: "it is not God that I don't accept; it is the world that he has created." Ivan despairs that "everything except man is sinless," and with this disavowal in mind decides that "everything is permissible."

As Dmitri is accused of having murdered his (earthly) father, Ivan can be accused of having murdered God the Father. Richard Peace has noted that "Ivan's father becomes a sort of sacrificial substitute for God." Ivan participates in the events of Fyodor's murder and, at least initially, believes himself to have been innocent because it is not possible to be guilty of killing someone who is already dead: Fyodor had effectively killed himself years before when he rejected the responsibilities of fatherhood—like God. If God has forsaken you and the generation before you has already killed everything, why should what you do matter?

Enter Smerdyakov, Fyodor's bastard son, a character that in many ways makes this novel relevant today. He represents disaffected youth, those alienated from their parents and from themselves, a demographic that has become so stereotypical in the last few decades. Smerdyakov murders the father who had disowned him from birth, but who had consented to employ him as one of the servants. What might have been a familial relation was reduced to an economic relation. A man without a family and an inheritance, Smerdyakov is aimless until Ivan asserts that "everything is permissible."

This reading of the world permits Smerdyakov to kill Fyodor and then flee to France. It is he who will play God and punish people for their pride— he says to Ivan, "It was your pride made you think I was stupid." Yet to create a new life Smerdyakov would have to erase his terrible crime; he would have to claim that he was innocent.

At the end of the novel, once Dmitri has been convicted and sentenced, a plan is put into motion that would have Dmitri escape to America—the ideal place to start again. Americans killed their symbolic fathers—rules that limit freedom, such as God, class, ethnicity, gender or all origins altogether—and are not obligated to pay the debt of history. Yet does eliminating the patriarchal system also alleviate the obligations of mutual responsibility people feel toward each other, toward animals, and toward the earth? Without a symbolic father figure, will the family implode?

The novel suggests that one method of accepting this mutual responsibility is to treat adults as children, and children as adults, which means that fathers would become brothers, and mothers become sisters. Exchanging positions in the family and becoming mutually responsible for each other dismantles one of the primary hierarchies (the Family) that structure inequalities into the human community.

After Cain kills his brother, he responds to God's question about Abel's existence: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Because Cain failed to recognize his responsibility to his brother, God marked Cain and sent him out of the community (as proof that he was always and already outside)—like Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), who is cursed to wear a scarlet "A" to signify her crime of adultery. The Karamazovs are similarly marked: in Russian, kara means "punishment" and mazov comes from mazat, which means "to daub or smear."

Since one of the central questions at Dmitri's trial is whether all Russians are Karamazovs, the title of the novel is suggestive: Brothers Karamazov may include a community larger than a single family. A monk or nun willingly takes on the mark of sin, as Christ did, believing that all have sinned. To believe that "all are guilty" is to take that step nuns and monks take towards participation in the larger brotherhood and sisterhood beyond the family. To believe instead that "all are innocent" is to decide that there is no community. Conforming to society's values and laws then becomes optional, and can lead to anarchy.

To believe both at the same time—and become a sort of monk or nun in the world instead of in the monastery—is a possibility explored in the novel. In doing so, the characters begin to accept degrees of belief and degrees of guilt, and reject absolute belief or guilt. Because laws exist absolutely, however, they exist in conflict with exceptions to those laws. No single explanatory system (such as Christianity) can fully explain the complexity of a world of competing brothers, or competing instincts. You cannot find absolute truth in a book—either in the Bible or The Brothers Karamazov. Reading a book is a solitary pursuit. Truth must be constructed in dialogue with others.

One Father would be the author himself, Dostoevsky, and the monument of his great book. In this book Fatherhood is put on trial and the author questions his own authority by employing what his foremost critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, has called dialogism ("dia-" is two or more, and "-logue" is to speak). Bakhtin focuses more on the novel's form than its religious philosophy, but the two aspects are related. He has noted that "Capitalism created the conditions for a special type of inescapably solitary consciousness" by alienating us from the things we make and from each other, but that this solitary consciousness is a fantasy and an illusion. A solitary consciousness, or monologism ("mono" is one), claims to know the one Truth; it claims that everyone is entitled to her or his own opinion or truth, but in so claiming there is no conversation. No one listens.

Freud's theory of narcissism, which explain how people think only of themselves, offered to the twentieth century a life—not of innocent intentions—but innocent of its own intentions. Freud does not deny guilt, but maintains that there are other, psychological reasons for behavior that go beyond guilt and innocence. The mechanisms that operate the mind, like those that operate a piece of machinery, are neither sinful nor innocent in themselves.

Monologism is natural in capitalist America; in this country you can perhaps too easily claim to be innocent, and that others are to blame. Dialogism instead accepts both guilt and innocence as shared amongst the members of a family or nation. In effect, Dostoevsky kills the author-Father himself by opening up the novel form to multiple or dialogic consciousness, constituted collectively by the author and the characters. In this way, the hero in a dialogic novel becomes a collective hero.

Bakhtin says that a Dostoevsky novel develops itself—and cannot finally ever conclude itself—by creating a hero who takes a position on the world, and draws other people into dialogue with that position. Out of that dialogue certain shared truths emerge.

Although Dostoevsky's world is largely mechanistic, without God and innocent of its own intentions, it still demands that we intuit and respect other people's truths and move beyond monologism.

The declared hero of the novel is Alyosha, who describes the events of thirteen years ago to the narrator. Yet the narrator also witnessed many of the events, and often claims to be recording what he or she saw and heard.

With all these methods the book is almost literally composed collectively, and its conclusion is an exemplary instance of a chorus of voices: the young boys are gathered by Alyosha in both a fatherly and brotherly manner, and as they shout tributes of love they are asked to remember always this moment before they go their separate ways. Such moments might happen infrequently in their lives— in our lives too, so the reader is also drawn into the chorus, and we are entreated to remember the experience of having read this book.

Source: Logan Esdale, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Esdale is a doctoral student in the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo.

The Brothers Karamazov

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The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevskii's last great novel, bringing to culmination many of the themes of his earlier fiction, such as the debate between religion and atheism, the battle between good and evil in the hearts of 'broad' Russian characters, clashes of incompatible rival women, the ever-fascinating legal process, and, above all, Dostoevskii's longstanding attempts to create a 'positively good man' capable of leading Russia's spiritual regeneration. Moreover, the three brothers seem to reflect the three main stages of the author's life: Dmitrii, his youthful Romantic period; Ivan, his attachment to atheistic socialist circles; and Alesha, his spiritually reborn post-Siberian period.

The longest of the novels, The Brothers Karamazov is also one of the most tightly constructed, topographically exact (the town of Skotoprigonevsk is closely modelled on Staraia Russa where Dostoevskii spent his last years), and chronologically compact: the main action of the book takes place over a period of only three days, but with much interleaving of narration as we follow the lives of the three brothers in long, intercalated sections with a constant feeling of acceleration driving the action on. Each brother in turn, with the aid of significant dreams (and, in Ivan's case, delirium), learns important facts about himself and, for all the narration's pace, the reader shares a strong sense of epiphanic development.

The novel's main theme is the nature of fatherhood. On the one hand we have the saintly elder Zosima, a spiritual father to Alesha, the youngest brother; on the other the irresponsible, scheming, lecherous Fedor Karamazov, a father in the biological sense alone, whose possible murder is a topic of discussion from early in the book. This crime, once committed, provides a source of guilt for all of his sons: Alesha, the novice sent out into the world by Zosima, who for all his Christian goodness cannot avert the parricide; Dmitrii, cheated by his father and a rival for the favours of the amoral Grushenka; and Ivan, the haughty intellectual, spiritual descendant of Raskol'nikov, whose formula 'if God does not exist, then all is permitted' falls onto the receptive ears of his bastard half-brother, the lackey Smerdiakov who, in fact, proves to be the actual perpetrator of the crime.

As a detective story this chronicle of smalltown life is handled in masterly fashion with concatenations of circumstances and fatally coincidental sums of money all seeming to impugn the passionate Dmitrii, who is eventually tried and condemned. Rarely, if ever, has the tension of mounting circumstantial evidence been portrayed in such a gripping manner (Dostoevskii was inspired by a comparable real-life case). His response to the new legal system in Russia adds particular vividness to the description of the trial, in which not only Dmitrii, or even the Karamazov family, but effectively the whole of Russia is judged before the world.

The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevskii's last attempt to create a 'positively good man'. Father Zosima, though charismatic, is, perhaps, too pale and other-worldly for this role, but Alesha, through counselling distressed adults and children, gains authority as the novel progresses, and it is with him that the book ends. More memorable, however, is his brother Ivan's exposition of the reasons for rejecting God's world: the examples he adduces of gross cruelty to innocent children make his 'returning of the ticket' to God very persuasive. His principal thought is expressed in the 'Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,' a profound and disturbing meditation on Christianity free will, and happiness, at the end of which Alesha kisses his brother, just as Christ had responded to the Inquisitor with a silent kiss. Subsequently Ivan's brilliant Euclidian mind proves unable to resist a mocking petty bourgeois devil and he falls into insanity. In the world of Dostoevskii's novels Christianity and the intellectual have a purely negative relationship.

Dmitrii, aware that his nature contains elements of both the Madonna and Sodom, shares his father's impulsive, passionate character but none of his cynicism or buffoonery. Dmitrii's romance with Grushenka, who also alternates between satanic pride and self-abasement, voluptuousness and spiritual sublimation, makes this one of the great love stories in all literature. Also fascinating are all three brothers' relations with two other mentally troubled women, Katerina Ivanovna and Liza Khokhlakova, revealing a disturbingly dark side of passion first seen in Igrok (The Gambler) but also encountered in ensuing novels, particularly The Idiot and The Devils. The depiction of these women's behaviour together with the parricide itself strongly attracted the professional interest of Sigmund Freud.

The Brothers Karamazov is a rich and fascinating text containing crime, passion, psychology, religion, and philosophy. It is indeed one of the great novels of the world.

Source: Arnold McMillin, "The Brothers Karamazov," in Reference Guide to World Literature, second edition, edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.


Critical Overview