Skotoprigonyevsk (sko-to-prihg-ON-ih-ehfsk). Russian town in which the Karamazovs’ home is located and the location of the worst debauchery commonly blamed on Fyodor Karamazov—the rape of the mentally disabled Lizavita. Dostoevski’s narrator withholds the name of the town until almost the very end of the novel, at the beginning of the trial of Dmitri Karamazov. Otherwise, the narrator refers to it only as “the town” or “our town.” The name Skotoprigonyevsk is most likely derived from the Russian word skotoprigony, meaning a stockyard. It is a generic Russian rural town of the time, located somewhere in the broadleaf-forest belt that is the heart of old Russia. For the people of Skotoprigonyevsk, the bright lights and Western fashions of the capital in St. Petersburg are almost unimaginably distant, talked about but never seen.
Karamazov home. Dwelling of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, patriarch of the Karamazov family. As befits a wealthy landowner, it is a spacious house, tended by a faithful servant and his wife. However, it is also in notable disrepair, with crumbling wallpaper. These signs of decay reflect the moral dissolution of the elder Karamazov and are likely a deliberate touch of Dostoevski’s art. Although the house is the family home, it is not a place where Karamazov’s sons find nurturing or comfort. All three of his legitimate sons are fostered by maternal relatives. As Karamazov’s degeneracy makes him progressively more paranoid, the effects of his house also become a sort of quasi-prison for him, and he locks himself within his room. The house eventually becomes the site of Karamazov’s death—the circumstances of which are mysterious as a result of Karamazov’s progressive isolation.
Monastery. Spiritual retreat of Alyosha Karamazov and of the saintly Father Zossima. Located not far from the Karamazov home, this monastery is an important spiritual center of the region. Thus, when Fyodor Karamazov quarrels with his son Dmitri over a supposed inheritance which Dmitri accuses his father of having squandered, the two men visit the monastery, where they appeal to Father Zossima to adjudicate their dispute. The monastery is a symbol of Christian salvation. Fyodor Karamazov is so morally degenerate that he is insensitive to the presence of the holy and behaves in his usual shameful fashion, thereby destroying any hope of reconciliation with his son. Another son, Alyosha, finds the monastery his key to spiritual peace and helps the troubled Grushenka to reach moral regeneration and forgiveness.
Dostoevski’s monastery reflects his Slavophile politics. Unlike Russians who believed that Russia’s future lay in adopting Western innovations like democracy or socialism, Dostoevski and other Slavophiles believed that Russia must look to its own roots for moral and spiritual rebirth. The key to this revitalization, Dostoevski believed, lay in the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Romanovs In 1689 Peter the Great assumed the throne in Russia. His attempts to modernize Russia were not entirely successful, but he did manage many reforms before his death in 1725. Another reform-minded leader, Catherine the Great, resumed the task of modernization in 1762.
From 1801 to 1825, Alexander I continued in the path of Peter and Catherine. He granted amnesty to political prisoners and repealed many restrictive laws. Under Alexander's reign, Russia increased in size and power. When Napoleon marched on Moscow in 1812, he found the city burned to the ground and, with no supplies and winter setting in, he retreated. The Russian army routed Napoleon's troops using guerrilla tactics.
In 1826 Nicholas I adamantly opposed liberal ideas and Western thought. He instituted secret police, strict censorship, and the removal of...
(This entire section contains 633 words.)
all controversial materials from educational institutions. Writers were arrested, university chairs in history and philosophy abolished, and student bodies reduced. Meanwhile, he reformed the economy and compiled the first set of Russian laws since 1649. In 1854 the Russian military forces were defeated by an international army of Turkish, British, French and Sardinian troops in the Crimean War (1854-1856).
In the tradition of Peter, Alexander II reduced restrictions on higher learning. He reformed the judiciary, instituting Zemstvas in 1864. A Zemstva was a system of local self-government responsible for education and public welfare. Throughout the 1870s Russia resumed its struggle with Turkey over the Dardanelles, a struggle it eventually lost.
After 1881, Alexander III reintroduced censorship and strengthened the police force. The Zemstvas were curbed, assimilation was forced on minorities, and assaults began in earnest on the Jewish population through a series of pogroms which kill hundreds.
The last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II, started his reign in 1894. Although he had the best of intentions, the populace assumed that he was under the influence of Rasputin, a mysterious religious leader. After a loss to Japan in 1904, his rule was in danger. On January 22, 1905, his troops fired on thousands of peaceful protesters. Hundreds were killed.
Revolution Under the reign of Alexander I, secret organizations and societies formed and influenced Russian culture and politics. For example, the Decembrists called for an end to Czarist leadership and advocated a constitutional monarchy or a republic. They attempted to take control of Russia when Alexander I died but were crushed by Nicholas I. Another group, the Nihilists, advocated a complete abolition of the present state. Revolutionary activity increased under the tolerant reign of Alexander II.
Revolutionary groups grew more educated, organized, and focused. Industrialism created a class of factory workers open to communist ideas. This group would eventually overthrow the Romanov dynasty in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Though Alexander allowed the revolutionary groups to exist, they were not content with the pace of reform. In 1881, Alexander was assassinated by a revolutionary.
Russian Serfdom A serf was a person who was legally designated servile to his landlord. Unlike a slave, a serf could have inherited property, bequeathed wealth, and bought his way out of serfdom or of some servile duties. Dictated by local custom, service included fighting for the landlord in combat and allowing the landlord to sleep with one's daughters.
With the rise of the merchant class in Europe and evolution of feudal societies into constitutional monarchies, serfdom declined. Descendants of serfs rose to the middle class and social mobility increased. In France serfs gradually vanished as a result of the French Revolution. Yet the practice survived and grew more repressive in Russia. Spurred by revolutionaries, serfs revolted throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in Russia.
The most notable series of revolts occurred during the disastrous Crimean War in 1854. Finally, forty million Russian serfs were liberated when Alexander II ordered their release in 1861. Even though free by law, many peasants remained second class citizens in reality—an issue explored in The Brothers Karamazov.
Structure Like many other novels of the nineteenth century, The Brothers Karamazov is composed of a diverse array of narrative techniques. These techniques include tales, anecdotes, confessions, digressions, a novella, and a trial transcript. None of these elements can be isolated from the novel without making it incomplete.
The narrator seems omniscient, yet allows various parts of the story to be told by others without clarification. As a result, there are approximately eleven versions of Fyodor's murder.
The multiplicity of voices and layers drive home the themes of the novel through repetition and mirroring. The novel works on thesis and antithesis. Zossima, and his echo Alyosha, counter Ivan's thesis. Fyodor and Miusov foreshadow Ivan's thoughts. Dmitri repeats a portion of Ivan's speech. Ilusha and his friends are mirrors of and responses to Ivan's "rebellion." Kolya's goose is a mirror of Ivan and Smerdyakov.
Symbolism There is allegorical significance in virtually every aspect and feature composing the fabric of The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitri's shame hangs about his neck like an albatross. His redemption is in the form of a small icon that Madame Hohlakov gives to him.
Animals and insects are employed not only to describe character traits, but also as harbingers. For example, cockroaches in the wall emphasize Ivan's horror.
Another symbolic technique is the use of color. The dominant color in the story is black, then red. Black stands for mourning but also for bad choices, such as Grushenka's wearing of a black dress. Blackness, or darkness, also hides Dmitri as he awaits Grushenka or watches his father.
The counterweight to blackness is the pure white of snow. Snow saves Russia from its enemies. Snow is the predominant element in the land of exile, Siberia; it signals redemption and rebirth.
Water is a symbolic force by its very absence. The people of the town, like Alyosha, must leave in order to find fresh water. All water in the town is dirty, except for tears and dew.
Crime StoryThe Brothers Karamazov is a crime story. A subgenre of the detective story—a nineteenth century innovation—crime stories focus on the environment in which the crime was committed. They tend to be told from the perpetrator's point of view.
While a crime story at heart, the novel is far more complex. It is not only concerned with the perpetrator's point of view or with the crime, but also with the concept of original sin as allegorized by the criminal event. Thus, the murder is only a device to explore universal philosophical themes such as religion and the existence of God.
The lack of a reliable version of the crime allows the reader to make his or her own decisions— not just about Dmitri but about those larger themes.
Oedipus Complex Although the Greek story of Oedipus (in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex) has been the subject of many artists, it is best known in the twentieth century through Freud's reworking of the myth as a psychological condition. The Oedipus complex, according to Freud, is common among men who desire the death of their father in order to sleep with their mother. Freud was quite literal about this incestuous desire.
Essentially, the Oedipus story tells the tale of a boy destined to murder his father and sleep with his mother. Knowing this prophecy, extensive precautions are taken to avoid contact with his parents. Yet while traveling as a young man, Oedipus fights and kills a stranger at a crossroads—this stranger turns out to be his father. Later, he arrives in Thebes and solves the riddle of the Sphinx. As a result, he marries Jocasta (his mother). When the truth of his actions are revealed, he blinds himself.
The Oedipal complex is evident in each of the brothers Karamazov. Each brother secretly longs for their father's death—both on behalf of their deceased mother and because their father is very cruel. It is most obvious in the character of Dmitri who was sent away from his father but returns. He falls in love with the woman his father desires. The death of his father enables him to marry Grushenka.
In addition to the Oedipal complex, Dostoyevsky explores other realms of psychology in the novel. In many ways, he was ahead of his time, as he preceded the work of Freud. For example, Dostoyevsky explores several psychological issues: exhibitionism; adolescent perversity; laughter as an unconscious unmasking; the phenomena of the "accidental family"; and the "death-instinct." He also displays the phenomena of split personalities in Dmitri, Katerina, and Ivan.
As usual, Dostoevsky lays out the plot, a complex one, in a fairly orderly fashion. The author apologizes for the family history that he provides at the opening, but this information about the background of the Karamazov family is essential for an understanding of the events that follow. The text is broken up into small sections, little chapters within twelve "books" and the Epilogue. Each book is tided with an appropriate phrase or word that identifies the subject (e.g. "Alyosha" and "The Russian Monk"); then, the chapters are also helpfully labeled: for instance, "He gets rid of his eldest son," "A lady of little faith," and "The Grand Inquisitor."
Biographer Mochulsky speaks of the novel in terms of "the harmony of its architectonics," and goes on to show how all the threads of the plot and the relationships of the characters are cleverly intermingled. Almost all of the central characters have some association with, or at least some knowledge of, each of the other characters. While they often operate at cross purposes, the force of the conflicts (Dmitri and Fyodor, Katerina and Grushenka, Ivan and himself) advances the plot inexorably.
The setting is confined to the provincial town; and, the voice of the narrator, heard only occasionally, provides a unifying impression to the text. The first person voice is employed sparingly, mosdy at the beginning of the story; and, it provides a somewhat "folksy" tone that both prepares for the dire scenes to follow and contrasts effectively with them. The narrator says that Fyodor was still remembered "among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. "Thus, the retrospective technique is brought into play, as it is elsewhere in Dostoevsky's works. In this case, however, there is a sort of intimacy with the reader that is not usually found elsewhere in the author's canon. He opens Chapter Two of the first book by saying, "You can easily imagine what a father of such a man could be and how he would bring up his children." This historical family background goes on for more than thirty pages, and the almost oral aspect of the style both enhances the "flat" tone (which becomes more ominous as the text proceeds) and enforces the intimacy— it is as if the narrator/author wants the reader to "get to know" the Karamazov family. The device works very well.
A fruitful exercise might be a comparison of this novel with the preceding ones, with an eye to the "progress" that the author made in developing his themes and characters. An obvious example would be to discover whether Alyosha is indeed an "advance" in characterization over Prince Myshkin. Also, one could attempt to determine whether Ivan mirrors Stavrogin and whether the former is a more believably tormented personality than the latter. Since there is a great deal of violent behavior in the text; it might be well to investigate psychological studies of deviant behavior, in order to see if Dostoevsky is as astute a student of such activity as has been claimed for him (e.g., is Dmitri's "mixed" nature true to the "rules" of personality theory in psychology?). Lastly, one might examine the passages of dialogue to judge whether Dostoevsky has created a distinctive pattern of speech for each major character, as he has been praised for doing in earlier works.
1. Russian novels are famous for the enormous numbers of characters, with very long and complicated names. While War and Peace (1865-1869) may be the most challenging in this regard, The Brothers Karamazov, not containing the 500 persons found in the Tolstoy work, still has more than forty characters. Are they all necessary? Are there any that could be dispensed with, without harm to the integrity of the plot or the themes?
2. Further, are all the plot incidents needed? For example, are the scenes involving the schoolchildren indispensable, even though they help to prepare for the final passage with Alyosha addressing the children? And, do the sections dealing with Zossima's beliefs and attitudes run on too long?
3. In this vein, are those passages too preachy? Could they have either been eliminated or shortened, without harming the themes?
4. Does the Grand Inquisitor passage elucidate Ivan's philosophical position clearly? And, does it accord with the context of characters and events in which it appears?
5. Which leading female character, Grushenka or Katerina, is developed more clearly and fully? What could have been done, if anything, to enhance the characterization of either of them?
6. What does Zossima really mean by his deep bow to Dmitri early in the story? Also, what is the significance of his mode of behavior to the various suppliants who come to him at the monastery?
7. Which two or three of the "interview" scenes (in which two characters, such as Dmitri and Alyosha, and Ivan and Smerdyakov, engage in deep conversations) are the most significant in terms of plot development, characterization, and advancement of themes?
8. Of the several themes revealed in the text, which one seems to be the most important to modern readers, most relevant to everyday life today?
9. As a literary creation, is Alyosha "too good to be true"? Is his "virtue" too forcefully and consistently set forth? Would a bit more weakness help to round his characterization and make it more credible?
10. Does the trial section go on to an excessive length? Could it have been summarized, as in Crime and Punishment? Or is the detail necessary to display the oddities of behavior of leading characters?
11. Which character is more deserving of the reader's sympathy, Ivan or Dmitri; and, what reasons could be adduced for this choice?
12. Does the occasional authorial intrusion distract the reader from the plot and characters, or does it add a touch of realism to the novel?
Late 1800s: The forefather of Russian communism and Marxist philosopher, Georgy Plekhanov, fled to Western Europe in 1880.
Today: Russia is developing democratic institutions based on the American model.
Late 1800s: There was a great famine in the agricultural regions of Russia from 1891-1892.
Today: Agricultural problems are still frequent in Russia due to poor infrastructure, inadequate resources for private farms, and a lack of credit sufficient to finance farming.
Late 1800s: The United States experienced an industrial revolution that would catapult it to the fore of manufacturing by the twentieth century.
Today: The United States is in the midst of an information revolution that has created significant economic benefits. These innovations have changed the way people communicate and do business in the twenty-first century.
As critic Vyacheslav Ivanov has indicated, there is a Faustian quality to the mythic features of The Possessed (1871- 1872; see separate entry). The same might be said of The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan, most notably, "sells" his soul to the devil (the scenes where he is confronted by the demon are close to myth in their effect) and yet gains only unhappiness— one could say that this intellectual young man is "cursed" by his own personal devil. Moreover, Dmitri, in a manner, also suffers from a kind of bargain with grim fate. While he is eager, to recite Schiller's "Hymn to Joy," and falls to weeping with deep sentiment afterward, this troubled spirit occasionally hates himself for his rough ways, his excesses, his passions, and his general immorality. He, too, is somewhat "cursed" because of his "deal" with the devilish impulses in his personality—he pays the dear price at the close of the novel, but by this time he is willing to do so.
The general subject of antipathy between fathers and sons is an old tradition, going back to Oedipus the King (Sophocles, c. 429 B.C.); but, the most nearly connected, so far as nationality and social relevance go, is Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1862), in which the political and moral differences between parent and child adumbrate, in a much milder way, the familial conflicts in The Brothers Karamazov.
Apart from the Moscow Art Theatre production of The Brothers Karamazov, there was a French version done by J. Copeau in 1911 and an Italian treatment by C. Alvaro.
On film, the principal work is the 1958 MGM movie version. It was written and directed by Richard Brooks and starred Yul Brynner as Dmitri, Maria Schell in a brilliant performance as Grushenka (Marilyn Monroe had been considered for the part), Richard Basehart as Ivan, Lee J. Cobb as Fyodor, Claire Bloom as Katerina Ivanovna, a very young William Shatner as Alyosha, and Albert Salmi as Smerdyakov. The production was long, expensive, and fairly close to the novel (insofar as such was possible for a work so extensive and complex)—it was generally praised for the breadth of its "coverage" and the fidelity to the spirit of the novel.
The Brothers Karamazov was made into a silent film in 1918 by Dmitri Buchowetzki and Carl Froelich in Germany. Irmgard Bern and Fritz Kortner were in the cast.
The second German adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov was directed and scripted by Erich Engels. The 1931 film starred Fritz Kortner (again) as Dmitri and Bernhard Minetti as Ivan.
William Shatner made his film debut in the 1958 English production of The Brothers Karamazov. Adapted by Julius J. Epstein and directed by Richard Brooks, the film also starred Yul Brynner and Maria Schell.
A Russian production of the novel was made in 1968. Ivan Pyryev wrote the adaptation. Kirill Lavrov and Mikhail Ulyanov directed the film. Ulyanov and Lavrov also starred in the film, which was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar in 1970.
Sources for Further Study
Belknap, Robert L. The Genesis of “The Brothers Karamazov”: The Aesthetics, Ideology, and Psychology of Text Making. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1990. Considers the reading and experiences of Dostoevski that appear in the novel. A study of the mind behind the book.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Selection of critical interpretations of the text. Essays printed in chronological sequence from 1971 to 1977. Includes an extended chronology of Dostoevski.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. This authoritative critical biography provides detailed information on the intellectual and literary context of the novel’s creation as well as a close reading of its main themes.
Leatherbarrow, William J. Fyodor Dostoyevsky—The Brothers Karamazov. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Provides background for understanding, including historical, intellectual, and cultural influences. Discusses the major themes of the novel.
Scanlan, James P. Dostoevsky the Thinker. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002. Scanlan places Dostoevski’s views on Russian Orthodox Christianity in the broader context of his philosophic writings.
Terras, Victor. A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky’s Novel. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981. Offers introductory essays on major themes and techniques as well as comprehensive annotation of literary and religious allusions.
Thompson, Diane Oenning. “The Brothers Karamazov” and the Poetics of Memory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Thompson’s study of the theme of memory also gives illuminating commentary on the Christian themes in the work.
Sources Mikhail Bakhtin, "Toward a Reworking of the Dostoyevsky Book," in Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics, translated and edited by Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 283-302.
Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus Vintage, 1991, pp. 93-118.
Sigmund Freud, in Dostoyevsky and Parricide, translated by D. F. Tait, Basic Books, 1959, pp. 222-42.
Prince Kropotkin, "Gontcharoff; Dostoyevsky; Nekrasoff," in Russian Literature, McClure, Phillips & Co., 1905, pp. 151-90.
Hans Kung, "Religion in the Controversy over the End of Religion," in Literature and Religion: Pascal, Gryphius, Lessing, Holderlin, Novalis, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, edited by Walter Jans and Hans Kung, translated by Peter Heinegg, Paragon House, 1991, pp. 223-42.
Ralph E. Matlaw, in The Brothers Karamazov: Novelistic Technique, Mouton & Co., 1957, pp. 20-33.
J. Middleton Murray, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Critical Study, Russell & Russell, 1966.
Richard Peace, in Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1971.
The Spectator, Vol. 109, No. 4396, September 28, 1912, pp. 451-52.
The Temple Bar, Vol. 91, February, 1891, pp. 243-49.
Victor Terras, in A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoyevsky's Novel, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981, pp. 100-09.
For Further Study Albert Camus, The Stranger, translated by Matthew Ward, Vintage Books, 1989. An ordinary man is drawn into a senseless murder. Camus explores the use of the stranger archetype.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed, translated by David Magarshack, Penguin USA, 1954. First published in 1871, this is Dostoyevsky's first major novel. Thematically, it concerns politics, atheism, and murder.
Franz Kafka, The Trial, Schocken Books, 1998. In this novel, Joseph K. is faced with imprisonment, but never informed of his crime. The story explores the psychology of bureaucracy and its impact on the human condition.
Jean Paul Sartre, The Age of Reason, Vintage Books, 1992. Famous for his theories of existentialism, Sartre examines freedom and responsibility in his philosophical treatise.
Richard Wright, Native Son, Harper Perennial Library, 1993. A crime novel influenced by Dostoyevsky, Wright debates psychological theories in this story of a young man charged with a crime.