Good Reads: “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There are no spoilers in this book review. All parenthetical citations are from this edition: Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005. 718 pages.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a fascinating murder mystery about the exploits of three brothers: Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha. The three brothers, though not all sharing the same mother, have the same deplorable father, Fyodor Karamazov. Throughout the novel, Fyodor, who is an ignominious character to say the very least, is dishonest and rude towards just about everyone who has the displeasure of meeting him: He courts his own son’s girlfriend, publicly humiliates his family on numerous occasions, and roams the streets as the town drunk. It’s immediately obvious that many people, especially his sons, have the motive to murder Fyodor; the mystery at the center of the novel is who murdered Fyodor.

The Brothers Karamazov is much deeper than a simple murder mystery, however. Working within the plot and through the character’s personalities, Dostoyevsky explores the foundations and logical ends of morality, evil, and various worldviews. Though The Brothers Karamazov is a gripping murder mystery, it is also a profound philosophical novel.

The Brothers

Alyosha, who takes up the majority of the spotlight, stands in for Christianity for much of the novel. When we first meet Alyosha, he is an adult living in a monastery. He is refreshingly honest, and aims towards practicing his Christian faith in all contexts; for his reputable character, Alyosha receives trust from nearly everyone else.

Forming a strong contrast to Alyosha is Dmitri, the middle brother. Dmitri represents the Russian society in which Dostoyevsky lived (649): He is violent, jealous, and bellicose, to name but a few of his many character flaws. As is clear from the outset, he is the prime suspect in his father’s murder for numerous reasons, not least of which being his well-known proclivity toward violence.

The character I find most interesting, however, is the oldest brother, Ivan. Ivan represents a rational atheism or agnosticism soaked in existentialism. Clearly the smartest person in the book, Ivan proposes quite a few radical ideas and objections to theism that no one is able to refute. When someone dares to challenge his radical ideas, Ivan proceeds to argue circles around his unfortunate interlocutor. Showing the logical end of his worldview, Ivan’s ideas, which he so deftly defends, are motivating factors in the murder of his father. In the end of the novel, Ivan, who had used his mind to argue against theism, loses his mind, has a conversation with the devil, and succumbs to a “brain fever.”

Themes

Finding a single, all encompassing thesis in The Brothers Karamazov would be quite difficult due as much to the length of the novel as to the variety of topics covered. However, one insight from Dostoyevsky’s work is especially interesting from a Christian standpoint: The existence of God contains the answers to our strongest objections to theism, though the answers may be beyond our understanding. A few of the novel’s many themes help to flesh out this insight.

First, Dostoyevsky has a subtle, yet consistent, critique of human understanding running through the book displayed most clearly in the local doctor, Dr. Herzenstube. When confronted with nearly any illness, the local medical professional responds by saying that he doesn’t know what to make of it. He then prescribes some home remedy and is on his way.

Herzenstube is not alone in his inadequate medical knowledge, however: During the trial following Fyodor’s murder, three doctors testify concerning the defendant’s (whom I will not name) mental health. Each doctor contradicts the previous doctor’s “expert,” human opinion. In a flash of comedy, the point that divides the three doctors is whether the defendant should’ve looked to his right, to his left, or straight ahead as he entered the courtroom. So, Dostoyevsky stresses that doctors, whom the characters regard as experts in their field, have limits on their knowledge.

A second key theme in The Brothers Karamazov is the serious nature of some objections to Christianity and the mysterious nature of the answers to those objections. The first objection to the Christian religion comes early in the book. When meeting with Father Zosima in the monastery, Dmitri and Fyodor begin arguing—a common practice in the Karamazov family. In the heat of the argument, Fyodor turns on the monks and mocks them saying, “you save your souls here, eating cabbage, and think you are righteous. You eat a gudgeon (a type of fish) a day, and you think you bribe God with gudgeon” (63). Now as Christians, we would agree that our works, no matter how noble, can never make us right before God; on this basis, we would insist that Fyodor has constructed a strawman of Christianity. However, Zosima doesn’t correct the theological error; instead, Zosima bows down before Dmitri until his forehead touches the floor in front of his accuser (63).

Mysterious responses to objections resurface in one the book’s most famous passages: “The Grand Inquisitor.” Leaving aside many details, The Grand Inquisitor is the name of a play which Ivan has formulated in his mind as a critique of organized religion, especially of Roman Catholicism. In the play, Jesus comes back to earth and performs miracles. A Cardinal in the Roman church then catches Jesus doing miracles in front of a crowd and has him arrested. Later, the Cardinal visits Jesus in his cell and tells Jesus that the Roman church believes that Jesus’s work on earth, which, according to the Cardinal, gave spiritual choice to human beings, has resulted in too much suffering. Instead of just performing many miracles and winning a large following, Jesus gave humanity free-will, a burden which we are unable to bear. For that reason, the Catholic church has decided to work with the devil to alleviate temporal suffering at the expense of their souls. Jesus, however, does not give an answer to the Cardinal’s accusations; instead, Jesus approaches the Cardinal and kisses the Cardinal on his lips.

Immediately before delving into his play, Ivan, who is speaking to Alyosha, reflects upon gratuitous suffering in florid language. Ivan claims to believe that God will one day make everything right, that God will heal all pain and dry the final tear from every eye; however, Ivan says “though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it” (213). The reason, says Ivan, is the amount of unnecessary suffering in the world wrought at the hands of men is simply too great. Characterizing the extent of suffering caused by human beings for sport, Ivan says: “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel” (215). Ivan then describes the torture of children before the eyes of their mother and says that “if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he (man) has created him (the devil) in his own image and likeness” (216). Ivan ends his complaint against suffering thusly: “I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then” (221).

At the conclusion of Ivan’s tirade—which is a work of absolute beauty from a literary standpoint—Alyosha gives no answer. Instead, in Dostoyevsky’s words: “Alyosha got up, went to him (Ivan) and softly kissed him on the lips” (239).

The way that the Christians respond to these objections to their faith is interesting: Instead of attempting to defend their faith against these objections, the Christians opt for mysterious, yet disarming, responses.

Dostoyevsky pushes the reliance upon the mysterious too far, however. Dostoyevsky means to say that there is a mysterious component to faith, which is certainly true; however, faith need not rely so heavily upon the mysterious. For starters, Fyodor’s accusation in the monastery is so weak that it doesn’t really qualify as an objection to Christianity; nevertheless, the monk’s choose a mysterious response instead of simply addressing Fyodor’s theological misunderstanding. Though Ivan’s objection from evil has some teeth, many Christian thinkers have offered serious answers to the problem of evil. Though we don’t have a perfect answer to every example of evil, we aren’t so ignorant that we must immediately abandon our reasoning abilities and appeal to mystery. There is a mysterious component to faith; the component isn’t as large as Dostoyevsky implies, however.

A final significant theme in The Brother’s Karamazov is atheism’s inability to provide an adequate foundation for morality. Throughout the book, Ivan and those under his influence frequently repeat some version of the same axiom: Without God, all things are lawful; sometimes this axiom is expressed as “there is no virtue if there is no immorality” (59).

Though not as famous as C.S. Lewis for this insight, Dostoyevsky’s logic is spot on here: If God does not exist, there is simply no objective foundation for morality. Dostoyevsky then engages in cultural apologetics by exploring where this idea leads, for all ideas have consequences. Without ruining the mystery, the person who murdered Fyodor was acting upon Ivan’s idea about morality: This person’s atheism combined with Ivan’s oft-repeated axiom and the direct by-product was a murder.

All of these themes combine to buttress this insight: In God, all of our concerns and objections are answered, though the answer may be beyond our understanding. We crave a reason for why there is so much suffering: Assuming the Christian God exists, we can be confident that there is a solution to the problem of evil, though that solution outpaces us at times. We may, however, reject God’s existence on the basis of the problem of evil; but where will we go to find morality? Without God, there are no objective morals; if no objective morals, then no objective evil; if no objective evil, then no objective suffering. In a very real sense, then, the answer to our suffering is in some way tied up with the very thing that makes that suffering so difficult.

Dostoyevsky’s insight into the problem of evil is brilliant: We can see the pieces that form the answer to our strongest objection to Christianity; however, with our limited understanding, we can’t quite see how the pieces fit together to make one coherent picture. One thing we know for certain: Suffering is objectively real and rational if and only if the Christian God exists.

The Bible student in me can’t help but hear echoes of Colossians 1.17 at this point. Paul writes that “in him (Christ), all things συνεστηκεν.” συνεστηκεν is a form of the verb συνιστημι and means to hold together, to frame, to place together, or to possess consistence.[1] That seems to be the rough idea that Dostoyevsky’s novel seems to be pointing towards: In Christ, all of our concerns have been framed together, they’ve been placed in a right order; we, however, may not see the full picture. That, however, says more about us than it does about God.

Notes & Sources

[1] William Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 438

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