“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
Throughout my entire life especially during my early years inside the Catholic Church, I was told about this Russian novel THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. Being over 900 pages long divided into twelve books and an epilogue, completing this novel always felt like a journey that would never be completed. This 19th Century novel is filled with philosophical musings, observations of that historical society and large ideas revolving around the importance of virtues like love, faith, and the importance of philosophical ideas like rationalism. After completing the novel, Dostoevsky famously said that this novel reflects everything he has ever wanted to say about the human experience. As the most famous quote from this novel explains above, the quest of any human life is to live with virtue and love. Lacking these things can send any person into a spiral of despair and anger that they may never recover from. In this short review, I will give some background on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Then, I will dive into an analysis of the story inside the book and finally, a completed review.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821. He showed at an early age no interest in science, mathematics and military engineering preferring to dabble in art and literature. This open-mindedness would get him in trouble after he had written a couple of novels as his interest in socialism and possession of a banned pamphlet from his literary idol Nikolai Gogol called a LETTER TO GOGOL got him arrested and forced to face a firing squad. Instead of being executed, he was sent to Siberia to serve four years of hard labor. Upon returning, Dostoevsky got himself involved in various publications but could never create a life for himself due to his gambling addiction and badly reviewed writing. His most famous novel CRIME AND PUNISHMENT was written during this time. After he married his second wife and started his own family, he continued to have financial issues. Eventually moving back to Russia from Germany, this was the most successful period of his life writing the novel DEMONS, THE IDIOT and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. Shortly after THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV was released, Dostoevsky died of a brain hemorrhage in early 1881.
THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is a deep and complex story. The main story does not kick in until the resolution of Book IX. The novel is loosely based on the Karamazov family, Father Fyodor, twice divorced and the patriarch of a family with upper class wealth who is murdered mysteriously during Book IX. Fyodor has three kids: his oldest Dmitri, an impulsive, risk-taking alpha male who is in love with Grushenka. Dmitri has a personality that could be perceived as potentially bipolar. The middle child is Ivan, a professional intellectual whose own philosophy on life fails him when he realizes that he may be responsible for his father’s murder. Finally, there is the younger brother Alexei, also known as Alyosha, who is a young practicing monk trying to live a noble, spiritual life. The book ends with a trial for one of the sons who may be guilty of killing his father while the two remaining brothers do their best in trying to save him while grappling with their own conscious and thoughts about their father. This main story only makes up about one-third of this book. The novel goes deep into analyzing each of the family member’s personalities and character as well as entire chapters dedicated to side characters. Through the first half, the book is very philosophical with many religious overtones and analysis. After all these various themes and ideas have been planted, Dostoevsky reveals the main story at the heart of this novel at the end. This part of the novel is definitely the highlight of the book.
I have always been told that Russian novels are dense and filled with lots of ideas. In fact, too many ideas that make the novels feel like they lack a general sense of direction. THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV definitely fits into this category. This novel since its release in 1880 and a year before Dostoevsky left the mortal realm is used for philosophy classes. It is used by the Orthodox Church and other religions to analyze its teachings and philosophies. And you will often find college literature students diving into the novel when studying the artistic output of Eastern Europe or Russia. I love much of the philosophy in this book. One of the most famous recent video game series, ASSASSIN’S CREED took its own motto for the assassins, “EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED” from this novel. Dostoevsky also analyzes the difference between intellectuals and the common folk. With recent world events that have occurred over the past few years, this quote explains in clear detail while the people with the simplest thoughts are not only the happiest, but also more likely to be honest and more difficult to manipulate.
“The more stupid one is, the closer one is to reality. The more stupid one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence squirms and hides itself. Intelligence is unprincipled, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.”
Despite this, the novel has some flaws. First, some of the conversations between characters are often filled with long monologues. As a person who has met quite a few Russians over my life, these long monologues do not feel Russian. I am used to short and to the point conversations with thoughts condensed down into short summaries. These conversations between characters do not differentiate their personalities enough and they are filled with interruptions and bizarre diversions that are common with manic depressive or hyperactive individuals. These conversations often took me out of the book. This leads directly into my second complaint, the length. Dostoevsky could have said everything he needed to say with about 400 less pages. The novel is a chore to get through with some stretches (Like Book X) feeling like an extra add-on that felt unnecessary for the type of ideas he was trying to portray. But even accounting for these criticisms, I still think reading this book would make anyone think about their own life and how satisfied you are with the decisions you have made up to this point. This aspect of the novel is the reason why it continues to fascinate people 140 plus years after it was released in Tsarist Russia. If you can find time, dive into Russian literature and start with this classic from Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Next week: OPPENHEIMER!
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