Dostoevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov and have some thoughts on the book.
1) If you’ve been following you’ll know that I originally planned to stop reading after every decile of the book and comment on what was going on. Obviously that didn’t work—I may have been too busy with the Hurricane and Holidays, or I may just have wanted to enjoy the experience of a book without noting every little aspect thereof; losing that habit might hurt my chances if I ever wound up in graduate school, but it made reading a little more pleasurable.
2) I first read it in college and was, as many people are, overwhelmed by it; it seemed awe-inspiringly total somehow, like Ulysses or Shakespeare. In the afterglow of my twenties I remembered it as an intricate machine that worked flawlessly to communicate FMD’s ideas about Russia and the world.
3) This time around I realized that I’d been thinking of Demons, which book has much more to do with FMD’s thoughts on Russia and which features the most beautifully engineered plot he ever produced. There are some bits about the direction Russia was taking at the time (the prosecutor self-consciously uses Gogol’s image of the galloping troika in the finale of his speech… but the speech isn’t so clean cut as the political stuff in Demons).
4) Where The Brothers Karamazov excels is in the characterizations and psychology of the characters; as a friend put it, no one speaks like the characters of Karamazov, but we believe them because they all speak very frankly about basic, conflicting motivations. No wonder Freud loved the book.
5) It’s pretty clear that Alyosha is the best or most capable of the three brothers, and that FMD almost idolizes him. I even used Alyosha’s name as a part of my email address, and yet I realize that I felt more akin to Dmitri and Ivan this time around; there is something a bit less believable about Alyosha, or maybe I’ve just lived more and realize how flawed and human and believable Dmitri and Ivan are. Dmitri eventually decides that “I am” is the most important realization he can have, perhaps the only philosophical position he can believe has consequence; it is both simple and deep.
6) The overarching plot of the book is relatively simple; the marvelous thing about it all fits together, that FMD approached the book almost like an amateur investigator or court reporter, inasmuch as everything had to add up. And yet he incorporates all of the backstories and character histories flawlessly, so that we are introduced to new, minor characters even several hundred pages into the book.
7) Those characterizations are pitch perfect; as good as the book is in its entirety, FMD is also a supremely talented miniaturist.
8) The whole thing was meant as a prelude to a larger book centered on Alyosha. It is a shame that we don’t get to read what FMD had in mind; perhaps Alyosha would have become a more complete character, more believable. But perhaps that is the point, is why FMD ends the book with Alyosha’s unpolished speech at the stone and why the characters of the school children feel so important: they are as yet unformed, their futures are unwritten, and that, so long as they can remember a moment at which they felt truly, genuinely good, there is hope; it is a countersign to Dmitri’s “I am,” and a humble response to Ivan’s moral permissiveness.

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