google analytics

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What I’m Reading: The Brothers Karamazov

“It was he, not my brother, killed our father.  He murdered him and I incited him to do it… who doesn’t desire his father’s death?”

“Are you in your right mind?” broke involuntarily from the President.

“I should think I am in my right mind…in the same nasty mind as all of you…as all these…ugly faces.”  He turned suddenly to the audience.  “My father has been murdered and they pretend that they are horrified,” he snarled with furious contempt. “They keep up the sham with one another. Liars!  They all desire the death of their fathers.  One reptile devours another…If there hadn’t been a murder, they’d have been angry and gone home ill-humored.  It’s a spectacle they want!”[i]

The Brothers Karamazov is a daunting work – over 700 pages of dense Russian literature, populated with hundreds of characters, each deeply drawn, and filled with complex thoughts about God, justice, morality, free-will, faith, and doubt, and reason.  It is a challenging book, but it is a work that I have enjoyed reading, twice (so far...)

The story center’s upon the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov – an old, licentious buffoon, and father of the four brothers of the title.  Each of them had reasons to despise the old man.  Each of them is tainted by their desire to murder him.

Though the story is told by an unnamed narrator, who at times has a clear and almost omniscient understanding of the inner thoughts and feelings of the various characters, he is not all knowing and is not a completely reliable narrator.  He frequently admits his ignorance.  Several sections of the book are told by voices other than the narrator’s.  This shifting and subjective vantage is both a help and a hindrance in knowing the truth. Though the voice of the narrator and the voices of other testimony that he includes frequently overlap there are gaps.  We see much, but not everything.

And in the end, it is impossible to know who killed the old man.

Was it Alyosha, the young, sanguine “cherub”?  Was it Ivan, with his melancholic and wild intellect?  Was it the impulsive Dimitri?  Or was it the “stinking” illegitimate son, Smerdyakov?[ii]  We do not know, but everyone who reads the novel is drawn to one or another of the brothers.  Dostoevsky has invested each of them with intense and personal details, often drawn from his own life and character.  Smerdyakov, for instance, suffers from epilepsy just as the author did.

And the old buffoon himself, Fyodor Karamazov is invested with many characteristics of the author – his erratic personal life, his gambling, his debts – and even his very name: Fyodor.

The Karamazov brothers form a tragic dysfunctional family – a fractured family.  It is only as the novel opens that the brothers come together for the first time in their lives.  Taken broadly, they represent various aspects of all humanity – in their noble and praiseworthy attributes as well as in their depravity and ignorance.  They, like all of humanity, marvelous and terrible, horrible and lovely. 

It is a novel about guilt – both individual and collective – for who hasn’t, as some point, desired his or her father’s death?  But it is also a novel about desiring one’s own death – at least in a spiritual sense.  The desire to see our father dead is the desire to undo ourselves. 

The book’s epigraph helps to make this clear:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” – John 12:24

[i] Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov  translated by Constance Garnett, page 646
[ii] His name literally means “son of the reeking one.”

1 comment:

  1. Message received. So, how do you want to do this, and should we bring our "stinking" brother in on it?


Jeff Carter's books on Goodreads
Muted Hosannas Muted Hosannas
reviews: 2
ratings: 3 (avg rating 4.33)

Related Posts with Thumbnails