The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

In what became his last book, Fyodor Dostoevsky made his strongest case for the existence of God. Even though it centers on patricide, The Brothers Karamazov is a tale of affirmation. No sinner is irredeemable; compassion and forgiveness are extended to all humanity.

The brothers are the three legitimate sons of Fyodor Karamazov — sensuous Dmitri, intellectual Ivan, and mystical Alyosha — and a probable fourth son, the strange Smerdyakov, a servant in Fyodor’s household. Although it is Dmitri who is accused and wrongly convicted of the murder of their dreadful father, it is Ivan who articulates the atheistic philosophy that Doeveysky rejects, especially in the famous chapter about the Grand Inquisitor  who protects humanity from the burden of freedom of choice. Counterbalancing Ivan is the monk Zossima and his pupil Aloysha, who espouse noncondemnation, love, and the commonality of humankind.

Ivan later suffers a mental breakdown and hallucinates visits from the devil when he realizes that his philosophy — without God, everything is permitted — enabled a murderer. In contrast, believers are regenerated through suffering, including Dmitri, who, though wrongly convicted of murder, realizes that his excesses gave him much to atone for.

In addition to the murder and Dmitri’s trial, The Brothers Karamazov has many subplots and themes, including children’s mistreatment by parents and one another, monastic life and wisdom, and relations between men and women, fathers and sons, and brothers.

The Brothers Karamazov can be disorienting for those used to action-driven novels. It unfolds largely in a series of long statements by often hysterical characters. For people interested in a fundamentally theological perspective on the human condition, it is worth continuing through the nearly 1,000 pages. Acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of all time, The Brothers Karamazov greatly influenced writers and thinkers from Freud to Kurt Vonnegut. Nietszche said Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he learned anything, and Vonnegut’s character Eliot Rosewater (Slaughterhouse-Five) says, “Everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov.”


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