27 August 2014

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

      This was my second reading of The Brothers Karamazov and this time around I was even more moved than the first. And that is saying something because I gave it five whole stars on Goodreads. If I could have given six this time, I would have. 

Reading to Know - Book Club

      The Brothers Karamazov is the story of three brothers (and a potential illegitimate fourth?) and the murder of their father. The father is a licentious tyrant who has no love for his children. One night he is killed in his own home presumably by the hand of his eldest son Dimitry, who is competing with his own father for the hand of a woman they both are interested in. The story follows each brother in the complexities of their lives, while they witness the trial of their older brother. But like any good Dostoevsky story, the characters serve as backdrops for the philosophy under discussion. This is not to say that Dostoevsky's characters are in any way stock characters. They are beautifully drawn and complex people you can believe in, but their main purpose is to discuss faith.

      The Brothers Karamazov is ultimately a story of the tensions of belief and unbelief. The youngest brother, Alyosha (who for a time was planning on being a monk and was under the tutelage of a mysterious character, Elder Zosima) represents belief, while the troubled middle brother, Ivan represents atheism. The whole novel deals with the statement, “If there is no God than everything is permitted.” To clarify for the hairsplitters of the world, those words, in that order, do not actually appear in the novel, but that statement definitely sums up the thrust of the whole novel. I'm trying to not spoil the end for everyone, but when we finally find out who the murderer is, he says as justification, “I did it all simply because 'everything is permitted.'”

      Though Dostoevsky himself calls Alyosha his protagonist, I would say possibly the most interesting, or at least most tragic, figure is Ivan. Ivan, as an atheist, understands that without God everything is permitted, yet he still wrestles with a God who will not leave him alone. He's a thoughtful man, and realizes that it's the world cannot be quite that simple. Through his avowed atheism, he keeps encountering his own conscience. We have here a perfectly illustrated tortured man whose own worldview says that everything is permitted yet who cannot let the idea of God go completely. Even at the end of the novel nothing has settled for him. He has not found peace. 
      I cannot leave the discussion of Ivan without talking about The Grand Inquisitor which has often been misinterpreted, but always seen as the chapter upon which this novel turns. The chapter is written by Ivan and it is about Jesus coming to earth during the time of the Inquisition. The Inquisitor (representing the church) takes Jesus aside and chastises him for giving people too much freedom. People need to feel secure rather than free, he argues and it's Jesus's fault that the church had to take over when he gave them too much freedom. You see, though Dostoevsky portrays Ivan as a man troubled by his own philosophy, he also has a 'no holds barred' approach to the challenges facing believers. If this was merely a story of belief, Dostoevsky could have chosen to have Ivan slowly open up to the possibility of God and eventually find peace, but he also brings up many issues that have always been hard for Christians to deal with, like, “Why would God allow cruelty to children?” and “What shall we do with our Christian freedom?” In a move that has baffled the literary world Jesus's only response is to kiss the Grand Inquisitor and walk away. Here is my humble take on that: Jesus forgives. Even in the face of scorn and rage against Him, He still forgives. I recognize it is a tad bit more complicated than that, but ultimately Christ forgives. Also, on a more human level that is about all we can do as believers. In the face of so much hurt the only response is to love the hurting. We can't reason people out of things sometimes. Sometimes they just need a kiss. Or a hug, if you are more Western minded...like me.

      The tragedy of the story is that the kiss burns for a little while in the heart of the Grand Inquisitor, but he never turns from his “old idea.” In the same way Ivan has been touched by Alyosha and by Christ himself, but as far as we can tell, never turns from his “old idea.” 
      Ok, now I can probably go on for far longer than you have patience to read, but I would like to bring up Elder Zosima, just because I have a personal axe to grind. As far as I can tell, he's some bigwig in the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Orthodoxy is far beyond me, so I'm not even going to try. However, we are led to believe he is a sincere and holy man who loves God and who loves his fellow men. These are the greatest commandments.
      Well, very soon into the book, he dies. Now, because this is a more mystical religion than I am used to, there is some belief among the villagers that not only will there be miracles after his death, but there will be no rotting of the body. Well, oddly enough, like any dead body, after some time, he begins to stink. Suddenly aspersions are cast on the man's character and Alyosha himself comes very near to losing his faith over this. There are many amazing things I could praise Dostoevsky on regarding this incident and the effect it has on Alyosha, but I really just want to talk about something personal. I feel like there is a bit of a “where there's smoke; there's fire,” attitude about people. Often just because a rumor begins about someone (a stink, if you will), everything they've ever done no longer matters. They could be the kindest and friendliest people, but the instant something bad is said about them, everyone believes the bad. As believers, we should let people's lives speak for themselves, and maybe we shouldn't believe everything we hear. Anyway, that's my little moral that I thought of while reading this book.
      As I said, I could probably keep going, but smarter people than me have written whole treatises on this book, so all I can say is THANK YOU Shonya at Learning How Much I Don't Know. for giving me this opportunity to read The Brothers Karamazov again. I hope everyone was able to pull all the amazing greatness that they could out of this book.


Diary of an Autodidact said...

I need to re-read this book one of these days, although I will probably read The Idiot first.

Great analysis of The Grand Inquisitor, which I would list as one of the most profound influences on my life in my teens. (Perhaps it was one of the reasons I chafed at being part of a legalistic group...)

BerlinerinPoet said...

Interesting. Today I was wavering between trying out Cyrano De Bergerac, Middlemarch, or The Idiot as my next classic. This sort of pushed me in the direction of The Idiot.

Thanks for leaving a comment today!