It took me several years to even start reading this book, in spite of all the praises and knowledge of it being a reason phrase literary masterpiece was coined (well, not exactly, but you get my point).
The point is that prior to reading the book I knew nothing about it, which might seen strange (because of the importance, value, one of the 1001 to read before death and all that), but allowed me to admire and cherish it as it was, without any previous reviews (except that it was a masterpiece but I’m rarely wooed by that) and other people’s interpretations.
So, I knew nothing and didn’t expect anything in particular. What I got was an incredibly detailed, in-depth psychological study of all Karamazovs and the people around them, complicated as they were. If you’ve never read this book, let me give you a short recap:
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, father of three legal sons and one – probably – natural, is a person of difficult character, greedy man with not a lot of love towards his children. Dmitri, Ivan and Alexei, the legitimate sons, are nothing alike:
- Dmitri, the eldest, is a violent man, a drunkard, a brawler, but first and foremost, a man of passion. He’s in love with Grushenka, a young woman from the town, but she keeps him at arm’s lenght, meanwhile letting herself be courted by Dmitri’s father, Fyodor Pavlovich. The envy arises.
- Ivan, the second son, is something of a scholar, something of a journalist, something of a socialist and atheist. He’s full of spite, anger and so cynical, that other book or movie characters don’t even come close. In addition, he’s fighting – and losing – the battle for his mind, which will give us one of the best scenes ever (I won’t spoil it for you).
- Alyosha, the youngest, is the cinnamon roll, to good, to pure for this world. When we first meet him, he’s on his way to become a monk; after his spiritual guide, Old Zosima, dies, Alyosha keeps his promise to the old man and returns to the world. And we’re all thankful, because Alyosha represents everything that’s good in humanity: forgiveness, understanding, compassion, love, purity, justice, love, helpfulness, righteousness, and love. It would be easy to say that in comparison to other characters he just lacks character, but it’s not true. It’s not goodness’ fault that evil looks more fascinating.
That leaves us with Pavel Fyodorovich Smyerdyakov, who’s so wonderfully written, that I cannot really tell you anything without spoiling the book. And, never mind how old the book is, I hate spoiling the good story.
The plot resolves between those five characters, mostly, with an addition of several others, like Agrafena Alexandrovna (called Grushenka), Katarina Ivanovna, the entire Snegyrov family, Madame Khokhlakov and her daughter, and many more. The reason why we love Dostoyevsky is that we get to know, to really know and understand all of them. There’s no one-dimensional characters, plot devices incarnate; they’re all people with their faults and flaws, with reasonings and motivations; sometimes wise, sometimes silly or petty. Human, I’d say.
One of the most important elements of the novel is the matter of Karamazovian soul: the wild, passionate, truly Russian (if you’ve ever read Anna Karenina, War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, you know what I mean by that); the soul of a man who’s capable of acts of the malevolence and benevolence at the same time, capable of being an evil overlord and the Lord’s angel in the span of minutes, capable of both creating and destroying great things.
…Most likely in the first instance he was sincerely noble, and in the second just as sincerely base. Why? Precisely because we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature—and this is what I am driving at— capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.
That’s what is said about one of the brothers at the end of the novel; I’ll let you guess which one.
The contrasts and opposition are the greatest leitmotives of the book; we get Alyosha contrasted with his brothers; the acts of utter malevolence contrasted with the acts of kindness and self-sacrifice; Fyodor Pavlovich and Dmitri Fyodorovich in pursuit of the same woman; Katarina Ivanovna and Agrafena Alexandrovna set against each other in more that one way; Ivan against society and God; Smyerdyakov against… well, pretty much everyone, himself included.
You’ll find an array of wonderful quotes from The Brothers Karamazov on the web; no wonder, it’s a well-written book. Most of them, however, will be about souls, and God, and all that – and I have to tell you I’m not a fan of those. So I’ve picked some other quotes for you, my favourite, maybe less staple and definitely lower in pathos. Hope you’ll find them entertaining!
But though Rakitin was very sensitive about everything that concerned himself, he was very obtuse as regards the feelings and sensations of others – partly from his youth and inexperience, partly from his intense egoism.
“I love mankind, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”
It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.
In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.
The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen.
They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.
There is nothing more alluring to man than freedom of conscience, but neither is there anything more agonizing.
Ah, as I’m just looking for a new masterpiece to read, could you please recommend anything to me? I’d love to read some good book from outside of my Slavic cultural circle.
(The featured photo is a still from Czech and Polish adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel; it was released in 2008 under the original title Karamazovi. I suppose with the proper amount of googling, you’ll find a version with English subtitles)