A few months ago a podcast listener (podcast = “Speaking of Books” on Ancient Faith Radio) asked that we review Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Feeling it was a matter of some urgency, a few days ago, I answered his request. (Comment if you recognize that quotation!)
For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll attempt a bit of summary. The Brothers Karamazov is, on the surface, a murder mystery of sorts. Fyodor Karamazov is killed, and Dmitri, the eldest of his three legitimate sons, is accused of the crime. The reader is let in on all the circumstances of the murder except for the actual act, and therefore must form his own opinion about Dmitri’s guilt or innocence up until the evening before the trial, when the truth is revealed.
But this is no ordinary murder mystery. For one thing, the murder doesn’t take place until about halfway through the 900-page book. The first 450 pages are taken up with an in-depth introduction to the various members of the Karamazov clan: Fyodor, the father, a cunning, grasping degenerate; Dmitri, who has inherited his father’s sensuality but is honorable at heart; Ivan, the middle brother, an atheist, ascetic intellectual; Alyosha, the youngest, a pure and loving innocent who hopes to become a monk; and Smerdyakov, Fyodor’s confidential servant who may or may not also be his illegitimate son.
The book opens with the family gathering at the cell of Alyosha’s elder, Father Zossima, in the hope that he will help to resolve a financial dispute between Dmitri and Fyodor which has been raging for months. No solution is possible, but this opening serves to introduce Father Zossima, a charismatic elder whose presence and wisdom grace the first third of the book.
In fact, if you’re not feeling up to reading 900 pages of angst-ridden Russian novel, you could read only up to Father Zossima’s death with great profit. His words to his spiritual children and disciples could stand with the greatest of Orthodox ascetic literature, on which, in fact, they are based. The infinite love and deep peace that breathe through his words establish the atmosphere in which the remainder of this tragic tale plays out, ensuring that the reader never loses sight of the deep spiritual significance of all the story’s events.
Many secular scholars have chosen to see Ivan, the forward-thinking intellectual atheist, as Dostoevsky’s mouthpiece in this novel. Ivan’s fantasy, “The Grand Inquisitor,” has often been cited as proof of Dostoevsky’s rejection of Christianity. But to me it’s clear that Ivan has less of the author’s sympathy than either of the other brothers.
My personal theory—which may be completely unoriginal—is that the four Karamazovs together, plus Smerdyakov, represent Dostoevsky’s view of himself and of human nature in general. Fyodor, often referred to as “the old man,” represents the “old man” in the Pauline sense—the unregenerate fallen Adam that lives in us all. The three legitimate brothers represent the three aspects of the human person: Dmitri, the sensualist, is the body, but also the heart; Ivan is the coldly rational mind; and Alyosha is the pure nous or spirit. Smerdyakov, epileptic, malformed, bizarrely twisted in mind and spirit, may represent the sinful nature itself, the deep subconscious evil of which we must all be purged. (I would say that he represents simply the devil, except that the devil actually appears in his own form towards the end of the novel and drives the unbelieving Ivan to madness.)
If we try to deduce Dostoevsky’s own beliefs from this correspondence, it would appear that he sees the spirit as the proper ruler over the other aspects—the pure nous which alone can comprehend God. The mind, too easily led astray by subconscious evil, is both dangerous and vulnerable in its pride. The body is subject to terrible passions that can drive it away from God, but it can yet be saved by the love and honor of a pure heart.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was a conflicted soul whose behavior certainly did not always reflect his Orthodox faith. In The Brothers Karamazov, he has dramatized his inner conflict in a way that shows it to be the universal conflict between faith and doubt, sin and virtue within the human soul. No one knows better the depths to which human nature can sink, or the glorious heights to which it can arise. The Brothers Karamazov is not a comfortable book to read, but it is one that will change your life.