The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821—1881) has attracted every kind of reader. He was a passionate Christian believer, and yet atheists have been drawn to him (Sartre, Camus and Nietzsche). He hated the Catholic Church and yet a good number of distinguished Catholics have loved his work (for example, Georges Bernanos, Walker Percy and Henri de Lubac). He influenced writers as diverse as Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut, J. D. Salinger and Shelby Foote. Marylyn Monroe was so impressed with “The Brothers Karamazov” that she pushed to have it made into a movie. Henry Miller tended to rave about Dostoyevsky: ‘There was no world too low for him to enter, no place too high for him to fear to ascend. He went the whole gamut, from the abyss to the stars.’

“The Brothers Karamazov”, Dostoyevsky’s last novel (1880), is generally considered to be his masterpiece. Its central theme is arresting and provocative: if there is no God and no life beyond this life, then morality is non-existent; ANYTHING goes. This theme is worked out dramatically by the interaction of the titular brothers: Alexey, a saintly religious novice (based on the great real-life mystic, Vladimir Soloviev); Ivan, an atheist intellectual; and Dmitry, an irresponsible but generally good-natured rogue. The action has to do with the murder of the brothers’ father, Fyodor Karamazov—a loathsome yet comical figure. Many other characters show up and often prove to be as fascinating as the three brothers, including a sinister illegitimate son of Fyodor named Smerdyakov.

An important and famous section in the novel is called “The Grand Inquisitor”. Despite being muddled and bogus in parts, it bears within it genuine prophetic power. The author foretells with chilling clarity the totalitarian states of the twentieth century: most notably, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. The attentive reader tends to come away shaken from “The Grand Inquisitor”.

“The Brothers Karamazov” is a kind of literary Mount Everest; which is to say that it is great but also challenging and very long. Yet I think that the effort to get through it is worthwhile. Though set in the 1800s, its characters are not at all unfamiliar and it deals with matters that are more relevant than ever. There are certainly gloomy things in this book, and evil is sometimes graphically depicted; but the underlying meaning of Dostoyevsky’s work is one of hope; a hope that transcends the painful limitations of this life. In his own words: “It is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.”