Jesse's Reviews > The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Dec 27, 12


Basically, the Brothers Karamazov is one of my all-time favorite books, in large part because I read it with one of my all-time favorite philosophy professors. Although the book has a fairly compelling plot, to me it's ultimately the characters and thematic concerns underpinning the story that keep it near the top of my list, and that's where I'd like to put the focus of this review (in hopes of sharing some of the stuff my teacher pointed out that I never would have come up with on my own). Of course, thematic interpretation is necessarily a subjective endeavor, and I don't claim to know what Dostoevsky was trying to say when he wrote this book. Even so, here's a list of what I believe to be some of the major themes running throughout the story:

1. The Contradiction of Human Nature – Human nature is broad, contradictory, and capable of containing opposite desires and ideals. In other words, Dostoevsky seems to believe that the same person, at the exact same time, can be equally drawn to the noble or lofty on the one hand, and the sensual or degrading on the other. This means that in every sinner there is a saint and in every saint there is a sinner.

2. Embracing Human Contradiction in the Right Way – Given the above, Dostoevsky seems to argue that we should accept both the lofty and the sensual in our human nature. That is, instead of trying to purge one side and exalt the other, we should seek to bring both sides of the contradiction together in the right sort of way: we should seek to sanctify and lift our sensual, passionate nature in a way that will allow us to love and connect with others; and we should seek to soften and humble our lofty, prideful nature in a way that will allow us to find peace and hope by looking outside of ourselves. We do this chiefly by building loving connections with others, by sincerely believing the best of ourselves and of others, by sensing our connection to everything, by forgiving and asking forgiveness, and by accepting our personal responsibility to make the world a better place.

3. Active Love Leads to Faith – The experience of active love toward our neighbors leads to meaningful faith, driving out doubt and despair. As Elder Zosima says, the more we succeed in actively and tirelessly loving others, the more we become convinced of God and the immortality of our souls. Dostoevsky, in my mind, is arguing that this is the best way to arrive at the existence of God.

4. The Reality of Moral Imperatives – Another argument Dostoevsky seems to make for the existence God can be summarized as follows: If there is no God, then everything is permitted. But not everything is permitted. Therefore, there is a God. Thus, much like Kant, Dostoevsky seems to believe you can infer the reality of God through the reality of moral imperatives - imperatives such as "Thou shalt not kill."

5. Building a Life Now Worth Living Forever – One of the subtle themes that I believe supports the entire book is the idea that our central task as human beings is to build a life right now that’s worth living forever. That is, the possibility of life after death is made meaningful and desirable only by building loving connections with others during our life on earth.

6. Connection Versus Disconnection – Throughout the book, Dostoevsky seems to link the idea of connection and disconnection in the characters’ lives with existentialized Christian concepts. For example, loving connection could represent heaven; confession brings personal guilt into the public sphere, thereby driving out secret shame and opening the door for reconnection; and characters like Alyosha, who help isolated people connect with others, represent angels. On the other hand, disconnection and an inability to love could represent represent hell; anything that causes people to become disconnected from others could represent sin; and characters like Rakitin, who tear people apart from each other, could represent the devil.

Okay . . . if you made it to the bottom of this review, thanks for sticking around. I'll end by saying that although the Brothers Karamazov is a long book that can be somewhat difficult at times, I thought it was surprisingly hard to put down: great story with great characters, and a ton of depth. Highly recommended.
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