Conrad's Reviews > The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Apr 29, 08

bookshelves: russia, fiction, masterpieces

Contrary to widespread rumor, this is a far from bleak book. While every character has his or her own misery, and it all takes place in a place called something like "cattle-roundup-ville", the moments of religious ecstasy and moral clarity are heartbreaking in their frequency - it's hard not to wish that one had such bizarre events going on around one in order to prompt such lofty oratory.

The story involves Ivan, Dmitri, Alyosha, and Smerdyakov, four brothers with a rich but notoriously lecherous father, Fyodor. All four brothers were raised by others, Fyodor having essentially ignored them until others removed them from his care. In the beginning of the book, Alyosha is in the monastery, studying under a famous elder name Father Zosima; Dmitri has just left the army and stolen a large sum of money from a government official's daughter, who he has also apparently seduced, all while pursuing a lawsuit against Fyodor for his inheritance and canoodling with his own father's intended, the local seductress Grushenka; Ivan, the intellectual in the family, has just returned from (I think) Petersburg. Dmitri is violent and impulsive, referring to himself as an "insect," and gets into fistfights with Fyodor several times. Smerdyakov works for Fyodor as a lackey, having gone to France to learn to cook at some point in the past. It's unimaginably more complicated and digressive than all this, and just trying to follow this crucial sum of three thousand rubles through the story is almost impossible. But anyway, Fyodor is killed and much of the book hinges on which brother killed him and why.

When I first read this book in high school, my teacher (who was a devout Catholic, a red-faced drunk who wore sunglasses to class, and the most enthusiastic reader of Russian literature imaginable) asked everyone who their favorite brother was. Was it Ivan, the tortured skeptic? Dmitri, the "scoundrel" who tortures himself for every wrong he commits but can't help committing more? Or Alyosha, the saintly one who always knows the right thing to say? (Certainly Smerdyakov is no one's favorite.) At the time I went with Ivan - I was in high school, after all, and his atheism and pessimism were revolutionary to me.

But now Ivan seems rather selfish and callow, and I can't help siding with Dmitri, the one Dostoevsky uses almost as a case history of conscience. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky gives his characters all the space to talk like gods, clearing pages upon pages for their reasoning and dialog. Dmitri fumbles with Voltaire and is clearly not overly literate, but in some ways that's apropos, because his main problem is the constant internal conflict between his desires and his ethics which is only partly resolved when he chooses to become responsible for not only what he does, but also what he wants.

The most famous passage in the book, Ivan's tale of the Grand Inquisitor, is, to me, far less interesting than Zosima's meditations on the conflict between justice and the collective good. The elder Zosima is a kind of Christian socialist who grapples with the typical mid-19th century Russian issues of how to build a equitable society without the extremes of coercion that the Tsar used to turn to, while also ensuring public morality and avoiding the kind of massacres that characterized the French Revolution (an event that seems to have been even more traumatizing for Russians than it was to the French due to the enormous cultural influence France had there at the time.) Zosima's answer is unworkable and in some ways naiive, but the discussion is well worth it, moreso than Ivan's somewhat simplistic dualism of Christ vs. the Inquisitor. Dostoevsky was a cultural conservative in the sense that he was constantly renewing his commitment to the obligations imposed on Russians by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, he was committed to the pursuit of joy through kindness and community and a kind of interpersonal fair dealing in a way that transcends his political concerns and is inspiring to see articulated in the lives of people who are as confused as the rest of us.

It's a huge, messy book, but so worth the effort. It took me about three months to read carefully, though my reading has been flagging lately, as well. I read this while listening to Hubert Dreyfus's accompanying lectures at Stanford on existentialism and this book which are available on iTunes U, and even when I felt his readings overreached, it was a good way to reread a tough and subtle work like this.
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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Jessica I have got to reread this. I too read it in high school, and I remember having a real "thing" for Ivan at the time. I wonder if maturity would mean I now have the hots for a different brother K?

I am still planning to name my firstborn "Grushenka."

Nice review.


Conrad Thanks to both of you!

Jessica, Grushenka's a great name! Isn't it a diminutive of "Agrafena," though? A little bit less attractive, sorry to all the Agrafenas out there...


message 3: by Conrad (last edited Apr 29, 2008 05:12PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Conrad Tracy, Moby Dick overwhelms me every time I try to read it. I have some other stuff on queue (Darkmans, All the Pretty Horses, and Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt) and I'm planning on getting to a shorter work of Melville's, The Confidence-Man, sometime early this summer. I'm not going to die without finishing Moby Dick, that's for sure, but the time hasn't been quite right yet.


message 4: by Taylor K. (new)

Taylor K. I've never read this and keep hearing fantastic things about it, this review included. I should probably add it to my list, already.


message 5: by Tom (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom I agree with you: Zosima's key section is more interesting than the famous Grand Inquisitor section. Not just intellectually, but emotionally, as well.

For all you Bros K lovers, I recommend the 5th and final volume of Joseph Frank's colossal bio of Dostoyevsky, "The Mantle of the Prophet," which includes detailed critical reading of Bros K. A most worthy companion to the novel.


message 6: by Ixan (new)

Ixan I read this in school, that was in my Russian period. I don't know if I could get through it now but your review was great.


Jason thanks tom, conrad.


Candace Hey Conrad,

When I was updating my reading on this book I couldn't help but notice your review. Dostoevsky is literally my favorite author, my grandmother has ranted and raved about him FOR YEARS and I finally broke down and read The Idiot. Remarkable.

I am still early in the story of this book, so I couldn't say who my favorite brother is... but I like your reasoning with the choice that you went with. I'll have to keep a close eye on Dmitri.


Conrad Candace, I hope you enjoy it! Let me know which brother is your favorite once you're further in.


Candace Conrad, I'll for sure let you know. You might have to be willing to share Dmitri in the end. But like I said its anyones race at the moment.


Candace Still reading... ha ha.. and reading. I did however find the perfect theme song for Dmitri, that you'd probably argee with... Sometime Around Midnight-Air Borne Toxic Event. The visual of him running around in a frenzy and this song pretty much sums everything up. He just has to see her.


Candace Hey Conrad,

I finished the book in June, but it took me up till now to finally decide as to who my favorite brother is and that title and award goes to... Ivan. His character for me went through the most (insightful) development. They gave him a bad rap for being most like his father, which I thought was totally bogus, he was willing to take Dmitri's place and pin the murder on him, where as old man Karamazov was completely selfish and would soon rather have Dmitri dead.

Ivan despite his intellectual pride loved his brothers and would have done anything to help them, had he not cared I don't think the story would have affected me the same.



message 13: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg Interesting review Conrad, but I never felt that Dostoevsky made any outright references of Smerdyakov actually being one of the brother's, but merely hinted at it.

I'd have to say that Alexei was my favorite brother because I identify with him more than the others, but I would say that Ivan was most interesting to read about. As a matter of fact my favorite part of the whole book is when his head fever overwhelms him, and he hallucinates a conversation with the devil.

If you haven't read it, I would recommend Crime and Punishment since you liked The Brothers Karamazov so much.


message 14: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick "Dostoevsky gives his characters all the space to talk like gods, clearing pages upon pages for their reasoning and dialog."
That neatly sums up my enthusiasm for Dostoevsky's deep characterisations, and if I wasn't reading it already, that point alone would make me want to start.


Aditya Dixit Reg. your favorite character, just curious as to why Alyosha wasn't it. Was it just because Dmitri suffered more?


Conrad Aditya, it's not so much Alyosha's character I don't like, it's that he gets off so light. In general, his choices involve doing the nice thing or the really nice thing, or at worst the honest thing or the nice thing, so I don't think we ever see how he behaves under real pressure. Dmitri and Ivan, on the other hand...


message 17: by Adam (new) - added it

Adam Rauch Am interested in the Hubert Dreyfus talk(s) you referenced... Which one(s) correspond to the book? On a quick search, I didn't see it.


Juliet I totally agree that this isn't a bleak book. I think it's actually very joyous. I also agree that the passages with the elder Zosima are jaw-droppingly insightful. I start out liking Alyosha the best and then switch to Dmitry. Ivan leaves me cold. But then I feel guilty for disliking him because I know Alyosha would believe better of him!


message 20: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Curcione Nice review. This book is definitely in my top 20. So much to like.


message 21: by Anne (new)

Anne Ruan Thanks for the review. It was helpful.


message 22: by Marta (new)

Marta Awesome review! I'm pretty sure I read this as a teenager it's time to re-read. Thanks for posting, will look at your other books now too.


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