MJ Nicholls's Reviews > The Karamazov Brothers

The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: novels, borscht-and-kvass, voluminous, pre-1900s, oxford-classics

Note: This review was written on Nov 18th 2007, a week after my twenty-first birthday. Excuse the youthful clumsiness of my style.

Matters of Life and Death

Often I used stop people in the streets, shake them frantically on the shoulders and slap them on the face, shouting again and again: “Is there a God? Is there a God? For God’s sake, just tell me if there’s a God!”

You would be surprised at the results I gathered from this. One or two of them confirmed that there is indeed a God, and that his name is Jack Daniels, whereas the others fought me off and beat me to a pulp (which I interpreted as an emphatic no). This marked the beginning of my long period of agnosticism. I was fed up of the bruises, quite frankly.

In The Brothers Karamazov, one of thee Great Russian novels, I found characters who shared my plight. For within this Herculean tome, I found discourses in which the author wrestles with notions of the hereafter, the supposed everlastingness of God, and the point of it all. It tackles the most impossible philosophical arguments that will visit each and every mortal on this earth at some stage, and offers the most incredible arguments for them all, proving universal to all types of being on this earth. All in a succinct and accessible 974 pages of literary delight.

Historical Facts

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote this book at a time when he had been lionised in Russia as one of the most important writers in the motherland. Not necessarily from a critical standpoint—his books were still unpopular among the status quo—but within the academic and greater reading public, he was tantamount to an emperor. He should have been a megastar within his lifetime, in this reviewer’s opinion, but no one was ever going to warm to an author as uncompromising and academically volatile as he was. Except perhaps his stenographer.

In 1880, after this (his final book) was released, he made a speech to mark the erection of a monument to Aleksander Pushkin, celebrating a milestone in the progression of Russian literature. One year later, he passed on at the solid age of 60, leaving a canon of work more sensational than one-hundred free trips to Glasgow’s Water World. His swansong novel was quite a note to bow out on. An often quoted but scarcely read masterwork, it made the biggest impact of all his novels on the world at large, and pushed him into the echelons of literary immortality with 19th century contemporaries Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy.

On top of this, Sigmund Freud was his biggest fan. Not bad, eh? That nefarious little wench Susan Sontag also likes him. Which is less impressive in comparison.

Themes & Plot

For those unfamiliar with this work, it is an accessible and none too unmanageable text to read. The conceit is that the Karamazov brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha are all to some extent dependent on their grudging old scrote of a father in the small village of Skotoprigonyevsk. These three brothers are used to symbolise the tripartite nature of man: body, mind and spirit. Each also harbour opposing teleological views which puts them at odds with one another throughout the entire duration of the text. When Dmitri, a hedonistic wastrel (representing sensual pleasures of the body) asks his father for three-thousand roubles with which to support himself, he is refused and is unable to find another benefactor. Here we have the setup.

What transpires is a murder mystery yarn, the crux of the plot to the novel, where Dmitri is incorrectly arrested for the murder of his father following a dark night of carousing. The action in The Brothers Karamazov takes place over four days, and is centred (for the most part) around the interactions of these brothers and additional characters, most of whom sink to various levels of despair, confusion, helplessness and sorrow over the course of this short time. The continual themes of deceit, abandonment, torture and suffering are never far from the narrative, and the dialogue is very much in the melodramatic tradition of the era.

Central to this basic narrative are the discourses around God and the Devil, whose presences cast a continual shadow over the narrative. In this desolate and rather awful village in North Russia, the characters wander through their miserable lives with uncertainty, seeking examples of God’s existence and to prove their individual theories of life just so they can understand the absurdity of the world around them. It is a place of petty tortures and brutal co-dependence, where the follies of man are shown for what the stupidities they are, and the sad desperation of life is rendered almost transcendent.


One suspects, given Dostoevsky’s own faith, that he intended Alyosha (the spiritual and naive brother) to be the real centre of this piece. It was easier for me to empathise more with this character, one of the few gracious, forgiving and angelic presences in the novel, and without his voice the book would lack a hopeful presence. He is taken on a journey that tests his faith in a proper John Bunyan idiom, forced to contemplate the idea that the monk Starets Zosima was not as pure and divine as he trusted him to be. We are also shown the extent of his knowledge and wisdom with an exceptional sub-narrative revolving around a precocious child and a group of troublemaking schoolchildren.

The brothers Dmitri and Ivan are destructive and irascible characters, seldom likeable and halted in their lives through their mutual dislike of both their father and one another. We are forced to watch these brothers scold one another and fester in hatred, and for their views and desires to drive them apart. The Father Fyodor (while he is still alive) is also intolerable, and it is only through religious voices such as Starets Zosima whom we can take some kind of solace.

The object of the feuding brothers’ affections is the more well-to-do “lady” of the village Katerina Ivanovna whom is torn between her hateful relationship with Dmitri and her uncertain affections for Ivan. Grushenka is the “local Jezebel” of the village with whom the brothers are also besotted. It is clear that part of their mutual downfall has to do with the indecision, torment and deceit these women place upon the brothers, but this is more in relation to the untrustworthiness they have placed upon them. Alyosha expresses affection for Lise, a secondary character who also occupies the one home in which these women reside. He is unsure of his affections in the novel, however, and his love goes unresolved within the narrative.

The purpose of these characters is to torment one another. It is rare that a character within this text is not breaking down into a hysterical outburst at one moment or another. Barely five pages have past before a Karamazov is tearing someone apart in a moment of feverish excitement. The shame of asking for money (for grovelling and sacrificing dignity) seems to hang over the brothers at all times (especially Dmitri), and there are procession of niggling villagers such as Miusov, the bothersome theology student Rakitin and the dangerous epileptic Smerdyakov (who is roundly abused throughout the novel) to fester their lives.

Style & Length

The Brothers Karamazov does require a few weeks of consistent reading and demands those who undertake it to be prepared for all manner of devious arguments pertaining to the existence of God. The author was a devout believer in He Above (meaning there are Bible quotes aplenty to be found) but presents the opposing arguments in a lucid and accessible manner through Ivan’s own atheism and Dmitri’s agnosticism. Given how the two non-believers are forced to confront their own demons to an extreme degree, and to follow through on their godless decisions in times of great strife, it would seem the sensible people are those on the side of God in Dostoevsky’s opinion. Ivan is forced to confront the Devil towards the end of the book, and in contemplation of a life without love, he is driven to delirium.

Critics often liken the long-windedness in the text to the structural principals Dostoevsky derived from music. It is thought that the development of the novel thrives on the extended use of subordinate themes and variations of these themes. Victor E. Amend argued that, similar to the dialogue between piano and orchestra in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the development is accomplished by the alternate presentation of the themes until the dominant one prevails. While his style is an oral, often freewheeling and “unedited” it is a very readable and thoroughly accessible style.

Some might quibble about the extended time spent dwelling on inappropriate scenes, such as when the schoolchildren gather around Alyosha or the 70-odd pages spent on legal speeches towards the end, but these all contribute to this musical “theme and variation” style that makes Dostoevsky such a fulfilling author. To trim material as psychologically prodigious and insightful as this would be akin to chopping out the last ten minutes of a Beethoven Concerto or losing that extended guitar solo in Stairway To Heaven. It must remain as it stands. However, I should confess for the sake of honesty that I did find myself restless towards the end. This does not diminish the flow and brilliance of his style, in fact—it seemed appropriate to bring such a mighty work to its conclusion.

Translation & Other Works

The finest version of this book is the translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who also did a stellar job on Crime & Punishment. It is available in Penguin Paperback. This version, alas, was an Oxford World Classics print, translated by Ignat Avsey. This Latvian louse converted a great deal of the text into Present Day English, incorporating phrases that seem inappropriate to the time period of the novel. He also had the audacity to change the title to The Karamazov Brothers instead of the original title on the proviso we don’t say “The Brothers Marx” when referring to a brethren. Pah! His introduction is also littered with erroneous observations (such as that the town name of the text is said once – it is in fact said twice in the text). His translation is to be avoided at all costs.

The oeuvre of this great Russian author is to me vitally important. What I take from his novels is this profound sense of redemptive catharsis; that there is nothing so awful from which a person can never return. His novels, in all their unrelenting gloom and Russian thickness, present a vision often of a world in squalor-filled chaos, but from this chaos he shows us that the solution for all our problems lies in our own collective freedom as individuals. This makes him timeless and cherished in the eyes of this reviewer, and I have yet to find a novel to match the incredible Crime & Punishment or a novella to equal Notes From Underground. Both are also recommended to those unversed in his canon.


The Brothers Karmazov achieves that rare feat in 19th century literature in that it remains infinitely readable, gripping and vital to readers to this very day. Even those intimidated by its considerable size will be surprised just how immersed in this magnificent masterwork they will become. As a rule, I avoid these mammoth doorstoppers when making book choices, but this one had me entranced from beginning to end—despite those indulgent moments of excessive erudition. I recommend this to all readers prepared to tackle its complex subject matter and who wish to put themselves at the hands of a master.

The rewards are abounding.
53 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Karamazov Brothers.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 9, 2009 – Shelved
October 30, 2010 – Shelved as: novels
July 30, 2011 – Shelved as: borscht-and-kvass
December 22, 2011 – Shelved as: voluminous
March 5, 2012 – Shelved as: pre-1900s
August 5, 2012 – Shelved as: oxford-classics

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Drew (new) - added it

Drew You're not mad; I definitely do a lot of this. I stop short of ascribing a greater importance to the fictional events than the actual memories, as you seem to in 12 (perhaps I'm exaggerating that), but everything I read does have associations with the place that I read it, the trip I was on, the people I was with, etc. And I do organize it in my head that way.

message 2: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls You're right, a happy mingling of life/book is the way to go. I'm an all/nothing sort of guy.

message 3: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 26, 2012 02:04PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio You just reminded me of one of my earliest memories of physical pain. Age four. I was wrapped tightly in a towel as my parents and I exited the beach because a storm had just erupted overhead. In our hustle to the car I slipped and fell face-forward, arms trapped and useless beneath the towel, smashing my face into the pavement. This left one of my front teeth in a lifeless state, eventually turning it brown, which mortified me. There is at least one school year photo of me exposing this awful tooth. A tooth that I let dangle from a thread for far too long because I'd developed an extreme fear of possible pain of pulling it out. My father would threaten to pull it out (rightly so) which made me flee and probably cry to my mother. I believe it just fell out one day, so painlessly that it took me several minutes at least to even notice.

message 4: by MJ (last edited Jan 26, 2012 02:14PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls I'm sorry my review triggered a memory of your putrefying tooth debacle. I trust there was a happy ending involving a dentist? I wish I'd started reading books at an earlier age: it seems my memory is incapable of recalling moments without some textual referent.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio It was actually a mildly reverent memory, in retrospect, as memories, um, always are.

I left out the part about having a root canal done right after the injury in order to keep the tooth in place until it was 'naturally' ready to be lost.

message 6: by Drew (new) - added it

Drew Hardly anything more nightmarish than falling forward and having your arms for whatever reason be unable to break your fall. My condolences for you and your tooth.

message 7: by Sarah S (new)

Sarah S I actually do the same thing. The book I was reading when my grandmother died I've never finished and more than likely never will.

Kyle Great review MJ! I've been unable to put all my love of this book down on paper (or rather, electrons in this case) for a proper review, so I'm glad there are at least others who can succeed where I have failed.

Also, I promise to hesitate before taking violent action toward anyone who so desperately seeks metaphysical answers. :)

message 9: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Thanks! I found this review on an old review site. Very pleased I wrote one.

Mustafa Ahmad Great review! But are you serious about shaking people and asking if there is a God??? Cause if it is, I salute you for that. I would never be brave enough to do that.

Paul Martin Great review! I just finished it - what an overwhelmingly awesome masterpiece.

message 12: by Joel (new) - added it

Joel Ronning Very enjoyable review, but the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation you refer to is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, not Penguin. The Penguin edition is translated by David McDuff.
Unfortunately I have the Penguin edition, but after reading numerous commendations (starting with yours) I'll definitely be ordering the one by F, S and G.

message 13: by Mark (last edited Aug 13, 2017 06:26PM) (new) - added it

Mark André I've always thought that was one of the ironies of the title.

James Foster This reminded me of Dave Barry's short sentence summary of the Brothers K.: "Is there a god? beats the hell out of me!"

message 15: by P.E. (new) - rated it 5 stars

P.E. Thanks for this considerable review, MJ Nicholls.

back to top