I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but I don’t think I could do the discussion of such a massive and beautiful novel justice in the length of a regular blog post. With that said, you can come back to this post and read it in more than one part if that helps. It’ll be here for consideration and comment when you find the time.
A Note About My Approach
I’m sure my approach to our “Slow-Read Sunday” sessions will morph over time. For now, I’m going to run through what I find interesting in our reading for the week. I, of course, would love to hear your thoughts on what you liked/didn’t like, agreed with/disagreed with. Anything is fair game. Any form of transmitting your ideas is fine. So we can have some order to our discussion I’m going to number points. That way, if you want to discuss a specific point I’ve already covered you can refer to the number. Don’t let that dissuade you from raising new topics, though.
I thought about doing a summary or recap of the week’s reading, but I think, for this book, the summary found at the Middlbury site is fine. I do think, though, it’s worth saying a few things about Dostoevsky before we begin. It’s generally agreed that Joseph Frank wrote the best biography on Dostoevsky and I don’t intend to delve too much into the biographical side except to the extent it makes sense to point something out to put in context with your reading. I do think it’s important to know that The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky’s last published work. He passed away before completing all of Alyosha’s story. I also think it’s important to understand how important this book would have been to the Russian people. Literary arts were traditionally taken very seriously in Russia because it was sometimes the only way writers and thinkers could get away with taking on politics and religion without being sentenced to death or prison. That’s not to say that Dostoevsky would have narrowed his focus and reduced his riding to mere fable, instead he took on Russian life itself and people anxiously waited to hear what he had to say about their lives.
What are the book’s major themes?
This book is not light, neither in the subjects it takes on nor in the questions it forces the reader to ask themselves as they read. I do think you’ll be amazed that the way this book takes on these questions is not like a philosophical text. Dostoevsky, although he studied philosophy and religion in non-fiction form, eventually decided that it was through his magical fictional world that he could best take on these questions. It’s worth your time to reflect on why that is.
In terms of the big questions this book asks: (a) Why do children suffer if there is a good God that has not forsaken us? (b) Can children kill their parents if their killing is a force for good? (c) How do we judge criminals and are our standards for judging them fair? (d) Is there any way for a parent to recover from the loss of a child? More on these throughout our reading. For now, it’s enough to know they’re coming.
Why should I read this book?
Freud called The Brothers Karamazov “the most magnificent novel ever written.”
Virginia Woolf said that Dostoevsky, “alone among writers has the power of reconstructing those most swift and complicated states of mind.”
I think the reason to read it is for the challenge of confronting some of life’s most difficult questions head on. Dostoevsky was attempting to have his son live on, despite the fact he died from an epileptic seizure at age 3. Dostoevsky poured his entire heart and soul into this novel and used his writing to confront his terrible loss. I think Dostoevsky shows us, through this novel, that we too can overcome terrible tragedy and even have some good come out of it if we set our mind to pursue art. The Brothers Karamazov started as an idea before his son died, but the emotion of the novel is born out of his loss. I think the book’s most fascinating quality is how it takes the ideas and weaves them with that emotion to get at the real marrow of life.
Without further ado, here’s my attempt at discussing Part One of The Brothers Karamazov.
1. It isn’t a spoiler if the author does it, right?
I thought it was interesting that just a week ago Andrew Blackman took on the idea of spoilers in book reviews. This week, we find an author showing us how much he cares about ruining the plot. On the very first page of the book Dostoevsky tells us that Fyodor is going to die. We are yet to find out who killed him, but I don’t think it would appreciably take away from our reading of the book even if Dostoevsky had told us who had done it because we’d still be in suspense on who would eventually be convicted of the crime.
What do you think–could Dostoevsky have kept our attention even if he had told us who murdered Fyodor?
2. Oh God, the names.
Reading Russian books is hard if for no other reason than the names. What I end up doing is something like a translation as I read. I reduce all the names to one form and use that one in my head consistently throughout the book. You can find a great guide about the variations on the names at the Dartmouth site. For me, Dmitri is always Dmitri. Ivan is always Ivan. Alexei is always Alyosha. If you’re mentally consistent and take the time to read the name variation guide at the Dartmouth site by the end of Part One you should be settling in to your own shorthand for the main characters. If a name pops up and you can’t remember who we’re talking about then you can always refer to the Middlebury character analysis as a point of reference. Between the two resources and the novel’s context you should be fine.
3. The Karamazov family tree is unique but aren’t they all?
There’s some characterization in the family tree. Fyodor is characterized by his two marriages, one to a 16 year old, by the way. The first marriage produces Dmitri and the second produces Ivan and then Alyosha. The three children (we haven’t been introduced to Smerkyadov yet) are very different, but they all share certain characteristics of Dostoevsky himself.
Dmitri is sincere, generous, courageous.
Ivan is intellectual and prideful.
Alyosha is something a bit different though, he is the Christ-figure of the story and the one that Dostoevsky calls the hero from the first page. More on this later, but I think it’s important to try to read The Brothers Karamazov as Alyosha’s story, at least sometimes. At the very least, try to imagine how he sees certain events that transpire, try to see them through his eyes as an exercise in reading perspective.
4. If it came after Shakespeare, it was influenced by Shakespeare, even if it’s Russian.
We know Dostoevsky read Shakespeare in prison. He makes an early allusion to Ophelia on p. 7. The Brothers Karamazov is a story about parricide, eventually, which puts it in the tradition of “Hamlet” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex.” You can play the game of trying to identify the Shakespearean influences and you’ll probably do a much better job of it than I will if you’ve read much Shakespeare, but I will try to point out the ones I catch. If you spot any that I miss, feel free to point them out.
5. Fyodor, the “great sensualist.”
What does it mean to be a sensualist? And is it always a bad thing to be a sensualist? Fyodor is written to be a despicable character. We know he is going to die from page one and there are probably times when we read about his behavior and start to hope that his death will come soon. He is just that evil.
There’s one word that Dostoevsky uses more than any other to describe Fyodor and that is “buffoon.” There seems to me to be something in Fyodor that is set out to contrast with Alyosha, in particular, but really with all of the Karamazov children. Fyodor is almost unbelievably despicable and there is not a mention of any redeeming quality in the book that I can remember. I think there’s something like an evolutionary principle at work with Fyodor.
Here’s something to consider: Do you think for Dostoevsky to show we need a new hero–a new conscience–he has to show why the old one is so bad and Fyodor is the way he does that?
What would be some other reasons Dostoevsky would not want us sympathizing with Fyodor?
6. Dmitri, a sensualist, but with some redeeming qualities.
Dmitri’s upbringing was not exactly stable. His mother leaves him, his father forgets he even exists, his mother’s cousin takes a stab at raising him, some different relatives of his mother try to raise him, and he turns out, well, we’ll see how he turns out. When we encounter him in this section he is trying to settle a dispute with his father over the portion of the estate he is entitled to.
The running theme of inheritance is interesting. Reflect on whether Dostoevsky meant a lot more by inheritance than just the dealings of an estate. We know that Dmitri takes certain qualities from his father, so maybe the idea of inheritance is a running theme because Dostoevsky wants us to remember that we take certain things from our parents, and maybe even from the generation that preceded ours. The generational divide has always been one that shows up in Russian literature. It could be that Dostoevsky is really working on us–making us consider–what we’re getting from the prior generation and whether at the end of the day what we’re getting is really worth the trouble or if there is a new way to go about conducting our political and religious affairs.
Do you get the impression there’s a hint of disgust at some of Darwin’s ideas of evolution? How do you think Dostoevsky would feel about Darwin’s theory based on your reading of The Brothers Karamazov? You could probably write a small critical book about this if you were so inclined.
7. Fyodor forgets his child?
After Adeleida’s death Fyodor behaves very strangely, of course, but one of the things he does is he forgets he has a child. Dostoevsky comments that this is “precisely what was expected of him.” Is this an example of Dostoevsky’s attempt to criticize Russian fathers, the generation that preceded him, or is it merely to be taken at face value as a criticism of Fyodor?
8. Can you make an argument that Ivan or Dmitri is the most interesting character in Part One?
If you were looking to make an argument that Ivan was the hero of the book, then from Part One, you’d mention his involvement in intellectual matters, his debate on the ecclesiastical courts, and the mere description by our narrator that he is a genius. At every turn, though, Dostoevsky seems to understand we might start to buy into Ivan’s hero-ness and so he constantly reminds us that Alyosha is our hero. p. 18. What do you make of that? Is it poor writing or signs of this being an unfinished work?
Should we criticize Dostoevsky for having to constantly tell us that Alyosha is our hero instead of showing us that he is?
Can you even make an argument Dmitri is developed more than Alyosha in Part One?
9. Alyosha, the Christ-like.
Alyosha is described by phrases like “lover of mankind” and he is said to have been loved by everyone. Dostoevsky defends Alyosha saying he has complete faith in people, but that is not as naive as people suspect. Why might it be a problem for Dostoevsky if the reader started to see Alyosha as naive? Think about what grand plans Dostoevsky may have for Alyosha.
Biographically, Dostoevsky intended to write another book that would focus on Alyosha’s life with the people of Russia. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could complete the follow-up. Can you see any signs of his intent in Part One?
10. Is The Brothers Karamazov a work of autobiographical fiction?
Dostoevsky had a child named Alyosha who died at 3, of epilepsy, a disease he inherited from his father. After his child’s death Dostoevsky writes The Brothers Karamazov, although he’d started it before Alyosha’s death. There’s something like Shakespeare’s loss of his son, Hamnet at play here isn’t there? Critics have also pointed out that Dostoevsky put part of himself into each of the four children involved in this story. Some have argued that Alyosha represents his spirit, Ivan his mind, and Dmitri his body or heart. Look for signs of that as you read, but also be prepared to see examples that don’t exemplify this characterization. I’m not so convinced Dostoevsky intended to make the characters that flat or the interpretation that easy on us, because, as we all know, life is not that simple.
For one specific piece of evidence along these lines, read and re-read the story of Natasia p. 48 where she explains she has lost her three year old son. This is autobiographical fiction at its finest. Are you moved by the story? Do you think Dostoevsky is being an honest author when he writes of the experience of losing a child?
11. Is Elder Zosima serving the greater good by withdrawing from society and accepting these “women of faith” on pilgrimages?
Look at this question from several points of view. Does he think he is? Does Alyosha think he is? Do you think he is? Does Ivan think he is? I think that you can understand the characters in this story quite a bit better if you look at this question through their eyes.
You could write an entire critical paper about Dostoevsky’s views on confession. Think about some of the confessions Elder Zosima hears during this section. Alyosha is also the hearer of many informal confessions.
Do you get the impression Dostoevsky sees confession as a positive or a negative in Russian society?
Are there parallels between Elder Zosima’s hearing confessions and Alyosha’s hearing of informal confessions?
A constant theme throughout the work is how the characters approach Christianity. Every time a character takes a position on the subject it’s worth making a note, but it’s also interesting to note how they take that position. Do they argue their point brazenly or do they show their belief through “active love?” We get introduced to the concept of active love on p.55. Elder Zosima seems to want something different for Alyosha. What kind of life do you think Elder Zosima wants for Alyosha?
To read The Brothers Karamazov is to engage in an analysis of one’s own beliefs about religion–both as an institution and as a spiritual force for creating a happy, loving life. No matter the perspective you have when you open the book, an active reading requires you to question your beliefs and come out on the other side with a more battle-tested set of beliefs. Dostoevsky did this throughout his life. He would entertain atheism and then eventually we believe he died with a firmly held belief in Christianity.
Do you see The Brothers Karamazov as Dostoevsky’s attempt to use his son’s death as a catalyst to bring a new kind of Christianity to the world?
Be on the lookout for criticisms of the Church as an institution. If criticisms are offered, who offers them?
13. Dostoevsky and the criminal justice system.
Dostoevsky had certainly earned the right to question the Russian criminal justice system. At one point, he was sentenced to death and that sentence was later commuted to a sentence in Siberian work camps. We see some taste of his discontent on p. 64 as he speaks through his characters. Look for other mentions of the inner workings of the criminal justice system. Do they come across as true experiences as opposed to just hearsay? Does Dostoevsky take any opportunities in the story to criticize the justice system? Dmitri will eventually be put on trial, but it’s worth noting the mentions of justice and the theme of justice now. Can you pick up signals that there’s a justice-defining moment coming?
14. Why must Alyosha leave the monastery for good?
Elder Zosima tells Alyosha that as soon as he passes away he must leave the monastery for good. p. 76. He is told to be near his brothers. Does Elder Zosima know something no one else knows? Elder Zosima bows at Dmitri’s feet before he gives this command to Alyosha. Is one connected to the other?
Does Elder Zosima feel Alyosha can do more good outside the monastery? Why might he feel that way?
15. Are there any noble women in Russia?
The female characters in The Brothers Karamazov seem to be no more noble than the worst Karamazovs. Maybe that’s because those are the only women that would associate with this “nice little family.” Or do you think that Dostoevsky had a particularly poor view of women? Or is Dostoevsky just writing consistent with the times he lived in?
There’s also some criticism that depicts Dostoevsky as being an anti-Semite. Do you find any evidence of this in your reading?
16. If you didn’t already dislike Fyodor….
“It always seems to me, when I go somewhere, that I am lower than everyone else and that they all take me for a buffoon–so let me indeed play the buffoon, because all of you, to a man, are lower and stupider than I am.” Fyodor speaking on p. 86.
If you didn’t already dislike Fyodor, then consider that line and consider–even when it is his behavior that is deplorable–that he refuses to accept responsibility. Instead, he’s just playing the role he was meant to play. I wonder if this is some criticism of determinism and maybe one of the reasons this novel holds up in modern times is its unwillingness to buy into determinism completely.
What do you make of this idea that Fyodor is just playing a “role?” Has he been stripped of free will? If he has been stripped, then who stripped it from him?
17. Are monks “cheating” and taking the easy path to heaven by shutting themselves off from the world?
Fyodor raises the question on p. 89 that monks might be taking the easy way by shutting themselves up in a “monastery on other people’s bread.” He seems to be implying it’s easy to live a holy life if you’re shut off from the world. Do you agree there’s any truth to Fyodor’s allegation? Could this have anything to do with why Alyosha is being sent out into the world by Elder Zosima?
18. Smerdyakov is introduced.
You don’t want to miss the introduction of young Smerdyakov on p. 100 who is described as being “born of the devil’s son and a righteous woman.” Smerkyadov becomes Fyodor’s second servant, but the rumors are that he is also his fourth son. Is it ever unequivocally confirmed in the story that Fyodor is Smerdyakov’s father?
19. Is Alyosha the same as the other Karamazovs?
On p. 108 Dmitri tells Alyosha that he’s the same as the rest of the Karamazovs. Do you think that’s true at this stage in your reading? If he is a sensualist, like Dmitri and Fyodor, then how is he able to handle himself such that it does not cause problems for himself and/or others? Is Alyosha destined to make the same mistakes his brothers and father have made? Or, is Alyosha “different” and if he is different in what way does he set himself apart from the other Karamazovs?
20. Legal obligations v. Moral obligations.
Dostoevsky asks us to consider varying degrees of moral authority. One source, of course, is legal authority, but as Dmitri points out on p. 120, sometimes legal authority is not the same as the moral obligation we owe one another as human beings. Consider this as you read. What is the source of our moral obligations? Are there times in the story where legal authority fails to be a good gauge of moral authority?
Are there times when the innocent have no hope for justice at all? Are there times when innocent children, in particular, have no hope for justice?
21. Smerkyadov’s “falling sickness.”
As I’ve mentioned, Dostoevsky gives all of the Karamazovs something of himself. In the case of Smerkyadov it is his “falling sickness.” Dostoevsky was reportedly an epileptic, which he commonly referred to as having “falling sickness.” Remember, too, Dostoevsky is believed to have passed his epilepsy on to his son, Alyosha.
22. Dostoevsky loved books.
Dostoevsky loved books so it’s interesting to see how he passes the love of books to Alyosha when he describes him, but when he describes Fyodor he mentions a man that owns “more than a hundred volumes” but that “no one had ever seen Fyodor Pavlovich with a book in his hands.” An easy way for a writer to have his characters gain favor with a reader is to have them read. Dostoevsky was not above the ordinary tricks of the trade, I suppose.
23. Is Alyosha impervious to the women in this story?
Dmitri asks it himself, “how did you manage to save yourself from them, from those women?” speaking of Grushenka and Katya. And, so, if Dmitri asks it then we should ask it as well. Do you think Alyosha will remain impervious to the women of this story or is there one he should let down his guard with? Alyosha seems to take Elder Zosima at his word when he tells him he will marry. Has Alyosha’s behavior been changed by being told what the future has in store for him?
24. The central question of Part One is expressed on p. 143, “how would it end between his father and his brother Dmitri with this terrible woman?”
We end this part with the question unanswered. The stage is now set for what must happen in Part Two. There must be some resolution to the tension Dostoevsky has created. Imagine the Russians hanging on the edge of their seats for the next installment of this epic work which was released in serial.
Now, it’s your turn. Tell me where I’m wrong, right, or where I was neglectfully silent. I’d love to hear any and all thoughts you have on Part One of The Brothers Karamazov. Nothing is off-limits.
For next Sunday: Let’s read Part Two to p. 324 of the Pevear translation.
A couple things to think about for next time as you read:
25. The world Dostoevsky creates repeats itself.
At times Alyosha will hear something and repeat it. Certain ideas come to us multiple times. Look for instances of recurring phrases or descriptions as you read. What might be the intended effect of the repetition?
26. Dostoevsky’s use of children.
Pay particular attention to any mention of children in the novel. Dostoevsky may be working through their innocence to make a point.