“The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vasily Perov @ State Tretyakov Gallery

The Brothers Karamazov has the reputation of a great philosophical and psychological novel, and that was the main reason I chose to read it, but I have to admit I was disappointed on both counts.

Dostoevsky’s philosophical arguments lack clarity and logical coherence. He shares this characteristic with another Existentialist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who was no doubt influenced by him. His psychological portraits, while perspicacious in many aspects, lack the type of coherence that would render his characters as real people, not allegorical and often exaggerated representations of the human soul — the three brothers Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha representing passion, reason and faith, respectively. Their portraits are so out of proportion and out of joint that, for the most part, they evoke no feelings of pity or fear, or anything else one might feel toward well-rendered characters.

As a writer, Dostoevsky seems unwilling or unable to give his readers the time and space to make observations and connections on their own, but insists on controlling what they see, hear and think. I find it very ironic that he argues passionately for freedom in the most famous chapter of his book.

The major portion of TBK consists in dialogues and speeches, in which the characters pour out their innards on you whether you like it or not. There are no descriptions of the natural and social environment in which the characters live. There are very few factual descriptions of the significant events in their lives, such as one would expect from a conscientious journalist, but almost everything is interpreted and biased by the opinions of other characters and the narrator.

In Convivio, Dante writes that a literary text or sacred text can be understood in at least one of four senses: literal, allegorical, moral and spiritual, with the literal being the foundation upon which the other three are built. The greatest works are those that develop meanings on all four levels. The problem with TBK is that the literal foundation is largely missing, and the readers are left grappling with the allegorical, moral and spiritual, but without the literal, the text has no ground to engage the readers, and lacks coherence and relevance.

Imagine being alone in a windowless room with a very talkative person, perhaps one with multiple personality disorder, who talks on and on and on, such that the air feels stuffy, and you just want to escape into the open and get some fresh air.

This is my first impression of Dostoevsky. By contrast with whom, Tolstoy is the breath of nature.

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12 thoughts on ““The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  1. I don’t want to agree with you, because I really want to love Dostoyevsky, but I do agree, I really do. Sigh! It is rather ironic, given your last post, that while we can see his examination of “true freedom”, he really doesn’t give any freedom to his characters. I’ve only read The Idiot (which I’d like to read again) and Notes from the Underground, the latter which I really enjoyed but only because I could see how it connected with Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?. I’ll read Crime and Punishment at some later date, but so far, while the reading has been enjoyable on some levels, it’s also been rather disappointing based on my expectations. I much prefer Tolstoy.

      1. I am conflicted. I initially struggled with getting my head around Russian literature, and just when I’m began to love Tolstoy and appreciate others writers like Turgenev and Chekhov, along comes Dostoyevsky and completely destroys my comfort level. I was expecting to meet him as a friend, and instead I feel like I’m running around trying to pin him down all the time, and he has no interest in stopping so I can catch up. Tolstoy seems much more engaged with his readers, whereas Dostoyevsky is wrapped up within his philosophy. So it’s been a very difficult “relationship”. 😉 Perhaps he just needs to be re-read a number of times and then you get used to him. I have my doubts though.

  2. I would have to disagree with your perception of The Brothers Karamzov as a disappointing read and I would politely suggest you revisit it.
    I found it hard to believe you felt controlled as a reader for control is a very strong theme thought-out the book and Dostoevsky exposes it on many levels allowing his readers to examine aspects of and meaning of control in their own lives, and in doing so releases control of his readers. (My opinion) The imagery was strong; its creation through the dialogue was for me natural and familiar.
    To say that the characters were somewhat unreal, over exaggerated to summarise, and that ‘almost everything is interpreted and biased by the opinions of other characters and the narrator.’ is true, however it is also the essences of the book, the capturing and exposing of the Karamzov character, its fearlessness, arrogance, ruthlessness, vanity, compassion, empathy, love and trust. These are not feeble emotions they are strong, overpowering and dangerous as the history of humanity reveals and if they were not they would be unworthy of recognision.
    The characteristics of a Karamzov are to lesser and greater extents our own characteristic’s and the talkative person in the windowless room we cannot escape is ourselves.
    Which Karamzov characteristic is your post written in and which is mine and would we write the same word even tomorrow.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Paul.

      I realize that many people would disagree with me on TBK. Many have said it to be “life-changing”, even those who rarely read fiction. Perhaps part of my disappointment was due to the high expectation, and I would appreciate it more otherwise. Be that as it may, I think my opinion is not groundless, and I’m more than happy to discuss TBK with you or anyone who is willing to share their perspectives.

      Dostoevsky exposes it on many levels allowing his readers to examine aspects of and meaning of control in their own lives, and in doing so releases control of his readers.

      Could you give a few examples where Dostoevsky exposes control in the life of his readers and thereby releases them from it?

      The characteristics of a Karamzov are to lesser and greater extents our own characteristic’s and the talkative person in the windowless room we cannot escape is ourselves.

      The Karamazovs are indeed representations of ourselves to some extent. The difference, as I see it, is that we do not live in a windowless room alone, we have the choice to commune with nature, with other human beings, and with God. Genuine communication is never unilateral, but in TBK, it almost always is — everyone talks incessantly, but few listens.

  3. Nemo

    Firstly I am sorry if I gave the impression that I thought your opinion was groundless, that was not my intentions so I apologise for any misunderstanding. Also I agree expectations are often never realised in great words of literature as their interpretations can mean many things to many people and personal circumstance is also important, so I feel there is no disagreement between us.
    I am not in the habit of deconstructing the books I have read, however I will attempt to explain my thoughts about the theme of Control the best I can.
    As I said before the forceful characteristics of the Karamazov’s’ is obvious, they live life at the extreme on many levels both materially and emotionally. The father Fyodorovich Pavlovich used his material wealth and academic prominence to exert control over his society but mostly his children, by at first rejecting them, before stealing and manipulating them, each to differing levels whilst at the same time rejoicing in the reputation such behaviour gave him, when, in fact he had no control and was so powerless he was murdered by Smerdyakov his illegitimate son and servant, Fyodorovich Pavlovich was murdered whilst waiting for a Grushenka who did not value him and whose every gesture and word was an act of control over the old man.
    Here the reader is exposed to a cruel dominating tyrant, A Father Figure, who in the course of the book is revelled to be entirely powerless.
    The killing of the father by his child; reveals the transience nature of control, the weak become the strong.
    There are many concepts of control explored in the book such as Alosha’s relationship with his Elder Zosimain the monastery, Dimitry’s story of excess and social manipulation, and Ivan’s academic achievements, but I am not going into these.

    Now to hopefully answer your question.
    Throughout the book characters express and rejoice in their perception of control over other characters, and are shown in time to be themselves controlled and even powerless. These are familiar themes in the lives of readers; some may have powerful relations, domineering friends, and controlling partners or may have known such people in the past. This is how Dostoevsky exposes control in the lives of his readers and also how by relating the Karamzov story he may awaken and help release them. Nobody lives free of control, but relinquishing control to someone does not give them the right to abuse and persecute, on the contrary they have duty to dispel the notion altogether.
    Lastly
    Maybe genuine communication is unilateral, and it is only possible to be genuine when we are alone in the windowless room which is our souls or minds. Maybe all other communications are compromises, an exercise in vanity or an expression of control. Maybe we take from a social conversation only those things that reinforce our opinions and prejudices and say the things which direct the conversation towards our own assumptions, and hear only what we want to hear. Maybe we lie so as not to offend or upset, conversations have unwritten social protocols that do not apply within our minds. Can even a conversation with God not be classed as an expression of vanity, for who are we that a God should need to talk to us.

    Control is just a small theme in this book and I am one of those people who consider it inspirational, and spiritually informative.

    All the best
    Paul

    1. it is only possible to be genuine when we are alone in the windowless room which is our souls or minds

      Do you think Fyodor Karamazov was genuine when he locked himself in his house alone?

      Maybe we take from a social conversation only those things that reinforce our opinions and prejudices

      Could it be that Dostoevsky’s novel did not inspire you at all, but only reinforced some of your own opinions?

      1. Could it not be argued that inspiration and reinforcement of ones opinions the same thing when it comes to the acquirement of knowledge? Have we discovered anything ourselves through these comments or have we just reinforced our own opinions? Are we locked in battle for control ourselves? Why ask your last question if not to seek justification on my part for my previously words, for what purpose? I believe there is no need to answer any more question on this topic with more written words.
        paul

      2. When we acquire knowledge, we discover something new, something different from our pre-conceived opinions. That is how we grow in our understanding of the world around us, of ourselves, of our fellow human beings, and of God. This is the fruit of genuine communication.

        I asked you these questions for the purpose of clarification and understanding, assuming that you want to communicate and to be understood. My apology if that is not the case.

      3. ‘When we acquire knowledge, we discover something new, something different from our pre-conceived opinions. That is how we grow in our understanding of the world around us, of ourselves, of our fellow human beings.’ And! Do you really think you need to tell me this?
        I am sorry if you misunderstand me, there is no compulsory requirement for understanding between people, for in truth we seldom understand ourselves. But you know this..

      4. If “we seldom understand ourselves”, and I agree with you on that point, there is all the more reason to communicate with other people. It is very helpful to look at ourselves and the world through the eyes of others, for they don’t have the same blind spots that we have.

        I think this is why reading writers like Dostoevsky can be life-changing for many people, not because their preconceived opinions are reinforced, but because they discover something new about themselves and the world.

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