Thursday, 9 September 1999

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (1881)

Translation: David Magarshack, 1958
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 329

The Brothers Karamazov is often described as Dostoyevsky's masterpiece. It is certainly his longest novel. It unites themes from his other novels: the psychology of murder from Crime and Punishment, the "holy fool" from The Idiot; and, as his last novel, can be seen as a culmination of his treatment of these themes.

The Karamazovs are a supreme example of that currently fashionable object, the dysfunctional family. The consist of the father Fyodor, a drunken scoundrel, and three sons by two (dead) wives, Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan and Alexei (Alyosha). Through a grotesque love triangle in which Dmitri and his father are both courting the same woman, bad feelings come to a head, with Dmitri telling all who will listen how much he hates his father (who has also cheated him of the inheritance due him from his mother) and wants to kill him. Then Fyodor is found dead, in circumstances which point to Dmitri as the murderer.

This plot summary makes Dmitri seem much more important than his younger brothers, and this is the case to the extent that it is his relationship with his father which motivates the plot. Yet both Ivan and Alyosha play vital roles: Ivan plotting to exploit the situation for his own benefit, Alyosha constantly - as the holy fool - seeking to reconcile the rest of his family.

Like all the characters who interested Dostoyevsky, the Karamazovs are passionate, even melodramatic. They seem very Russian, partly because our ideas of Russianness in the West are strongly influenced by the nineteenth century novelists and dramatists. As the events of the novel progress, the two elder brothers become more and more unstable, until driven virtually to insanity. Only Alexei is able to deal with this side of his nature, through the external moral guidance provided through his faith in the church.

The larger than life side of the elder brothers to my mind distorts the novel somewhat. I found Dmitri and Ivan rather difficult to believe in for the first half of the novel, the first seven books. But it is necessary to have them like this in character to motivate their dissolution during the murder trial, just as the lengthy sermonising from Orthodox monks is necessary to make us understand how Alexei escapes the dissolution. The contrast between his piety and the brothers' atheism is made stronger by the incredible scene in which Ivan hallucinates a conversation with the Devil in which they argue about his existence: one of the most powerful scenes, to my mind, in all literature.

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