This is the kind of book everyone is supposed to read at least once in their lives, if only for the literary bragging rights. When placed on a prominent bookshelf, it boldly announces to visitors: “My owner is stunningly smart, and you should be attracted to their giant brain.” Just having it in your collection already makes you a better, sexier person. You do, however, run the risk of someone asking one day; “well what’s it all about, then?” To avoid standing there desperately trying to remember what you read about it one drunk night on Wikipedia, I present to you the following:
What Happens Where and Maybe Why in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – A Thoroughly Non-exhaustive and Depressingly Inaccurate Guide to a Literary Classic.
Part 1: A life, a time, a book
“I’m going to write this last novel even if it kills me” –
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky – letter to Apollon Maykov (1868)
Before starting our weekly discussion on the neutronically dense subject matter of The Brothers Karamazov, first a few words on the author, the book, and the events that influenced them both:
The Brothers Karamazov was finished in 1880, after it was published as a serial during the last two years of the author’s life. After his passing, the resulting book was swiftly seen as the magnum opus of a supremely gifted author. This was nice, considering he had wanted this to be his crowning achievement and having brooded on it for more than a decade. After spending all of his waning energy on the completion of his greatest novel, however, the ill and tired Dostoevsky promptly kicked the bucket in the beginning of 1881.
While the greatest praise for his final novel would come posthumously, and thus, too late for the expired author, he had at least enjoyed the pleasure of becoming a beloved and respected writer in his native country. Where once he had been just one more convict among fellow dissidents in Siberia, Dostoevsky had grown in his later years into a man of literary renown. His works sold well, he was relatively secure in his finances (a difficult feat for a profligate gambler), and even got friendly invitations to hang out with the Emperor Alexander II and his kids. The same emperor, incidentally, who was soon to fall victim to that endearing Russian tradition of Czaricide. Interesting times and all that jazz.
Dostoevsky had lived through many of the social and political upheavals that rocked Russian and European societies in the 19th century. The implications of these historical occurrences are extensively discussed in Dostoevsky’s later works, like The Possessed (alt: The Devils) and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov. These historical influences include, but are not limited to, the official abolition of serfdom in Russia (1861), the rise of (utopian) socialism, the European revolutionary tide of the 1840s, and the comings and (untimely) goings of the various Russian monarchs. These events usually play out in the books as ideas discussed among characters. Dostoevsky pits socialist against priest, moralist against sensualist, peasant against nobility. In their dealings, in their communication with one another, and themselves (oh the soliloquies!), they examine the tensions of that century.
Alongside this theme of politics runs the current of religion. At a young age, Dostoevsky was exposed to the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrestled throughout his life with the notions of sin and redemption, the basis of human morality, and the existence of God. A lot of the characters in his novels are guilty sinners, morally dubious characters in a place of (self-inflicted) suffering looking for a way out of this world. The religious ones often pin their hopes on faith or the hereafter. The Utopian socialists seek to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to earth, and to overthrow the society they blame for the world’s, and their own, misery. The religious themes in his work usually get the same treatment as the political ones. That is, they emerge mainly from interactions between people. It is therefore not strange to see characters engage in page after page of religious discussion. This caused some of his critics to wonder whether he was a writer or an essayist putting his opinions in trousers.
To dismiss him for these personal and authorial predilections would be unfair. It has long been accepted that one of the enduring values of Dostoevsky’s work is his insight into the psychological hang-ups that plague us humans. This perhaps has something to do with his own time in the wilderness among the Siberian convicts, his ability to relate to and understand the emotions of others, and his tendency of weaving biographical notes into the makeup of his characters. Smerdyakov, at once one of the most despicable yet important characters in The Brothers, for instance, suffers from the same illness that plagued Dostoevsky all his life: that of epilepsy.
He will, of course, use characters to express his ideas and opinions, but he is truly a master in giving great depth to their existence. All of the main characters have believable flaws, endearing qualities, a wit, a mind all their own. Even when he decided to craft a truly evil character, they transcend the mustache twirling caricature, and remain, most important of all, believable. Even when describing people he clearly does not like (as for instance, Jews, socialists, anarchists, etc.) he will often find a way to make one believe in their reality. That is quite the achievement, one for which he is rightly praised.
Before this turns into an even bigger fawning gush fest, let’s swiftly close these introductory remarks with a statement of intent. Every week, this blog will feature discussion of some chapters from The Brothers Karamazov, placing them into the context and greater narrative of the book. There will be some discussion of the religious and political background, where I will needlessly complicate some things and gloss over very important other things. There will be depressing paintings. There will be no spoiler warnings. There will be no trigger warnings. Grave injustice will be done to a literary classic.
Next week: Russians are not happy people.
Image: “Vasily Perov – Портрет Ф.М.Достоевского – Google Art Project” by Vasily Perov – kgHBFHS7SpcayQ at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –
(At this point, Hutkippy refuses to use footnotes and/or references. If you want to look up certain things yourself, you can probably find them here.)
Doesn’t always refer to himself in the third person.
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