“Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.Part I, Book II, Chapter 2
Hurrah for Karamazov! What a glorious novel – often cited as one of the greatest literary creations of the Western world, I picked this up with high expectations (former first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cite it among their favorites) and I wasn’t disappointed. Here Dostoyevsky brings to life the most despicable, the most frustrating as well as the most lovable characters in literature in Fyodor Pavlovich+Smerdyakov, Dmitri “Mitya” Fyodorivich and Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich. The main character is undoubtedly Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazov Brothers who is a naive, kind-hearted young man living in the monastery training to be a religious leader. He acts a moral compass (successfully and unsuccessfully) for the rest of the novel’s not-so-lovely characters:
- Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov: The head of the Karamazov family is a selfish, vain and cruel man. He mistreats his two ex-wives and cares very little for his three children, and has become rich mainly through dishonorable means. He and his son Dmitri are similarly described as the “sensualists” as the chief of their existence is dedicating to fulfilling worldly pleasures.
- Dmitri: The oldest brother and the only brother born from Fyodor’s first marriage, throughout the novel Dmitri is fighting his father for a share in his mother’s wealth and pursuing a local girl from town called Grushenka (despite being engaged to a beautiful heiress Katerina Ivanovna). Though Dmitri shares a lot in common with his father, he is far from a two-dimensional buffoon.
- Ivan: The genius of the family, middle brother Ivan is Alyosha’s full brother, born from Fyodor’s second marriage. He is an intellectual and atheist and in the beginning of the novel has gained some fame for his writings on ecclesiastical courts. Ivan falls for his brother Dmitri’s fiancée Katerina, but continues to deny this.
- Alyosha: The youngest brother Alyosha is a kind-hearted, selfless and good individual and spends the novel trying to guide the actions of the morally bankrupt characters. Not much of the plot actually revolves around Alyosha as I believe he serves as a moral compass and an ideal in the novel, but without Alyosha the course of the novel would be very different.
The plot itself wasn’t too complicated, don’t expect to be on the edge of your seats the entire time.. the plot isn’t what makes the novel special. I’ll be honest, those unaccustomed to Russian literature of the time (by this I’m mainly referring to the names that come to our minds when we think of Russian literature) may be confused at the long detours the novel takes, often with no real contribution to the plot. However, these long detours are what makes this such a good book. These detours contain philosophical musings that are a testament to Dostoevsky’s greatness, and display his “higher purpose” in writing a novel that attempts to tackle difficult subjects in the mind of every human being – good vs evil, suffering, guilt, love, religion, faith and friendship.
This novel is also my personal titleholder for “Most Quotable Novel Ever.” Below are just a few of my favorite quotes from the novel (I am refraining from giving out any spoilers, hence the context of the quotes will not be explained).
Paper, they say does not blush, but I assure you that it is not true, and that it is blushing now just as I am blushing all over […] I love youPart I, Book III, Chapter 11
No science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights among themselves without offense. Each will always think his share too small, and they will keep murmuring, they will envy and destroy one another. You ask when it [the Kingdom of Heaven] will come true. It will come true, but first the period of human isolation must concludePart II, Book VI, Chapter 2
Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horses, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice love, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing in those who are not rich, while the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. But soon they will get drunk on blood instead of wine, they are being led to that. I ask you: is such a man free?Part II, Book VI, Chapter 3
Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thingPart II, Book VI, Chapter 3
You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, the he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation.Part IV, Epilogue, Chapter 3
Many of the novel’s beautiful quotes are thanks to Father Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor at the monastery. Father Zosima is a saint-like figure, shown to be kind, loving, selfless and somewhat of a father figure to Alyosha. There are a few chapters towards the middle of the book where we learn Father Zosima’s backstory, which have some of the most beautiful passages in the book either spoken by Father Zosima or to Father Zosima. Through the plotline of Father Zosima (who isn’t particularly well-liked in the monastery and has a different take towards religion and prayer), I believe Dostoyevsky was conveying his feelings and criticisms towards the Church. Dostoyevsky shows readers that an ideal Christian leader should be like Father Zosima – though both in the novel and in real life he is a minority.
Honestly, I think this is a book for everyone. However, there is a heavy dose of religious imagery and symbolism that might get lost on you if you aren’t knowledgeable in the teachings and texts of Christianity. If not for this reason, I would not hesitate to call this a must-read for everyone out there, as this is such a beautifully written book packed with lessons and reflections regarding life, nature, morality, friendship and familial relations. Perhaps my only advice is to read another work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky before jumping into The Brothers Karamazov. After all, this is Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus and the longest novel. It would be much better to start with Crime and Punishment or The Idiot. Don’t be like me! I made the mistake of jumping straight into TBK, and now I regret it because though I am determined to read his other works, I keep asking myself “what if the others pale in comparison?”.
The only disappointing thing about the novel is that it is part of an incomplete trilogy. You will understand what I mean when you’ve read the novel cover to cover. Once you finish the novel, you are left with a sense of hope and anticipation and will find yourself asking “What next?” You will desperately want to know the fates of our beloved characters. I later found out that this was not exactly intentional, as Dostoyevsky actually planned this to be part of a Trilogy. Sadly, he died before he could complete the second and third books (focusing on Alyosha’s character growth) and hence the fates of our beloved characters are left to the devices of our imagination.
After reading the various discussions and debates online regarding the available translations, I got the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. You can purchase this edition here, or alternatively here if you would like to read it on your Kindle.