بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
I recently finished reading The Brothers Karamazov, a book written in the year 1880 by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s one of the famous classical books, although it was a challenging read and quite long (took me nearly 2 months), so I wanted to get my thoughts & reactions down in this blog post. This post isn’t really coherent so please forgive me for that. I might also edit or add more as I continue to reflect on the book.
The novel was written in Russia (and in the Russian language, obviously – I read the English translation) during a time of great change. Russia was modernizing, and it was being pulled between the liberal ideas of Western Europe, the Christian traditions of its past, and the radical trends of socialism. It was totally unclear which direction Russia would go. From that perspective it seems somewhat similar to parts of the Muslim world today.
In the novel, which takes place in a mid-size town in the heart of Russia, the characters are aware of these trends and often discuss/debate them. I’m not sure how true that would have been in the real-life late-1800s Russia, but it’s an interesting dynamic nonetheless. These discussions sometimes seem like they were added in artificially and feel out of place, such as the talk at the tavern between Ivan and Alyosha where the former described his poem “The Grand Inquisitor.” But besides one or two cases, overall it’s quite natural.
The dialogue between various characters is one of the most peculiar aspects of the novels. The characters are often brutally honest about the thoughts going on inside their head, especially when it comes to what led them to make some decision, and describe them almost as if from a third-person perspective. This is hard to describe but if you read the novel, you’ll understand what I mean. It’s part of what makes the book so fascinating – it’s almost like the whole thing is an insight into the human condition.
As for readability, I’d say I was pleasantly surprised. Some people have lampooned the book for not being readable, but for a classic, it was very much readable. I tried reading another one of Dostoevsky’s works, Crime and Punishment, 4 years ago and wasn’t able to get through it. This is why I was surprised at how readable The Brothers Karamazov was. I skimmed through 2-3 passages (e.g. the endless scene right before Dmitri was arrested) but besides that, I read everything carefully and it kept my attention throughout. I mostly read the book before going to bed, and I never fell asleep prematurely which is what happens with unreadable books (lol), I always just reached the end of a chapter and decided to call it quits.
The Main Characters
Fyodor, in his mid-to-late 50s, has 3 sons: Dmitri, Ivan and Alexei a.k.a. Alyosha. The first one is from his first wife who ran away and then later died, and the latter 2 are from his second wife who died while still married to him. Fyodor is a “sensualist,” meaning his only purpose for his life is to experience as much sensual pleasure as possible. He treats other people like garbage, especially his wives, he has orgies at his house, and he abandons all of his sons who are raised by the servant. He doesn’t believe in God or the afterlife and feels no guilt or remorse for any of his actions.
Dmitri is the oldest son, I think around 27 years old, and a veteran of the Russian army. He’s the most similar to his father in that he’s also a sensualist. However, there is a crucial difference: at one point he reveals that he feels guilt for his lifestyle (whereas Fyodor doesn’t). It’s unclear whether he believes in God or not – or maybe I just missed this. Dmitri clashes with his father over the fact that Fyodor might be hiding some of Dmitri’s inheritance that he should have gotten from his mother, and that both men fall in love with the same woman, Grushenka and both want to marry her.
Ivan, around 23, is the educated, academic son. He goes to university in Europe and has published articles in various top-tier publications. He’s also a staunch materialist atheist, although he himself does not lead the sensualist life of his older brother and father. He thinks that if people stop believing in God and the afterlife, then all morality becomes subjective and meaningless, and “everything is permitted.” Thus he sees religion as a useful societal tool, even though he doesn’t believe in it himself.
Alyosha, around 19, is the religious humanitarian son. He loves all human beings despite their faults, and is so deeply religious that he enters a monastery and almost becomes a monk. He’s also a great listener and often ends up on the receiving end of other characters’ rants about life. But when they ask him for advice he doesn’t know what to say, showing that he’s somewhat unsure of himself. Alyosha is the main character of the novel.
Other characters include:
- Grushenka, the beautiful early-20s woman who has a lot of the townsmen asking for her hand in marriage. She rejects a lot of them, but she loves the attention she gets. She’s also an orphan. Both Fyodor and Dmitri are in love with her.
- Katerina, an aristocratic young woman who’s wealthy but doesn’t really know what to do with her life. Dmitri was engaged to her but breaks it off for Grushenka. I think she ends up engaged to Ivan, but they have really awkward interactions with each other and it doesn’t seem to be working well. I think Katerina was one of the poorly-developed characters in this novel.
- Lise, a girl who falls in love with Alyosha when she’s in a wheelchair, but then she becomes well and then rejects him. Her mother, Madame Khokhlakov, is also a recurring character. Lise is an irrational person who’s a bit emotionally unstable.
- Grigory, one of the servants in Fyodor’s home. He’s one of those Good Guy Greg type characters. He’s the one who raised Fyodor’s kids as if they were his own, including the possibly illegitimate one (see below).
- Smerdyakov, the adopted son of Grigory and his wife. He’s rumored to be the illegitimate child of Fyodor and a beggar girl, and Fyodor is considered to be a disgusting person for having had sex with (or raped?) a poor homeless beggar. Smerdyakov’s mother dies during childbirth. Nevertheless, he’s a conceited, selfish, dishonest person who doesn’t have any morals or conscience.
- Zosima, the elder at the monastery, who dispenses much spiritual wisdom.
- And others.
Summary of the Plot (Spoilers!)
The plot takes a lot of twists and turns, many of which are actually quite major, but I’ll just describe the overall structure here. The father and 3 sons are reunited for the first time, because they want to resolve the inheritance dispute between Fyodor and Dmitri. But they’re not able to solve it and things only get worse when both men fall in love with the same woman, Grushenka, and both want to marry her.
Zosima, Alyosha’s elder at the monastery, tells him that he should leave the monastery and enter the world. Zosima passes away, and then Alyosha takes his advice. Things between Dmitri and his father get worse and worse, and they even have a physical fight. Grushenka might be coming to a decision soon as to which man to marry and both are in a deep anxiety that she might pick the other man. At a few occasions Dmitri remarks that he might kill his father.
As you might have guessed, Fyodor ends up dead. All the evidence points to Dmitri. The novel’s narrative shows Dmitri as being innocent, but there are mountains of evidence against him. Most of the town believes him to be guilty, including Ivan. Alyosha is among the few who believe his story. In any case, Dmitri is convicted and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in Siberia.
It’s revealed that the murderer was actually Smerdyakov, who tells only Ivan that it was him before committing suicide. Smerdyakov says that he adopted the beliefs that Ivan had been preaching: there is no God, there is no afterlife, all morality is relative and meaningless, and thus “everything is permitted.” Smerdyakov felt that he could kill Fyodor and not be punished for it, thus he did so. In a way he blames Ivan, telling him that ultimately he (Ivan) is responsible for the murder.
As I’ve stated, it was certainly a fascinating novel. It was my first time in a long time reading a classic, so it was also pretty challenging. Some people have stated that The Brothers Karamazov is the greatest novel of all time, and almost everyone includes it in their lists of the all-time greats. I think the combination of the intriguing plot and the thought-provoking philosophical considerations is what makes this novel the greatest novel that I’ve read.
The central question of the novel is that of morality. If we won’t be held accountable for our actions in the Afterlife, then what is there to stop us from living heinously selfish lives? I think the novel convincingly argues that the answer is “nothing at all.”
In a way, this was proven correct by the 20th century. The imperialism, the wars, the genocides, and all the other horrors which took place because some people believed that “everything is permitted.” I previously quoted an excerpt from another book which talked about this, which you can read here. Human beings don’t put kids in gas chambers unless they don’t believe that they will be held responsible for their actions.
One aspect that the novel does not cover in depth is that of religious people who go against their stated beliefs and commit wrong. It’s mentioned briefly at a few points… I think Ivan at one point talked about a priest in a town who was hearing people’s “confessions.” A 20-year old woman confessed to him that she had again fornicated – he expressed his dismay, but then a few moments later he was arranging his own meeting with her. In other words, he claimed to believe in God, but his actions certainly didn’t show it.
Without belief in God and the afterlife, “everything is permitted” – this much the novel makes absolutely clear. And the converse of that would be: with belief in God and the afterlife, one must lead a moral, righteous life. This is true for Alyosha and the elder Zosima in the novel. But I have observed a different situation in real life.
For example, in the Muslim-majority countries, you have mosques calling out God’s remembrance all the time. And yet we have people named Muhammad who steal, we have sexual harassment taking place on the streets, we have imams and Qur’an teachers who are molesters, we have migrant workers being horribly abused, and of course many people who commit terrible acts of violence in the name of Islam. Not to mention all the Muslim youth especially in the West who are hooking up, going to parties/dances, watching pornography, etc.
I think the people who need to read this book are not atheists. For most of them, they’ve already made up their minds and no new evidence and arguments will convince them. I think the main audience of this book are people who believe in God and the afterlife. It’s telling them that beliefs don’t just exist in some theoretical space – they have consequences. If it isn’t having an effect on your life, then maybe you don’t really believe it on the inside.
This is what torments Ivan. He firmly disbelieves in God and lists many arguments for doing so. And from a theoretical point of view, he recognizes that this means that “everything is permitted.”(Spoiler alert:) But when he sees it actually happen, when Smerdyakov kills his father, it greatly affects him. He becomes sick, he starts hallucinating, and in the end of the novel he’s in a coma – it’s not even made clear whether he survives or not, though it’s hinted that he’ll recover. In any case, I was sympathetic to Ivan and he was probably one of my favorite characters, because of his refreshingly frank intellectual honesty (no “liberal humanism” delusions), and also probably because I’m also a middle child.
Alyosha is triumphant in the end not because he intellectually refuted Ivan or Smerdyakov’s arguments, but because he simply let his actions speak for him. He was just a genuinely great guy. This is a big lesson for Muslims today, especially considering the environment of hostility and suspicion that we face. If we can internalize the teachings of Islam, and really act on the things we claim to believe, we won’t have to explain ourselves constantly. This includes working on fixing problems such as the ones listed above.
I’m afraid that humanity, and especially the United States, is going the same direction as Europe in the 20th century. We’re seeing a resurgence in secularism and a renewed attack on religion, this time with Islam in the cross-hairs. Certainly, there are “liberal humanist” secularists who don’t believe that everything is permitted, and who invent some new moral codes for themselves to live by, such as the concept of universal human rights. However, this is nothing but a self-delusion, a pretension which can easily be dropped at the first sign of trouble. (The Dark Knight had a great quote about this.) And we’ve seen in many cases that “universal human rights” aren’t so universal, especially when applied to The Evil People We Don’t Like, whoever those may be at any moment.
It’s a worrying time. If trends continue, we could see a continued breakdown of current norms, and a new era where mass crimes against humanity become common again. In such situations, remember the lessons of The Brothers Karamazov. People of religion, especially Muslims, must renew their commitment to their religion and make sure they truly live their life in accordance with their belief in God and the Afterlife. And humanity as a whole should be warned about the disastrous consequences that secularism, atheism, and materialism can have on morality.
13 February 2017
4 thoughts on “Thoughts after reading The Brothers Karamazov”
Simple thank you – to you -for your thoughts on The Brothers K. Have been reading same during self quarantine. Felt inspired and frustrated in turns. Inspired by the moral themes and certain characters. Frustrated by the artificiality of voice and interactive modes, and even absurd structure. I googled “Brothers K is unreadable…” and your blog post appeared. I am comforted by your reactions, and you’ve helped me frankly make better sense of the work. Bless you!
Thank you for the comment!
Thank you for this insightful commentary.