Some thoughts on "The Brothers Karamazov."

I just finished reading “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevsky yesterday. I’m going to take today’s blog post to jot down a few thoughts based on the book. This is not a book report or some sort of review, but my reactions from reading the book. Of course being over seven hundred pages long it took me a few weeks to read (sporadically, of course). As a result these reactions came to me mainly as I was finishing it or having just finished it. I can easily see why it’s considered a work of great literature. It’s hard for me to judge this based on language alone. That would be unfair as I was not reading it in the original Russian but in the English translation of Constance Garnett as originally published in 1912. If anybody cares, this post contains spoilers.

Despite its length the book reads very quickly. The book is divided into two parts, each of which takes place a month apart from each other, but each part itself only takes place in a matter of days. The action moves very quickly as a result, interspersed with much dialogue. Indeed, the book is very dialogue-heavy, and its through the characters that we find much philosophical and theological debate from the time. I may not agree with the conclusions that Dostoyevsky reaches, but he did present different sides of each argument presented. One such debate throughout the book dealt with the existence of God. The hero of the story, Alyosha, is a monk at the beginning of the book; although he leaves the service he still is very much devoted to his religion by the end. We see this in the final scene in which he delivers an impromptu sermon to a group of boys after the funeral of their schoolmate. In contrast is his brother Ivan, who often claims to not believe in God. In a scene near the end he is visited by the devil, although we find that this may be a case of brain fever (of note is an amusing instance when the devil takes a potshot at Tolstoy). The brain fever is an interesting literary device to hint that the visitation may be a dream; at the same time it discredits him in the court scene when he presents evidence that the eldest brother Dmitri is not guilty of the murder of their father.

There could be a whole course based on this book alone. Not only could one study the literary aspects of the story, but also all of the subjects that it raises. The above mentioned philosophical and theological debates, the Russian legal and caste systems of the later nineteenth century, and even smaller subjects like brain fever could all be raised as side subjects throughout the course. The effect would be cyclical: one would learn more about life and history from studying the book, and from studying those subjects one could appreciate the book more. I suppose that may be one of the reasons I’m drawn to the great works of eighteenth and nineteenth century European literature. Aside from the tone of the writing there’s much to be drawn from these works. I’m an avid reader and there’s a lot of more contemporary literature out there that I can appreciate; but much of it is quick, to the point, and doesn’t lead a lot to ponder. It says what it says and that’s that. That’s fine, but sometimes I want to want more.

If I have one complaint about “The Brothers Karamazov” is that it ends abruptly in order to give each character his or her due. Dmitri is found guilty of the murder. Aside from the fact that the reader finds out that Smerdyakov (a servant, and potential illegitimate half-brother of the others) confesses to Ivan that he in fact committed the murder, the case of the defence is much stronger in the court scene. Yet the jury gives a surprise verdict of guilty, resulting in a twenty year sentence to the mines in Siberia. We have a scene following this in which Dmitri describes his plans to escape to America with his fiancee as well as reflect upon his life. It was an interesting and thoughtful point to get to, but felt strange getting there. Also Ivan is possibly dying by the end of the book because of the brain fever, and Alyosha announces to the boys that he’s moving away. This all happens in the epilogue, which serves to tie things up. It perhaps does this a little too nicely. I felt as if there should have been another full chapter or two. Then again, considering Dostoyevsky died two months after completing the book it was probably for the best that he didn’t write that. He did hint that there might have been a sequel planned, but sadly we never got it.


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