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The Brothers Karamazov paints a four-day portrait of life in a dysfunctional family in nineteenth century Russia. During the tsarist era, the traditional social structure was a peculiar system of “estates” or “sosloviia.” The five main categories were: clergy, nobility, merchantry, townspeople, and peasantry [Kimball, 1] and each played a distinct role in the Russian state. The clergy prayed, nobles served in the military, townspeople provided goods and services, and peasants farmed the land. Each of the dramatically different Karamazov Brothers represents one of these Russian estates and provides an avenue for the examination of the human condition, particularly the shame, confusion and “calamity that follow when man abandons family traditions and the church.” [Trainer, 152] While the focus of The Brothers Karamazov might seem to be patricide since a father is murdered, it is primarily a novel about collective guilt. “The problem of human guilt is central in Dostoevsky’s thinking: we are collectively guilty of everybody’s sins, but our forgiveness and love are equally pervasive.” [Hubben, 73] While acts like “love, sacrifice, and compassion do not have fixed valuations,” [Wasiolek,92] The Brothers Karamazov,”] is a tacit argument for belief in God not unlike the lessons of the Gospels. It repeatedly demonstrates how modernity scatters seed, while Christianity gathers in the harvest.
Eldest son Dmitry Karamazov does not have a normal relationship with his father Fyodor. He possesses ample motive for murder: he lacks self-control, makes public threats, and most damning of all, he and his father are both in love with the same woman, Grushenka. Second son Ivan is raised as an orphan, but as a member of the educated elite, the intelligentsia, he has little difficulty rationalizing Fyodor’s demise; in fact, “he is the one who inspires the act of murder.” [Girard, 131] Youngest son Alyosha senses trouble brewing, but does not intervene. Fyodor’s servant, Smerdyakov, who is also his bastard son, actually commits the murder, but each of Fyodor’s sons is complicit. The pivotal character, Fyodor Karamazov, is a wealthy landowner and successful merchant whose ascent from near poverty to great wealth is accomplished by hard work, a shrewd business nature and probable nefarious business dealings. Fyodor is a lifelong sensualist who has just a few character flaws. He feels inferior to other more learned men, and this makes him try to compensate for this feeling of inadequacy by acting like a buffoon. During these attempts to get other to like him he often offends other people, sometimes unwittingly, but more often, quite deliberately. At turns these selfeffacing ploys engender pathos and a modicum of acceptance by those he considers his superiors. Fyodor’s greatest personal failing is his perverse indifference to the welfare of each of his young sons when their mothers die. While “the paternal role occupies the foreground in Brothers Karamazov,”
[Girard, 114] Fyodor devotes all his time and energy to amassing a fortune and leaves the responsibility for raising his sons to servants and distant relatives. His “accumulation of wealth and power is a symbol of rebellious pride against God.” [Hubben, 62] First, he elopes with Adelaida to improve his social standing. When Dmitry is born, it is into a marital war zone of fistfights and irreconcilable differences. Three years later Adelaida absconds with a penniless divinity student. When she dies Fyodor inherits her estate, and elopes with sixteen-year old Sofya. Within four years his debauchery drives Sofya over the edge, leaving two more sons orphaned. Although Fyodor is a pivotal character in this novel, he is not the hero. It is the death of Fyodor Karamazov that represents the synthesis of this family’s human condition. Because he is the eldest son Dmitry should represent the nobility. When his mother Adelaida leaves, Fyodor’s servants Grigory and Marfa care for three-year old Dmitry until his mother’s cousin, Pyotr, assumes responsibility for his upbringing. As Fyodor is preoccupied with business and his private social life, the boy has no contact with his father during his formative years. Dmitry finds himself in a perpetual state of rebellion against authority at school, which leads to his expulsion—and enrollment in military school. A turbulent soldiering career ensues, complete with excesses of wine, women and song. Despite the fact that Dmitry is the eldest son and serves in the military he never owns land. He expects a share of his deceased mother’s estate when he comes of age, but Fyodor thwarts his spendthrift son by giving him only small parcels of cash.
From that point on Fyodor and his twenty-eight year old prodigal son lock horns over money, but more importantly, they compete for the affections of Grushenka, a woman whom they both love. Ivan is the elder of two sons born to Fyodor and Sofya. His guardian sends him to university in Moscow to study natural sciences. He is an industrious student who tutors and translates documents, publishes some well-received book reviews and writes short news stories to supplement his income. Ivan engages in an unexplained, yet protracted correspondence with his older brother, Dmitry, whom he has yet to meet. Suddenly one day he leaves school and makes an impromptu visit on his father, who strangely enough, welcomes his twenty-three year old son into his home; and stranger still, they seemed to get along famously. Ivan’s visit is as unexplained as Fyodor’s welcome. Wavering between belief and doubt, Ivan finds he cannot accept a God that allows “the senseless suffering of little children,” and his “response to the realities of suffering is to distinguish between God and his creation.” [Jackson, 28-30] It is this distinction that sets Ivan’s atheism apart from conventional atheism. Ivan’s intellect and emotions do battle; issues that remain unresolved after he uses logic and reason emerge with “great philosophical sophistication” [Sutherland, 26] in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, which establishes his “moral disengagement from images and arguments in which he cannot fully believe.” [Harper, 56] Ivan’s atheism is “profoundly and intentionally blasphemous…because “his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor is a powerful negation of god.” [Sutherland, 30-3]
The youngest son, Alyosha, is the central character of The Brothers Karamazov. Only twenty years old, his love for humanity brings him to the gates of the monastery near his father’s estate. Alyosha endears himself to others because is naïve and trustful, sympathetic and candid, modest and chaste and possesses a forgiving attitude, The simplicity of monastic life seems to be “the ideal escape for his soul, a soul struggling from the world’s wickedness.” [Jackson, 208-9] Alyosha and his older brother Ivan grow up with a certain degree of stability, but like their older brother Dmitry, they never seem to shake orphan status. Alyosha’s spiritual father is the revered holy man, Starets Zosima, who sends him into the world as his messenger. “Alyosha’s forays into the real world are otherworldly, for he is rooted in the Divine.” [Hubben, 60] Sometimes he listens patiently to the ramblings of Mrs. Khokhlakova and the ravings of her young daughter, Lise. Alyosha prefers the peace and harmony of the monastery, but he is often called upon to carry messages back and forth between his brothers and his father. “Encounters with Dmitry and visits with his Fyodor trample his spirit.” [Jackson, 220] Nevertheless, Alyosha’s sympathetic ear is in great demand as he races around like a fireman putting out flames—one emergency to the next by day—returning to the monastery for vespers each night. One evening between errands, Alyosha and Ivan meet at a public house where several young boys are sharing coffee, ideas and beliefs. When Ivan mocks the boys, Alyosha asks his brother about his own beliefs. Ivan responds with something he has written; ‘The
Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,’ which accuses Christ of “overestimating human nature; that human beings would rather have bread than freedom—that freedom only leads to more idolatry—and that belief in Christ increases violence, misery, and disorder” [Girard, 122] Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor has a much different plan: he wants to heal evil with evil, to lower the bar to a more earthly level—one that humans beings can easily reach. “The Christianity the Inquisitor describes is like the negative of a photograph—it shows everything in reverse manner.” [Girard, 130] “The returning Christ kisses the Grand Inquisitor, who had threatened him; and Alyosha kisses his cynical brother Ivan after he finishes reading the legend of the Grand Inquisitor story. These are all examples of how a believer humbles himself before the unbeliever; the kiss is a sign of absolution of guilt.” [Hubben, 75] Alyosha is incredibly centered for his youth, and “seems to possess a sixth sense for truth and uncovering others’ latent ability to rise above difficulties to gain redemption.” [Hubben, 59]. He has a long list of prayer intentions: the plight of the Staff Captain’s family, the fate of the young boy, Kolya, Ivan’s unknown medical condition, but most of all, his brother Dmitry’s fate. Alyosha believes Dmitry, who is locked away in prison, is innocent of murder. He continued to collect other people’s burdens until the dying Starets Zosima, mindful of “the importance of memories of one’s childhood,” [Harper, 116] makes Alyosha promise that he will leave the monastery and go out into the world.
Second-servant Smerdyakov has a squirrelly nature, but he is respectful and subservient and easily earns his master’s trust. He suffers from epileptic seizures. Fyodor sends Smerdyakov off to culinary school to become his chef. His mother gave birth to him in a cabbage patch in Fyodor’s garden and then she died. Lizaveta brought her son into the world on his father’s estate. When Smerdyakov learns that he has murdered his own father he commits suicide. There are six degrees of separation between the characters in The Brothers Karamazov and the author Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was “ashamed of being Russian, ashamed of being the son of his father, ashamed of being Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky; it is all this shame that is aired, ventilated, and dissipated in the grand inspired breath of The Brothers Karamazov.” [Girard, 118] Dmitry Karamazov served in the military, lived to excess and wound up in prison for the murder of his father because Katerina Ivanovna produced an incriminating letter in court. Dostoevsky was a cadet at St. Petersburg’s Army Engineering College. He was arrested during the reading of a radical letter [Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends] and sentenced to prison also. His execution was commuted at the very last minute to four years of hard labor in Siberia. Both the character Dmitry Karamazov and Fyodor Dostoevsky fled from their gambling debts; Dmitry, to the countryside, and Fyodor to Europe. Ivan Karamazov began writing his “ten-line reports of street incidents”  while at university and suffered rages and delusions; Dostoevsky wrote about social and political change in
Russia, including the emancipation of the serfs, and was reportedly prone to manias and rages. “The God whom Ivan accepts is a finite God; he is the god who is the invention of a Euclidean mind, and of whom one can only think and talk in anthropomorphic terms.” [Sutherland, 36] Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor detaches himself from the socialists, as he predicts the building of a new tower of Babel and, during it, a period of persecution of the Church.” [Terras, 68] In a fit of madness Ivan is hauled out of the courtroom. Alyosha became a monk because “he had met someone he considered to be an extraordinary being…Starets Zosima”  Dostoevsky experienced a religious conversion while he was in prison in Siberia and became a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church. Smerdyakov was an orphan who suffered from epilepsy; Dostoevsky’s mother died when he was sixteen; two years later his father was murdered, possibly by his own serfs, and he also suffered from epilepsy. Dostoevsky once described the aura which precedes an epileptic seizure as “moments when all the intellectual and spiritual faculties, morbidly overstrained as it were, suddenly flare up in a bright flame of consciousness; and at such an instant the troubled soul, as though languishing with a foreboding of the future, with a foretaste of it, has something like a prophetic vision.” [Girard, Dostoevsky was married for seven years when he became a widower, then lost his brother in the same year. He remarried and became a father; then his son died at age three. Dostoevsky lived
during an era when Russia’s historical and religious mission was to establish its own national identity. That model was slavophilism instead of westernism; intuitivism instead of rationalism; conservatism instead of liberalism; organic spirit instead of criticism; and above all, national roots instead of social progress.” [Sutherland, 168] He believed in a God-given order--freedom—life—honor—family— children—church—everything of value. [Hubben, 68] Some say Dostoevsky was the first existentialist; others say he was a psychologist, but his novels always address “timeless moral and philosophical concerns as seen through the lens of suffering, crises, spiritual striving and fate of human beings.” [Jackson, 5] Although few, faint, fuzzy lines exist between vice and virtue in The Brothers Karamazov, “the plot is spiritual and its resolution is resurrection,” [Hubben, 73] but “there is one sole human condition, and that is reality.” [Girard, 137]
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