I’ve been reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for the second time, to correspond with a read-along hosted by Arti at Ripple Effects. This is the first I’ve done a read along.
Part I really sets a scene, establishing the primary characters and conflicts; conflicts of people and ideas, and people as ideas. By the end of Part I tensions already seem close to breaking.
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the head of the Karamazov family, is dead from the very beginning. His “dark and tragic death” happened “exactly 13 years” before the writing of the book. The “author” explains in a superfluous note that this book takes place thirteen years ago, and is the first of a two-volume biography of Alexei Fydorovich Karamazov, of the two volumes it tells the story of the least interest.
The Brothers Karamazov begins with a promise as to the fate of these two characters. Fydor, the patriarch, will be dead; and Alyosha (Alexei), Fyodor’s third son, will have a good, or great, life ahead of him. The sons of Fyodor, besides Alyosha, are Dmitri (Mitya) and Ivan, and these three comprise the Brothers Karamazov. There is a fourth, honourary, Fyodrovich, however: Smerdyakov.
The rumours around Smerdyakov’s conception, if true, are truly damning of Fyodor. The boy’s mother was a vulnerable adult, who lived her life on the streets, always barefoot. Fyodor’s outbursts and orations are usually funny, as he has little concern for social conventions. But there are suggestions he wields buffoonery as a shield. Fyodor portrays all emotions convincingly: rage, indignation, meekness, but none are ever truly convincing due to the speed with which he moves between them.
A drunken slip reveals, perhaps, that Fyodor will take whatever he wants so long as he can get away with it, He pursues bodily pleasure above all else.
“In the whole of my life, there has never been an ugly woman, that’s my rule![…]For me there’s no such thing as an ugly woman, that alone is half the whole thing[…] Even old maids, even in them one sometimes finds such a thing that one can only marvel[…] The barefoot or ugly ones have to be taken by surprise…”
Mitya, the eldest son, has a number of disputes with his father; it is this conflict that seems to threaten an imminent resolution, in one way or another by the end of Part I. Mitya pursues pleasure recklessly, wholeheartedly, without the shrewdness of his father; Mitya, however, believes.
In a supposed attempt to resolve their disputes, Mitya, Fyodor, and the other Karamazovs attend the monastery. There a discussion, one of many (this is Dostoevsky, after all), previously interrupted by Dmitri’s entrance, continues in his presence; his only input into the conversation, on that topic, is described:
‘“Allow me,” Dmitri suddenly cried unexpectedly, “to be sure I’ve heard correctly: ‘Evildoing should not only be permitted [if Atheism is true] but even should be acknowledged as the most necessary and most intelligent solution for the situation of every godless person’! Is that it, or not?”… “Exactly that.”’
Miracles, for Alyosha, follow from faith, which is noteworthy. The topic discussed above is not quite, as my input suggests, if there is no God, but if there is no belief in God; not so much if Atheism is true, as if Atheism is widespread. Without the belief in an eternal scorekeeper, Ivan posits, man would do as he wants. Such a person, could be concerned only with their own ends, affirming Aristotle’s general assessment:
“…whenever people want to do something and have the power, they do it.”
When Mitya later speaks with Alyosha he seems on the cusp of a revelation and a decision. He has faith, and from that miracles follow… hopefully. “When I [Mitya] tell you [Aly] to go to father I know what I’m saying: I believe in a miracle… In a miracle of divine Providence. God knows my heart, he sees all my despair. He sees the whole picture. Can he allow horror to happen?”
Mitya perceives an injustice in the world, his father is a despicable man and yet happy in himself, and the God in which Mitya believes is just, He can’t allow it to continue. Is Mitya testing his faith, an ultimatum? If his miracle, does not appear then either, God is not real and “everything is permitted”; or God is real and wants a Mitya to follow the course he, theoretically, threatened. God would not allow horror to happen, and perhaps he’s preventing it through me?
Dante’s Divine Comedy provides a model of Christian values – albeit, a medieval Catholic one, not the Christianity of Dostoevsky’s Russia, it’s a helpful model for thinking about Karamazov’s characters nonetheless. Heaven can only be attained by the proper exercise of both human reason and Christian faith, with the latter being of greater importance. Reason and faith, mind and soul, are preferred to bodily, earthly, pleasures.
Alyosha, the “hero” of the book, is possessed of reason and faith; and his faith informs his reason, not vice versa. Alyosha is unique in meeting Dante’s standard, entirely.
Mitya and Fyodor both tend toward earthly pleasure, but differ from each other. Fyodor, despite occasional and probably deliberate appearances, has no faith but is no idiot; his reason is wholly directed to the service of earthly pleasures. Mitya, as mentioned, has faith, but he is impulsive, reason does not rule over his body.
Dante’s hell is not uniform, sins are punished according to their magnitude, and the geography of hell set out according to sin. The lower one descends into the pit, at the bottom of which the Devil is trapped, the worse the sins punished. A difference, essentially, is drawn between sins of weakness and sins of calculation or malice, the former being less reproachable. If Aly, then, is the “hero”, and the comparison is apt, Fyodor is furthest from him. Mitya is prone only to sinning through weakness, he just can’t help himself.
Dante’s Heaven permits no Atheist, no matter how “not bad.” Ivan is the good Atheist, for him faith follows miracles, reason rules, and ruling precludes faith. But, if Mitya is having a crisis of faith motivated by the injustice or evil of his father; then Ivan, too, is having a crisis of faith, but motivated by the question of goodness. Despite his assertion that without a belief in God evil would reign, he does not believe it.
Despite his assertion, the matter is not “resolved” in Ivan. It cannot be resolved through the application of reason alone, only by reason informed by Christain faith, in, here, the soul. Ivan seeks evidence of course, he wants the matter resolved within himself “in a positive way.”
The Elder Zosima, the family’s intended arbiter, who perceived Ivan’s conflict offers him these words:
“Even if it cannot be resolved in a positive way, it will never be resolved in the negative way either — you yourself know this property of your heart, and therein lies the whole of its torment.”
The “author” who seems to reveal a lot in calling Aly the hero may not be as open as they appear. We do not know the moral stance of the “author”. Why does he recommend Alyosha to us? Would he agree with Dante that Aly is closest to God? Does he agree with Ivan’s claim, and is this book a response to what the “author” perceives as an imminent anarchy, following from the loss of faith among the general populace?
The “author” shares in common with Fyodor an impregnable mask. His story raises many questions, the “positive” answers to which, it seems, might not be forthcoming. It has to be remembered that our “author” begins in confusion:
“Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.”
Those, at least, are some thoughts I had on The Brothers Karamazov, thanks for reading: be sure to check out the other posts on Part I on the Ripple Effects blog. Look forward, also, to hearing any thoughts you might have.
**I’m reading and quoting a Vintage, 2004 paperback. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.**