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The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov

Although the surface narrative of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky is quite different than the themes in Crime and Punishment, some of the thematic concerns of the two novels intersect. Even the divergent themes that are explored in each novel are fundamentally similar in their philosophical depth and complexity. However, where Crime and Punishment focuses more on a plot-driven narrative to compel the philosophical inquiry, The Brothers Karamazov is much more focused on using dialogue and dialectic inquiry as a means of engaging in the exploration of abstract ideas.

The complex and vast network of thematic concerns that is presented in The Brothers Karamazov resists facile simplification into a few overarching issues. However, one frequently recurring idea that informs both the philosophical structure and the narrative structure of the novel is the question of faith and the following:

  • The nature of faith and characteristics
  • Faith and its benefits and disadvantages
  • The many forms that faith takes

Many of the characters in the novel represent different models of faith and varying points on the continuum between faith and logic, religious devotion and atheistic doubt. While Dostoevsky conveys highly detailed portraits of different types of faith and belief (or the lack thereof), he uses The Brothers Karamazov as a vehicle through which to advance the notion of faith as central to satisfaction and contentment. As in Crime and Punishment, in which the idea of nihilism is explored exhaustively but is ultimately rejected, Dostoevsky used the characters in The Brothers Karamazov to scrutinize religious faith, but ultimately, its central significance to humanity is affirmed.

The three brothers are a symbol of the division in modern man, and the violence that is done to that whole when fragmented:

  1. Mind (Ivan)
  2. Body (Dmitry)
  3. Spirit (Alyosha)

The very violence of the story occurs on all planes. It is, certainly, biblical, it is societal, personal, and spiritual. Also, certainly, it begins with the rape of the village idiot, Lizaveta Smerdyashchaya (nicknamed "Stinking Lizaveta" by the village (Part 1 - Book 3 - Chapter 1) at the hands of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. It is fitting, for the story, and for the ancient myth of which it is derived, that the father is the perpetrator of the most horrific crime. Fyodor's barbarism is possible because he is the head of a broken house. Though the rape occurs so early in the story that we have scarce information to base such an opinion on, he is the corrupt foundation, the broken form upon which the three brothers must attempt to form their own lives. In this Fyodor represents the fatally flawed structures of totalitarianism, of the social structures of Russia at that time.

Violence begets violence, such is life, and such was the nature of the bastard child of Stinking Lizaveta, Smerdyakov who, in quite classical tradition, killed his own father. The fact that Smerdyakov was not suspect is testimony to the justice of the act. Even Dmitry, confronted on the stand, cannot blame his bastard brother, "I don't know anyone it could be, whether it's the hand of Heaven or of Satan, but... not Smerdyakov," (Part 3 - Book 9 - Chapter 5). The children of the meek, the masses, the faceless proletariat, idiots all, would rise and kill their master, the one who had broken their backs.

As the betrayal of Judas was necessary for the ultimate violence to be carried out against Christ, it was necessary that Dmitry, the body symbol, be sacrificed so that Alyosha, the soul symbol, could be set free of the curse of the family, the curse of life. For, in the mind of Dostoyevsky, life was, indeed, a curse to be suffered through at the hands of others who exercised unlimited control. The book, then, is the ultimate parable, it is a warning, it is a fortune for those who could understand to read and take some form of solace in. Proust, then, indeed, was right in his description of the book as a modern version of the crime-vengeance-expiation myth.

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