The Brothers Karamazov Introduction
In A Nutshell
The Brothers Karamazov was the last novel the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky ever wrote, and it has all the energy and passion of a man's last words. First appearing in serial form in 1879-80, it's generally considered one of the best novels ever written in any language.
The plot of the novel revolves around the murder of perhaps one of the most despicable characters ever created, Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the Karamazov brothers. This plot serves as the basic architecture for Dostoevsky's philosophy, touching on all the Really Big Questions. Do we have free will? Does God exist? Why do human beings have to suffer? What is the nature of human nature? Are there limits to human reason? Are we bound by moral laws? How do we achieve happiness?
Dostoevsky had planned The Brothers Karamazov as the first part in a two-part novelistic project. By the time he began writing the novel, he was already a famous author (think Crime and Punishment), whose opinions were courted by aristocrats, politicians, and literati alike. The two-part novel project was to be Dostoevsky's response to the burning questions of the time, his version of What is to be done? (1862), the title of an influential revolutionary novel written by a contemporary, Nikolai Chernychevsky.
Dostoevsky's tumultuous life gave his opinions a kind of authority that resonated with the mood of Russia in the 1870s. As a young man, he was opposed to serfdom (basically slavery) and embraced socialism; he was even sentenced to Siberia in the early 1850s for his role in the Petrashevsky circle, a revolutionary organization. In the years following his imprisonment, Dostoevsky's enthusiasm for radical ideas waned. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 did not usher in a new era of equality and general prosperity, as many on both the left and the right had hoped. As the gap widened between the rich and the poor, the post-emancipation period was a volatile time that witnessed the birth of revolutionary organizations that resorted to terrorism.
As a former revolutionary himself, Dostoevsky was sympathetic to the humanistic and progressive goals of the revolutionaries, but skeptical of their methods. In contrast to the revolutionaries, who were influenced by Western European thinkers (such as Karl Marx), Dostoevsky sought to imagine humanistic ideals such as social justice in a conservative, Russian idiom that embraced the Russian Orthodox faith (source).
Dostoevsky's Russian nationalism and religious zeal has been off-putting to some, Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad among them. But his novels have had a profound effect on many writers and thinkers, from Franz Kafka to Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud to Albert Einstein (source).
In his preface, Dostoevsky tells us that the second part of the novel would track the rest of Alyosha's life. His notes indicate that this second part was to show how Alyosha becomes a new type of revolutionary who embodies Dostoevsky's world view, a young revolutionary who would speak to the young radicals of his time. Despite the fact that the second part was never written, The Brothers Karamazov continues to hold readers' imaginations as a massive achievement on its own.
Why Should I Care?
So, yes, The Brothers Karamazov is one of those Greatest Novels Ever. You're supposed to gush over how wonderful it is – which really doesn't help you appreciate it, does it? For those of us who don't make a habit of contemplating the abyss of human existence over a glass of chilled vodka, Dostoevsky's magnum opus can be a tall order.
But let's not dismiss the novel as a handy doorstop just yet. The Brothers Karamazov is so huge that it has enough room for any mood or occasion. A few examples:
- Situation 1: You've over-texted to the point where, instead of human faces, you just see emoticons. You find yourself momentarily nostalgic for complete sentences. Then you find yourself Tweeting about this nostalgia.
BK: Characters speak passionately, and at length, about their hopes, fears, and passions. Reading the novel is like entering into the most fascinating, absorbing, juicy conversation you've ever had.
- Situation 2: Big Brother. Flavor of Love. Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Just when you think they've exhausted ways to humiliate people, they come up with yet another one. Jersey Shore. You find yourself nauseated by the spectacle, but it's also a guilty pleasure and you just can't turn away.
BK: There's plenty humiliation to go around in this novel. If you want to know how low people can go, well, it's pretty low (without giving away the plot, check out Fyodor and Stinking Lizaveta). While you may not lose your taste for trashy television, you might understand the appeal a little better.
- Situation 3: You've just finished one of those conversations with your brother/sister/mother/father that makes you wonder whether you're swimming in the same gene pool.
BK: The Karamazovs are a wildly disparate, quarrelsome bunch – yet they all share, in some way, the basic Karamazovian lust for life. Their conflicts with each other drive the novel's plot.
- Situation 4: You're at a point in your life where you need to go on a quest, ninja-style. You're thinking Christian Bale in The Dark Knight or that really buff guy from 300.
BK: Every ninja-quest tough guy needs a guru, so let The Brothers Karamazov be your guide. Be tempted by the Grand Inquisitor and ponder the words of the elder Zosima. Experiment with being a Dmitri, an Ivan, or an Alyosha.
- Situation 5: You find yourself unexpectedly teetering on an existential abyss.
BK: The Brothers Karamazov has just enough heft to keep you (hopefully) from falling in.