Patrick Maxwell

Reflections on The Brothers Karamazov

In his masterpiece, Enemies of Promise (1938), Cyril Connolly distinguishes between two different styles of writing, which he terms as the ‘Mandarin’ and the ‘Vernacular’. In the former group: Edward Gibbon, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce; among the latter: William Hazlitt, George Orwell, and Christopher Isherwood. Fyodor Dostoevsky is a writer of neither groups; his works are dialogic, deeply philosophical, and on occasion convoluted. His tumultuous and sometimes tragic life was reflected in his layered novels, and the culmination of his thought and writing came in his final years with his four political novels. The last of these, The Brothers Karamazov, is a culmination of his recurring ideas and a supreme human achievement. Set against the troubled atmosphere of late nineteenth-century Russia – a place of great literary and political conflict – it offers a biting reflection on human suffering, crime, punishment, psychological torment, and the eventual salvation of human existence. 

One of Dostoevsky’s enduring qualities, most striking in The Brothers Karamazov, is his power to set the opposing case so convincingly that it has the opposite effect to that which he desired. As a coruscating critic of the perils of what he sees as the morally-barren nature of the growing atheism in Russian society, the character of Ivan Karamazov presents a lucid case for his view which is only made redundant, in the author’s eyes, by the mental anguish he undergoes as the swelling crisis envelopes his degenerate family. This deeply endearing characteristic is shared by his saintly brother Alyosha Karamazov (who takes his name from Dostoevsky’s own son who died at two years old) occupies his place in the novel as the possessor of all the principles he held dear: faith, overbearing virtue and meekness – a Christ-like man. Ivan is not, as many of Dostoevsky’s atheistic characters were portrayed, a dangerous extremist, but is merely a portrayal of a man whose irreligion is fatally shaken by the horror of his father’s death and the breakdown of his family.

As the story goes on, the rivalry between Dmitry Fyodorovich, or Mitya, and his father Fyodor Pavlovich continues, which places Mitya immediately under suspicion for his father’s murder. Near the end, we are led to believe that the true perpetrator was actually Pavel Smerdyakov, almost certainly Fyodor’s illegitimate child, who acts as his servant and is, like Ivan, an atheist. As in many of Dostoevsky’s portrayals of servants and peasants, Smerdyakov comes across as a sullen and ill-tempered figure, which in some ways resembles the argumentative author despite being a caricature of someone Dostoevsky vehemently disliked.

The plot follows one that many of Dostoevsky’s keenest observers would have been accustomed to when the novel was published as a serial through the conservative The Russian Messenger literary journal in 1879-80. As described most famously in Crime and Punishment (1865-60) and Demons (1871), the book revolves around the motives and consequences of a brutal murder, and how the ideals of nihilism and atheism were, in Dostoevsky’s political eyes, corrupting the younger, radical generation of Russian liberals and socialists which he had once been a part of.

After his first literary triumph, Poor Folk (1846), Dostoevsky became acquainted with the radical thinker Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky, who was a prominent utopian socialist, deeply influenced by the works of the French Enlightenment writers of the decades before such as Charles Fourier, Volatire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Petrashevsky hosted a number of young intellectuals in his St Petersburg house, which contained a library of radical, censored literature. What became known as the ‘Petrashevsky Circle’ was a political and literary discussion group, where its Westernising, radical sentiments – later dismissed by some – brought trouble with the authorities under the reign of Nicholas I, who was eager to avoid the spread of dissenting groups with the sceptre of the 1825 Decembrist revolt, and the widespread revolutions of 1848 Europe still looming. Dostoevsky was criminalised for his public readings of Vissarion Belinsky’s censored Letter to N. V. Gogol of 1847, which viscerally chastised a writer venerated by the Czarist government. In 1849, the leading members of the group were arrested and sent to the Peter and Paul Fortress where they were sentenced to death by a firing squad.

Dostoevsky was taken with the others to be executed, but at the last moment they were reprieved, and instead sent into exile, a fate that has befallen many great Russian writers from Mikhail Lermontov to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In Siberia, Dostoevsky was permitted only one book; the New Testament. These radical experiences and the harsh conditions of the camp in which he was imprisoned for four years changed Dostoevsky’s ideas and worldview, and his experiences were harrowingly recorded in the experiences of his fictional character, Aleksandr Petrovich, in The House of the Dead (1860). Two of his most important characters, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov, are both eventually sent to Siberia as a result of their crimes.

Another central tenet of Dostoevsky’s sprawling narrative is that of free will and the impact that social ideas have on the actions of his characters. Fyodor is branded a ‘voluptuary’ and is infatuated with Grushenka, with whom Mitya has often desired despite being engaged to the bewitching Katerina Ivanovna. Mitya’s father is free to be the gluttonous drunkard he is; and his murderer, who is never fully revealed, is free to murder him. Dostoevsky’s central thesis is that the themes of the time: nihilism, atheism, and moral degradation, are to blame for the increased suicide rate in nineteenth-century Russia, as well as the decline of ethical values and respect for life, religion, tradition, and human values which, in his narrative, results in murder and revolt. 

The doctrine of nihilism and its impact is especially pertinent in the time at which Dostoevsky wrote his major novels, of which The Brothers Karamazov is undoubtedly the culmination. In the 1860s, it was the ideas of Nikolay Dubrolyubov, Sergei Nechaev, and Nikolay Cherneshevky (whose 1863 novel What Is To Be Done? was a major inspiration for radicals, with the title being used by Vladimir Lenin for a 1901 pamphlet) that provided the basis for popular nihilist thought. Cherneshevky’s novel was attacked in Dostoevsky eerily dark Notes from Underground of 1864, which is narrated by an anonymous ‘Underground Man’ who lives on the fringes of society, away from popular circles, isolated and alone, examining what leads him to reject society. In some ways, this novel marks the beginning of Dostoevsky’s exploration into how ideas turn his characters to seek and promote depravity.

The theme of depravity and cruelness is central to both the plot and overall theme of The Brothers Karamazov, epitomised in Fyodor’s declaration: ‘I’ll lose my temper – and degrade both myself and the cause’. As many of his previous characters were inhabitants of the St Petersburg slums, here the brothers are kept in squalid houses and succumb to debauchery.

The main subplot of The Brothers Karamazov involves a frail child called Ilyushechka who has a lamentable and poverty-stricken father, perhaps the most pitiable figure in the sprawling, tragic tale. He is utterly devoted to his son, who becomes fatally ill as the brothers experience their own moral death. This story is a biting portrait of the conditions that people faced in Russia; a country that was often seen by some of its most prominent citizens to be decades (if not centuries) behind the West after the Industrial Revolution. The book ends with Ilyusha’s funeral, where Alyosha, who has assumed the role of the town’s moral conscience following the death of the authoritative Elder Zosima, speaks at the graveyard. Despite the horrifying situation of his family, with Mitya sent to Siberia by the muzhiks (peasants) in the jury, Alyosha presents an uplifting message to his mournful crowd:

Let us, in the first place and above all, be kind, then honest, and then – let us never forget one another (…) Oh, young children, oh, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good is life, when one does some good and upright thing!

It is with this that Dostoevsky concludes his colossal chronicle. Ending on a life-affirming note, Alyosha exonerates those who stand against him and unites them all, exhibiting Dostoevsky’s unerring faith in God. however misplaced readers such as myself may see this to be. We can all feel the swelling catharsis at the novel’s finale; the glowing zest for life and love of one’s neighbour, despite the murder, squalor and illness that surrounds all.

In his letter to Gogol, Belinsky states that although the population of Russia may despise the state of their country, they seek refuge in the writing of its myriad journalists and authors under the influential guise of the new social novel:

Only in literature, in spite of our tatar censorship, there is still some life and forward movement (…) The title of poet, the profession of letters has thrown into the shade the glitter of epaulettes and gaudy uniforms.

This is an example of Russian writing at its finest; the ‘Golden Age’ of Russian literature epitomised by Dostoevsky, most poignantly in his last, superlative creation.


Patrick Maxwell is an English writer on politics, literature and music, based near Oxford. He is the editor of Gerrymander, and a writer for many other publications, such as Comment Central and Backbench.

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