An era can be described by the ethical dilemmas faced by its people. The cultural development of that era can probably be judged by the extent to which its artists can capture those dilemmas. Dostoyevsky masterfully captures the questions facing late 19th Century Russia in a huge and intricate story of many brilliantly vibrant characters.
Reading The Brothers Karamazov requires a commitment of time (the book is over 700 pages), energy and philosophical engagement. I found that my commitment was repaid many times over by the enriching experience of entering small town Russia at the end of the 19th Century.
My first attraction to Dostoyevsky is always the extremity of his characters, no-one is ‘regular’. However, beyond the sparkling characterisation there is careful observation of the nuances which make people human. I often found myself asking whether a character is essentially ‘good’ or ‘evil’, a crude dichotomy I know. However, none of Dostoyevsky’s characters can be easily typed as such, despite their exaggerations they are essentially human, and are given this reality by Dostoyevsky’s beautiful prose.
During the first 150ish pages of the book I brought an ahistorical Psychodynamic framework to the text. I saw Alyosha as The Superego, Ivan as The Ego and Mitya as The Id. However, as the character’s stories unfolded the inadequacy of this framework became clear. The brothers may have temperamental defaults, but also have many other sides of their personalities as events and context require. Here we see classic Dostoyevsky, many people have good hearts despite their often poor behaviour. The apparently good (e.g. Monks, and committed parents) have selfish or duplicitous aspects of their behaviour.
It soon becomes clear that each brother represents the holistic nature of self in various contexts, they are each all of our own internal dialogues, if not our external expressions at various stages in our lives. Once I realised this unity of character the book takes on a whole new life, moving from an enjoyable story with philosophical meaning to become an instrument which urged upon me a reflection of my own behaviours. For all of us will have been critical of people for the same reasons that the brothers are condemned, and we will have cast such aspersions without seeing the totality of the person. As we get to know the characters better, and become more absorbed in the plot Dostoyevsky, far from just lecturing us, makes us reach inside and exam our own personal reactions.
Essentially the book is about faith. However, I do it a great disservice by summarising it as such, it is so much more than solely a treatise on faith. It could be seen as 3 great novels intertwined: (1) A novel exploring religion and the effects of growing atheism in society. (2) A novel of love, lust and the complexities of relationships. (3) A classic whodunit, ending with an amazing court room scene. However, this tripod would also be a gross oversimplification, for the centrality of faith is evident in all of these stories.
Dostoyevsky explores the overwhelming themes of his day through their relationship to faith. Faith in this context is not solely a narrowly defined doctrinal religious belief, it includes a wider intrinsic belief in individuals and their self actualising potential. Some of the issues addressed :
To what extent can we retain faith whilst exercising free-will ?
Is evil the product of a lack of faith ?
Can we achieve better for each other, regardless of context, through faith ?
Under what conditions does compassion break down ?(& conversely, what conditions encourage compassion?)
These philosophical and psychological dilemmas are addressed in a wonderful story which clips along at a pace. I was never bored by the dialogue, and was often eager to find out the next twists in a beautifully intricate tale. The characters and story are set against a gorgeously vibrant, powerful and resonant landscape.
This is the second Dostoyevsky that I’ve read (the first being Crime & Punishment, my review is here), and I’ve learned to just let myself sink into the sonorous, often tragic, but sometimes funny, snippets of life captured in his prose. As such, the novel opens with the suicide of a beautiful, but exploited, woman. and you’re off into Dostoyevsky’s wonderfully vivid world…,