A Russian Literary Treasure: The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the great classics of world literature is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), a novel written only one year before his death in 1881.  This compelling and complex story revolves around a patricide and four sons that remain, each one with a motive for murdering their father.  Much of the novel focuses on the relationship between the three brothers — Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha — with less attention devoted to the twisted and cunning bastard son, Smerdyakov.  Dmitry is portrayed as the sensualist, Ivan, as the intellectual, and Alyosha, as the spiritually-minded youth.  Throughout the elaborate tale of sordid love affairs, pathological obsession and courtroom drama, Dostoevsky creatively interlaces his own search for truth about God’s existence, the meaning of life and humanity’s role on earth.  The excerpts which follow are illustrative of the richness of this masterpiece.

A World In Which “Everything Would be Permitted”

Early in the story, the three brothers attempt a reconciliation with their father at a monastery where Father Zosima, the spiritual elder of the youngest brother Alyosha, serves as the mediator.  During this abortive reconciliation effort, Dostoevsky inserts a conversation in which Miusov, a cousin of Karamazov’s first wife who is instrumental in having the oldest son Dmitry taken away from his abusive, unloving father, tells a story about the middle son Ivan, the intellectual who questions all values of life:

“Let me …. tell you another little story, this one about Mr. Ivan Karamazov himself, an interesting and characteristic story, I think.  Well, not more than five days ago, in a company consisting mostly of ladies of our town, he solemnly declared, in the course of a discussion, that there was nothing on earth to force men to love their fellow men, that there was no law of nature that a man should love mankind, and that if there was love on earth it did not stem from any natural law but rather from man’s belief in immortality.  And here he added parenthetically that if was any natural law, it was precisely this: Destroy a man’s belief in immortality and not only will his ability to love wither away within him but, along with it, the force that impels him to continue his existence on earth.  Moreover, nothing would be immoral then, everything would be permitted, even cannibalism.  He went even further, finally asserting that, for every individual — people like us now, for instance — who does not believe in God or immortality, the natural moral law immediately becomes the opposite of religious law and that absolute egotism, even carried to the extent of crime, must not only be tolerated but even recognized as the wisest and perhaps the noblest course…”

“Just a minute!” Dmitry shouted unexpectedly.  “I want to get it straight: crime must be considered not only as admissible but even as the logical and inevitable consequence of an atheist’s position.  Did I get it right?”

“You’ve got it right,” Father Paissi (a devoted friend of Father Zosima) said.

“Every One Of Us Is Responsible For All Men”

In addition to Dostoevsky’s insightful criticism of atheism, which is a recurring theme throughout the novel, the Gospel message is also clearly articulated.  Father Zosima, the revered monk, is most often the mouthpiece for Gospel truths.  Zosima’s words are absorbed by the young Alyosha, who grasps them through the difficult trials of his own life and later teaches others what he has learned.

After the failed reconciliation attempt, Alyosha returns to the monastery to find Father Zosima ill and near death.  Father Zosima recovers briefly and devotes his final moments to summarizing his philosophy of life, a moment which Dostoevsky records in great detail.  The following excerpts, remembered by Alyosha, illustrate the heart of Zosima’s teachings — teachings which profoundly affected the life of this youngest brother:

“Love one another, fathers.  Love God’s people.  We are no holier than those outside, just because we have shut ourselves up behind these walls.  Just the opposite, by coming here, each of us acknowledged to himself that he is worse than those who remain outside, worse than anyone in the world…. For I want you to know, my beloved ones, that every one of us is responsible for all men and for everything on earth, not only responsible through the universal responsibility of mankind, but responsible personally — every man for all people and for each individual who lives on earth.  For monks are no different from other men, and they must be what other men ought to strive to become.  Only then will our hearts be moved by a love that is infinite and universal, and knows no surfeit.  Then every one of you will be able to gain the whole world by his love and wash away the world’s sins with his tears…. Do not hate atheists, or teachers of evil, or materialists, whether they are wicked or good — for many among them are good people, especially in our time…. Never cease to explain the Gospel to the people… Have faith and defend its banner. Raise it, raise it high.”

As these excerpts illustrate, Dostoevsky was offering to the Russian people (and eventually the world) an alternative view of life, a perspective that took seriously the teachings of Jesus about the power and efficacy of love.  He prophetically foresaw the bankruptcy of a materialistic worldview and warned of the crime and violence that would surely befall a society built on atheism.

As Russians search for truth following the collapse of their failed ideology, Marxism-Leninism, it is to the richness of their own literary heritage that they must turn.  It is easy to understand why the Communist Party had difficulties with the writings of Dostoevsky and other 19th century Russian authors.  His words were a scathing indictment of their promised “utopia.”  Dostoevsky’s words also challenge the secularism of the West, with its empty promises of happiness in material possessions.