Some commentary on ‘The Brothers Karamazov’

I just finished reading this book last Thursday morning and I feel I should write something about it but I’m not sure quite what. As such I am just going to write a potpourri of my thoughts.

Both this and War & Peace were in my list of New Years Resolutions but neither were a chore to read. I began reading The Brothers Karamazov on October 9th and I finished it in less than two months even though most of my reading was during my short commute to and from work but there were a couple of days where I read 80-100 pages. That should give you a good indication of how much I enjoyed it.

As with  War and Peace, I found the whole book a pleasure which was a surprise because I remember having difficulty reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment which is much shorter and has far fewer characters to keep track of. That may be because of the time when I read it though and it is one I certainly intend to go back to.

The Brothers Karamazov despite being comparable in length to War and Peace, almost all takes place in a single town and has relatively few characters to keep track of. Something I noticed at about the half-way mark was that it is not until the second part of the book that the major drama takes place. Almost two thirds of the book are lent to developing the characters and their backgrounds and although there isn’t much excitement in this, I found these parts highly compelling.

Prior to reading it, I had heard of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ chapter which I shall have to read again. I also found the early religious commentary interesting and typed out the following quote only a short way into the book:

[M]iracles are never a stumbling block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also.

There was also some excellent political commentary that seems prophetic with what happened to Russia a generation after Dostoyevsky’s death.

For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.

And with all that is going on in the world, it still seems prophetic today.

There were also many touching passages in the book and one that struck me in particular was early on in the chapter aptly named, ‘Peasant Women Who Have Faith’.

“Listen, mother,” said the elder. “Once in olden times a holy saint saw in the Temple a mother like you weeping for her little one, her only one, whom God had taken. ‘Knowest thou not,’ said the saint to her, ‘how bold these little ones are before the throne of God? Verily there are none bolder than they in the Kingdom of Heaven. “Thou didst give us life, oh Lord,” they say, “and scarcely had we looked upon it when Thou didst take it back again.” And so boldly they ask and ask again that God gives them at once the rank of angels. Therefore,’ said the saint, ‘thou too, oh mother, rejoice and weep not, for thy little one is with the Lord in the fellowship of the angels.’ That’s what the saint said to the weeping mother of old. He was a great saint and he could not have spoken falsely. Therefore you too, mother, know that your little one is surely before the throne of God, is rejoicing and happy, and praying to God for you, and therefore weep not, but rejoice.”

I rarely tear up when reading but I did reading it and I only realise now as I type that this passage foreshadows the last pages of the book which are just as moving if not more so.

The blurb on the back mentions the book dealing with the issue of collective guilt and if there is a point to this post at all, I think it should be on that. It provoked me to dwell on how we ourselves might influence others to sin. Whether it be harsh words, a lack of patience if not more outright and unambiguously bad treatment of our fellow human beings. This is not to to be understood so crudely as “you caused me to murder because you didn’t lend me your pencil when I was five,” or anything like that. But more the way human passions can be led astray even by those we love. The way little rebukes, insults and even glares can slowly eat at us. This is indeed why one who follows Christ is commanded to love even their enemies and show charity to all.

Fatherhood is also an important theme in the novel and the chapter, ‘A Corrupter of Thought’ was very moving on this point. The father of the brothers is shown very early to be a scoundrel with no love for his sons or really anyone. All three grow into very different men with mixed feelings about their father. Fatherhood is also explored with the relationship the youngest brother Alyosha has with the elder monk Zosima. Alyosha is clearly the more virtuous of the three though like the saints, he does not act as if he is. He himself later becomes a father figure to a group of village boys.

This is where I will end as I don’t have much more I can think to write at the moment. I certainly consider it to be one of the best books I have ever read and would read it again. Partly through this book I have discovered another Russian writer, Gogol and already have one of his books on my never-ending list. It also brings to mind that I have still never read a Solzhenitsyn novel which is something else I’ll have to remedy.

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