During my undergraduate education at University of Washington, I took a course in Dostoevsky and read for the first time in my life Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. I was in my early 20s. I committed to read The Brothers Karamazov once every decade of my life, because it is such a great novel, wrestling with so many great life themes. November 2021, I am now 64, ready to read this classic novel for the fifth time. Each time I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, during each decade of my life, this novel has impacted my life in different ways, and different parts of the story stood out to me.
As a novel, The Brothers Karamazov makes the list of 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, with the declaration, The Brothers Karamazov “one of the greatest works of literature ever written . . . not least because of the dizzying number of theological questions it tackles – the quest for God, the problem of human suffering and evil, doubt, reason, the monastic life, murder, and morality, to name but a few” (25 Books, page 245).
In this post, I want to briefly outline the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky, look at the main characters in his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, list a few of the great themes from this novel, and list a few other of Dostoevsky’s great novels that I’ve read and enjoyed.
Brief Bio of Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky was born into an Orthodox Christian family in Russia in 1821. His mother died when he was 15. His studies led him into engineering, and he began his career as an engineer.
He published his first fiction work, Poor Folk in 1846, when he was 25 years of age, a novella that met with literary success. Dostoevsky’s writings include 12 novels, four short novels, numerous short stories other works. He is considered one of the world’s greatest novelists, and one of Russia’s most outstanding writers. He is also considered one of the fathers of the philosophical school known as existentialism. He began writing fiction in his 20s.
Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 at the age of 28 for belonging to a literary group that read banned books critical of Nicholas 1, then Emperor of Russia. This arrest led to a death sentence. While Dostoevsky stood blind-fold before before a firing squad, awaiting the sound of gunshot, his death sentence was commuted at the last minute and he was sent to Siberia where he spent the next four years in a Russian prison camp. One of his early novels, The House of the Dead, published in 1860, was based upon his experience in prison camp. Throughout his life, Dostoevsky struggled with a gambling addiction that led to financial ruin numerous times, a part of his life he wrote about in his novella, The Gambler, published in 1866, with all the royalties going to pay off his gambling debts.
He was married twice, traveled across the European continent numerous times, fathered several children, and suffered from frequent epileptic seizures and from pulmonary emphysema. Dostoevsky died in 1881 at the age of 59, four months after his final book, The Brothers Karamazov was completed. His tombstone in Saint Petersburg is inscribed with the words of Jesus from John 12:24.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit.
The Karamazov Brothers
Dostoevsky took over two years to write his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a story of Fyodor Karamazov, and his three sons, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei, who is nicknamed Alyosha. Dostoevsky wrote that these three sons express various stages of his own spiritual journey.
Dmitri, also known as Mitya, the eldest Karamazov brother, like his father, loves to get drunk and indulge in sensual sins and excess. He and his father are in love with the same woman, Grushenka, though Dmitri is betrothed to another woman. When father Fyodor is found murdered, Dmitri is suspected of killing his father, due to the unhealthy and volatile relationship between these two men. Dmitri loves his youngest brother Alyosha for his simple faith in God and his innocence. The character of Dmitri captures the limits of human sensuality and bodily pleasures.
Ivan, the second son, also known as Vanya, an atheist, is best known for his parable of The Grand Inquisitor, a story he tells to his youngest brother Alyosha, a young follower of Jesus. In this parable, Ivan, through the voice of the Grand Inquisitor, asks hard questions of the mission of Jesus, declaring him a failure for not understanding humanity by giving them the gift of freedom rather than the gift of bread; for making empty promises about eternal life rather than simply feeding their hungry bodies. Like Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor does not believe in eternal life. Alyosha answers Ivan by simply giving him a kiss. The character of Ivan captures the limits of human intellect and reason for understanding spiritual life.
Alexei, or Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov brother, is the hero and heart of the novel, the heart of childlike faith in God. Alyosha is a true follower of Jesus, and a devout, prayerful young man, seeking to grow in his life, and truly love his family with God’s loe. Early in the novel, Alyosha spends time as a novice in a Russian Orthodox monastery, with Father Zossima, inviting readers into the beauty and depth and riches of Russian spirituality. The teachings of Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, stand alone as some of the finest Christian writings on the down-to-earth, humble, loving way of Jesus Christ.
There appears late in the book, a surprise of a fourth brother, Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor and one of the servants. This fourth brother becomes a key player in the conclusion of the novel, during the time of the trial of Dmitri for the alleged murder of his father.
Great Themes of The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov stands as one of the great Christian classic novels in part, because the book is interwoven with some of the greatest themes of the Christian spiritual life, including:
- Tension between faith and doubt;
- Tension between atheism and simple faith in God;
- The weight and responsibility of free will;
- Human sin and God’s forgiveness of sin;
- Tension between innocence and guilt;
- Tension between sensuality and self-denial;
- Tension between old world simplicity and modernization of life;
- Human problems of jealousy, anger, greed, obsessions, and murder;
- Problems of dysfunctional family life;
- Tension between judgment and true justice;
- Place of Christianity and Christian faith in family life and society;
- The way of the earthy, humble love of Jesus in a messy world.
Editions of The Brothers Karamazov
Dostoevsky’s great novel has been translated from Russian into many English editions. The two I’ve read and have on my shelf include:
- The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew
- The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett
Other Books I’ve Read by Dostoevsky
- (1866) Crime and Punishment;
- (1869), The Idiot;
- (1872): The Possessed.