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Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”





October 4, 2017

The greatest novel ever written”

Sigmund Freud

Signet 1958 Edition – MGM Movie Cover

This complex book is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. Indeed, it is one of the ten in W. Somerset Maugham Selects The World’s Ten Greatest Novels (New York: John C. Winston, 1948/1959).

It is not a book for children, adolescents, or teens. Indeed, it is one of the deepest and most disorienting novels ever written. The “Pro and Contra” section, which includes “The Grand Inquisitor” section is generally considered to be a masterpiece of its kind, unequaled in the history of world literature. I have personally found it to be inexhaustible: no matter how many times I have read and re-read it, always I discover new unsettling insights. No other novelist, not even Victor Hugo, even comes close to Dostoyevsky in this respect.

Dostoyevsky was not a likable man. In fact, he did despicable things and alienated most everyone he met. But he was born into a family ruled by such a malevolent father that he was slain by his own serfs. The son was condemned to the horrors of a Siberian prison camp for four long years due to a minor political involvement. All this makes for fascinating reading but it does little to explain how the author could have risen above such an out-of-control, lecherous, unfaithful, gambling-obsessed life to write one of the world’s most thought-provoking books.

For this blog, I looked at source after source seeking a scholarly answer to this question. I finally found it in Manuel Komroff’s great introduction to the Signet (New American Library) unabridged edition of BK (1958). Following are some illuminating passages.

Dostoevsky was not an easy man to have for a husband. His passion for gambling, his epilepsy, his financial difficulties and his infidelities continued throughout the years of their married life. Nor was his character agreeable. Turgeniev once said that he was “the most evil Christian I have ever met in my life.” And when Dostoyevsky died one of Tolstoi’s friends wrote of him: “I cannot consider Dostoyevsky either a good or a happy man. He was wicked, envious, vicious, and spent the whole of his life in emotions and irritations. . . . In Switzerland he treated his servant, in my presence, so abominably that the offended servant cried out: ‘I too am a human being!’” But all this the faithful Anna denied. The fourteen years of their life together, she has recorded in her memoirs, convinced her that Dostoyevsky was the purest being on earth. And now after a century nothing matters except his genius and the rich heritage he has left us.Dostoyevsky is the most Russian of all Russian novelists, and his novels follow the Russian form. Unlike English novels, which are biographical, Dostoyevskiy’s novels are built on a theme charged with a moral philosophy that binds the characters to the action and induces in them a compelling emotional drive.

In The Brothers Karamazov, the last and greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels, the theme and philosophy are clearly stated in one of the early chapters: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the Devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” This duel is more than a simple encounter. It is a duel unto death. God and the Devil fight for the soul of man. And Dostoyevsky asks: “Who is laughing at mankind?” And he answers by showing that the laughter comes from within man himself: “In every man a demon lies hidden.”

The theme and philosophy of The Brothers Karamazov occupied Dostoyevsky’s mind for many years. In a letter to a friend he writes: “The chief problem dealt with throughout this particular work is the very one which has, my whole life long, tormented my conscious and subconscious being: The question of the existence of God.” What if God does not exist? Then for Dostoyevsky the world is nothing but a “vaudeville of devils” and “all things are lawful” even crime.

The Heritage Press edition, 1933, 1949

To illustrate this theme and philosophy, Dostoyevsky introduces us to the Karamazov family. We meet a lecherous and corrupt father and four sons. The eldest son Dmitri symbolizes the flesh, the second son Ivan represents the intellect, the youngest son Alyosha, the spiritual side of man and the illegitimate son Smerdyakov represents the “insulted and injured, the disinherited.” These characters are caught in a web of moral philosophy, the strands of which are so strong that none can escape. God and the Devil battle for possession of their souls. The fight is furious. It rages from the first page to the last page. The characters are all involved in a murder, and as they stamp across the stage they reveal their emotions, conscious and subconscious, with terrifying clarity.

In that famous chapter “The Grand Inquisitor,” certainly the most famous chapter in all literature, Christ himself returns to our sorry earth and is challenged by organized religion. Here Christianity is weighed with critical bitterness. And the questions are asked: “Can man live by Christ’s teachings? Would not the Devil, that ‘wise and mighty spirit of the wilderness’ support mankind in a better manner? And why must man choose between freedom and bread?” “The Grand Inquisitor” is more than a chapter in a novel. It presents a whole philosophy of history in literary form. In this chapter God and the Devil wage a fierce encounter. And in the end God seems vanquished and the Devil the proud victor: Christianity is condemned. This theme is again restated towards the end of the novel in another famous chapter. Here Ivan holds a dialogue with the Devil and they weigh Western morality in life’s battered scales.These two chapters present the arguments for the denial of God. The affirmation of God is contained in chapters dealing with Alyosha and the Elder, Father Zossima. In these chapters Dostoyevsky attempts to show the making of a saint and the power of Christ-like love. Dostoyevsky believes that Christ-like love wins in the end. But does he prove it? He is a master in dealing with crime and the unlawful heart of man, but how well he succeeds with goodness, of which Father Zossima and Alyosha are the symbols, the reader must decide for himself. In the face of the miscarriage of justice, who is the winner, God or the Devil?


The Grand Inquisitor and Christ, Heritage Press edition, Fritz Eichenberg illustration

The very inconclusiveness of the book and its ideas, which remain unsolved, seems to add power to the story and the reader becomes deeply involved in the emotions and philosophy. Before long he must surrender being a simple reader, for he becomes part of the Karamazov world. The reader starts out as an innocent bystander and ends up by taking sides and becoming involved in the battle between God and the Devil. And whether he enjoys the experience or not one thing is certain: he emerges from this experience a different person from when he first opened the book. He has been tried by fire. He has been made to think and to reach decisions about many problems which are his personal problems too. The Karamazovs and those who associate with them are terrifying people to the reader because they display boldly certain characteristics which are deeply hidden in our own hearts and which we try hard to deny.Dostoyevsky is supreme as a novelist of ideas. Throughout his works he is concerned and occupied with four R’s. Revelation of Man’s secret heart, Revolution, Russia and Religion.

Dostoyevsky’s revelations in the field of psychology are enormous. They anticipated many of the principles later established by trained psychologists.

Born half a century before Freud, Dostoyevsky records in the pages of his novels astonishing observations in the field of human emotions. He writes in detail about exhibitionism, the Oedipus complex and perversions involving adolescents. He noted that dreams stem from the subconscious and contain erotic symbolism, that they are “induced not by reason but by desire.” He observed that laughter reveals a hidden and secret side of personality, that it is an unconscious unmasking. He described the “accidental family” in which each member is separated from the others and lives an independent and isolated life. The Brothers Karamazov illustrates such a family. He discovered that there is a tendency to despotism, a “will to powers,” inherent in man. He found that love contains among its elements the desire to exercise power over the beloved, and that if this desire is not gratified then the loved one can be hated and loved at the same time. This principle is aslso clearly displayed in the pages of The Brothers Karamazov.

In Dostoyevsky’s observations of the love for self-torture and punishment as a guilt-cleansing device, he anticipated our modern theory of “death-instinct” and Freud’s “beyond the pleasure principle.”

Dostoyevsky contributed all this to our modern world of psychology—all this and more. He even recorded in detail the workings of the “split personality.” He described it in its fairly mild as well as its extreme pathological manifestations. There is hardly an important character in all his works who is not a divided personality. He has one of his characters in The Possessed say: “I am capable of desiring to do something good and of feeling pleasure from it: at the same time I desire evil and feel pleasure from that too.” But no better examples of “split personalities” can be found than in The Brothers Karamazov. There are for instance Dmitri, Katerina with her love-hate, the young girl Lise, and Ivan whose two selves come to clash in that famous chapter in which he encounters the Devil.

Dostoyevsky was not only a psychologist but also a visionary and prophet. He wrote about extra-sensory perceptions (mental telepathy as well as clairvoyance) and his observations contributed to our present day theories of psychical research. His observations regarding gambling, for which he had an abnormal passion, are only recently being confirmed and may in time be incorporated in our modern theories of chance. He believed, for instance, that personal distractions destroyed the power to win and for that reason he never brought his wife with him to the roulette wheel. He believed in a will to win. “I still retain the conviction,” he once wrote, “that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will . . . one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of chance.” This theory he illustrates in his short novel The Gambler. . . .

Due to the pressure of his existence, Dostoyevsky’s books suffer from serious technical defects. But in the face of his great genius these defects are trifling. Dostoyevsky towers above all other novelists, for no other novelist has ever presented so many vital ideas—ideas that have revolutionized our thinking and our lives. As a novelist he has brought to life a whole gallery of people; people of bone, flesh and blood all caught in a web of circumstance. He has the power to engulf his characters in dramatic situations and drive them headlong with passionate desperation. And while his characters are caught in the agony of life, he plumbs deep and lays bare their secret hearts. We understand these hearts for they are not unlike our own. The Dostoyevsky heart is universal. And the people that he gave life to a century ago are living today and will live on for centuries to come. Their blood is warm, red and their hearts beat on.


* * *

One fascinating side-trip for each of you to take as you read this great book is to study the fathers and sons in a pre-Freud way. When Dostoyevsky wrote the book during the late 1870s, the only way he could accurately portray all the warring forces striving for dominance inside an individual was to divide them into separate characters:

Fyodor: the dissolute cruel fatherDmitri: the sensuous oldest son

Ivan: the atheistic, intellectual son—would dare to challenge even God Himself

Alexey (Alyosha) the youngest Christ-like son, a pupil of a famous Orthodox Church elder, Zossima

Smerdyakov the illegitimate dissolute sensualist son

The Grand Inquisitor represents organized Christianity, all too often assuming god-like prerogatives that are not theirs to give.

* * *

Now, for one of the greatest reads of your lifetime, seek out an unabridged edition; make it your own by underlining and scribbling your way through it. Journal too.

And every once in a while later in your life, return for another immersion into The Brothers Karamazov.


Russian literature



Russian Orthodox Church

Manuel Komroff

2 thoughts on “Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”

  1. Was it written in 1970 or 1870? Very interesting.

  2. I never heard of this author, but he seems fascinating. The question he poses: “can a man live by Christ”s teachings?”- is something to ponder. I am not sure whether I will be able to do that until I get to the Kingdom of Heaven. Is it possible to follow all of Christ’s teachings consistently in this life? I am not sure.

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