Learning from 'The Brothers Karamazov'
Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Pope Benedict XVI, Albert Einstein, Laura Bush, and I all have one thing in common: We are huge fans of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
If the 900 some-odd pages of this great classic have deterred you before, I’ve got good news. Ken Boa’s wonderful new Great Books audio series provides just the introduction you will need to begin exploring the fascinating themes of faith and doubt, suffering and redemption, alienation and community, and crime and guilt so deftly woven throughout this novel.
The story goes something like this: A lascivious and boorish father, Fyodor, has three legitimate sons. Dmitri, the oldest, chases women, drink, and wealth. He and his father are locked in a battle over a local seductress named Grushenka. The next brother is Ivan, an intellectual par excellence, and the final is Alyosha, a young man studying to be a monk. Fyodor also has an illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, who works in his household as a servant. When Fyodor is found dead, suspicions point to Dmitri, who had both the motive and the opportunity. In actuality, as we will see, the guilt for this crime is not so clear-cut.
While The Brothers Karamazov is probably one of the most important novels ever written, it is also very likely one of the most frequently misunderstood. Its most famous chapter, The Grand Inquisitor, is not only crucial to unlocking the who-done-it mystery, but is often hijacked from its context and taught as an argument against God. Ivan sums up his story blurting out the terrible truth: “If there is no God, everything is permissible.” Good point.
Ivan’s tale of the Grand Inquisitor seems an open-and-shut case against God. But Dostoevsky is engaging in a much more sophisticated form of argument. He has set us up. As Ken Boa says, “the rest of the novel rebuts” Ivan’s argument against God’s existence. For example, Smerdyakov, who carefully listens to Ivan’s theories, does what Ivan himself is too afraid to do. I don’t want to give away the story, but I will simply say that Smerdyakov follows Ivan’s logic to its inevitable conclusion—and murder, false imprisonment, and insanity ensue.
When it comes to learning moral lessons, I have often been much more affected by great fiction than by abstract theological discourses. Stories like this dramatically illustrate the futility of a worldview without God, and they have etched moral truths deeply into my soul.
Irena Ratushinskaya, for example, the great Russian poet and a friend of mine, grew up in Odessa with atheist parents who never allowed her a Bible. It was the literature of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy that showed her the Gospel and led her to conversion—even as she was imprisoned by the Soviets.
Not all classic literature has such rich Christian themes, but no matter what the novel, it can give us a window into the worldviews by which people live. Stories reach not just the intellect, but also the imagination. So as Plato once said, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” Perhaps that’s reason enough to investigate the great books—especially a book like Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
|For Further Reading and Information
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2002 edition).