The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880)

bkI started this book all the way in the first week in January, read maybe two chapters per week, and so I’m just now finishing it in the last week of November. And what can I say? It’s a long book. It’s a Russian novel. It’s The Brothers Karamazov (affiliate link).

I’ve heard so many people say that this is their favorite book in the world. I’m left scratching my head about why that might be. I’ve had plenty of time to think about the novel after a full eleven months, and still I’m not sure why people like it so much.

Perhaps it was the translation. This time around, since this is what I had lying on the shelf, I read the Constance Garnett translation. Maybe next time I’ll read a different and see how much that makes a difference in how much I enjoy it. My Serbian tutor is one who loves this book, and I can only assume the Serbian translation was much closer to the dynamic Russian original—you should hear her gush about Dostoyevsky’s way with words. I got a little jealous, honestly, because although I picked up on each character’s linguistic idiosyncrasies in the English, I’m pretty sure the Russian would have been so much better.

Anyway—the novel explores how three very different brothers—maybe even four—interact with the world. All their mothers are dead, and their father is basically the worst scoundrel ever. He’s seriously disgusting. The oldest son, Dmitri, is best characterized by passion. The second son, Ivan, by intellect. The third son, Alyosha, by goodness. And, though his fatherhood is in question, the fourth son, Smerdyakov, is characterized by… I don’t know. Bitterness, maybe? 

Anyway, the first half of the novel, the narrator keeps hinting that the father is going to get murdered. And then the murder finally happens, and then the rest of the novel is disguised as a murder mystery, but I really don’t think the book is really about the murder at all. It’s more… an exploration of what happens to the brothers let loose in a particularly awful version of life.

I was somewhat annoyed to find that the ending doesn’t do much to try up plot points, so if your favorite thing about novels is the plot—this one isn’t for you. The plot is there simply as a scaffolding for the character development, and once that purpose is served, the novel closes, open plot points and all.

My biggest takeaway from the novel is that it is only goodness that results in the happy life. Dmitri’s passion causes him far more anguish than anything else. Ivan’s intellect leaves him in cynicism and despair. Smerdyakov seems incapable of happiness… but Alyosha is loving and accepting, even at the abuses of others. It’s not that he rolls over and lets people walk all over him. It’s that he really cares about people and so they can’t help but love him. It’s interesting.

All in all, I plan to read this book again, because it’s the type of book that demands to be read more than once… though it might take me twenty years for it to get its turn again.




2 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880)

  1. I found the ending frustrating as well. After investing so much in these characters, I wanted to have a clearer idea of how they moved forward after the trial. I’m especially sad to not know what happened to Lise. When last we saw her, she was pining for Ivan for some inexplicable reason.


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