When I wrote a few weeks ago in what was, really and truly, just a passing comment that I consider Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov the greatest novel ever written, I soon found in my email a query from our editor Deal Hudson, which was brief but which I’ll even briefer: Why?
That’s a hard enough question to answer in a lengthy essay, and here I have maybe one thousand words to manage it. But let me begin with a quotation from one of the finest Dostoevsky scholars, the late Joseph Frank: “No previous work [of Dostoevsky’s] gives the reader such an impression of controlled and measured grandeur, a grandeur that spontaneously evokes comparison with the greatest creations of Western literature. The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, King Lear, Faust—these are the titles that naturally come to mind as one tries to measure the stature of The Brother’s Karamazov.”
Frank goes on to add what those really familiar with the novel know, that it deals with what the novel itself identifies as the “accursed questions” that have haunted mankind since creation.
Not all novels attempt to grapple with such questions, but it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky, from the time he emerged from exile in 1859 and returned to the literary scene in Petersburg did little else, without question in his major works. In the Bros. K., these questions arise dramatically in the conflicts of a family we’d easily identify as dysfunctional: a sensualist father who willfully forgets his sons and sons who with equal determination reject their father. All told, their familial turmoil is a prelude to a grisly act of parricide and its aftermath.
That basic plot might be and surely has been the stuff of melodrama, and Dostoevsky is not one to flinch from employing the melodramatic when he finds it useful. But he inevitably rises above the formulaic and predictable mapping of the story to plumb the depths of the human soul, its moments of horror and light. The conflict between good and evil, of the God-centered versus the man-centered, is his great and abiding theme.
The novel opens with a few chapters describing the births of the three sons (from two marriages). Following that important prelude, which also describes the sons’ early years, Dostoevsky warms to his theme and poses the “accursed questions” by means of a bitter argument over the eldest son’s inheritance that takes place in a monastery.
All three (legitimate) brothers are present: the youngest Alyosha as a novice waiting on his surrogate father, the elder Zosima who has been asked to offer an opinion on the controversy; Ivan, the middle brother, a melancholy intellectual who has written a notorious article on the ecclesiastical court system, an article that, even in its remarkable ambiguity, apparently conflates the roles of church and state; and Dmitri, the eldest brother, a lovable wastrel who has come to demand his patrimony, which, as it appears, he has already squandered. And then there is Fyodor the father, a buffoonish but shrewd man who scoffs at God and man alike.
Dostoevsky introduces one key statement in the highly charged meeting that will drive the subsequent action of the novel. It is reported in conversation that Ivan declared “at a local gathering, of predominantly ladies” that if there is no immortality, then all things are permitted (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation).
The statement is pure Dostoevsky. He takes a proposition near and dear to secularists’ hearts, a claim, if you will, that amounts to the “liberalizing” of Christian doctrine and pushes it to its logical conclusion. Without the afterlife and, for this is the essence of the matter, without God Himself, who is to say we shouldn’t descend to cannibalism or, in keeping with the spirit of the novel, to parricide?
Not too much later in the novel, the very question will come as table talk. The reprobate Fyodor declares that if there’s no God, as indeed he believes likely, then beheading is too good for the monks who “hold up progress.” Let “the truth shine forth,” he sneers. Ivan, who sees the Church as a useful tool, replies, “But if this truth shines forth, you will be the first to be robbed and then . . . abolished.” Chilling words.
The real goal of the modern world, which Dostoevsky saw in the rationalistic “-isms” of Western Europe, is the abolition of ultimate Fatherhood, of God Himself. The accompanying delusion realized magnificently in Ivan’s “poem” about the “Grand Inquisitor,” but also in lesser characters’ creeds, lies in the conviction that man can live a humane life without God, one, as the opportunist Rakitin says, of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” The folly of the claim is revealed as the plot unfolds.
Opposed to the doctrine that “all things are permitted” is Father Zosima’s humble belief that “all are guilty” before the world and that, therefore, “all are responsible.” The recognition of one’s sin, the shouldering of others’ burdens, and the active loving of one’s neighbor will combine existentially to convince even the unbeliever in the absolute reality of God and eternal life. One doesn’t seek proof; one acts in a Christ-like manner.
How does Dostoevsky solve the Gordian knot of this mighty opposition? To answer that is the business of a lengthy study. And, with that in mind, I should add that, perhaps, solving the problem is not his real business; after all, the contest of the God- versus man-centered is perennial. But Dostoevsky does identify it in a fashion that may at times appear haphazard but is, in fact, deliberately complex in plot, character, and theme.
All of these aspects he manages in a fascinating, structurally complicated, and emotional work that rises from the astonishing to the sublime in its twists of action, displays of virtue and vice, and crises of the soul. Anyone who wants to appreciate its manifold excellences must read and re-read it, but the rewards are beyond my powers to estimate. I’ll say it once more: the greatest novel ever written.