Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu7/24/17
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Available for free for Kindle  •  It must be close to thirty years since I tried to read Crime and Punishment. Despite giving it the old college try, I could not get through the book. I found the protagonist, Raskolnikov, to be a tedious, self-absorbed individual who could always find a rationalization for his selfish actions — i.e. a leftist intellectual.  Admitting defeat, I gave up after making it to about page 100. I then decided the pleasures of Dostoyevsky would remain foreign to me.

Through the birth of my son, travels around the world, two Bushes, a Clinton, Obama, and numerous other afflictions, I have held fast to this decision, until now.  As if possessed by some incubus in the night, I reached out and picked up The Brothers Karamazov.  With shaking hand, I fingered the great man’s work and started plowing through the fields of this literary estate fearing I would again be presented with rocky soil and unable to complete the harvest. I am proud to say, I finished plowing the fields in question.

On the surface, The Brothers Karamazov is about three sphincters and a saint. They are, respectively, Fyodor the father, and his three sons Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei.

Fyodor, a man of about sixty years, is an oily, dishonest, sensualist buffoon who takes pleasure in insulting the beliefs and persons of others. He has absolutely no shame. He cares only for his comfort, sexual impulses, and ego. Family means nothing to him. He has absolutely no redeeming qualities other than, perhaps, his recognition that he is a scoundrel. But he is happy to be one.  He truly is an old goat who appears to be suffering from pre-senile satyriasis. Perfect Libertarian material.

Dmitri, Fyodor’s oldest son, came from Fyodor’s marriage to a wealthy woman who Fyodor worked to defraud of her dowry the moment they were married. He succeeded and she left, happy to be rid of him. Unfortunately, this left Dmitri alone at the age of about three, as his mother soon died and his father had no interest in raising the child. This responsibility was taken up by Fyodor’s servant, Grigory, a mulish man who with his wife gave Dmitri more attention than he had received from either of his parents. Shortly thereafter, a maternal relative agreed with Fyodor to take over Dmitri’s upbringing and from that time, until he was an adult, he was passed through several homes.

Impulsive as a child, bad tempered, violent and something of a dissolute drunk, he fancies himself an honorable man.

Ivan is the first son of Fyodor’s second wife, who died at a young age. He is morose, aloof, arrogant, and cynical. Something of an intellectual, he is a confirmed atheist with some sort of mental problem.

Alexei, a.k.a. Alyosha is the youngest son, an ethereal creature who spends much of his time with monks.

I believe the book’s main message can be discerned from an observation made by Ivan,  which many, even today, try to deny, i.e. “if there is no God, anything is allowed.” Clearly, Dostoyevsky is saying that without God chaos will arise.

Unfortunately, old Fyodor took numerous detours, byways, made false turns and went extra miles to arrive at this point. The book could have easily been cut in half and still made the same argument. For example, during the build up to and during the trial, every act by anyone involved, every incident which occurred and led to the trial, was repeated and repeated and repeated…………

That being said, the book did have some interesting observations which were more like asides than being integral to the story.

Early in the book Dostoyevsky makes a penetrating observation when he writes about Alyosha.

“As soon as he reflected seriously he was convinced of the existence of God and immortality, and at once he instinctively said to himself: “I will accept no compromise.” In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.”  

This paragraph, as well as anything I have read, demonstrates the inseparable embrace in which atheism and socialism find themselves.

One character explained his feelings, which I have found to be pretty much the philosophy of leftist utopians.

“The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular….the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”   

I came up with my version of that as a teenager, “A liberal is someone who loves humanity, but hates people.” Oh well, perhaps I was not as clever as I thought. Looks like Dostoyevsky beat me by about 100 years.

All in all, while I do not feel completely cheated of my time, I certainly wish I had half of it back.  I am not sure the Cliff Notes would do justice to the “Brothers”, but the book does itself an injustice in using five words when two would do.

If the characters portrayed are in any way typical of the Russian race, no wonder we have types such as Vladimir Putin. I cannot help but wonder if Dostoyevsky was over the top.

Thus ends my unfinished draft of The Brothers Karamazov, which I mentioned in the string under “The Virginian.”


Kung Fu Zu is a conservative prognosticator who has traveled widely and lived outside the United States. His personal slogan is “Have you driven a Fyodor…lately?” • (125 views)

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6 Responses to Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Mr Kung, your experience with this book reminds me a little of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. It’s chock full of quotables but has a tendency to repeat itself needlessly. Obviously low character and nihilism are so complex we need an extended recitation of these things.

  2. Steve Lancaster says:

    KFZ,
    Nice review to the point as a limited American view. I would suggest that Russian literature especially must be read in tandem with the history of the time. Shakespeare is largely lost if you don’t have at least a passing understanding of Elizabethan England. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn cannot be understood without a working knowledge of the antebellum South. Even scripture is not comprehendible with out some knowledge of Mid East nomadic culture.

    Brothers must be read with the Russian history of Czar Nicholas I and Alexander II, whose reigns cover most of Dostoevsky’s life. Most Russian historians believe that Nicholas II was a disaster for Russia, think Obama on steroids, and a tragic loss in the Crimean War.

    The promised reforms of Alexander II, primarily dealing with serfdom, and the legal system, instead of lowering tensions only made matters worse. I don’t excuse Dostoyevsky’s dark view of humanity. It is a part of his make up. However, I do suggest that if you desire to understand Putin you need to understand Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Pasternak and the history of the times that moulded them.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Steve,

      No doubt a reader will gain by knowing something about the history, culture, time in which a book/play/poem is written. That being said, I maintain, a great book can trans-send both time and place. It is universal in some way.

      Much, perhaps most, of Shakespeare would pass that test.

      On the other hand, some literature is mainly of interest because it gives an insight in to the times in which it was written. An example of this might be the Chinese book(s) “Outlaws of the Marsh” sometime known as “Water Margin.”

      It is considered one of the three or four founding novels of Chinese literature, but read in translation today, its main interest is the look it gives the modern reader on Chinese thinking of 15th and 16th centuries; at least the thinking as passed on by the authors of the book.

      I believe Dostoyevsky is somewhere in between Shakespeare and “Outlaws of the Marsh”, which gives those interested, a pretty wide margin for judgment.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    One interesting point that occurred to me on re-reading the review was that Jonathan Swift was said to hate humanity but like individuals. He illustrates this with the ship captain in the final voyage of Gulliver.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Jonathan Swift was said to hate humanity but like individuals.

      Generally, when I use the saying about liberals loving humanity, but hating people, I also use something like the above saying about conservatives. A nice contrast. Looks like someone else beat me to this formulation. He was only about 250-300 years ahead of me.

  4. Justin Jackson says:

    I just listened to Crime and Punishment over the course of a week. I doubt I could have read it, but listening was quite enjoyable. The narrator was exceptionally good. He also narrated The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe give listening a try?

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