"I would die happy if I could finish this final novel, for I would have then expressed myself completely."
This statement from Fyodor Dostoyevsky helps elucidate both the theme and purpose of the The Brothers Karamazov, one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. Superficially, the novel deals with a patricide and how each of the book's characters contributed directly or indirectly to that murder.
Yet, The Brothers Karamazov, at its heart, is so much more. Its underlying theme deals with the drive for self-redemption in the eyes of both God and man and the role suffering plays in facilitating that redemption.
Fyodor Karamazov has fathered four sons, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, by two wives, and one, Smerdyakov, with a peasant woman known as stinking Lizaveta.
Fyodor Karamazov, a vulgar and ill-tempered man represents, for Dostoyevsky, the Russian government of his times. Like the government, Fyodor shuns his children, preferring instead the materialistic, but joyless, life of wealth and possessions. His union with Lizaveta, who comes to represent all the peasants of Dostoyevsky's Russia, produces Smerdyakov, a bastard child who, in his own turn, will be raped and pillaged by the government and will go on to give birth, metaphorically, to bastard children of his own.
Karamazov's eldest son, Dmitri, an impulsive sensualist, finds respect as an overbearing soldier but one whose inability to pay his debts eventually turns him into a poor and irrational man.
Ivan, Fyodor's second son, is a cold intellectual who finds his fulfillment in his literary and creative abilities. He becomes famous through his writings, especially those concerning the Russian Church.
The youngest son, Aloysha, finds temporary fulfillment in the cloistered, monastic life. Outwardly innocent and naive, Aloysha struggles with his desire for spiritual fulfillment in the monastery and the joys and excitement of the secular life.
The character who provides the catalyst for change is that of Father Zosima, a character who seems to embody the strong spiritual sense that was Dostoyevsky, himself.
Father Zosima, who has lived a pure and spiritually-nourishing life, has the gift to sense both a man's motivations and his needs. Zosima tells the brothers Karamazov that a sheltered, monastic life is not a prerequisite to the achievement of spiritual riches, a fact that seems to be proven true when Zosima's corpse rots after his death in direct contradiction to Russian belief at the times regarding spiritual purity.
It is Father Zosima who, throughout the book, expounds Dostoyevsky's theory that it is suffering that will purify and cleanse our soul, thus bringing us peace. Each brother, in his own fashion, undergoes his own trial by fire, and, in the end, is better for it.
One brother, tormented by a guilt he does not deserve, must live his life in unwanted exile, or not at all, though he possesses the heart and soul of a true Russian. Another suffers the torments of a complete nervous breakdown that leaves him grappling on the very edge of sanity. Only a third son seems to find the answer he is seeking and the novel's uplifting final scene epitomizes Dostoyevsky's eternal belief in the importance of Russia's children in her future, as children hold their hands high and shout, "Three cheers for Karamazov," ending this essentially depressing masterpiece on a joyous note.
An extraordinarily complex and rich novel, The Brothers Karamozov also deals with man's response to death. All of the characters, each in his own way, attempts to flee from death and only those who can finally accept the finality of death and the suffering of living find justification and fulfillment in life.
Dostoyevsky uses many stylistic devices to expound upon his theme of redemption through suffering: imagery, irony and dreams are three of the most prominent, however, it is Dostoyevsky's wonderful ability to manipulate the third person subjective that serves to illuminate each character and bring him to life.
The Brothers Karamazov is a book that delves deeply into the heart of man and the soul of Russia. Dostoyevsky, as any true artist, presented facets of himself in all of his characters who each manages to see the world in a different way and finds redemption through his own unique vision.
Ironically, one of the brothers Karamazov is portrayed as a young man who begins to instill the seeds of change in Russia through its children, something Dostoyevsky, himself, thought was needed if Russia was ever to make the transition from a backward country to a global power. That it did, although the children Dostoyevsky envisioned as spiritual visionaries became instead, violent revolutionaries. They sought to free the peasants, not through enlightenment but through the establishment of a totalitarian state Peter the Great would have envied. Today, however, Russia tragically lies amidst the same poverty in which it was dwelling one hundred years earlier.
Clearly, Dostoyevsky's path to enlightenment, illuminated brilliantly in The Brothers Karamazov, has not yet been fully assimilated by either the people of Russia or the people of the world in general.
A sad and ironic twist to the vision of a master writer and a truly prophetic man.