Top positive review
A Bloated Novel Full of Moral Predicaments
on July 10, 2015
Reading The Brothers Karamazov is like taking a virtual walk (a long and sometimes wearisome one) through 19th century Russia. Because the characters are fully developed, and then dilated upon at regular intervals, there is no need to flip back to reestablish who’s who. This unexpected absence of confusion in a novel this large allows one to drive right through those couple hundred pages of unnecessary composition and to savor the dozen or so matchless passages that make this novel a great resource to turn to once in a while. The longest boring stretch is either the investigation into the murder, or the interrogation of the chief suspect that follows from it. Together these parts take up a lot of space. This legal ‘red tape’ is like an epilogue from one of those cheap radio or television dramas, during which the detectives sit around the table to discuss the details of the case they just got through solving, which wrap-up one can never make sense of. The rise and fall between interesting and boring spells affects the reader in some sense like the man affected by jealous love, who, one moment, is ‘convinced of her faithlessness’ and ‘with joyful shame abuses himself for his jealousy’ the next (p. 356.) Or, with Dmitri, one might exclaim, “How strange it is! On the way here it seemed all right, and now it’s nothing but nonsense” (p. 348.) Like the jealous man, now, the critic fears to have gone too far, for the occasionally bored reader is bound to find in Dostoevsky’s wide-ranging insight into human experience, many incidents that seem to be written especially for him. Look, for example, at the accurate take on the trickiness of drink: “He drank off another glass, and—he thought it strange himself—that glass made him completely drunk. He was suddenly drunk, although till that moment he had been quite sober, he remembered that” (p. 411.) The drinker will relate. Although there is a lot of ‘creeping up to the subject’ (p. 450), once the subject is gotten to, there is often a sudden realization for the reader, which unexpected perception may be described by the following painted landscape: “Through the pale darkness of the night loomed a solid black mass of buildings, flung down, as it were, in the vast plain” (p. 386.) The startling appreciation of Smerdyakov as a fourth brother hit me just like that after much creeping up to the subject by the author. Before passing on to mention what some of the matchless passages are about, and where, in this fluctuating novel, they can be found, some compositional weaknesses might be mentioned particularly. The romantic aspect gets ‘harlequin’ at least once. “Kiss me, kiss me hard, that’s right. If you love me, well then love! I’ll be your slave….” (p. 410.) This painful passage is thankfully short. The fact that such a revered author actually wrote it makes the parading of it about as irresistible as the kiss itself! If not for the good reputation of the highly recommended Constance Garnet, maybe the translator could be blamed. The narrator’s frequent apologies are tiresome: “I will not repeat all the questions asked her and all her answers in detail….” (p. 640.) The ‘brain fever’ or ‘nervous fever’ is overused. Probably every character is smitten with it at least once.
Passages likely to strike the reader as second to none in literature are many. I counted about a dozen of these. Now, briefly, to point some of these out. The unraveling of Dmitri (Representative of Mother Russia, p. 657) is a tragicomedy that could stand on its own as something great. The revelry that takes possession of this character is life-like and puts us right in there with ‘the thud of the dance and the scream of the song’ (p. 674) Shyness, the affection that is even more dear than it is rare, is captured, as if in a snapshot. Sad to say that this shamedfacedness, this wonderful blend of discomfort and charm, can be seen so clearly only in a book nowadays (p. 51.) The evil of sacerdotalism, to wit, the agenda behind that religious whitewash, is powerfully shown (p. 238.) The weighty subject of suffering in a world created by God is drawn out to produce the kind of tension that prods response or investigation (p. 217.) Some comments on hell read as vividly, if not as biblically, as portions right out of Puritan sermons (pp. 299, 328.) The power of sensualism is immaculately and movingly described, and without the shame of explicit detail (p. 69, 70, 97, 124.) “All we Karamazovs are such insects, and, angel as you are, that insect lives in you, too, and will stir up a tempest in your blood…Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed…It’s terrible what mysteries there are!…I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom…Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret?” (p. 97.) Such passages may be soon read by anyone who would like to dip into great literature to get an inkling of what all the fuss is about. The chapter called The Grand Inquisitor is the scene that is best known and most spoken of, and therefore the place that inquirers most likely turn to in their desire to form some notion of whether or not the novel is a worthwhile read. But as a whole, it is far too shadowy to satisfy such an inquiry. And better critiques of Popish religion may be found in theological treatises.
This is more a man’s novel than a woman’s, I think, more intellectual than emotional (notwithstanding all that ‘brain fever.’) But in spite of it being more a man’s book, women are, just like in Notes from Underground, featured in a more virtuous light than men. Dmitri (nicknamed Mitya), for example, has a dilemma: “If I repay Katerina Ivanovna, where can I find the means to go off with Grushenka?” (p. 688.) Even Alexey, (nickname Alyosha), the hero with religious leanings, even he proves to be less holy than the lowest of the two women that the brothers romantically revolve around. He comes to her ‘rebelling against his God’ (p. 327) but before long has to declare that ‘there may be a treasure in that soul’ (p. 331.) It would be too much to say, though, that women are utterly exalted: “But try acknowledging you are in fault to a woman. Say, ‘I am sorry, forgive me,’ and a shower of reproaches will follow! Nothing will make her forgive you simply and directly, she’ll humble you to the dust, bring forward things that have never happened, recall everything, forget nothing, add something of her own, and only then forgive you. And even the best, the best of them do it” (p. 558.) The dual forces of love and hatred between the opposite sexes are evident, even where humor comes in: “Better Siberia than your love…’Your slave and enemy, D. Karamazov’” (p. 581.)
The great family affair is set some time shortly after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Other milestones include Kramskoy, the painter; the Anna Order, an order of chivalry established in 1735; and, oddly, Leo Tolstoy. More pertinently, “This is the age of Liberalism, the age of steamers and railways” (p. 79.) In light of the atheistic Communism to which the Liberalism of that epoch would arrive, the following statement by one of the brothers is chillingly relevant and prophetic: “A new man’s arising—that I understand…And yet I am sorry to lose God!” (p. 553.) (Most of the time, God is only mentioned for expletive purposes, which is enough of a black spot to withdraw from this novel its unreserved recommendation.) This sentence, more than any other, needs to be quoted by the critics who like to use fiction to teach moral lessons by. The horrors that have come to pass consequent to the Bolshevic Revolution are just the deductions of the new man rising up with his Liberal mind. And still we are surrounded by socialists! Maybe the liberal arts crowd only pretend to be reading the classics. You’d think that by reading this, or novels like it, they would learn that one should start to rethink the merits of these philosophies that spring from the incompetent intellect of man, and because of this, end tragically.
Not that we should assume the author meant to warn against a looming left wing totalitarianism by the haphazard comment of one of his characters. But there is a way to learn from the reading of any book, and we should take advantage. It seems obvious, notwithstanding, especially respecting the fact that this tome is the outcome of a serial endeavor, that Dostoevsky aimed to teach something by it; specifically, not just something about man, but about man’s quest to self-determine. Regardless of Dostoevsky’s own moral frustrations, like his habitual gambling, one gets the impression that the elder’s views of selflessness and brotherly love are his own and that the self-reformatory theme the author closes with is the gospel as best he understood it. That one might be left feeling that his object is to advance moralism as the gospel is inconsequential if one knows what the gospel really is and if one is determined not to exchange it for something less. But excessive quaffers of fiction are easily made drunk by intellectual narratives, and soon made to stagger from off the biblical foundation they unstably stand upon; and when these quaffers happen to be Christian leaders, many underlings follow in their careless footsteps. After all, is the following substitute for the gospel not spellbinding to the self-help spirit of guilt-stricken man?—: “And can it be a dream, that in the end man will find his joy only in deeds of light and mercy, and not in cruel pleasures as now, in gluttony, fornication…I believe that with Christ’s help we shall accomplish this great thing” (p. 294.) This is far different from the New Testament understanding of man’s ideal relationship to the moral law. The way to a righteous life is not by the attainment of virtue through Christ’s moral influence, but by the exercise of faith on the ground of Christ’s moral perfection. Virtuous living is not by the example or even help of Christ; it is by the hope of Christ in the soul. It’s the difference between trying to follow someone’s perfect example on our own strength, and having that perfect person enable us, from the inside, to perform works of righteousness. About a dozen years ago I happened to read a little from Christianity Today (only because an elder had it sitting on his coffee-table.) In there some Christian chief was promoting novels, of all things (among them War and Peace), in his list of books most essential for Christians to read! And this is how confusion, about what the gospel is, runs downhill to confound the Christian masses. It starts with some brilliant author who doesn’t couch his characters’ philosophies in the context of overarching truth; then some influential but immature moralist recognizes in there what he believes to be the gospel; and then un-catechized readers follow his advice and learn that the gospel must be the self-help moralism so eloquently preached by the fictitious character in a made-up story! These great novelists must be very guardedly read. Unless doctrine has become dogma to you, you could inadvertently take life-like characters for actual preachers of truth. Such can be the end result of Dostoevskian fiction, even if the author did not intend to effectuate it. Because of the primary place given to subordinate characters, the conclusion to this novel is surprisingly touching. Alyosha’s fluent speech is so persuasive that it could leave you believing that good behavior yields the resurrection of the just. Because the gospel is given to be moral effort, this fine literature can imperil all kinds of doctrines. Regeneration is presented as nothing more than the self-reforming act of man (p. 57.) When considered in light of society en masse, this regeneration resembles ‘liberation theology,’ not Christianity (p. 295.) Was Communism not enabled and emboldened by civil-ized ‘Christianity’ just like this? How will Russia be Orthodox? “God will save Russia…Salvation will come from the people” (p. 292.) Faith, meekness, and righteousness are mentioned in this passage too; but what the philosophy comes down to is a belief in the existence of God—but we will do it. This is the worldview. And it’s not Christian. From the novel at large, it is obvious that the ‘Christianity’ in this book is not much different from what the black liberation leaders preach in the USA. At best, it’s an earthly redemption from toil, not a redemption that gets you to heaven by the blood of Christ. It is easy with this kind of syncretistic belief (bare theism and theology of liberation) to be drawn into Revolution or to at least encourage an enemy to start one. Faith that only comes up to a belief in God’s existence, may, because of its powerlessness, be drawn into all kinds of disorders and beliefs, especially when a feeling of discontent about the state of civil order is stirred up in the soul. This kind of belief in God is always horizontal in its concerns and longings. Because of this, it is easy to detect. Now, turning back to religion in private life, all you get here, usually, and framed so eloquently, is a religion that cannot be defined as saving faith, but the reforming or sacrificing of self before a bare belief in the existence of God (pp. 292, 556, 557.) This is ethical theism, maybe, but that is no more than salvation by the self. Smerdyakov correctly observes that an eternal God is necessary for virtue to exist (p. 593.) Another good theistic plank, but being a theist is not enough. One could get convinced of many philosophies through this book, and almost every one of them is insufficient or false. One could even be convinced of the kind of liberty the French revolutionaries begot (p. 72), or of the Spartan salvation of monasticism (p. 291); that is, salvation by self-negation. But these things are not the gospel either, certainly! Civic freedom, self-denial, and moral reform may be ideals that a Christian could righteously advance. But they are not of Christianity’s essence. Faith in Jesus for accomplishing the moral standard required by an offended, holy God—this is. Someone (who can tell who) does say that by a full trust in the Lord’s grace one could hope to be forgiven (p. 119.) That’s a good thought, as far as it goes, but it isn’t enough. Where is Jesus? Where are his blood and righteousness? This book cannot be taken as some sort of narrative Christianity, as so many naively do, for no character in here stands for what Christianity essentially is. Alyosha, it must be admitted, seems to for a moment, for he communicates to his brother Ivan that God can forgive by virtue of having given innocent blood (p. 226.) But this gospel communication is hardly a stand, for this is elsewhere contradicted by him; and the statement is hardly the norm for what the gospel is presented as, for both moral reform and civic liberty are the ideas that are universally preached. Alyosha, as with every other speechmaker in the story, usually gets the gospel wrong. “Half your work is done,” he assures Ivan, “you love life, now you’ve only to try to do the second half and you are saved.” Regardless of what the second half of this work is, the first half, of loving life, conclusively shows that he preaches a self-salvation, for as soon as one’s work is included in the equation of salvation, that’s what it gets reduced to. Besides this, if the second half be considered, what is his answer? “Why, one has to raise up your dead, who perhaps have not died after all” (p. 213.) So the self-salvation is here given to include a self-regeneration, and this (because depravity is denied in the last clause), for one who might not even have need of it! When the gospel with a big G is held up for a standard in here, called ‘the Gospel of our Lord,’ what is meant is forgiveness from us to fellow men (p. 703), not forgiveness for us from God, not forgiveness from God received by faith, and not forgiveness through the blood of Christ. This is the prevailing thought that we find regarding what is meant by Christianity in this book. And this is probably, therefore, what so many of Dostoevsky’s readers (look at the reviews on Amazon) believe to be gospel Christianity. ‘Love your neighbor’ is not the gospel. Dostoevsky was jailed for his participation in secret talks of utopian socialism. Who’s to say, for that matter, that a revolution arising out of that would have been much safer and more righteous than terrorist Communism? Who’s to say that Communism is not the outcome of such utopian talks? His confession to a ‘regeneration’ of his convictions included this idea that common people are fundamentally good. This kind of ‘regeneration’ is not from God, for its fruits, or convictions, are unbiblical: no one is fundamentally good, everyone is totally depraved. “There is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3.12.) These convictions of his regarding regeneration and inherent goodness exactly agree with the moral paradigm running through this novel. But they both clash with gospel truth. This information on the convictions that he got through his ‘regeneration’ is gleaned from Encyclopedia Britannica. It seems based on fact. There is no reason to disbelieve. But when this dictionary begins to interpret, beware. It calls The Brothers Karamazov ‘a deeply Christian novel.’ I hope that I have convincingly shown, by now, that this is what it’s not. This same dictionary calls Dostoevsky’s Possessed ‘a profoundly conservative and Christian work.’ Observe, now, on what basis the claim is made. It is because of the expression in there ‘of great sympathy for workers and other ordinary people.’ This is no proof of its being Christian any more than The Salvation Army can be proved to be so by the same. Any group on earth can exercise, straight from the unregenerate heart, sympathy for people suffering misery. It proves nothing toward the group being Christian. Jesus comments on this kind of love, and asks, “Do not even the publicans the same” (Matthew 5.46.) Loving back fellow workers is nothing more than any person is capable of doing. It’s not necessarily evangelical, but love exercised through the common grace bestowed upon all by our Creator. But lastly, touching now on the event that the novel hinges upon, and the central, though not most concerning, belief that may be threatened: civil justice. Sympathy is generated for a style of justice that will discharge less than due punishment for the crime by our being let in on the secret that the brother accused and convicted of parricide is not even guilty. The Brothers Karamazov in one hand, a dependable catechism in the other—then you’re safe. Philosophically, psychologically, ethically, and even theologically, the novel delivers flourishes of grandeur. But one has to be careful what disquisition to accept as true. Astounding riddles line these pages as if the author had nothing to do in life except to think up moral and metaphysical complexities. These are entertaining and wonderfully thought-provoking. The one ending on page 117, for example, caused Grigory’s eyes to nearly start out of his head. But one should be made aware: first, that the author does not hold in here, not by any character, a biblical notion of what the gospel is; and second, that moral speeches contrived by masters usually come with agendas.
Viewing this novel as Christian prose betrays a person’s ignorance of what the gospel is. Furthermore, it is a ridiculous stretch to see “versions of the Christ story played out by each of the three legitimate brothers.” Jon Surgal, author of the Introduction, must be even more ignorant in this as those who merely see Christianity played out! What kind of suffering Christ is Dmitri, who, by his own confession, not only had to reform, but who ‘lived like a wild beast’ every time he made the attempt? (p. 704.) What kind of redeemer is Alyosha, who, in a moment of depression, goes looking for the harlot who then proves to be more conscientious than he is? And the temptations of Christ are no more side by side with Ivan’s than with Dmitri’s or Alyosha’s. There is no record in Scripture of Christ being tempted by a woman, which seems to be the main sort of temptation going on in the Karamazov story. It is the main one, for it underlies all of Dmitri’s temptations; it is the sin by which Alyosha chooses to rebel against God; and it is the craving for his brother’s betrothed that principally vexes Ivan. Surely, if there is any attempt by Dostoevsky to come alongside Christ by these characters, then he too must be labeled ignorant, not to mention incompetent and maybe mad. An editor should be learned enough, in any case, to notice the weaknesses in his own guessing-game and then give it out that these Christ figures are more oblique than parallel. To those who see the gospel as ‘the Christ story’ not much is left sacred. The most brilliant move where characters are concerned is the injection of the outlying Smerdyakov, who is neither primary nor tertiary, and who, being the bastard son, resembles Judas. I won’t go too far with this wild card except to say that he betrayed innocent blood, rejected the money he contrived to get, and then committed suicide. In the words of the lawyer for the defense, “The psychological method is a two-edged weapon, and we, too, can use it” (p. 690.) But this parallelism fits the facts without trouble, and with no abuse of any Divine Name. Smerdyakov is more essential to the story than any one of the legitimate brothers, for, like in the gospel of Matthew, “it must needs be that offences come.”
Although Smerdyakov is most essential, and Alyosha is the author’s appointed hero, Dmitri is the character that is most developed and most representative of the complex nature of man. His contradictory attributes are openly displayed in his dualistic appearance, if we allow that muscularity reminds us of more goodness, while sallow cheeks remind us more of moral darkness. His expressions and actions, too, bear witness to man’s duplex nature: “People who saw something pensive and sullen in his eyes were startled by his sudden laugh” (p. 59.) The good and the bad in all men find their exemplification in him. The end of the bad is shown in his life becoming undone; but the end of the good is shown in Alyosha’s contrasting hope.
These ends (notwithstanding the method of salvation being ubiquitously mis-communicated) shadow both the good and evil outcomes that all men will eventually come to. The brotherly juxtaposition is not only given to us generally, but also on one page lest we miss it. While Dmitri is pictured on the edge of making ‘an end of everything without waiting for the dawn,’ Alyosha is in a rapture for life itself (p. 384.)
Dmitri dooms himself, carnal; Alyosha springs with hope, sacred; Ivan weighs the possibilities, intellectual. Ivan’s lack of resolve to go one way or the other agrees with the smaller part he plays and how indistinct an impression he makes upon our mind. What the other brothers are like is easy to recall, while he remains, for the most part, a mystery. We do not feel shortchanged by any lack of description or anything, not at all. Dostoevsky sufficiently describes even subordinate, almost superfluous characters, comprehensively, like the following seminary student standing by a door: “His expression was one of unquestioning, self-respecting reverence” (p. 33.) It’s just that Ivan’s ambivalence defies identification.
Many other threads could be followed. We could cull from thick paragraphs a long list of pithy sayings for inclusion in some dictionary of quotations. (Probably it’s been done.) “Fools are made for wise men’s profit,” for example (p. 329.) Questions might be asked, like did all this well executed advocacy for the devil prompt an English don to write The Screwtape Letters? It seems plausible.
This book’s frequent cogitations arise from the ‘recklessness of the Karamazovs’ (p. 476)—men of action who live in the present (p. 672.) This is the most striking paradox out of the many to be found. The deepest question that is raised is not what brother killed his father nor why; nor when is killing murder; not why man desires the death of another; nor how come man is sometimes happy to hear about a death. The grand question concerns an ideal and its implication. The final words of the elder include a bit of biography concerning his literal brother who, just before his premature death, had so religiously affected him. Quoting the elder’s brother, “Every one is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything” (p. 266.) Later, the brother accused of murder says, “I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I meant to kill him, and perhaps I really might have killed him” (p. 478.) Here someone is trying to live up to the martyr-like ideal, and the tension as to whether he will indeed absorb it is never resolved, for we are never taken to the point of sentencing and we never get to see whether the brother of the accused follows through with an escape plan meant to carry him off to the strained happiness of exile. (For good or ill, there is no closure.) But the point of the self-deprecating ideal is to stir us up against the execution of justice. This is the tendency of the book. This is what follows logically from the ideal: “For no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime” (p. 297.) Human depravity and responsibility, then, yield an inability to judge anyone of anything. Doctrinal misrepresentation just like this is the cause of our ‘judge not’ society that treats criminals like victims. And so the hope that certain emotional women harbor at the trial is supposed to sweep over everyone, or at least make it so that everyone expects it. “Almost every one had reckoned upon a recommendation to mercy” (p. 706.) The Judicial Error of Book Twelve is supposed to, by the use of philosophical rationalization that compels feelings of sadness for the falsely accused, convert us to recommendations of mercy to all. This is Dostoevsky’s grand objective, if you ask me. We are at least supposed to be put off looking to capital punishment to right any wrongs that have been done, no matter how heinous. In light of all this, we must be biblical: forgiveness does not, in the Bible, trump our civic duty to support the bearing of the sword against the worst of our criminals by the powers that be (Romans 13.)
Curious Christians read the spellbinding words of literary masters; and, like the foolish Galatians, get to thinking that the gospel is something else than it really is, and also, or if this doesn’t happen, get messed up doctrinally because of their lack of learning. The gospel, and doctrine generally, may be falsely presented because of ignorance. This is no doubt the case in some part by Fyodor Dostoevsky in this most famous oeuvre of his. But there is an agenda here too. This book contains matchless passages that might make it a must-keep resource. But it is a dangerous book.