Book 2, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

It’s been a long time, blog. The longer one puts off a task, I found, the easier it is to avoid it altogether. Even though I still continued to read, I succumbed to work-related stress and my own laziness when it comes to reading my doorstopper books. I’ve decided to not to be too harsh on myself this time, and simply record my thoughts without straining towards any sort of synthesis. So I’m sorry for people who would be looking for plot summaries or full on reviews, because you’re not going to find that here.

Anyway, on to Book 2 of The Brothers Karamazov.

What is this book about? I seldom experience this anymore, reading a novel and failing to grasp, at the very least, what the shape the narrative is taking. On one hand, The Brothers Karamazov (Ignat Avsey, trans.) is about a family of screwed up landowners and the effect that they have on the people who love, hate, and work for them. It is also an involved examination of the idea of redemption–whether all have the capacity of being saved, whether it’s only for some, or whether it’s available for no one at all. I know that there’s a murder that will occur later on but I don’t think I’ll ever claim that this is essentially a crime story, either.

I know I’m intimidated and I know that I’m in over my head, but I don’t feel any sort of dislike for the novel itself. In fact, I’ve been moved by several sections of the book, particularly Ivan and Alyosha’s conversation in the pub that segues into “The Grand Inquisitor.” I also like that Dostoevsky seems to be puncturing people’s overblown and overserious self-identification with all the trappings of love, holiness, martyrdom, intellectualism, nationalism, and even the idea of being irredeemable.

Katarina Ivanovna is mocked (by Grushenka, but I think the narrator is doing the mocking as well) for her single-minded desire to wear the hairshirt that is her devotion to the obviously unworthy Dmitry. At the beginning of the second part, the narration also pokes fun at a monk called Father Therapon’s obsession with ultra-ascetism. Even Dmitry and the Karamazov patriarch seem silly in their doggedness to become the most wretched they could possibly be. Russians: they go all out!

Even the devout are not free from Dostoevsky’s pointed humor. At the beginning of part three, Father Zosima’s corpse begins to decay at an alarming rate, confounding people and making them doubt the monk’s holiness. If he is indeed a holy man, according to the collective, his body would be preserved like all of the famous saints, right? Furthermore, the corpse would be available for them to use whenever they need to be healed. This, I find, is an incisive critique of the way people fetishize holy artifacts, pilgrimages, and the like.

The only people who end up not looking ridiculous are Alyosha and Father Zosima, specifically because they do not oppose to being the butt of the narrative joke. Father Zosima also accepts all the foibles that his fellow humans embody. Alyosha is perfectly fine with Lise mocking and making fun of him, accepting her for all her contradictions, but even he stumbles, particularly when he momentarily doubts Zosima’s saintliness.

I suspect I’ll be rereading certain parts of this novel, particularly The Grand Inquisitor. Take this quotation, for instance: “So long as they remain free no science will ever give them bread, and in the end they will bring their freedom and lay it at our feet, saying, ‘Enslave us but feed us!'”

Doesn’t that have shades of Will to Power encoded all over it? If you take the position that the Inquisitor is the villain in Ivan’s parable, doesn’t it also mean that there’s a heavy thread of anti-feudalism going through the entire novel? There are so many things to unpack here. I have some emerging ideas regarding Smerdyakov and the idea of complicity, but I’m guessing I need to wait until someone gets offed and see if my theories will be proven correct.

I would also like to acknowledge The Brothers Karamazov read-along posts written by Nonsuch Book for assuring me that some of my ideas at least are not completely wackadoo.


2 thoughts on “Book 2, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  1. Oooh, I’m so glad you’ve carried on reading. I’m rereading it at the moment, because I hadn’t read the Avsey translation before, and you’re just slightly ahead of me. The Father Therapon chapter is brilliant isn’t it – I think people often forget just how funny Dostoevsky can be at times. I’d never thought about him actually mocking Katerina Ivanovna, but of course he is, you’re quite right, as you are too about the fetishizing of relics. Anti-feudalism is, I think, a somewhat small-scale view – it’s any sort of loss of freedom that enrages Dostoevsky, and a theme that runs right through his fiction. I don’t know Nietzsche terribly well (and must correct that), but my rough understanding is that he and Dostoevsky start from the same premise – that free will is everything – but end up at quite different destinations.

    Do have a poke around on my blog – I’ve written bits about the Karamazovs – might be helpful. Am happy to answer any questions too, since banging on about Dostoevsky is one of my favourite things.

    • Dostoevsky can be startlingly funny. I know that there are some comic episodes in the parts of Crime and Punishment that I read though I found myself overwhelmed by the overall bleakness. Re: Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, from my somewhat limited interpretation of Nietzsche, his view is that stripped of everything (class, wealth, etc.) except free will, humanity would still stratify itself. With the people with the most clear-eyed view of everything as the natural leader of humanity. I’m guessing Dostoevsky doesn’t subscribe to that notion.

      I’ll be following your blog, thank you! One of the things that bother me is my inability to get all the references and allusions so I’ve tried to remedy that by reading other people’s interpretations of The Karamazov Brothers.

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