“I’d die happy if I could finish this final novel, for I would have expressed myself completely. ” This statement from the author of “The Brothers Karamazov” helps elucidate the underlying purpose and theme of one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. Superficially, the novel deals with a horrifying parricide and how the supporting characters devised direct and indirect circumstances leading to the murder. Yet, the book delves deep into the human psyche and the soul–notably that of the author himself.
The novel, as inferred from the aforementioned personal statement, may best be described as an autobiography of Dostoevsky filled with his beliefs, values, theories, and insights on a bestial world. Through the main characters-Ivan, Alyosha, Dmitri, Father Zosima, and Smerdyakov–one can perceive the different sides of Dostoevsky himself, good and evil. Not only does one see his characteristics through the protagonists and antagonists of the novel, but also his beliefs concerning life, religion, and love.
Among his personal beliefs integrated with his fictitious characters include: faith in love over faith in miracles, the importance of suffering as a means of salvation, and the importance of the Russian “folk” and children in the coming 20th century. But despite Dostoevsky’s overbearing presence in his masterpiece, one variable inevitably affects all of his characters as well as the entire living world–death.
Thus, through the novel, he introduces us into his tormented mind and soul, hoping to influence future generations in his beliefs of a better mankind, unafraid of the spectre of death that will crush the cowardly but unharm the spiritually strong. Fyodor Dostoevsky presents to us his masterpiece; his autobiography; himself. Fyodor Karamazov, the first man introduced by Dostoevsky, has fathered four children, three by two wives and one bastard son. Fyodor lives a dissolute life, caring only about money, joy, and orgies. Thus, his three legitimate sons grew up resentful of their father’s vulgarity.
The eldest, Dmitri, becomes a soldier whose overbearing appearance makes him respected around town, but whose inability to pay debts and keep money turns him into a poor, impulsive man. He eventually becomes obsessed with obtaining a large inheritance he claims came from his deceased mother. The second child, Ivan, decides to follow the intellectual route as his calling in life. He becomes famous through his writings, especially those concerning the state of the Russian church. Yet, he struggles with questions concerning life after death, and this leads to a nervous breakdown at a crucial point in Dmitri’s life.
The youngest son, Alyosha, finds his calling in the ironic monastic life, considering that the town recognizes his father as the most un-spiritual man around. Like his two brothers, Alyosha carries a tortured soul because he has to choose between a normal life full of vices and excitement, or a spiritual life closer to God. Heavily influenced by the elder, Father Zosima, Alyosha decides to leave the monastery and live in the real world. Only through a dream, though, does he find his soul enlightened with the ability to utilize his spiritual knowledge in helping society.
Dostoevsky introduces the final character, Smerdyakov, as the son of a mentally-deranged peasant, stinking Lizaveta, who had a baby with an unknown man. Since the people regard the elder Karamazov as the town drunkard, they connect the baby as his bastard son. Smerdyakov has many of the characteristics of the other three sons: the motivation of Dmitri, the intellectual ability of Ivan, and the outward innocence of Alyosha. After the introduction of all of the Karamazov’s, a meeting takes place at the monastery where Father Zosima hopes to settle the family differences.
Dmitri, driven by the need to obtain his inheritance and the love of a woman, Grushenka, whom his father also loves, causes an uproar in front of the elder. He also reveals that his father left 3000 rubles for Grushenka if she will come to his house for one night of pleasure. One night, Dmitri finds out that Grushenka left her house, and unaware that she went to see her ex-lover, assumes that she went to his father’s house. Dmitri searches his father’s house, and upon finding that she did not go there gets noticed by the servant, Gregory, who chases him.
Frightened, Dmitri hits Gregory with a brass pestle and leaves him to die. Ashamed that he probably killed the man who raised him as a boy, Dmitri decides to have one last fling with Grushenka before committing suicide. While at the party, the police arrive and arrest Dmitri for the murder of his father. He pleads that he did not kill him, and should only be guilty of striking Gregory over the head. During Dmitri’s trial, Ivan learns that Smerdyakov, not Dmitri, killed their father. Though crazy, Smerdyakov convinces Ivan that he is as much guilty of being an accomplice as the real murderer.
This drives Ivan crazy, and during the trial he falls into a nervous breakdown prior to crucial testimony beneficial to Dmitri. The court finds Dmitri guilty, and sentences him to years of hard labor in Siberia. Ivan formulates a plan to free him and send him and Grushenka to America, which Dmitri reluctantly agrees to. “The Brothers Karamazov” deals with many facets of life. More importantly though, the novel peers into the mind and its response to death. The characters all run from death in some way, and only those who can accept the suffering find justification.
In addition to the theme of death, the novel acts as an autobiography of Dostoevsky, expounding his various beliefs and values. To get his theme across, Dostoevsky utilized several stylistic devices, such as imagery, irony, and dreams. Yet, his ability to write down what a character was thinking at certain moments helped shed light on that person’s beliefs better than if he presented himself only through dialogue or description. In order to understand the relations between Dostoevsky and his various characters, the author’s life and background must be studied.
Born to lower middle class parents, Dostoevsky grew up in a rough, impassive childhood. He lived amidst two diametrically opposite parents–his father, a righteous and stern army doctor; and his mother, a kind, generous, and passive woman. Thus, the fact that several of his novels contain very different characters can be inferred from a childhood of two opposite parents. When Dostoevsky became older his father sent him to an army engineering school, which later becomes significant in analyzing the connection between Dostoevsky and Dmitri Karamazov.
While at school, he faced several hardships that would torment his life and help explain the recurring themes in his novels. The serfs at his father’s estate mercilessly killed him without getting arrested. From this harrowing experience came Dostoevsky’s obsession with death, and throughout all of his novels, especially “The Brothers Karamazov”, death haunts all of the characters. Bored with his life in the army he took to writing, where he found his skills useful in writing illegal political propaganda aimed at convincing the Russians to accept western philosophy.
In time, the Russian government arrested him for treason and sent him to the firing squad to face a quick death. Seconds before the soldiers fired the shots, a reprieve arrived from the Tsar pardoning him and his compatriots. This sadistic tactic was meant to scare the young intellectuals from ever writing against the Russian government again. In Dostoevsky’s case, it not only instilled fear but also depression, anxiety, mistrust, and loathing of the world around him. He went to Siberia to reexamine his soul and find answers to his tormented life.
Living in this filthy, desolate area helped him find meaning in life and religion, including his theory on suffering. Along with new found values, epileptic seizures, marital problems, and debt plagued his life until death. These problems become significant when explaining the relation between Dmitri and Smerdyakov to Dostoevsky. In some ways he found a new life, but in other ways his life ended blindfolded and tied to the stake ready to be pierced with a blazing bullet through his sweaty forehead.
Yet through it all, he shared what he thought the world and especially his beloved Russia should be like in order to surpass the strength of the western nations. Ironically, Russia did rise above the world, but probably not in the manner that Dostoevsky had liked it to be. Fyodor Karamazov becomes the first character presented in the novel, whose vulgar and ill-natured personality quickly erase any sympathy of his grizzly murder. Unlike his children and Father Zosima whom Dostoevsky personally relates to, Fyodor Karamazov embodies the Russian government.
Like Karamazov, who did not care or raise his three children so that he may continue his dissolute life, the Russian government does likewise in shunning their children, the Russian peasants, to live a materialistic life. The attack upon the government by means of the elder Karamazov becomes so vicious that his death does not come as a surprise but as a blessing. Smerdyakov, the bastard son of Karamazov, embodies Dostoevsky’s vengeful and dark side in his resentment of the government. Smerdyakov’s mother, a passive woman called stinking Lizaveta, gave birth to him by means of the twisted Karamazov.
Likewise, Lizaveta represents the entire group of Russian peasants, raped and pillaged by the government and giving birth to bastard children who will share in their poverty when they come of age. Through the enigmatic Smerdyakov, Dostoevsky delivers one final blow to the system that destroyed his father as well as his own self-confidence. Though the beliefs exhorted by Father Zosima contradict Smerdyakov’s personality, Dostoevsky only wished to lash back once and for all by fictitiously achieving vengeance, thus paving way for his eventual spiritual reform.
The first character who embodies Dostoevsky’s mind and soul, enters in the form of Ivan Karamazov. A cold intellectual, he finds pride in his literary work and his creative ability, a life Dostoevsky lived prior to his arrerst. Throughout the novel, Ivan struggles with the ideas of belief and immortality. These questions also puzzled Dostoevsky himself, and through the characters of Father Zosima and Alyosha he finds some solution to this perpetual mystery. Ivan displays his beliefs, and for that matter Dostovesky as well, largely through the prose poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.
In the poem, Ivan and Dostoevsky explain their beliefs in the weakness of man, who could not possibly withstand the pressures instilled upon them by Jesus Christ. Man lacks so much faith, that he searches for it through miracles instead of seeking faith by alleviating the suffering in the world. Ivan and Dostoevsky could not possibly believe that this world created by God could contain so much suffering, especially that of innocent children, and thus they question his existence. Ivan finally resolves that God does exist, only because man could not have been as mentally and spiritually gifted enough to “create” a God themselves.
Throughout this poem, Ivan attacks the Roman Catholic Church which depends largely upon miracles to prove their power. The inability of the church to see the world in a realistic instead of a superhuman sense also bothered Dostoevsky, and he effectively quelled it through Ivan’s discourse. Ivan may be seen as a cynic, but Dostoevsky saves his heart by portraying Ivan’s poem with two protagonists, both ultimately seeking happiness for all mankind as Ivan and Dostoevsky did. The next character, Father Zosima, embodies the strong spiritual sense in Dostoevsky.
Zosima presents himself as the perfect and passive person who has the gifted ability to sense man’s motivations and thus has no need to judge others. Dostoevsky attempted to live by Zosima’s Christ-like teachings of simplicity, and the mimicry can most easily be recognized by Dostoevsky’s decision to leave his materialistic life and reside in the harsh ice of Siberia with little possessions. Yet, the most important relationship between Zosima’s character and Dostoevsky’s does not come from trying to imitate a simple life, but through Zosima’s spiritual teachings.
Zosima and Dostoevsky both believed that in order to enter heaven and be among the blessed before God, one does not have to live a completely isolated and monastic life. Zosima also stated that because he had assumed a monastic life did not necessarily mean that he will be more blessed than others. This Dostoevsky belief became more apparent when Zosima’s corpse rotted after his death, which in those times meant that the deceased did not have any saint-like qualities that assured it of a prominent place in heaven. This comes as a contradiction, considering that Father Zosima lived a very pure life.
In addition to presenting his belief that a spiritual life could be achieved outside of a church, Dostoevsky also used Father Zosima as a means of introducing the virtues he tried to and wished to live by: the Russian “folk’s” importance in this world; the salvation of mankind through suffering; love of all living things; being non-judgmental; and the role of the Russian youth in the generation to come. Critics argue that Alyosha, not Dmitri, holds place as the main character of the novel. Though Alyosha eventually becomes a hero and performs many magnanimous deeds as opposed to his brothers, the novel revolves around Dmitri and his actions.
Dmitri can best be described as a fierce and impulsive sensualist. Raised as a soldier, he found respect as well as marital and financial problems; it can be noted that Dostoevsky likewise suffered from the same problems near his death. Of all the characters, Dmitri undergoes the largest change, transforming himself from a shadow of his vulgar father to a man with hardened values. Though the previous two characters portrayed Dostoevsky’s beliefs through their writings and speeches, Dmitri displays the beliefs mainly through his actions.
Dmitri embodies Dostoevsky’s spirit in his contradictory actions and emotions, made clearer by the statement, “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. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of Madonna. ” Those contradictory impulses strong in Dmitri’s character help to prolong the suffering he has endured in his short life. But as Zosima and Dostoevsky both believed, the salvation of mankind can only come through love and suffering.
Thus, Zosima bowed before Dmitri in a strange manner, similar to Raskolnikov bowing before the prostitute in “Crime and Punishment,” because he saw the suffering and love in Dmitri’s heart that made him special in a spiritual way. In jail, Dmitri eventually finds this lasting salvation in accepting the fact that he did not murder his father, but must pay whatever consequences through suffering, whether it be in jail, Siberia, or in America far away from his beloved Russia. The final and most intriguing character, Alyosha, enters the scene as Dostoevsky’s true idol.
Alyosha does not possess Ivan’s pride nor Dmitri’s fierceness, but from the beginning felt only love and caring for others. Dostoevsky’s belief that spirituality can be achieved outside of a monastic, isolated life become clearer upon close analysis of Alyosha’s character. Torn between his wish to serve God wholeheartedly and Father Zosima’s dying order to leave the monastery, Alyosha must make a difficult decision. Reluctant at first, he finds his answer in a dream involving Jesus Christ and the biblical marriage at Cana. Through the dream, Alyosha found a reason to live and a way to expand his spirituality outside of the monastery.
By not immediately attending at the dying Zosima’s death, Alyosha quickly displays his decision to put responsibility over spiritual troubles. His specific calling comes in the form of helping children, notably by assisting the sick boy, Ilyusha. Alyosha helps his impoverished family, and prepares Ilyusha’s classmates to withstand the spiritual difficulties they will face in the future. This belief, Dostoevsky’s last in his entire literary life, involved the importance of the youth in the future of their Russian country. The belief in the children can be clearly epitomized by the final scene of the novel.
Ironically, the children hold their hands together and yell, “three cheers for Karamazov,” ending this depressing masterpiece in a joyous mood. Yet, it may not be so paradoxical when one understands Dostoevsky’s tormented mind that did not trust the government and the people, but always found a special place in his heart for the innocent children who will shape the future of Russia. In conclusion, Dostoevsy’s “The Brothers Karamazov” delved deep into the human mind to search for answers that troubled a cruel world. He used his characters to enlighten his beliefs, formed through hard years of joy and torture.
He attempts to present himself through Smerdyakov, Father Zosima, Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha, each with their own values and actions which make the novel more than an adventure story. These characters helped society see the soul of a man who carried vengeance in his heart, yet maintained a love for mankind characteristic of the biblical Job, whose suffering only brought more sympathy and blessings in the eyes of God. On an ironic note, Dostoevsky presented Alyosha Karamazov as a young man who would instill the love and spirituality to the innocent children needed to turn the backward country of Russia into a global power.
These children did indeed change Russia 30 years later, not as spiritual lovers but as violent rebels in a communist revolution. They sought to free the peasants and laborers by theory, but in reality created a totalitarian state more powerful than even Peter the Great could have imagined. Now, the once powerful Russia lies wasted amidst the same poverty it dwelled in one hundred years earlier. Truly an ironic twist to the beliefs of a prophetic man.