Russian literature, the thing that has been the most intimidating to read since I started reading novels. I always thought that I would get around to reading Russian lit but I always pushed it further in the future. One day I read recommendations on what author writes the best characters and Dostoevsky’s name came up. A friend of mine was reading The Brothers Karamazov at the same time and I decided that The Brothers Karamazov would be my introduction to Russian literature.
Never have I experienced so many emotions while reading a book. I read this off and on from mid July 2015 to Nov 3, 2015 and it was the most frustrating, demanding, difficult, inspiring, rewarding, and amazing experience. Never have I experienced the written word quite like this.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is the story of three brothers living in Russia. The three brothers have been away from each other for quite some time, as one of them was raised elsewhere, and the other two stay away from their father. In fact, Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov is basically despised by his sons, Ivan, Mitya, and Alyosha. The three brothers couldn’t be any more different, Ivan is highly intellectual and a scholar, Mitya lives life moment by moment and is passionate, and Alyosha is spiritual and discerning. We see most of the story through the eyes of Alyosha, a monk that is just about to finish his time at the monastery. He is reunited with his father and two other brothers and their difference in personality and view of life causes interesting conversations about religion, life, love, and meaning. Mitya has a fiance named Katerina, but is actually in love with a woman named Grushenka. Fyodor, Mitya’s father is also in love with Grushenka, and Grushenka just loves all these men wanting her. Ivan is actually in love with Katerina, Mitya’s fiance, and Alyosha is trying to decide between a life serving God or not. All of these individuals are just trying to figure out what will make them happy, but when one of them gets murdered, it all implodes.
The first thing that needs to be said about The Brothers Karamazov is the writing style. To understand the writing style is to know if this is something you would enjoy or not. I found the writing style to be the best writing I have ever read in my entire life. I have the Constance Garner translated edition and I have looked at the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations as well, and both translations are just beautiful. I now compare every book I read based on the prose in The Brothers Karamazov. Each sentence is a rich tapestry of meaning that I found intoxicating to read. The sentences are relatively long, complex, and using many commas, the type of sentence structure I love in writing. Dostoevsky is able to describe philosophical and religious ideals with such clarity that it really challenged my thinking. The dialogue is something to behold, as characters talk for pages at a time. Some readers will believe that the dialogue and characters are melodramatic in style, but I love the dialogue.
I must mention something extremely important when it comes to The Brothers Karamazov, religion plays an important part of the book. I, being a religious person, found the discussions on religion to be amazing, however, someone that isn’t interested in religion at all, will have a very hard time with it. Dostoevsky uses The Brothers Karamazov to discuss theological questions concerning religion. Depending on who is talking in the scene, the discussion could be atheistic in nature or theological. Having an understanding of religion is relatively important in understanding what the arguments are that each side is making. Where current atheistic vs religion debates are the same few catch phrases said over and over, the debates in The Brothers Karamazov go into deeper territory, discussing actual specifics of religious philosophy.
This is just as much a book on philosophy as it is a fictional piece. Dostoevsky uses his last great work to discuss the things he finds important happening in Russia. This covers things such as justice, anarchism, what is evil, and the responsibility citizens have to each other. The large sections at the beginning of the book, before the murder later in the book, is where most of these discussions take place.
My favorite character in the entire novel is Grushenka. She has become my favorite female character of any book. She is so unique and ahead of her time as a character. She loves the attention of men, uses it to get her way, knows her power over men, but is never the victim of men. She is a strong woman that loves to play games with men and even other women. She is manipulative and just downright mean at times. She has a confidence and air about her that other women just don’t have and I loved any scene with her in it. She is just that sassy girl that is easy to like.
All of the Karamazov brothers are such fleshed out and detailed characters. Mitya is probably my favorite Karamazov. He just acts without thinking and doesn’t care about the ramification. He never thinks through his plans and is always the life of the party. I am so unlike Mitya and I think that’s why I like him so much. Where I like to schedule and be discerning, Mitya just goes with what feels right at the moment. His attitude gets him in a heap of trouble but it’s entertaining to read. His dialogue is just hilarious because he treats every words as if it is the most important thing he has every uttered in his whole life.
The plot of The Brothers Karamazov is overshadowed by the writing and the characters. The plot is relatively straight forward and there are other side plots added but nothing super amazing. The court scene at the end of the book is fantastic but that is because of how well it is written. I would say that the plot is the weakest point of The Brothers Karamazov but it isn’t bad.
This book is not for every reader. I’d say these requirements would be a good place to start to know if you’ll like this book. #1 You want to read Russian literature. #2 You want to read a story with a lot of religious philosophy. #3 You are alright with a book that reads extremely slowly that will take you longer than most books. #4 You want to read a beautifully written book with some of the best chapters in the written language. #5 You want to read a purely character driven story. If you said yes to all of these, than you probably will enjoy this book. If you said yes to 3 or less of these points, than maybe try another Russian writer.
Finally, I want to mention how much this book improved my reading ability. Over the months reading this book, I actually noticed a surprising difference in my ability to read complex literature. I struggled reading this book at first but as the months went on, I had no issue. This has translated to other books I’ve read since and I have become a better reader through reading something that challenged me. It doesn’t need to be this book, but pick something up that is challenging once in awhile, so that you can grow as a reader.
5/5 22/25 Possible Score
Plot – 3(Good)
Characters – 5(Very Strong)
Setting – 4(Strong)
Writing Style – 5(Very Strong)
Heart & Mind Aspect – 5(Very Strong – Mind)