First published in tsarist Russia in 1880, The Brothers Karamazov is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s metaphysical masterpiece, a novel alive with rumors of damnation and intimations of immortality. Sigmund Freud believed that the book betrayed darkly enigmatic, even criminal tendencies in Dostoevsky, while a Russian neologism—Karamazovshchina—came to denote the depravity, violence, and psychological deviation which the work explores. Like much of Dostoevsky’s fiction, his final novel combines the tragic with the grotesque, moments of mystical ecstasy with episodes of savage farce. His characters seem to occupy a permanent state of pathological anguish or morbid sensitivity: ruined gentlefolk, buffoonish landowners, and socially paranoid clerks reap a perverse delight from being insulted or humiliated.
His extraordinary novels, among them Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), and Demons (1872), present a society that is sunk in feudal poverty but gripped by avant-garde ideas, awash with anarchism and nihilism, God-fearers and God-deniers. As one who felt the lure of Russian Orthodox Christianity, Dostoevsky set his face firmly against radical politics and liberal secularism; like many a modernist, he was as politically conservative as he was artistically audacious. Yet his imagination was haunted by rebels and parricides, by the damned and debauched, as much as by the saints and scripture. Perhaps dissoluteness is merely a crooked way to heaven. Perhaps the devil understands more about God in his own fashion than the stuff-shirted prig.
The Brothers Karamazov is not only a meditation on grace and sinfulness, hell and salvation. It is also a whodunit. Enormously complex and running to nearly one thousand pages in some editions, the novel revolves around the murder of the landowner Fyodor Karamazov; and the whole action—packed into a mere four days—provides the highly wrought drama of the finest of detective stories. On this slim narrative foundation rests an enormous, unwieldy superstructure of social commentary, religious meditation, and philosophical rumination. Fyodor’s sons, the titular brothers, occasionally teeter on the brink of madness and spiritual ruin, each exhibiting contempt for petty-bourgeois morality. The violent and sexually dissolute Dmitri, a half-sensual, half-childlike moral ruffian, is rent by Oedipal rage. Alexei, the youngest brother, equally disdains the moral middle ground but in the direction of the angelic rather than the demonic. The rationalist middle brother, Ivan, appears to reject God out of hand, engaging in a lively debate with the Devil, who appears as a shabby-genteel figure wearing a pair of unfashionable checkered trousers.
The most extraordinary set piece in the novel is “The Grand Inquisitor.” Ivan shares the tale of the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus with Alexei, as part of a continuing dialogue between the brothers on the question of religious faith. Their discussions are dramatic, strategic affairs rather than straightforward philosophical arguments. We are not therefore to mistake this marvelously rich narrative simply as a reflection of Dostoevsky’s own views. Like Marlowe’s narrative in Heart of Darkness, it is a story within a story. We do not know how accurately it reflects Ivan’s own beliefs, or how far it is influenced by its conversational occasion. During the episode, we are allowed no direct access to his consciousness. Instead, we are given a story which has no existence apart from this particular act of telling, which Ivan himself airily dismisses at one point as “just the muddled poem of a muddled student.” Perhaps he is just trying to get a rise out of his brother, who finds the fable more or less incomprehensible. Is he just out to shake Alexei’s faith? The complex, devious form of the episode, in other words, alerts us to the fact that we are in the presence of literature, not philosophy or theology. The Grand Inquisitor indicts Christ, which does not seem characteristic of the religiously inclined Dostoevsky. On the other hand, the Inquisitor’s low view of the common herd sounds close enough to his author’s own opinions. There is nothing in this great chapter we are allowed to take straight. The truth is not to be bought so cheaply.