The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Too much of Dostoyevsky’s “greatest work” is protracted melodrama.

As I type these words there are 4,116 reviews of this book on Goodreads. I’m writing this one to add a note of 3-star dissent to the avalanche of 5-star ratings.

At age 13 I was awakened to the existence of great literature by reading Crime and Punishment, a pocket-book edition of which stood in the living-room bookcase and whose title intrigued me. The story grabbed me and did not let go. I was shocked and fascinated by a protagonist who was a cold-blooded murderer, and when I finished the book, lying in my bed one night, tears swam in my eyes.

So when I got myself a copy of The Brothers Karamazov in December 1984, I was expecting great things: another Crime and Punishment, but more (913 pages). I started reading the book twice over the years, but bailed out both times a couple of hundred pages in. But now that I have a set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World, and since The Brothers Karamazov forms the content of volume 52 of that set, and I have committed myself to reading the whole set, this time I was not going to bail. If I could read all of Capital by Karl Marx, reading any novel by Dostoyevsky would be a pleasure.

And, in the main, it was. But it was also, here and there, a push. I could see why I had given up on my previous attempts: there just wasn’t enough nourishment in there for me. What was I not happy with?

One problem is with the narration of the story. The narrator, while never named, is nonetheless a distinct person who lives in the town in which the story takes place, and who freely refers to himself as “I.” He often admits ignorance about details of the story, just might happen if he were telling it to you in a pub: things like, “whether he got the money that way or some other way I don’t know.” But in many other places he describes scenes—scenes that the narrator never witnessed—in great detail. True, this way of doing things might just be part of the “personality” of the narrator, but for me it created dissonance, and a feeling that the author did not have a firm control over the way he was telling his story.

The story itself is surprisingly slight for a work of this bulk. The main plot is about a murder, an arrest, and a trial. The murder, however, is more than 400 pages in, so the reader spends much time beforehand learning about the characters involved and following story lines that turn out to be subplots. There is an aimless quality to the action until the murder, a feeling of, “okay, but so what? why are we doing this?”

In brief, the story concerns a wealthy, dissolute self-made man named Fyodor Karamazov and his three sons Dmitry, Ivan, and Alexey. Only two of these sons had the same mother(and both mothers are now dead), and all three were raised apart from each other, mostly away from their father. Dmitry, the eldest at close to 30 years old, is a soldier; Ivan is an intellectual and a socialist; and Alexey, just over 20, is a softhearted humanitarian with religious leanings. Also, among the servants at the house is an epileptic named Smerdyakov, who may or may not be a half-brother to the Karamazov boys. While Alexey has been living as a lay resident at a local monastery under the guidance of his mentor Father Zossima, the elder two brothers have only recently returned to town, and they both, in their different ways, are locked in conflict with their father. In the case of Dmitry that conflict extends to rivalry for the love of a young demimondaine named Grushenka.

There are complexities surrounding this situation which involve other characters as well, and the whole is well conceived and lifelike, a testament to Dostoyevsky’s creative powers. But somehow he did not make it all gel together into a coherent whole. For example, much of the early part of the book concerns Alexey and his relationship with Father Zossima, with more than one chapter devoted to Zossima’s account of his own early life; but Zossima is gone before the main action starts, and Alexey’s role in that main story is really nothing more than that of a bystander and confidante.

According to the translator’s introduction to this edition, The Brothers Karamazov was the final blending-together of 5 different novels that Dostoyevsky had been working on or considering over the previous 10 years or so, each dealing with a major theme that preoccupied him: things like the existence of God, the fate of Russia, and the calamity, in his opinion, of a new jury-based trial process. These things are all here, but with a feeling of being merely added together rather than integrated.

But my real problem is with the story’s drama itself: the actual portrayal of the character interactions. By the time I was halfway through, my dominant impression was one of mentally unstable characters making histrionic speeches. This is a book full of flighty, emotional people who talk big and do little. For example, opening the book at random, I find this:

“He’s a fledgling to you, Rakitin, and you know why? Because you’ve no conscience. That’s why! You see, I love him with all my soul. I do, indeed! Alyosha, do you believe I love you with all my soul?”

“The shameless hussy! She’s making you a declaration of love, Alexey!”

“What about it? I do love him.”

“Just like a woman!”

“Don’t make me angry, Rakitin,” Grushenka cried warmly. “I love Alyosha in a different way. It’s quite true, Alyosha, I had designs on you. For I’m a low, violent creature, but there are times, Alyosha, when I look on you as my conscience. I go on thinking how a man like you must despise a bad woman like me.”

For me this writing is much too “on the nose”; there is no subtlety, no subtext. It’s like living with someone who has a personality disorder: the passionate declarations get wearing after a while. There is page after page of flirtations, anger, and reproaches, mostly signifying nothing. Characters make ardent avowals of their undying love, only to switch in the next moment to venomous hatred—and back again.

I waded through the inconclusive talk in hope of catching the characters doing things, and occasionally they do—but only occasionally. And when it comes to descriptive writing, Dostoyevsky here does not shine; far too often he relies on adjectives and adverbs to convey the effects he’s seeking, including dulling words like very and suddenly. He’s not above resorting to cliches like beating a hasty retreat or at a bound.

In all, I found this book to be overwritten in just about every sense. It’s much too long for what it contains, and the quantity of scenes presented at what is intended as a high emotional pitch causes the effect to wear off quickly. Robert McKee calls writing melodramatic when characters lack motivation for what they do and say, and such motivation is often lacking here.

The Brothers Karamazov is a soap opera written by an author of unusual talent and power. The characters talk at length but we don’t really glimpse their inner lives. For much of this novel I felt I was witnessing exchanges and watching action, but I felt little. For me the most interesting character was Father Zossima, and he was gone all too soon.

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