Review: ‘The Brothers Karamazov’


The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyoder Dostoevsky

  • Date Finished: Jan. 18, 2015
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1880
  • Project: Big Books Project
  • Reading List: 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts:

And with the final page of The Brothers Karamazov, not only did I finish my 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25 list, but I wrapped up one of the last “giant” Russians I still had yet to read, a list that includes War and PeaceAnna Karenina and Crime and Punishment.

OK, I know there are other “Russians” out there, but I do have this very strange soft spot for the “big ones” – the books that seem too impossibly long to read, the books people avoid, the books that take you weeks and weeks to finish. Others may find them too long, too philosophical, too convoluted, too confusing (especially the names). I find them totally engrossing and completely delightful.

But back to the Karamazov brothers. I gave this book an A- not because I didn’t enjoy it – I really did. However, it was a little too convoluted and confusing at times. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the challenge of untangling Dostoevsky’s words and working my way through some of the more difficult passages. But Dostoevsky is very much an “interior” writer; he is chiefly concerned with what’s going on inside a man’s head – all the interior monologues, the self-exploration and incrimination. There is a lot of rambling dialogue in Dostoevsky. Now, Dostoevsky is a very psychological and intellectual writer as well, and these pages of dialogue can be absolutely fascinating.

However, when we’re talking about moving a story along … he can be a little slow. In between those rambling bouts of dialogue is … not a lot of action, which can drag on for a reader. Slogging through a 20-page monologue, with very little payoff of plot at the end, can make the book seem longer than it is. And The Brothers Karamazov is, by far, the longest Dostoevsky novel I’ve read, and it certainly felt that way.  I don’t remember feeling like that while reading Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground, though, and I feel like that’s because Dostoevsky (for me) flourishes in the shorter form.

Plus, one can’t read a “long Russian novel” without comparing it to the master of the Long Russian Novel: Leo Tolstoy. And – believe it or not, I’ve thought about this before – I’m much more a Tolstoy girl than a Dostoevsky girl. I feel like that’s an admission of anti-intellectualism, but oh well. I respect The Brothers Karamazov – I loved Anna Karanina. I even think I liked War and Peace better, and that’s because Tolstoy knew how to take an absurdly long novel and turn it into something fascinating and engaging.

But again, this does not detract from The Brothers Karamazov, because this is a very different novel than anything Tolstoy wrote. Like both Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground, this is a novel about individuals, and what motivates individuals to perform certain acts, in a certain set of circumstances. Why do we kill? Why do we hate? Why do we love? Why do we believe in God? What is crime? How are men deemed guilty? What is morality?

This novel is also about God and belief, and what kind of influence “religion” and “faith” has in the ordinary course of life. I found the intellectual struggle between Aloysha and Ivan fascinating, particularly Ivan’s poem “The Grand Inquisitor.” I believe I read in the introduction that Dostoevsky is meant to scorn Ivan’s worldly opinions on religion and faith, yet I found the discussion surrounding this “fable” of sorts to be one of the more interesting conversations on religion that I’ve read in quite awhile.

Overall, this was an excellent book, and though it took me awhile to read (I forced myself to stick to 50 pages at a time, if only not to feel overwhelmed by all 776 pages of it), I was able to plow through it with remarkable ease. Above all, I enjoyed myself while reading it, which is a lot to say. Especially about a giant Russian novel. Definitely, a book to recommend to those feeling bold and brave.


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