my Russian immersion

I have wanted to read The Brothers Karamozov for probably 10 years. I remember seeing it for the first time on the library shelf at NNU, and thinking, “that’s a long book.” As a seminary student you hear about Dostoyevsky in one out of every three classes, and Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov are the only titles ever referenced. I have been reading voraciously since Rosalie’s birth, but have discovered that I need to vary my reading to keep motivated. So after finishing some Edward Abby, and becoming a bleeding heart liberal, I decided that I should get a more realistic picture of life from the Russian great. Three weeks or so after finishing The Brothers Karamozov here are two themes that I am still digesting. Warning, I am giving away the end of the book.

The characters that come to painful or evil ends are those who are either incurably selfish, or are portrayed as the (pessimistic) realists: the buffoon Fyodor Karamozov, murdered; the passionate Dmitry Karamozov, found guilty of a murder he did not commit; the pseudo-intellectual Smerdyakov, hangs himself; and the disbelieving Ivan Karamozov heading to death  with brain fever.  Amazingly, Dostoyevsky makes all of these characters, with the possible exception of Smerdyakov, likable in their own way. The end of the book is particularly dissatisfying because of the guilty verdict against Dmitry, and the unresolved plot to free him from prison. This is probably an overly simplistic summary of Dostoyevsky, but the theme is undeniable.

As the book deals with the themes of evil and suffering, it is cool to me that Dostoyevsky calls Alexey Karamozov the hero of the story. This is a misnomer, there are no heroes in this book! However, Aloysha (as he is called) is perhaps the most consistent character throughout, he does not waiver from his purposes to satisfy momentary desires. Though he is often on errands for other people. He is devoted to his faith, and manages to remain sane until the end, in spite of the terrible circumstances he witnesses. His brother Ivan Karamozov is his foil, the realistic intellectual, who has dismissed religious faith as untenable, considering the prevalence of suffering in the world. Alexey never refutes the arguments of Ivan, he simply holds his faith, and lives to make good out of the suffering where he can. The epilogue of the book gives a really cool picture of Aloysha caring for the boys in town after the death of their friend.

This simple summary fails to include so many of the most compelling characters, Father Zossima, Grushenka, Katerina, and Gregory and Marfa. But I cannot resist retelling my favorite story from the book:

Aloysha comes upon a scene of several school boys throwing rocks and mocking one of their schoolmates. We later learn the lone schoolboy is named Ilyusha. As Aloysha helps to keep the boys from harming or killing Ilyusha he approaches the lone boy. Ilyusha is verbally combative with Aloysha, and eventually bites him on the finger badly enough to draw a great deal of blood. The story is such a stark picture of how wounded and hurt people do the most damage to others. No body would have blamed Aloysha for hitting the boy in retaliation and in the culture it wouldn’t have been a problem, but Aloysha is patient and caring even while binding his wound.

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