Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov

I have just finished The Brothers Karamazov (henceforth TBK), another book I should have read long ago. What a marvelous book! I attempted to read it long ago in my early twenties, but I never made it past the first chapter. Recently I vowed to finish it after reading Arrested Development IS The Brothers Karamazov on First Things. I downloaded the most well-recommended audiobook version I could find, an abridged narration by Simon Vance that was only 19.25 hours long. I love listening to audiobooks for dense tomes that I find intimidating, but the drawback is that it is difficult to easily re-listen to passages and pause whenever I’d like to think about what I’d just heard. Audiobooks proceed relentlessly forward, which is both their blessing and their curse!

There are spoilers below, so if you’re averse to hearing about the plot turn back now!


I had only the vaguest notions of the plot before making my way through TBK–I knew that the novel concerned the murder of the father and that each of the brothers had an opposing worldview (the sensualist, the humanist intellectual, the acolyte) and I heard a spoiler somewhere that implicated Smerdyakov in the old man’s death. I knew that Father Zossima was based on St. Tikhon of Zadonsk and that chapter The Grand Inquisitor was hailed as one of the most important chapters in literary history. None of those nuggets of knowledge prepared me for the experience of TBK.

To me, the primary idea of TBK is that we are all responsible for the good and evil of all, and each of the characters plays this out to one extreme or another. I must soon read TBK again with a different translation (Pevear and Lolokhonsky rather than Constance Garnett) but for now, I will let the ideas of the book marinate within me.

I was quite taken by how modern the many arguments for or against the existence of God sounded to me as an American of the early 21st century. I think that our cultural zeitgeist in regard to spirituality is in a somewhat similar place as pre-revolutionary Russia. The biblical language and existential themes also reminded me greatly of some of the best of Southern literature, but perhaps this is due to my own bias as I am both a Southerner and Eastern Orthodox.

I will end with a few of the quotes that pierced me most deeply. Go read TBK if you have not already!

“The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.”

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

“Even there, in the mines, underground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths a lofty soul, a feeling, suffering creature; one may bring forth an angel, create a hero! There are so many of them, hundreds of them, and we are to blame for them.”

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

Image credit: Alan Campbell