I finished The Brothers Karamazov this past weekend. From the last two parts, “Brother Ivan Fyodorovich” and “A Judicial Error,” I was left with no particularly strong feelings or impressions. It was a struggle to finish – ultimately, I rate the book 3.5 out of 5 stars, leaning towards 4 on Goodreads (which still doesn’t allow you to have “half” a star.)
Thinking back over this book journal – which I am glad I kept and am sorry to see end – I feel the first half of the book was very strong. The religious chapters and scenes at the monastery were honestly my favorites. Parts III & IV, which is to say books 7–12, were not so interesting, despite being highly sensational, as you come to expect from Dostoyevsky.
Incidentally, this mirrors my reaction to The Idiot. I gave that one a better rating of 4.5, and I have to say I liked that book better…I’m not sure it is a better book, but its treatment of similar themes was more compelling. Anyways, I also thought the first half of The Idiot was excellent, while the second half seemed over the top.
If that weren’t enough, as I recollect now, Notes from Underground went south – pardon the pun – in the second half, too. Now I will have to try Crime and Punishment again, which surely gets only better in the second half (I hope?).
What happened in The Brothers Karamazov? What is this enigmatic Russian classic about? And why was it disappointing?
I think I was expecting more of the human element. You might wonder how a book about every dirty detail of a family could be lacking in that area, but really, it isn’t a character-driven novel. When you read The Idiot, you get inside Myshkin’s head. You empathize with Nastasya, and you fear Rogozhin like a personal enemy (well, nearly!). That didn’t happen in BK, because Dostoyevsky intentionally wrote a social commentary. The endnotes say it, of course, but it’s quite obvious throughout. He wanted us to get acquainted with mentalities, philosophies, and contradictions – not people. The characters are, for the most part, means to that end.
This wasn’t what I was expecting, hence the disappointment. The ending was incredibly abrupt, and so any interest invested in Alyosha or Ivan or Katrina was not given a satisfactory conclusion. In retrospect, it makes sense. I’m not saying BK isn’t a great novel. I do think that, for the modern reader, Dostoyevsky said more, and with more subtlety, in his earlier work The Idiot. Sometimes the best commentary is implied and not outlined. The main thing The Idiot didn’t have were the subplots about the monastery and the schoolboys, which, again, were my favorite parts in The Brothers Karamazov.