The Brothers Karamazov – 11 & 12 (Conclusion)

Kuindzhi Evening 1885 1890

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 712, 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.

The Brothers Karamazov – 10: Boys

Click here for other installments in this review series…

Antonio Mancini - Il Malatino

What does it say about Dostoyevsky that, after the roller coaster of the last three parts, he switches gears and writes a whole section about – schoolboys?

Let me just say: any remaining reservations I had about his writing skills disappeared in this part.  I mean that seriously.  As with “The Russian Monk” (VI), this part left me very impressed.

Most of us who have ever thought of being writers know about the Character Arc.  We tend to think the Character Arc is a long journey (it is).  But the most difficult part is actually writing it.  It can become a laborious process, and in the middle of that process we writers tend to lose the subtlety of good writing that the rest of our novel may possess.  We usually sacrifice the subtlety because the Character Arc appears to us like the milestones of life – big, earth-shattering, and loudly delineated.  Plot twist: it doesn’t have to be.

Dostoyevsky uses the conflict and dynamics between Ilyusha and the other schoolboys for two purposes.  One is to include social commentary, such as thirteen-year-old Kolya’s rant against medicine (reminiscent of Bazarov from Fathers and Sons).  Kolya is very outspoken and claims to be a socialist, later admitting some of his ideas are copied verbatim from books he has read.  He argues with Alyosha only to realize he doesn’t have any foundation to stand on.  The endnotes to the P&V edition suggest Dostoyevsky wrote Kolya this way as a critique of such perspectives, with the implication that those ideas are “schoolboyish.”  Whether an effective argument or not, it’s plausible enough in the insecure, confused, yet good-intentioned Kolya.

The second purpose of going “off-topic” in part 10 is the aforementioned Character Arc.  We see Alyosha again, but now he is not wearing his monastic attire.  He is acting as a mediator between the proud Kolya and Kolya’s former friend Ilyusha, who has now fallen ill and fears that Kolya holds a grudge against him.  The fact that Alyosha has, for the time, left the Karamazov scandal behind him to come and help Ilyusha and his family is quite extraordinary.  This is the same Alyosha who was so intent on being the communicator in his own family; the same Aloysha who, in his own moral struggle, went to talk to Grushenka for Dmitri’s sake.  And he is the one who felt confusion and grief over his personal loss that nobody else really understood.

He followed God’s Will while living in the monastery.  Now he’s found his calling, which is to have the heart of a monk while living within society, with all its flaws and suffering.  In answer to my question from book two, I think Alyosha will be all right.  If there’s any justice by the end of this book – I think he’ll be all right.