Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I only read this book because it was listed among 25 books that Christians should read [1].  Having read a few books that deal with Russian spirituality [2], this book was not unfamiliar to me, although I can’t say that I really liked it all that much.  The book is long, which is not too unusual for an epic Russian novel, but what is most striking about it is how little happens.  I talked to my mom, for example, who claims to have watched a two-hour movie about the book that likely did the plot of the book justice.  Most of the book consists of painfully boring conversations narrated clumsily by an unreliable narrator who purports to be putting the story together from the past, and who includes meaningless tangents and digressions as well as clumsy foreshadowing.  This is not a book that is very easy to appreciate as it is, though it can be appreciated for showing a certain skill in writing and very clever literary and cultural allusions, if you are into that sort of thing.  I did not find enough in this novel for me to like it, but I certainly found enough to respect it, and perhaps that is enough.

The plot of this 800 page behemoth is rather rudimentary.  Three very different brothers have a lot of very boring conversations with each other and with others, some of whom are women with whom they are involved in a variety of frustrated love triangles, some of whom are relatives or neighbors, and some of whom are strangers from St. Petersburg going to the provinces where the Karamazov family is somewhat of a big deal and somewhat resented for it.  This, by and large, is not very enjoyable to read.  The narrator is unreliable to the extreme, and that makes this novel more than a little bit tiresome for those who are hoping for the action of, say, War & Peace.  That is not to say that the novel is devoid of incident.  The father of the Karamazov family, including three legitimate sons and one likely illegitimate son and at least one daughter, is murdered, and suspicion falls on the profligate older son, although the (likely) illegitimate son who is the family cook kills himself and thus avoids having to give testimony that may incriminate himself.  Meanwhile, the middle son is an atheist and the youngest son is a somewhat dull but polite young novice who is impressed by the faithfulness of one of the characters in the novel who dies during the course of the rather plodding proceedings.

Will you like this novel if you read it?  There are ways that this novel can be enjoyed.  If one wants to see a picture of a Russia caught between the loss of faith that came with gnostic Western philosophies and a somewhat simple-minded Russian religious tradition, if one wants to see the bitterness and hatred that come from years of petty problems between the wealthy and those who are less well-off, as well as between family members that have various problems with each other, and if one wants too look at a very early and even prophetic discussion of the tension between a desire to remain in Russia and enjoy a better life in America, this book has a lot to offer.  One can enjoy this novel for the wittiness of its references to the Bible and to fictional literature, one can read this novel for characters if one wants a lot of characters who don’t do very much but talk a lot and ineffectually and seldom (except for the youngest Karamazov brother) listen, but one is not likely to enjoy this novel reading it for plot.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    My first exposure to the book was in a philosophy class. The professor was an atheist, and we had a section about the problem of evil. She had us read the section in which Ivan complains about the injustice in the world to Alyosha.

    I read an abridged version a few years later and did not care for it. Then I watched a movie version of it in Russian (with English subtitles), and read the unabridged version. I liked it more that time around. I didn’t care for the intellectual kid, though, since he put other people down.

    I read a book by Philip Yancey a year or so later, and he explained that section of the book about the church accepting the temptations that Jesus refused, and I appreciated that section of the Brothers Karamazov more after that.

    I haven’t read a Dostoevsky novel since then, though. I have been thinking of reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

    • I thought that Toltoy’s War And Peace was an excellent 1200 page novel followed by a pretty terrible 100 page essay on free will and determinism. I’m glad you read/watched things that made you appreciate the Brothers Karamazov more, as that hasn’t yet happened with me. I must admit that I found the novel highly disappointed and overrated.

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