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Sep 13 Dostoevsky and the Brothers Karamazov

Today in Christian History we go back to year 1874 and travel to Russia where today the writer Fyodor Doestoevsky finished the first draft for his final novel the Brothers Karamazov. An absorbing mixture of the story of three brothers , a murder mystery and discussion of the validity of religion. It was originally called ‘The Life of a Great Sinner’, the text was altered by a personal tragedy: in May 1878, Dostoevsky's 3-year-old son Alyosha died of epilepsy, a condition inherited from his father. The book would ultimately be published as the Brothers Karamazov as a serial in The Russian Messenger from January 1879 to November 1880 and Dostoevsky died less than four months after its publication.


The novelist's grief at the loss of his son, is apparent throughout the book. Dostoevsky named the hero Alyosha, as well as imbuing him with qualities that he sought and most admired. The death of his son brought Dostoevsky to the Optina Monastery later that year. There he found inspiration for several aspects of The Brothers Karamazov, though at the time he intended to write a novel about childhood instead. Parts of the biographical section of Zosima's life are based on "The Life of the Elder Leonid" the abbot of the monastery to which Alyosha Karamzov belongs to. Dostoevsky found a text he found at Optina Monastery and copied "almost word for word.”

Alyosha Karamazov is the youngest of the Karamazov brothers, being nineteen years old at the start of the novel. The preface and the opening chapter proclaim him as the hero. Dostoevsky intended to write a sequel, which would detail the rest of Alyosha's life, but his death meant that this did not happen. At the outset of the story Alyosha is a novice in the local monastery. In this way Alyosha's beliefs act as a counterbalance to his brother Ivan's atheism. He is sent out into the world by his Elder and subsequently becomes embroiled in the sordid details of his family's life. He becomes involved with, and later engaged to, a young girl named Liza who sinks into depression and self-hatred, spurning her like Prince Myshkin, the protagonist in another Dostoyevsky novel, The Idiot, they are almost Jesus-like characters, who are nevertheless unable to prevent the suffering of those around them. It may be that Alyosha Karamazov is a more robust positive hero than Prince Myshkin as he relys on forgiveness, kindness and natural justice, rather than attempting to change the social order.

The Brothers Karamazov tells of a fictional murder committed by Dmitry the eldest brother who regularly indulges in nights of champagne-drinking and whatever entertainment and stimulation money can buy. His father Fyodor Pavlovich, is a 55-year-old "sponger" and buffoon, is the father of three sons from two marriages. He takes no interest in any of his sons, who are, as a result, raised apart from each other and their father. The relationship between Fyodor and his adult sons drives much of the plot in the novel. Dmitri, the oldest is soon in need of his inheritance, which he believes is being withheld by his father. Engaged to be married he breaks that off after falling in love with Grushenka. His father is very angry and their relationship escalates to violence as he and his father begin fighting over his inheritance and Grushenka. While he maintains a relationship with Ivan, he is closest to his younger brother Alyosha, referring to him as his "cherub".

The 5th chapter of the Brothers Karamzov, called The Grand Inquisitor is perhaps the most famous chapter in the novel. Here, the rationalist and nihilistic ideology that permeated Russia at this time is defended and espoused by Ivan while meeting his brother Alyosha at a restaurant. Ivan has already proclaimed that he rejects the world that God has created because it is built on a foundation of suffering. In "The Grand Inquisitor", Ivan narrates to Alyosha his imagined poem that describes an encounter between a leader from the Spanish Inquisition and Jesus, who has made his return to Earth. The opposition between reason and faith is dramatised and symbolised in a forceful monologue of the Grand Inquisitor who, having ordered the arrest of Jesus, visits Him in prison at night. Why have you come now to hinder us? For you have come to hinder us, and you know that...We are working not with you but with him [Satan]...We took from him what you rejected with scorn, that last gift he offered you, showing you all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth...We shall triumph and shall be Caesars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man.

The Grand Inquisitor accuses Jesus of having inflicted on humankind the "burden" of free will. At the end of the Grand Inquisitor's lengthy arguments, Jesus silently steps forward and kisses the old man on the lips. The Inquisitor, stunned and moved, tells him he must never come there again, and lets him out. Alyosha, after hearing the story, goes to Ivan and kisses him softly on the lips. Ivan shouts with delight. The brother’s part with mutual affection and respect. "The Grand Inquisitor" is arguably one of the best-known passages in modern literature due to its ideas about human nature, freedom, power, authority, and religion, as well as for its fundamental ambiguity. A reference to the poem can be found in English novelist Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited and Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse described Dostoevsky as not a "poet" but a "prophet" and Pope Benedict XVI cited the book in the 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (see pod Aug 10) “God is justice and creates justice,” the Pope wrote. “This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things – justice and grace – must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.”