Ellis Washington
On Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
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By Ellis Washington
May 17, 2015


Telling the truth and making someone cry is better than telling a lie and making someone smile.

Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and honor those whom they have slain.


~ Dostoyevsky

Biography of Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (11 November 1821–9 February 1881), was a Russian novelist, polemicist, philosopher, journalist and short story writer. Dostoyevsky's literary writings plunged into the deepest depths of human psychology and into the dystopian and spiritual landscape of Russia in the 1800s. A majority of his writings have a strong Christian worldview, and the recurring theme and narrative of absolute love, compassion and charity, discovered within the heart of the individual, despite all of the privations and trials of life.

Dostoyevsky's first novel, Poor Folk (1846) was published when he was age 25. His definitive writings include Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), Demons(1872) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). His prolific oeuvre includes eleven novels, seventeen short novels, three novellas, and many ancillary writings like his numerous philosophical essays and newspaper articles. Most literary critics consider Dostoyevsky to be one of the greatest writers in history of the genre of psychological literature. A literary pioneer in many respects, his novella Notes from Underground (1864) is one of the original examples of existentialist literature.

Dostoyevsky was a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, a secret society of socialist utopians that also operated as a literary discussion group seriously involved in the works of Charles Fourier (1772-1837), a French philosopher and a significant early socialist thinker later connected with "utopian socialism" and who ideas were first connected to the philosophy of feminism, a term Fourier invented. In 1849 Dostoyevsky was arrested for his participation with the Petrashevsky Circle and he, along with other socialist utopians, received the death sentence which Tsar Nicholas I at the last minute commuted to ten years' hard labor in Siberia. Dostoyevsky suffered horrible seizures during his Siberian imprisonment and he was later diagnosed with epilepsy. Before being freed from prison Dostoyevsky was conscripted into the Russian military, but was later discharged due to his ill health.

After his prison years, Dostoyevsky worked as a journalist, publishing and editing several magazines and started travelling throughout Europe where his gambling habits caused him many economic troubles, which in its worst period caused him to beg for money. Yet in time he would achieve the distinction of being one of the most popular read Russian writers of all time. His books have been translated into more than 170 languages. Dostoyevsky influenced many subsequent writers and philosophers, from Anton Chekhov and Ernest Hemingway to Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse, Virginia Wolf, and many other celebrated writers, poets, philosophers and intellectuals well into the twentieth century.

Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

The Karamazov name is very recognized in Russia; it conveys violence and brooding Slavic passion. For example, there exist persisting rumors of Fyodor Karamazov – who in his youth was vulgar and wasteful and known for his drunken binges and spendthrift acts. His family life is chaotic. He has three sons – Dmitri from his first wife and Ivan and Alyosha from his second wife. Fyodor Pavlovich shamefully ignores his sons, and ships them off to relatives and friends at the death of their mothers. Dmitri Karamazov, is a young soldier of 28 at the opening of the novel, and has just returned to Fyodor Pavlovich's town. Angry at his uninvited son, Fyodor Pavlovich knows Dmitri has come for his inheritance bequeathed to him by his mother. Nevertheless, the greedy Fyodor does not want to give Dmitri his inheritance.


Dostoyevsky's original manuscript [chap. 5]: The first part of The Brothers Karamazov is about exposition. Character by character revealed in detail, each held in an individual chapter.

However, if Karamazov was clever enough to avoid Dmitri, could he escape other pressing issues so effectively like the difficulties of his other sons, Ivan and Alyosha? For example, when Dmitri was just age four, he was whisked away to the care of relatives, thus allowing Karamazov to marry again. This second wife, Sofya Ivanovna, was very attractive and her beauty and her virtuousness fascinated the brutal Karamazov. He persuaded Sofya to elope with him and shamefully took full advantage of her reticent character including forcing her to witness outrageous orgies he participated in with strange, lewd women while in her presence.

Eventually Sofya Ivanovna had two sons, Ivan and Alyosha, nevertheless, because of Karamazov's years of brutality and decadence, it took a horrible toll on her health and she rapidly fell ill and died. Like with son, Dmitri, once again Karamazov shipped off Ivan and Alyosha to be taken care of by others – this time the mother's former guardian, yet upon her own death, the two boys inherited a wealthy sum for their educations.

Ivan Karamazov became a talented student and supported himself by being a journalist. Overtime he became a celebrated writer in many literary circles (reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's own life), even writing a famous article on the purpose of the clerical courts which was celebrated by the monastery in his home town. Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, became a piously religious person of pure devotion, yet his religious views were well-established in reality and untainted by excessive spirituality or radicalism. (Here, perhaps is a veiled criticism of fellow writer Leo Tolstoy who was a radical anarcho-pacifist). A saint in every circumstance, Alyosha never complained about any person and was beloved by the community.

When Dostoyevsky begins his epic narrative, Alyosha comes back to his father's home to see his brothers. While he and Dmitri become fast friends, he feels perplexed by Ivan's introspective nature and intelligence. Alyosha loves his father unconditionally; he has never once disapproved or judged his father's behavior. Alyosha is now a monk and the disciple of the renowned elder, Zossima. An elder," Dostoyevsky wrote, "was one who took your soul, your will, into his soul and his will." But there was also an existential dualism: a leitmotif that appeared throughout the works of Dostoyevsky. Here, an elder, by being a ubiquitous role model of virtue and self-sacrifice in the community, frequently attracted many admirers and would-be disciples, but also attracted factions based on envy, jealously, perversity and duplicity. This Good-Evil dualism theme is derivative of Dostoyevsky's profound understanding of human nature where he would write regarding a prevailing paradox throughout history – "Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and honor those whom they have slain."

When the Karamazov's come together the real purpose of their reunion is very troubling to Alyosha. The conflict between Dmitri and his father has come to a boiling point and the father has proposed a meeting in Father Zossima's cell, where they hope this clergy can mediate a reasonable resolution of their extreme differences. Alyosha, who knows his brothers and his father better than given credit, has a profound apprehension regarding this meeting which ends with the mysterious death of their evil father.

Ivan tells Smerdyakov about the death of Fyodor Pavlovich and Smerdyakov confesses to Ivan that he, and not Dmitri, is guilty of his murder. Nevertheless he confesses that Ivan is also connected to the murder since the ethical lessons Smerdyakov learned from Ivan regarding the logical impossibility of evil existing in a world without a God, possibly provoked Smerdyakov to kill. This confession causes Ivan to develop a guilt obsession. When Ivan returns home he suffers a nervous breakdown which he understands to be as the result of demonic activity. The evil spirit disappears when Alyosha comes with the news that Smerdyakov has committed suicide by hanging.

During the trial, Dmitri's case is going well until Ivan testifies on the stand. When Ivan confesses that he is guilty of the murder, the courtroom falls into utter confusion. Defending Ivan's name, Katerina holds up a letter she received from Dmitri confessing his apprehension that he may one day murder his father. Nevertheless the courtroom is unmoved even after the letter is read, and remain convinced of Dmitri's innocence. However, when the jury, consisting of peasants, judge Ivan guilty, he is returned to prison where he will be sent to a Siberian prison.

Once the trial had concluded, Katerina takes Ivan home and nurses him back to recovery from his illness. Katerina and Dmitri reconcile, and she plots Dmitri's escape from prison to America with Grushenka. Alyosha's friend Ilyusha dies, and Alyosha makes an impassioned and well-received eulogy to the schoolboys at his funeral where he tells them that they must never forget the love they share for one each other and cultivate and cherish their memories of each other continuously. Alyosha's eulogy is met with thunderous applause.

Dostoyevsky in Modern Times

After writing Crime and Punishment (1866), Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot (1868), and his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Dostoevsky's most blackest, profound and complex opus probing fundamental philosophical problems and complex questions of human nature and human existence which paved the way for the founding fathers of modern psychoanalysis, psychology, psychiatry – Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Sandor Ferenczi, Abraham Brill, Ernest Jones, and others into the twentieth century. In this magnificent opus, Dostoyevsky analyzes the struggle between faith and doubt, the question of free will, and the problem of moral autonomy. Dostoevsky died in 1881, only a year after The Brothers Karamazov was published.

Dostoyevsky was obsessed about the idea of universal unity. This idea is derivative of one and the same end of earthly peace, and thus necessitates one city of man as well as one city of God (recall St. Augustine's classic book City of God). That, according to Dostoevsky, seems to be inferred in the idea that "the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men. Mankind as a whole," he writes, "has always striven to organize a universal state. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the more highly developed the more unhappy they were, for they felt more acutely than other people the craving for world-wide union." In modern times, Dostoyevsky's Unity-through-God worldview would come to contradict the Socialist-Progressive Unity-through-the Atheist State worldview which has dominated all nations of the world from the 1900s up to today. Dostoyevsky's writings tried (I think unconvincingly) to combine Socialism with Christianity, Humanism and Utopianism.

Derivative of this great and existential clash of ideas – between Good vs. Evil, light vs. darkness, freedom vs. fascism, reminds me of when the Student in Goethe's Faust says, "I'm now almost inclined to try Theology," Mephistopheles replies:
    I would not wish to lead you so astray.

    In what this science touches, it would be.

    So hard to shun the false, misleading way;

    So much of hidden poison lies therein,

    You scarce can tell it from its medicine.

Socialism slavery, or what we today call 'Liberalism' or 'Progressivism,' is the voice of the devil; and derivative of that worldview come people who understand no conflict between religion and reason or between devotion and inquiry, thus, since the French Revolution (1789-99) and what I call the 'Progressive Revolution' (1860-present) has in modern times won the existential battle to separate church from state religion from theology, reason from madness, which according to both Faust and Dostoyevsky not only looks diabolical... but is always diabolical.

In modern times we understand Dostoevsky's novels as prophetic representations of the hellish living conditions under Soviet czarist tyranny of the 1800s leading inevitably to increasing social discord, society deconstruction and Lenin's Bolshevik Communist Revolution (1917). A few years after this Revolution a new existentialist movement would develop in the 1920s-40s and found inspiration in the writings of Dostoyevsky for his images of human beings struggling against overwhelming forces of life and death, despair, and the anguish of choice. Twentieth century writers such as Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway, and many others were all tremendously influenced by Dostoevsky's writings for his deep psychological probings into the grotesqueries of human nature and into the human condition which along with his unique style, themes, and memorable characters, continue to endure and influence new generations of writers, philosophers and intellectuals as we approach the 200th anniversary of Dostoyevsky's birth.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 30 – Good and Evil; Vol. 2, Chap. 33 – Happiness; Vol. 3, Chap. 74 – Punishment; Vol. 3, Chap. 88 – Soul; Vol. 3, Chap. 92 – Theology; Vol. 52 – Dostoyevsky. In 2013, my son, Stone Washington, wrote an excellent essay on Dostoyevsky's other literary masterpiece, Crime and Punishment.


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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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