“Dostoevsky’s personages seem to dwarf their surroundings with the same superhuman majesty as the figures of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.”

A First Day Introduction
by Dennis Abrams

Welcome everyone to our first day of reading Dostoevsky’s masterpiece (and one of the great works of Western literature), The Brothers Karamazov.

A reminder of how this site works. I’ll be posting daily Monday through Friday. In each post, I’ll provide a synopsis of the previous day’s reading, my thoughts on the reading, as well as the thoughts and analysis of other writers and critics. What I hope to receive from you is feedback: leave your comments, ask questions, engage each other on the message board — I don’t want this to be a monologue, I want this to be a discussion.

One thing that I’ve come to realize while we’ve been reading Dostoevsky’s earlier novels (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons for those of you just joining in the discussion) is that perhaps more than any other major writer I can think of, because of what I see as the ambiguities and unanswered questions that his works are riddled with, his novels are open to a wide range of readings and interpretations. Consider, for example, these:

From Vladimir Nabokov (Never an admirer of Dostoevsky by a long shot):

The Brothers Karamazov is the most perfect example of the detective story technique as constantly used in his other novels. It is a long novel (more than 1000 pages) and it is a curious novel. The things that are curious about it are numerous; even the chapter headings are curious. It is worth noting that the author not only is well aware of this quaint and varies nature of his work but he seems to be all the time pointing to it, teasing his reader, using every device to excite the reader’s curiosity.”

Or this, from the great critic George Steiner:

“It has generally been recognized that his [Dostoevsky’s] genius was of a dramatic cast, that his was, in significant respects, the most comprehensive and natural dramatic temper since Shakespeare’s (a comparison which he himself hinted at). But only with the publication and translation of a fair number of Dostoevsky’s drafts and notebooks — material of which I shall largely avail myself — has it become possible to trace the manifold affinities between the Dostoevskyan conception of the novel and the techniques of drama. The idea of a theatre, as Francis Fergusson has called it, suffered a brusque decline, as far as tragedy is concerned, after Goethe’s Faust. The chain of being which leads back, through discernible kinship, to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides seemed broken. But The Brothers Karamazov is firmly rooted in the world of King Lear; in Dostoevskyan fiction the tragic sense of life, in the old manner, is wholly renewed. Dostoevsky is one of the great tragic poets.”

Or this, from Dostoevsky’s major biographer, Joseph Frank:

The Brothers Karamazov (Brat’ya Karamazory) achieves a classic expression of the great theme that had preoccupied Dostoevsky since Notes from Underground: the conflict between reason and Christian faith. The controlled and measured grandeur of the novel spontaneously evokes comparison with the greatest creations of Western literature. The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, King Lear, Faust — these are the titles that come to mind as one tries to measure the stature of The Brothers Karamazov, for these too grapple with the never-ending and never-to-be-ended argument aroused by the ‘accursed questions’ of mankind’s destiny. By enlarging the scale of his habitual poetics of subjectivity and dramatic conflict, Dostoevsky imparts a monumental power of self-expression to his characters that rivals Dante’s sinners and saints, Shakespeare’s titanic heroes and villains, and Milton’s gods and archangels. Dostoevsky’s personages seem to dwarf their surroundings with the same superhuman majesty as the figures of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.”

Or this, from Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (One of those books I read in college, absorbed and fell in love with, so while I’m temperamentally attracted to his argument, I have my doubts…)

The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s biggest attack on the Outsider theme.

We have seen Dostoevsky beginning with a portrait of the Barbusse-type Outsider — the spineless beetle-man, the underground man who cannot escape his loathing for human stupidity — and applying the formula “The Outsider’s Salvation lies in extremes,’ until he has created Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Stavrogin, all Outsiders who know who they are and where they are going. Extremes of crime or extremes of asceticism, murder or renunciation, both have the same effect. Both free the Outsider from his fundamental indecision, so that the problem is carried to a higher stage.

In The Brothers Karamazov, all that Dostoevsky had learned from his earlier experiments with Outsiders is summarized. We have, at once, the beetle-man, Raskolnikov, Myskin combined in this, the great synthesis. They are the three brothers Karamazov — Mitya, Ivan, Alyosha — the body, the intellect, the emotions. And since Dostoevsky himself was the intellectual Outsider, it is Ivan who claims the center of the stage in his biggest novel. In Ivan the question of the ‘evil principle’ is attacked from within.”

In his essay “Dostoevsky and Parricide, Freud said that “The Brothers Karamazov is the most magnificent novel ever written; the episode of the Grand Inquisition, one of the peaks in the literature of the world, can hardly be valued too highly.” Nabokov said that “The novel The Brothers Karamazov has always seemed to me to be a straggling play, with just that amount of furniture and other implements needed for the various actors…” Harold Bloom wrote that “…The Brothers Karamazov was intended as Dostoevsky’s apocalypse. Its genre might best be called Scripture rather than novel or tragedy, saga, or chronicle. Dostoevsky’s scope is from Genesis to Revelation, with the Book of Job and the Gospel of John as the centers.”

I hope you enjoy your journey through this tremendous work, and that you’ll share with the group what you learn along the way.

Monday’s Reading: (And I’ll be playing around with the day’s reading “assignments” — please let me know if the pace is too slow, too fast, or…just right.)

Book One, Chapters 1-3

Enjoy.

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3 Responses to “Dostoevsky’s personages seem to dwarf their surroundings with the same superhuman majesty as the figures of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.”

  1. artmama says:

    I go forward, knowing how to correctly pronounce “Karimazov.”

  2. Rick Delaney says:

    Dennis,
    Thanks much for again blogging a great author. I was on board for the Proust blog (still working my way through it), but am currently reading Brothers Karamazov. I’m a bit ahead of y’all (for now, anyway!). So I look forward to riding along.
    Rick Delaney

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