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The Black Mark

December 20, 2011

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is the story of three brothers – Alyosha the novice, Dimitri the sensualist, and Ivan the intellectual – and their father, Fyodor Karamazov, a miserly, debaucherous old man. It’s a long book – I’ve been reading it on and off for a year, if I remember correctly, and just finished. Over the course of 700+ pages, the plot shifts often from family drama to philosophical debate murder mystery to theological biography to coming-of-age story to romantic triangle and back again. It is sprawling, and undoubtedly an epic.

The range of the book’s subplots make it difficult to summarize. Instead, I’ll note three parts of the book that stood out to me. The first is Ivan’s poem, The Grand Inquisitor, which Ivan tells to Alyosha. In the story, Christ returns to Spain during the Inquisition. In Sevilla, the theological capital of Spain at the time, the Grand Inquisitor orders him to be arrested and jailed. The Inquisitor visits Christ in his cell and tells him that free will, and the uncertainty that accompanies it, is too great a burden for humanity to bear. According to the Inquisitor, Christ gave humanity free will by denying Satan’s three temptations but now the Inquisition and the Church is giving humans what they truly want: security and certainty through the relinquishment of free will. At the end of the Inquisitor’s monologue, Christ kisses the Inquisitor and is set free. The point seems to be that free will is a burden that we must embrace.

Another part that struck me is Ivan’s meditation on the question of theodicy. He relates to Alyosha different stories he has read in the news from around Russia about children suffering without justification. In the most devastating, a serf boy hurts a general’s favorite hound and, as punishment, is torn to pieces by the general’s hounds in front of his mother. Ivan posits that suffering is necessary to create harmony in the aftermath of human sin but asks, even if this is true, why must children, who cannot sin, suffer? How can we call God just, all-powerful and all-knowing when children suffer?

A third part that stuck out to me is said by Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor in the seminary. Zosima feels that his death is near and spends his last day recounting his life and what he has learned from his experiences. Near the end, he says, “Fathers and teachers, I ask myself ‘What is hell?’ And I answer thus: ‘The suffering of being no longer able to love.'”

Of course, there are many other parts of the book that stood out to me but these are the ones that I found most significant. Looking back, I have to say that I was disappointed that the book did not address the issues raised by these parts more consistently. While the murder mystery that makes up the last third of the book is exciting, themes that were central to the first half of the book are unfortunately forgotten, left perhaps for the sequels that never came. Nonetheless, each stage of the book is rewarding in its own way, even if they are distinct from each other. The book is ultimately together by the passion and vivacity of the three brothers, who confront life without flinching.


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