Please...Just Pretend To Be An Athiest

Submitted by Elyse J. Yarmosky on Thursday, 11/12/2009, at 9:16 PM


"The Brothers Karamazov" will always be, to me, the book that really had me questioning my faith in God and religion; the book, I guess you could say, that made me at least agnostic, maybe even an athiest. This was back in high school and now I'm re-reading the book and honestly am a little upset. I just want Dostoevsky to be an athiest so badly that sometimes I feel like I'm overanalyzing his themes to make it seem like he's undermining Christianity..or religion...or something. It's frusterating. Obviously Dostoevsky is questioning his religious faith in some way (perhaps reflected in the many conversations about the Church, the Grand Inquisitor, etc) but everything would be so much clearer, to me at least, if we knew for a fact that Dostoevsky detested religion. Right now, all I am is confused by what point he is trying to make. He writes that Alyosha is a realist who is searching for truth, yet Alyosha is undoubtedly religious. I'm not saying that realists need not be struck by religion, but I wish the lines were a little sharper. I want Alyosha to be the idealist, and in my perfect world, Ivan would be that awesome athiest who is actually a realist, who demands truth. Dostoevsky is kind of messing with my mind: does he throw himself fully into religion, or does the realize the danger of doing so?

This is kind of poorly written, but I guess it's just my frustration bubbling over.

Alyosha, the unintentional sensualist

Submitted by Daeyeong Kim on Thursday, 11/12/2009, at 3:44 PM

In book 1, we see that Alyosha, too, is a Karamozovian sensualist. In class, we discussed how the Karamazov heredity is composed of two "poles": Fyodor's sensualism and Sofia Ivanovna's image as a Holy Fool. Although the narrator mainly depicts Alyosha as more similar to his mother--and indeed, he is a very good man--he also doesn't forget to pepper subtle details that point to his genetic similarity with his father as well.

He unintentionally attracts women, at three different instances of Book 1. In "A Lady of Little Faith," Lise's mother complains to Alyosha, "You've forgotten us, too, Alexei Fyodorovich, you don't care to visit us at all: and yet twice Lise has told me that she feels good only with you" (54). Alyosha's sensualism may not be as debauched or overt as Fyodor's or his half brother Dmitri's, but it is still, nonetheless, a form of sensualism. Towards the end of the chapter, Lise laments her childhood days, saying that Alyosha used to carry her, play with her, and come over and teach her. She also asks Zosima, "Why did you put those long skirts on him ... If he runs, he'll trip and fall ..." (59). Those long skirts, meaning, his monk attire--his cassock. Perhaps Lise is right in the sense that Alyosha, by nature, may not be suited for a monk life; he'll trip and fall.

In the same scene, we find out that Katerina Ivanovna, Dmitri's fiancee, sends a letter to Alyosha through Lise and her mother. Apparently, "she especially asks that you come to her soon, soon, and not to disappoint her but to be sure to come" (54). Here is the Karamazov blood evident in Alyosha; he attracts women, even if it's unintentional (he's confused as to why Katerina Ivanovna wishes to see him).

The third instance is during his conversation with Rakitin. Rakitin questions Alyosha's virginity and subsequently claims that "In your family sensuality is carried to the point of fever" (79). Again, even if Alyosha isn't actively acting upon his innate sensualism, the form of "fever"  doesn't fail to manifest itself. He attracts even Grushenka: Rakitin tells Alyosha that Grushenka said, "Bring him over, and I'll pull his little cassock off" (80). The narrator seems to be communicating something through Alyosha's religious attire. Lise predicts that Alyosha will trip and fall over his "long skirts," whereas Grushenka is much more overt and says that she herself will pull off his "little cassock" and reveal the Karamozovian sensualism that is buried within Alyosha.

This isn't to say that Alyosha is the sensualist to the degree of his father or his brother Dmitri, but to merely point out that the narrator does subtly relate Alyosha to the rest of his family's innate sensuality.

Concerning Ivan

Submitted by Jordan M. Gilbertson on Thursday, 11/12/2009, at 2:06 PM

A repeating claim made so far in the novel is the Karamozov family has an inclination, or even an inevitable genetic predisposition, for debauchery and sensuality. While Alyosha, as Dostoevsky’s ‘hero,’ is placed at odds with this, Ivan seems to be in a similarly unique position with respect to the rest of his family, considering his intense intellectualism and relative disregard for the sensual. In fact, it seems that only Dmitri truly inherited his father’s vitality and “sensuality,” which numerous characters refer to as the defining characteristic of their family.

Because of this, I admit that I am somewhat unsure how Ivan is to be treated in respect to his family--he is described as “eccentric and paradoxalist” (69), and is clearly driven by entirely different compulsions and interests than any other character in the novel. He doesn’t care for money whatsoever, instead expressing intense interest in answering or resolving certain questions. The idea that he is “seeking suffering” (81) seems to underscore the strangeness of his character, especially in respects to the rest of the Russian society that Dostoevsky is depicting.

Considering what I have read so far, Ivan appears to act as Alyosha’s double or foil.  Whereas Alyosha is practically the embodiment of love, Ivan is cold and dispassionate. He even goes so far as to believe that “notthin in the hole world would make men love their fellow men” (69). Parallels can be drawn between Alyosha and the holy fool, or the ‘idiotic’ Myshkin, and Ivan seems to emphasize these parallels by playing his polar opposite.  It will be interesting to see how his character plays into the overarching themes of rebirth and regeneration around which Dostoevsky has structured much of the novel.

Karamazov Sensuality and Choice

Submitted by Richard S. Hevier on Thursday, 11/12/2009, at 3:51 AM

I think it is fair to say that Karamazov is established as a synonym for everything vile and base from the inception of the book.  I assumed, however, that Alyosha evaded that trait given his religious convictions and innocent appearance, especially in comparison to Dmitri and his father.  Interestingly, however, he admits that he is prone to the same Karamazov sensuality as his brother on page 109.  He states: “I blushed not at your words, and not at your deeds, but because I’m the same as you.”  So I take it they are the same in that they are both sensual beings.  I guess the question is: how are they different?  They are most notably different in their practices (with Alyosha in the monastery and Dmitri rummaging through the “dark and remote little crannies), but at the core of their difference is the element of choice.  Alyosha, subject to that same Karamazov sensuality chooses not to adhere to it, at least to the same extent and manner as his brother or father.  He gets precisely to that point when he remarks that he simply occupies a lower step on the same staircase of sensuality than Dmitri.  He goes on to say that reaching a higher step is inevitable once one has stepped on the lowest.  The only thing keeping Alyosha down below is his choice not to give into this inherited sensuality.  If he is correct about its progression being inevitable, then perhaps his fate was sealed at birth, and his ability to choose is limited.  This forces me to ask a couple questions.  What do the mystic, the intellectual, and the base creature do when fate appears to dictate their actions?  Can they choose a path not governed by their sensuality?  Can their choices prevail over fate?

Zosima and self-recognition

Submitted by Jeffrey A. Tucker on Thursday, 11/12/2009, at 3:41 AM

When Zosima the elder is first introduced, we see him blessing and advising several people. His most significant conversations are with Fyodor Pavlovich and Katerina Osipovna, Lise's mother. While Zosima ably dispenses relevant parables and instructions for the two suffering souls, his most remarkable (and effective) power is his ability to understand people better than they do themselves, and reflect this understanding back. As Katerina says, "You've brought me back to myself, you've caught me out and explained me to myself!" (58) Fyodor Pavlovich has a similar shock of recognition, which at least temporarily truly affects him, when he repeats, "Precisely, precisely, it feels good to be offended. You put it so well, I've never heard it before. Precisely, precisely, all my life I've been getting offended for the pleasure of it..." (44) Dostoevsky is suggesting that Zosima, presumably through the wisdom gained by religious study and reflection, can serve much the same purpose that art, at its best, can serve--holding up a mirror to oneself, and creating that sudden shock of recognition, where part of one's experience and inner life are understood and explicitly explained, usually in a slightly new light. Placing this power in Zosima's hands is a strong assertion that new-fangled "empirical" sciences like that practiced by Miusov's friend (who didn't even know the Lives of the Saints), and maybe even contemporary philosophy and literature, as studied by Ivan, pale in comparison to religious reflection when it comes to revealing people's true natures.

A Portrait of a Family

Submitted by Danielle M. Morrissette on Wednesday, 11/11/2009, at 10:39 PM

The Brothers Karamazov is a novel that from reading the first part is clearly the portrait of a deeply dysfunctional family. It almost seems like that Wes Andersen Film The Royal Tennebaums where everyone is from the same family, but exhibits completely different symptoms of dysfunction that is due to their disordered family life. Alyosha reacts by wanting to be in a monastery in part I think to do penitence for both of his brother's and his father's sake.  He wants to repent for Ivan since he is an atheist, wants to repent for Dmitri because he enjoys the pleasures of this world a bit too much, and for their father since their father  a) probably doesn't love any of his children b) abused his second wife Sofia and c) lusts after the young harlot Grushenka. Ivan reacts by holding on to reason fervently in order to make sense out of a nonsensical world. He is such a sullen and deeply unhappy man, who hates his father as much as Dmitri does, but is too "intellectual" to really do anything about it. He rejects God, but I think that he himself believes in God is a strange abstract way, but believes that since the world is unjust, that even if there is a God he is not worth worshiping. And Dmitri and his father are similar in that they have the same interests (ie debauchery and women) but are too similar to get along. This is the "lovely" family that we are given.  

Confession in The Brothers Karamazov

Submitted by Corina Leu on Tuesday, 11/10/2009, at 1:31 PM

Throughout "The Brothers Karamazov" I noticed that an overarching theme is Confession. The irony behind having such a theme stand in the background of all this crime, hatred, and intense irrational passions, is that at the end of the day everyone engages in this process of self-cleansing without necessarily it having any effect on their future actions. I believe that Dostoevsky employs overused confession to rob the act of its significance and implications. When monks are made to confess daily, they begin to lie about their daily activities. When Fyodor Pavlovich confesses, he also lies but his intent is different. He lies to see if Zosima or others are really on his side. When Grushenka confesses her sins, she does not confess so as to be forgiven, she confesses so as to warn Katerina Ivanovna of her power. And as it turns out even Grushenka lies. All of their confessions seem artificial and designed only for the purpose of deception. What is Dostoevsky trying to tell us about the act of confessing? Is he implying that an honest confession is an oxymoron? 

Location and Narrator

Submitted by Jack L. Seaver on Tuesday, 11/10/2009, at 1:57 AM

Discounting House of the Dead, which stands alone because of its auto-biographical nature, The Brothers Karamazov is the first story Dostoevsky has chosen to set outside of St. Petersburg. Not having finished the novel (I'm only done with Book 4), I don't want to go too far in analyzing anything, but setting the story in a smaller country town seems to make it much more personal. Dostoevsky goes back to using the narrator as an independent character, one who has an intimate knowledge of the events at hand. While there was some sense of an independent narrator in The Idiot, it always seemed to me like it was Dostoevsky inserting himself as harbinger of the story, whereas the narrator in Brothers K acts as an entirely separate character from the author. The small town setting, a setting where everyone knows everyone, is intimate enough so as to give this independent narrator more credibility.

Though I am slightly hesitant to use this as an example, because Dostoevsky wasn't the author, "The Overcoat" had a narrator who was unreliable, wasn't quite sure of his facts, and glossed over events he was unsure of. He acted as if he has heard the story being related as some sort of "urban myth," which he cannot substantiate. The intimate setting of Brothers Karamazov, by contrast, legitimizes the narrator's story, and thus grasps the reader as if he/she was in fact a new resident of that same town, hearing this piece of lore for the first time.


Submitted by Victoria E. Gauthier on Tuesday, 11/10/2009, at 1:32 AM

Once again, Dostoevsky being ahead of his time...

In previous works, Dostoevsky's protagonists were victims of their class rank, their position in society.  Now, we see the introduction of inescapable genetics.  Miusov vehemently refuses any relation to Fyodor Pavlovich K. (he isn't genetically related - he is the cousin of Fyodor's first wife).  Rakitin roars in offense when Alyosha suggests that he is related to the "loose woman" Grushenka ("Grushenka, my relative?..."You must be crazy! Sick in the head!" (83)).  Alyosha literally cloisters himself away from his dysfunctional family.  It's clear that he's trying to use the elder Zosima as a replacement father figure, taking the idea of religious family to the next level.  Still, he cannot escape the sensualist and criminal blood that flows in his veins: "You are a Karamazov yourself, a full-fledged Karamazov - so race and selection do mean something.  You're a sensualist after your father" (80).  Crime, as Ivan describes it, is "only a rebellion against an unjustly oppressive force" (65).  Can we consider personal genetics, about which we have no choice (familial fate), to be unjustly oppressive? 

A Reinterpretation of the Beautiful Man

Submitted by Muddasir M. Ayaz on Sunday, 11/8/2009, at 11:12 PM

Reading The Brothers Karamazov a second time, and now having read The Idiot, I can't help but think that Dostoevsky attempted to rewrite his story of the beautiful man in the form of Alyosha Karamazov. In class, we talked about how Dostoevsky thought he had failed to deliver a portrait of the truly beautiful man, so could The Brothers Karamazov be considered his attempt to recfity that failure?

It certainly seems like it, at first thought; however, it is interesting to consider that if it is indeed a reincarnation of the beautiful man, than he certainly takes a different approach. In The Idiot, the reader is immediately introduced to the Prince, this paragon of goodness and honesty and agent of revelation, alongside his adversary Rogozhin on the train. Alyosha, though he may be a similar paragon of goodness and honesty, and perhaps even an agent of revelation (one could make the argument), is not revealed this way. Instead, Dostoevsky starts with a description of Fyodor Karamazov, perhaps the most despicable character of all in the novel (having read the book, I leave this as only a suggestion and not an opinion), but offers no adversarial form of goodness. Rather, we are led to examine the debauchery and filth that is Karamazov's life. The narrator allows us unbridled access into his decadence life, with no detail left unsaid. It is not until we are given a truly complete (or what seems to be complete) picture of this life that we are introduced to the character of Alyosha. In fact, until his character is introduced in "The Third Son, Alyosha" that we even begin to see a glimpse of hope in this broken family. An interesting way to go about introducing the beautiful man, if indeed that is his goal with The Brothers Karamazov. I don't think it is, but the elements to argue that it is are certainly present.

I'm Getting Sentimental Over You

Submitted by Brigitte C. Morency on Sunday, 11/8/2009, at 11:03 PM

In "The Brothers Karamazov," Dostoevsky brings a new kind of narrator to the audience. His (or her) occasional assides are in the first person singular, putting the narrator's voice to the forefront of the novel. They are a character in the action, influenced by their own feelings and experiences with the unforgettable Karamazovs. How reliable will this form of narration be? The speaker in "The Double" was unreliable because of his (or her) palpabl contempt for Golyadkin. The narrator of "Crime and Punishment" was omniscient in their ability to pierce through Raskolnikov's garbled thoughts to reveal the true nature of his schism with society. Even the narrator in "The Idiot" had a certain amount of compassion for the fools around the protagonist. The narrator of "The Brothers Karamazov" seems to have a biased view of the family, a hatred of Fyodor Pavlovitch's debauchery and a boundless love for Alyosha's gentle spirit.

Why did Dostoevsky decide to employ such an assertive personality to narrate his masterpiece? He never before needed to contribute his own voice to get his message across in his other writings. His utter self-alienation from the narrative itself seems to have the opposite effect. It seems to me as though "The Brothers Karamazov" is Dostoevsky's most personal work because of his decision to step back and allow the story to unfold on its own.

Love in Books 1-4

Submitted by Susannah E. Rudel on Sunday, 11/8/2009, at 4:10 PM

Following our discussion of love in The Idiot, I have so far been intrigued by the presence of love in The Brothers Karamazov.  Whereas Prince Myshkin’s love for Nastasya was out of pity, in this novel we see much more sensual love.  Dmitri connotes insects with sensuality and says that the Karamazovs are all insects (108).  Certainly we see such sensual love in Fyodorovich and Dmitri’s obsession with Grushenka. Later on, Fyodorovich says that it is the nature of Karamazovs to love, although Ivan is not like that (175).  It seems that the word “love” gets thrown around a lot, but is constantly used in different ways.  Dmitri even says that there is a difference between falling in love and loving, in that “one can fall in love and still hate” (104).  Interestingly, Fyodorovich, Dmitri, and Ivan are all obsessively in love with women, and yet they can’t get along with each other, and even express hatred for each other.  For example, Dmitri clearly doesn’t express love for his father, and even attacks him, and Ivan implies that he wouldn’t mind if his father were dead.  On the other hand, Alexei seems to represent the complete opposite side of love, in that the rest of his family seems to love him, he hasn’t expressed hatred for anyone in his family, and the narrator even states at the beginning of the novel that it is in Alexei’s nature to make people love him (19).  Alexei is also unlike the rest of his family in that he has thus far not expressed any interest in women, whereas his brothers and father are completely obsessed, particularly Dmitri and Fyodorovich.  So far it seems that obsessive love or lack of love is the underlying theme causing all of the Karamazov family issues, so I’m curious to see if Alexei’s position as the brother who is loved by all, as well as his position of being more removed from all of the drama, will help solve the problems. 

Final Thoughts

Submitted by Hannah M. Gais on Friday, 11/6/2009, at 11:20 PM

It's interesting to look back on the themes of self-destruction that be found in, say, Notes from Underground in comparison to those in The Idiot.  The failed suicide attempt and "Essential Statement" of Hippolite Terentyev are perhaps the best examples of this.  The longing after a love that cannot be had, I suppose, could also fall under the category of "self-destructive" behavior (e.g., Ganya's marriage to Nastassyha), as this longing is for something that the character knows is not necessarily the "best" for them but desires it anyway.  It is, to me, a bit unclear as to what character the Underground Man best represents, as he certainly is less "evil" than Rogozhin is depicted, but he is not necessarily as innocent and ignorant as the Prince.  Nevertheless, both the prince and Rogozhin have similar anti-social tendencies and/or could potentially fall into the category of  "outcasts;" that is, both exist on the edges of Russian society, even if they stand at completely opposite ends.  What is probably most important is that none of the characters could really said to be happy in a truly objective way.  None are really fulfilling their dreams, and none of them reach any particular "high point" at the end of the book.  Rather, as we noted in class, it seems as if the characters have simply been expanded upon, but they did not necessarily grow.  While these characters may seem to be attempting to achieve some sort of happiness, the most self-destructive behavior and the way the book relates most to Notes from Underground is in their lack of movement and growth.  Self-destruction, then, could imply a sort of stunted growth in which a character neither moves forward or backwards.  It is characterized by a sort of apathy towards self-improvement, it seems.

Christ Figures in the Idiot

Submitted by Hannah M. Gais on Friday, 11/6/2009, at 11:03 PM

I found the discussion of Prince Myshkin as a Christ figure to be particularly interesting.  The prince is certainly "innocent" in many ways; that is, his interactions with the other characters illustrate this sort of innocence, which is one that seems to have a profound effect on the individuals around him -- especially when it comes to bringing out their "true" characteristics and behaviors.  The prince is, however, by no means perfect.  In some ways, we could perhaps liken the prince to the fallible and weak Christ of the painting of Christ being taken from the cross to be buried.  Furthermore, Myshkin's Christ-like characteristics are further illustrated in the dichotomy set up between him and Rogozhin.  One (i.e., Myshkin) is described as having, for instance, light features, while Rogozhin has "dark eyes" and is surrounded by darkness even in his home.  Myshkin, therefore, becomes a Christ figure when placed alongside the "devil" that is Rogozhin.  Yet Myshkin is far from perfect, as he is tormented by his various feelings for a number of women -- feelings which appear to be changing constantly.  While he acts in a way that is certainly not "typical" of men in the higher-class in Russia, he does not have the sort of "wisdom" that we see in other Christ-like figures; rather, his simplicity and innocence are what brings out the truth in other people.  I suppose the primary question that I draw from this method of looking at the text is: Is Myshkin simply a "Christ-like" figure only when he is contrasted to Rogozhin?  

End Thoughts

Submitted by Victoria E. Gauthier on Friday, 11/6/2009, at 8:35 PM

It's pretty sad that I never thought about Dostoevsky's method of characterization before Prof. Ciepiela mentioned it in class.  With Prince Myshkin and Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky starts with his protagonist in isolation (Switzerland, a small apartment) and develops, or better yet, reveals their character using interactions with other stock characters.  Sure, he develops people like Mrs. Epanchin, but only so you can observe how her "eccentric" personality interacts with Prince Myshkin.  I don't think that Dostoevsky necessarily characterizes his female characters unfairly; but, like Corina said, they are agents of change that never undergo any real change themselves.  The Myshkin from the beginning of the novel (awkward, socially unaware, blunt, naive) is ostensibly very different than the Myshkin we see at the end (mentally unstable, doubtful, compassionate to a fault) but in both instances he is "the idiot."  The latter Myshkin is essentially the same, but his traits have been brought out and intensified through his increasingly "extreme" social interactions (murder, death, insanity) with other characters, especially females.  The circular nature of the end of the novel (Myshkin's return to idiocy and Switzerland) speaks to the constancy of his character, even though we would never call him static.