Thursday, April 30, 2009

[Book Review] The Brothers Karamazov

I’ll be honest, this was often a dense read. The book was written in a classical nineteenth century Russian style prose, which made it, at times, a difficult slog to get through. Regardless, I did enjoy reading this book—although it took me several months to complete, as I read other things alongside it and I could never exclusively focus on this book—and I thought it had some interesting ideas and social commentaries. All in all, it was good story to read, albeit one that I had to patiently sift through to find the many gems it contained.

So basically the story is about the Karmazov family and their various escapades. In particular, the story is focused on the murder of the patriarch of the family, Fyodor Karmazov. Karmazov has four children—three legitimate, and one illegitimate, sons—that each represent a different ideological focus. Dimitri was the pleasure-seeking rabble-rouser who often over-indulged in the sweeter things of life, but always maintained a strict code of honor. Alyosha was the religious son, who was loved by all and was na├»ve as a baby and as patient as a turtle. Ivan was the atheistic intellectual, who had discovered the world of ideas, only to leave himself in perpetual doubt of anything, and his self-professed nihilism masked his innate desire for a simpler black-and-white life-style. Smerdyakov was the illegitimate son, spurned as an outsider and became a household servant; his outsider status allowed him to become wily. Smerdyakov was clever and studied similar things to Ivan, but lacked moral scruples because of his feeling of innate dejection from birth. These characters intermingled in a lively series of events tied to the murder mystery of Fyodor Karmazov and the allegation of parricide against Dimitri.

The one section of this book that I found particularly intriguing was the section on the Grand Inquisitor. This section is often listed as one of the most famous short stories in all of literature and, naturally, for good reason. The story was voiced through Ivan and told to the apprehensive and innocent Aloysha. The subject was the notion of God, good versus evil, and stability versus chaos. The story was set during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and was basically a dialogue between Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor, with the latter being the only one who really spoke. Jesus had come back to save the world so as to speak, but as soon as he began performing miracles, he upset the established order. The Catholic Church could not allow for people to defiantly believe in this Messiah, because they had already created their own Messiah, and the Church had become supreme authority over the land since they vicariously ruled in place of the messiah. For the real messiah to come and usurp the Churches established authority—although Jesus would not have wanted to do that—was both blasphemous and rebellious. So Jesus had to be imprisoned, to maintain order and the illusion of God, rather than see the bleakness in reality and understand the full meaning and responsibility entailed in human freedom. The Grand Inquisitor argued against allowing humans total freedom because what they really needed was just bread. The Grand Inquisitor was a hardcore Hobbesian and after his long diatribe against Jesus—in which he blamed him for believing that humans could have freedom and happiness if given the opportunity—he says that it easier for a select few to guide the ignorant masses and provide for their happiness and eternal salvation. It is the burden of the elite, the chosen few who have to carry the real cross, to guide the ignorant masses through their brutish life. The fact that the Grand Inquisitor was an atheist and knew this world was all that there ever will be caused him to lash out against Jesus and argue against the notion of freedom and religion in favor of bread and stability. And, of course, if there is no God, reasons Ivan, then “everything is lawful.” This entire section is a great discourse on the relationship between man and God and definitely worth reading, even if this only section of the book you read.

All in all, I found the book worth reading, though I would only recommend it to those who have the luxury of time in indulge in a classic piece of literature. I was highly recommended this book in eleventh grade by my Philosophy teacher, Mr. Lukacs, and I told him I would eventually get around to reading it. Six years and many experiences later, I see why he had recommended it to me and am thankfully that he did.

-Nausherwan Hafeez, 4-30-09