The Brothers Karamazov portrays the individual development of three brothers under the same father, but lacking further family ties. They each struggle with their identification with the Karamazov temperament, an unhappy heritage from their alcoholic, debaucherous father Fyodor Pavlovich. Like his father, the eldest son Dmitri (Mitya) is a ladies man and a short-fused drunk. The second son Ivan is a faithless soldier who professes that “everything is lawful”. And the youngest, Alexei (Alyosha), is an aspiring monk who feels the responsibility to reconcile his family and prevent an unavoidable explosion. Their personalities and positions in life differ greatly, but they all share this ancestral burden. Mitya is clearly shown as the end result of the Karamazov stain, whereas the pious Alyosha has only just begun to feel that he too is receptive to worldly desires and might not be so different from his family as people originally think.
The narrative at first consists of a series of psychological profiles of all the characters introduced. After the climactic murder of Fyodor Pavlovich, the novel’s plot suddenly focuses on the murder mystery as the main attraction for the reader. Although the murderer is unveiled to the reader, the story ends in the conviction of an innocent man (innocent being a relative term.) It’s as if Dostoyevsky acknowledges the importance of an eventful plot and briefly explores the outline of a ‘who dunnit’ but goes back to asserting that the plot is unimportant compared to the character development. Dostoyevsky uses a narrative style that is always wavering between two extremes: a sometimes hysterical theatricality on the one hand, and a very intuitive realism on the other. He implements an insightful psychology to describe the motives, and sometimes lack of clear motives, in the characters’ progression through a series of trying events. However intuitive, the undetermined narrator offers no answers to the questions that both he and the reader ask themselves. Nothing is definite; nothing is resolved.
At an unguarded moment, or so it may seem, Dostoyevsky uses Ivan’s hallucination of the devil as a voice to delare Tolstoy one of the great Russian poet/chroniclers:
“Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sees sometimes such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, such events, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy has never invented.”
Whether The Brothers Karamazov fits into the genre of a Russian epos, I can’t say. It is the story of many characters, all trying to find their place in a Russia that’s in the heart of a truly liminal period. We see the impoverished upper classes trying to cope with the end of serfdom. We see clerics and non-clerics figuring out where they and their country stand in a rising anti-clericalism. From serfdom to freedom, from riches to rags, from orthodoxy to atheism; this is the Russia that the reader is served. In other words, Dostoyevsky is definitely telling a story here. It’s just not necessarily about the brothers Karamazov.