If you were to read the synopsis on the back of my copy of The Brothers Karamazov, you would find the novel described as a “murder mystery” and “a courtroom drama.” This simple summary fails to tell the reader that the murder does not even occur until roughly halfway through the third volume of four, packed into 800 plus pages. Before this plot point even gets started, readers go through over 300 dense pages of seemingly excessive, even irrelevant, family history, character descriptions, and subplots. So why has it become a classic?
Undoubtedly, this will turn many away from the book, as it nearly did for me. The Brothers Karamazov is not for the reader looking for a simple entertainment. No, this novel demands faithfulness! It requires trust in its author and confidence in the reputation that precedes it. However, by doing so, the novel brilliantly sets the reader up with an opportunity to practice exactly what the book preaches: that things are often more than what they seem to be.
While this theme appears throughout the whole book, readers will notice it most in the eldest Karamazov brother, Dmitri.
At first, Dmitri seems most similar to his selfish, buffoonish father, Fyodor Karamazov. His two brothers are Ivan, a cynical and intellectual man, and Alyosha, a novice Monk who recently has been told by his elder and mentor to leave the monastery for good.
Like Fyodor, Dmitri is highly emotional, dramatic, and passionate. Fyodor lives the life of a “sensualist” and is described as “the type of man who is not only worthless and depraved but muddleheaded as well” (7). Similarly, Dmitri is “irritable by nature” and “abrupt and erratic of mind”(68). The two fight over nearly everything. The son, like the father, is deeply passionate about women and the two end up in a complicated love triangle with a woman named Grushenka. Dmitri abandons his fiancé for Grushenka, even stealing money from his former-betrothed to impress his new girl. Unfiltered passion, desire, and emotion rule both Fyodor and Dmitri.
These traits end up causing Dmitri a great deal of trouble when the back-of-the-book plot is finally revealed. Fyodor is murdered, and evidence substantially points to Dmitri as the killer. Many witnesses testify that on more than one occasion, Dmitri declared that he would kill his father. On the night of the murder, he is seen covered in human blood by various townspeople after he severely injures one of his father’s servants. He brags about a 3,000 rouble spending spree that he’s about to go on, even though just that morning, he unsuccessfully ran around town looking for someone to lend him money. When officials discover Fyodor’s body that night, exactly 3,000 roubles are missing from his room. Things aren’t looking great for ole’ Dmitri.
While all these facts point to Dmitri, he passionately denies the accusation! As the trial begins, most people brush off his denial. Aloysha, Grushenka, and a famous lawyer from St. Petersburg are his only defenders. When called to the witness stand, Aloysha sums up their collective conviction by saying, “I could not but believe my brother.... I saw by his face that he was not lying to me”(677).
Obviously, Aloysha’s argument does not easily stand up in court, especially in the shadow of the obvious evidence against Dmitri. A brother’s loyalty does not overrule the facts of the case, and the facts clearly point to Dmitri.
But in this paradox, the novel truly shines. For (spoiler alert) Dmitri did not actually kill his father, nor did he play any part of it. True, he declared many times that he wanted to kill him. Yes, two days before the murder, he wrote a letter claiming that he would kill them. He even secretly visited his father’s home the night of the murder and nearly killed an old servant. In his testimony, on trial, and to his closest defenders, he admits all these things, but he continues to deny that he killed his father. In all of this, he never ceases to tell the truth.
Unfortunately for Dmitri, and for many wrongly convicted people throughout history, truth does not always win court cases. While the jurors and the judge convict Dmitri based upon facts and reason, they simply overlook the truth. They use perfect logic to connect dots and assume the pattern that they find will lead them to the right answer, but it doesn’t.
THE REASON FOR FAITH
On the other hand, there is no precise pattern that causes Alyosha to believe his brother. He operates on a level of experience, trust, and, ultimately, faith. Too regularly, we disregard these convictions as a source of truth. We want the pattern, the logic, the perfect explanation. We want the right answer to seem right, but Dostoyevsky beautifully displays that things are not always what they seem. Throughout Dmitri’s trial, he demonstrates that logic, patterns, and reason have their limitations. While all things seemingly add up to a certain conclusion, the conclusion may not be the truth. Even more boldly, The Brothers Karamazov shows us that sometimes the truest claim lacks a reasonable or logical pattern. “I saw by his face that he was not lying to me” is hardly a claim based in reason! It is entirely based in faith!
This faith is rooted in love, trust, and deep conviction.
Alyosha does not stay faithful to his brother because of reason, nor does he blindly reject the true, harder to hear elements of Dmitri’s story. When the lawyers ask Alyosha if he ever heard his brother makes threats against their father, he quickly reveals that he has. He does not base his loyalty on an ideal perception of his brother. He knows Dmitri has intentionally harmed his father; he saw it happen! Yet, he trusts his brother anyway, having faith in something beyond the evidence.
The evidence points to a pattern. Alyosha’s faith points to the truth.
READING BY FAITH
This faith beyond the evidence calls the reader to look beyond the patterns, beyond that which is simply reasonable or logical, and the novel even allows the reader to practice this faith. The BrothersKaramazov was Dostoevsky’s final novel. Before that, he was already a well-respected author with works like The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, and Notes From Underground as well as many others. His reputation would have preceded him when he wrote this, and that reputation has only grown since his death over 100 years ago. His readers would have trusted him, at least to some extent, as an author who would not let them down.
Because of this reputation, readers who trust the author willing sit through the first couple hundreds of slow pages that seemingly have no relevance to the plot. They read by faith. Even I was wondering how this book became a “classic” as I read through the dense first half. At first, the novel seemed like it would not hold up. The logical and reasonable thing to do would be to set it down, but when the reader reads by faith, trusting in the reputation of the book and of Dostoevsky as a whole, they will see the beauty of staying with something even when it does not make immediate, logical sense.
Our present age focuses on meeting our immediate needs: fast food, instant streaming, quick internet, and others that I’m sure you can add. We want quick fixes and easy answers, headlines not stories, and tweets instead of articles. We like to know, but only the minimum amount. We have grown too confident in our ability to draw the right conclusions and fill in the correct blanks. If there’s a pattern, we assume we can and will interpret it correctly. The Brothers Karamazov challenges this idea head on. Simply the act of reading the novel is an exercise that confronts our natural tendencies. It reminds us that truth often hovers above the pattern, above reasonable conclusions and logical claims. It reveals the hidden secrets that lie beyond the evidence, and by calling us to read by faith, it prepares us to live by faith.
Joseph is a writer, editor, husband, and perpetual student. He is passionate about telling the world how the Gospel meets the needs of culture. He is the co-founder of Grounds and currently serves as the editorial director.