By Chet Yarbrough
The Brothers Karamazov
By: Fyodor Dostoevsky (Translated by Constance Garnett)
Narrated by Frederick Davidson
A re-listening of one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces reminds one of why it is considered a classic.
Re-listening reprises its deeply religious overtone and its depiction of how some novelists view and reinforce inequality of the sexes.
Vasily Kachalov as Ivan Karmazov.
The role of religion in life is vivified by Ivan Karamazov, the 4th son and brother of the Karamazov family.
Depiction of Alyosha Karamazov.
Ivan tells his youngest brother, Alyosha, of an imagined poem. It is named “The Grand Inquisitor”. It is a story of the return of Christ noted in the Christian bible as the second coming.
Ivan offers a societal interpretation of the concept of God in his narrative poem. He explains to his brother Alyosha–if the Son of God returns to earth and shows his divinity through miracle, the returning Christ would be captured by church elders and rejected as humankind’s Savior.
Christ’s capturer in Ivan’s poem is a wizened bishop (the Grand Inquisitor) who explains faith is more important than the second coming.
The bishop explains the Church is commissioned by Christ’s Father to rule the world. With God’s commission, “The Grand Inquisitor” argues the Church dutifully manages human sin and confession. The inference is that a “second coming” will not successfully eradicate human sin because it is ineradicable.
The bishop argues the return of Christ is not as important as the church’s management of sin and its gift of hope to the people of the world.
In contradiction of Ivan’s poem and his societal interpretation of religion, Dostoevsky creates Father Zosima. Zosima tells his life story as a relatively wealthy young military officer who becomes a venerated monk.
Despite a secular life of sin, Zosima requests forgiveness from those he has sinned against. Because of his spiritual awakening, Zosima requests forgiveness, and with the help of a stranger’s confession, reconciles and accepts the word of God.
Zosima recalls the truth of God who tests Job’s faith by allowing the devil to take all his earthly wealth, health, and family. Job never gives up his faith in God. Zosima recounts reconciliation and forgiveness of Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery. Zosima commits his remaining life to God with these two biblical parables. Zosima’s life story foreshadows Ivan’s conversion from belief in the “…Grand Inquisitor” to belief in God’s truth.
For God’s believers, Dostoevsky argues the world will change just as Zosima changed. The change will come from salvation based on repentance, confession, and acceptance of God’s truth.
Dostoevsky suggests God’s truth is that no one should stand in judgement over another, each should pray for theirs, and their brother’s redemption. Zosima argues this change will come upon the world gradually based on a growing diminution of the human desire for money, power, and prestige. Care for others becomes as great as care for oneself. To Dostoevsky, this is an evolutionary imperative based on the biblical word of God.
The truth Zosima refers to is that all men are created equal, they should be treated with respect, and forgiven for their inevitable sins.
A blaring irony of “The Brothers Karamazov” is the reprehensible characterization of women. Dostoevsky’s vision is patriarchal. Women bare children keep the house and obey their husbands. There is no room for women’s equality. They are a mere rib of Man.
One might argue there has been progress for women since the 19th century, but women are still battered, women are generally paid less than men for the same work, and women are often treated like slaves.
“The Brothers Karamazov” is a classic. It is prescient for these times. One might argue that more attention is being given today to sexual, ethnic, religious, and racial inequality. However, progress is slow. America has taken many steps back, and few steps forward.
Dostoevsky’s “…Brothers Karamazov” is a reminder of Martin Luther King, Jr’s quote— “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Maybe, but this generation doubts its truth.
How long is too long?