Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Have you fallen in love with disorder?

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So. In a nutshell, this book is about three brothers: Alexei (Alyosha), Ivan (Vanya), and Dmitry (Mitya) and their relationship with their father. There's another brother (sort of, he's illegitimate and it's never proven) named Smerdyakov. There are two women important to the plot, Katerina (Katya) and Grushenka (Grusha). Dmitry is engaged to Katya, but blows her off to be with Grushenka, who is kind of a woman of ill repute. She was spurned by another lover, and becomes sort of a loose woman around the town. Mr. Karamazov (Fyodor) also falls in love with Grushenka, but she doesn't really love him. Alyosha is a kind and loving son, who starts off in a monastery, then leaves the monastery after his beloved mentor dies. Ivan is kind of wild, and very deep into philosophy and fairly atheistic. Mitya is very passionate and a little over the top (with a bit of an anger management problem) but generally well-meaning. Mr. Karamazov is killed. Mitya is blamed for it, but we're pretty sure he didn't do it. It turns out that Smerdyakov killed the old man because he felt that Ivan was asking him to (based on some philosophical discussions they had and some "cues" he thought he was receiving). Smerdyakov is never even considered as a suspect, though, because he "had an epileptic fit" during the day of the murder (which he actually faked, after which he had a real epileptic fit). Smerdyakov tells Ivan, Ivan gets sick with "brain fever" because he kind of did want his father dead (they all actually hated him, he was a really terrible father and he had orgies and drank all the time and all three boys were raised by other relatives and one of the servants) and Mitya is convicted of a crime he didn't commit. There's a random side story about a little boy whose father got beaten up by Mitya. The boy, Ilyusha, got in a fight with some other boys because he was mad about his father's honor, and Ilyusha ends up falling very ill and dying, much to the chagrin of the father. Alyosha mediates a reconciliation between the boys and Ilyusha, and makes sure that they all go to visit him while he's dying. The book ends with Alyosha speaking to the boys, encouraging them to hold on the good and just moments in life.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I'm going to go right ahead and say it. I hated this book. Yes, Grandma, I know that hate is a very strong word, but I mean it this time. The book was extremely long (930 pages) and it really wasn't worth the read, in my opinion. I hate to say that about any book, but it's really how I felt about this one. I will say, though, that after researching the book a bit after reading it, I figured out why I didn't like it.

When I Wikipedia'd the book, I found this:

"Though religion and philosophy profoundly influenced Dostoyevsky in his life and in The Brothers Karamazov, a much more personal tragedy altered the course of this work. In May 1878, Dostoyevsky's novel was interrupted by the death of his three-year-old son Alyosha. As tragic as this would be under any circumstances, Alyosha's death was especially devastating for Dostoyevsky because the child died of epilepsy, a condition he inherited from his father. The novelist's grief for his young son is readily apparent throughout the book; Dostoyevsky made Alyosha the name of the stated hero of the novel, as well as imbuing him with all of the qualities he himself most admired and sought after. This heartbreak also appears in the novel as the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha.

A very personal experience also influenced Dostoevsky's choice for a patricide to dominate the external action of the novel. In the 1850s, while serving his katorga (forced labor) sentence in Siberia for circulating politically subversive texts, Dostoevsky encountered the young man Ilyinsky who had been convicted of killing his father to acquire an inheritance. Nearly ten years after this encounter Dostoevsky learned that Ilyinsky had been falsely convicted and later exonerated when the actual murderer confessed to the crime. The impact of this encounter on the author is readily apparent in the novel, as it serves as much of the driving force for the plot. Many of the physical and emotional characteristics of the character Dmitri Karamazov are closely paralleled to those of Ilyinsky."

So that was kind of an "aha" moment for me, and it helped me realize why the book is so biased toward Alyosha when I really didn't feel like he did much at all. Dostoevsky's own time in Siberia also explains why he's so seemingly obsessed with it, and why his characters continually end up there. (For those of you who may have forgotten, Crime and Punishment is by the same author, and Raskolnikov, the protagonist, spends 8 years in Siberia. He was actually guilty, though.)

I felt like the book started building a momentum around 6 or 700 pages in (a little late, I know) but then it sort of fizzled at the end. The author also continually makes these cryptic references to "the sequel to this book" or to "future installments", and I was (a) baffled by this and (b) horrified that there might be, in fact, MORE to this story. Turns out the novel was supposed to be the beginning of an epic work, but Karamazov died 4 months after the first publication in a serial magazine.

All I can say is, thank goodness he didn't get to write any more.

I think the two most interesting comments in this book are about God and philosophy.

A woman comes to speak with the elder (Alyosha's mentor) in the beginning of the book, and she asks this question: "What if, after I've been a believer all my life, when I die it suddenly turns out that after life there's nothing at all, nothing but wild grass growing on my grave?" She says she's quoting "some writer" here, but whoever said it, I certainly identify with this statement, as I'm sure many people do. The belief (or lack of belief) in God features heavily in discussions between Alyosha, Dmitry, and Ivan, and I found it particularly relevant to my own life, as I discussed religion recently with my two older sisters, and we have disparate beliefs much like the Karamazovs.

When Smerdyakov tells Ivan why he committed the murder (oh, and there's 3,000 rubles involved, but that part is just too complex to add to the synopsis) he says, "I did it above all because 'everything is permitted.' And the truth is, I learned that from you." This was SO reminiscent of "Throw Momma From the Train", which was inspired by Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train". Perhaps Hitchcock was inspired by Dostoevsky (maybe he liked Russian Lit better than I have so far) but in any case, the Billy Crystal/Danny DeVito version is about miscommunication. Danny DeVito thinks that he and Billy Crystal have tacitly decided to kill each other's awful person (one's an ex-wife, one's a mother - "Owen! Don't feed me the unsalted crackers! Unsalted crackers make me choke!") so he tries to kill Billy Crystal's ex-wife for him. Billy Crystal is horrified, and doesn't plan to kill Danny DeVito's mother, but they spend the movie trying to come to an agreement.

Well, this has been a rather addle-brained post, I think, but I did spend most of the day helping Diana make spinach dip, devilled eggs, chex mix, and pies made of pumpkin and pecans. Ah, Thanksgiving.

On to Jane Eyre and Victorian self-sacrifice!

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