Thinking about literary masterpieces, one of the first titles that comes to mind is “The Brothers Karamazov,” by Russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky.
Fëdor Michailovic Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was born in Moscow — the second of seven siblings. His father was a doctor and wanted Fedor to undertake a career in the army. But his interests were purely literary, and this brought him to live in poverty almost all his life. He was taken to prison for political reasons and got near to being executed. He was condemned to four years of forced labor in Siberia instead. After being released, he continued struggling with his literary work and with poor health. A happy second marriage helped him to straighten up his life. He died at the age of 59 and was buried in St. Petersburg.
His most famous novels are “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot” and, of course, “The Brothers Karamazov,” his last and largest literary work. Dostoyevsky spent nearly two years writing it and it is considered his masterpiece. The work was first published as a serial in “The Russian Messenger” and was completed in November 1880.
The story revolves around a family of four brothers and their difficult relationship with their vulgar, depraved father. Dmitri is the passionate one, Ivan is the intellectual one, Aljosha is the mistic and Smerdjakov (an illegitimate son who lives in the household as a servant) is a misanthropist and an admirer of Ivan’s drastic philosophical ideas. Many are the conflicts depicted in the story that put the characters against each other. Fights over money and love, intrigue, suspicion, betrayal, theft, create an atmosphere of overall gloom and unhappiness.
The drama explodes when Smerdjakov kills their father. All the brothers appear to feel guilty, as if they were all responsible for such death. Suspects fall upon Dmitri, who had ample reasons to wish his father dead and who is also found in possession of money that does not belong to him. At the end Smerdjakov confesses his crime to Ivan, and then hangs himself. During the trial, described at length and in detail, Ivan tells the truth about the events, but he is not believed and Dimitri is condemned to forced labor.
In this novel Dostoevsky treated all the themes that had agitated his spirit throughout his entire life: faith, doubt, love as well as hate for authority, sensuality and mysticism, trust and mistrust toward humankind.
Thinking about “The Brother Karamazov,” a comparison comes to my mind. In the vastness of its conception, in fact, I see it similar to Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Vatican’s “Sistine Chapel,” as they both offer a huge, spectacularly vivid representation of most of the flaws of the human condition. When you see the behavior of some characters in the novel, you are immediately brought to dislike them from the deep of your heart. You are confronted with selfishness, carelessness, sneakiness, exasperation, contempt, lies, aggression, victimization, jealousy ... In this story you witness the extremes of human nature. Reflecting upon them might be a great guide, for each of us, toward a profound and fruitful self-examination, because each of us might “recognize” him/herself in the thoughts, feelings, even behavior of one character or another. Nothing to be scared of, though. We are humans and humans have flaws. To different degrees, of course, but still …
Elsa Franco Al Ghaslan