The Brothers Karamazov and Existentialism

Keerthana K
6 min readJun 15, 2022

Although it does not go quite well with the current mood of the world, my love for Russian literature is so much that it takes a conscious effort to move myself away from it.

So it was only time before I dived into Dostoevsky’s greatest- The Brothers Karamazov. So what is so special about Karamazov?

Its different for different people. For me it is the contradicting themes and ideas all along— a case of art mimicking life. Although at the face of it it is the story of a family and its brothers, there are parallel themes of faith vs doubt. Although it is comical in many parts, it covers a dark murder mystery in the family. And although it is light read, it is the deepest most complex examination of crucial philosophical questions of human nature. Heck, even the book itself is a contradiction- it runs into a thousand pages and can be quite intimidating, but it is one of the easiest reads there is.

(Fun fact: After reading this book I realised that the twisted TV show: Succession is heavily inspired from this book. Also I have a new found respect for the show’s creators as there are so many literary and philosophical themes, so many symbolisms running through the entire series- from Christianity to Nietzsche, Dostoevesky to Shakespeare. Will try to cover one of the symbolisms in the next post)

So, again, why is this hailed as the greatest of the books by so many? At the heart of this book is a gripping tale involving many characters and Dostoevsky takes you on a guided tour into the psyche of each of them. More than a hundred years old, this was one of the first books to question Christianity and religion in general. Its funny that when this book first came out, it was hailed by the Church as it failed to see the satire; much like one of the sub-plots in the book.

There is a chapter called ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ (something which every student of philosophy would be aware of), which is a poem/dialogue between a Spanish Inquisitor and Jesus, where the former crticises the concept of free will.

This dialogue is one of the first texts to highlight the absurdity of life, best summed by the following quote-

“There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either”

Freedom is not for the weak.

The Inquisitor feels that people are too weak, and giving free-will to human beings is the greatest mistake as it has just driven them to absurd confusion. Human beings fight and fight for true freedom, but once they have it, they have no idea what to do with it. And this is especially true for our generation where freedom is at its peak and it has never been more tormented. Sure, there is faith which acts like a guiding star for many, but even the ones with blind faith are confused when a little logic comes into picture.

So as one reader puts it- what is the way out of this paradox?- when being enslaved causes suffering and freedom becomes insufferable- what does one choose?

On a lighter note, I’m just blown away by how Dostoevesky leads us into many other such deeper thoughts, keeping the reading light and also comical all along. Personally I think this is as close to existentialism as one can get to, without going absolutely crazy :D

Super enjoyable and highly recommended!

Trivia and favourite quotes (if you care to read further)

The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky’s last book. He died 4 months after writing this. The main character of this book- Aleksey(Alyosha) is named after his son who passed away at the age of 2. This shattered him — he was encouraged to visit a monastary by his wife, so that it might help him cope with the loss. It is here that he wrote most of the novel. Although it was supposed to help him, he found the customs at the monastary absurd and we see his satirical commentary on monk life throughout this book.

Also, the death of a child is central to this book and so naturally the book ends with death and a speech which orders that this death is not to be forgotten, but rather be cherished as a sort of talisman against future wrong-doings.

The book has deeper conversations about crime and punishment, pain and suffering. And if there is meaning to everything then how it is difficult, almost impossible to see any meaning in the suffering of innocent children, no matter how much you believe in God.

Few of my favourite lines:

  • “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”
  • “The more stupid one is, the closer one is to reality. The greater the stupidity, the greater the clarity. Stupidity is brief and guileless, while intelligence equivocates and hides. Wit is a scoundrel, while stupidity is honest and sincere”
  • “There is a certain confession I have to make to you”, Ivan began. “I have never been able to understand how is it possible to love one’s neighbour. In my opinion the people it is impossible to love are precisely those near to one, while one can really love those who are far away”
  • “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
  • “The centripetal force on our planet is still fearfully strong, Alyosha. I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It’s first-rate soup, they know how to make it here. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard, that’s what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach.”
  • “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete beastiality, and it all comes form lying continually to others and himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. it sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked up on a word and made a mountain out of a pea — he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility…”