Posted by: Sally Ingraham | April 29, 2010

The Brothers Karamazov: Book Four and Epilogue

Bros Kby Fyodor Dostoevsky
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I hope it is obvious that, since I am going to talk in a blatant way about the end of a book, there will be spoilers in what follows. Please read at your own risk. 🙂

That said, wow. What a crazy ending to a crazy book. I think I need to put this out there from the get-go: I could not manage to take this book seriously! I know that in some circles this is a very serious book, with very serious ideas, but at least for the time being I am only able to respond to it on an entertainment value level. And even as such, I found the book as a whole merely amusingly annoying for the most part, with a few brilliant sections.

This last chunk was especially puzzling, and hilarious to me – even while there were moments when I finally felt a slight emotional connection to a character or two.

First off we meet Koyla, the hero of a sudden sub-story. I was strongly reminded of the fact that this was a serialized tale when it first came out, by this new trail that Dostoevsky went abruptly down. I know that poor little Ilyusha and his pathetic father made interesting appearances earlier, but I was dumbfounded when the course of the finally compelling narrative was suddenly diverted from the overwhelmingly curious case of Papa Karamazov’s patricide, to…nearly 14 year old Koyla with his loud mouth, his darling “squirts”, and his enormous scruffy dog. Did Dostoevsky have a certain quantity of episodes that he was supposed to deliver? While this was interesting, even highly amusing/poignant filler, it was still an unlooked for diversion from the main story. I liked Koyla, fortunately. His encounter with the peasants, and his conversation about God and whatnot with Alyosha were some of my favorite parts of the book.

So then, Dmitri shouts passionate philosophies from his prison cell; Alyosha is harassed by first Lise’s mother then a somewhat crazy Lise herself; Ivan and Katerina fight, Grushenka mopes; and the ever slimy Smerdyakov fesses up.

It takes so LONG to get to any point in this book! This became more and more amusing and simultaneously annoying to me as this last section spiraled to an end. By the time Smerdyakov finally admitted to the crime, I was ready to throttle him myself. And then I had to sit through the two epic speeches by the prosecutor and the defense attorney at the trial the next day. What an odd technique – to take away the mystery, but then still force you to examine every possible angle of it. I was tempted to get bored, but somehow I didn’t quite succumb, due partially to the continued quirkiness of the narrator, and the occasional flights of prose that were actually quite good.

But it was all for what? That ending killed me – the peasants ‘stood up for themselves’, whatever that means; Dmitri may or may not try to escape while he’s being carted off to Siberia; Katya may or may not still love him; Ivan may or may not die; and Alyosha really, really likes all the little school boys…? The final note was priceless – ‘“Hurrah for Karamazov!”‘ Indeed.

So what am I left with? Well, there was some semi-interesting stuff about psychology, and more theories about how personal conscience and mankind’s conscience can exist or not exist without God, and what that means for society, etc. I stand by what I said several posts ago – I don’t really agree with anyone here. There are bits and pieces of ideas that resonated with me for a moment, but overall I find myself backing away slowly from these Karamazov’s and their Russian brothers and Dostoevsky himself. I may pay them all another visit in the future, but for the moment I am relieved to bid them farewell.

Oh, incidentally, my absolute favorite part of the book was The Devil chapter! So great. There he sits, in a shabby suit, with a case of the sniffles, and the most compelling argument in the book – that there could be no ‘Hosannah’ without him – that he would prefer to be destroyed so that good would rule enfettered, but the universe says “No, live, for without you everything would be sensible and then nothing would happen…!”

“And so I serve grudgingly, for the sake of events, and I do the unreasonable on orders. People take this whole comedy for something serious, despite all their undeniable intelligence. That is their tragedy. Well, they suffer, of course, but…still they live, they live really, not in fantasy; for suffering is life. Without suffering, what pleasure would there be in it – everything would turn into an endless prayer service: holy, but a bit dull.”

And there you have it. Close the curtain on the brothers Karamazov. Many thanks to Bellezza for hosting this group read, and all her enthusiasm for the project. I am thrilled to have read it, and while I may not return to Dostoevsky for a bit I do feel that a focus on Russian lit is in my near future. Time to tackle Tolstoy perhaps? 🙂


  1. I have never understood why we humans MUST glorify suffering, and even evil. Sorry. I totally reject the notion that to live is to suffer…or that it is only the existence of suffering and evil that keeps life “real” (and by implication, “interesting”). Why would we think that life without pain would be dull? To glorify our own suffering is to excuse the suffering of OTHERs…and that is the ultimate failure of love. I wish I could say this is a Russian thing…and it is, of course, in part…but it is in us all. We just don’t believe in the reality of happiness, contentment, peace, GOOD! Oh, there will be pain and suffering…but in the endless prayer service of Christian life it is consumed in the joy of true unadulterated goodness…in the reality of a life where pain and evil are, by definition “the great unreal.” And, while there is a lot of dullness in Religion, there is NONE in faith, in a life of faith lived at the edge of true good, at the risk of everything others might call real…and lived by the spirit of the only real…the living God in Jesus Christ. Do not be fooled. Accept no substitute philosophy, even disguised as some kind of take on Christianity. There is a true God, a Good God, in whom there is no shadow of darkness. Don’t forget!

    • I would definitely say that Alyosha would agree with you! And both he and the Elder represent this approach to Christianity and religious beliefs. His brother Ivan, whose vision of the Devil was probably just an extension of his own muddled search for truth, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. And then you’ve got Dmitri, walking a balance beam in between them, unsure even to the end which side he would come down on. Curious that Dostoevsky could come up with all these different philosophies, present them all fairly strongly, while maintaining his own specific beliefs. One of the reasons why he’s considered a great writer I suppose. And there is no doubt that in the end it is Alyosha who continues on with life in the most joyous fashion, even in the face of the possible death of one brother, and the exodus of another…

  2. I much prefer Tolstoy, after having read both Crime and Punishment and now The Brothers Karamazov. It’s so true what you said about the switch from patricide to a fourteen year old boy’s story thrown in at the end; I could only resolve that by comparing the sons and fathers relationship. Overall I liked the novel, but perhaps as I felt with Viriginia Woolf, I’m inclined to think, “And this is what all the fuss is about?”

    Now, Tolstoy…there’s an author! I’ve never been let down by any of his works. Any.

    Thank you so much for reading along with me, Sarah, and for doing such a beautiful, thorough job with all of your posts.

    • All right, I’ll move on to Tolstoy with confidence now. And since I like to make a fuss about Virginia Woolf I can’t quite agree with you there, but I understand what you mean! Looking forward to reading with you again soon. 🙂

  3. Good, good, you see what I was trying to warn people about without being a jerk about it, I hope.

    Sometimes Dostoevsky is not merely bad. Sometimes he’s incompetent.

    I just finished the “Devil” chapter, though – yes, yes! That’s the payoff. That’s a heck of a piece of writing.

    • It’s been great to have your comments and insight on this book. Glad I’m not alone in thinking the “Devil” chapter is awesome! 🙂

  4. Interesting! Based on yours and Frances’s lukewarm responses to the end of this, I’m glad I didn’t attempt to add it to my already-full April – I would be curious to revisit it, though, since I remember really loving it as a young teenager. But then again, the criticisms people are making are exactly those that would slip past/appeal to a young teenager, so maybe it was just my time of life. In any case, congrats on your impressive reading level this month, and I’m totally joining you for SHORT picks in May!

    • Hurray for short books! 🙂

      It’s always so funny to go back to books that really resonated with you as a teen. I’m not so very far from that time in my life, but already there are books that remind me of how different your head space is when you’re 15!

  5. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there are so many brilliant small pieces here like “The Devil” which I also loved but the pacing SUCKS. I found that part four just ground to a halt with the beginning of the court scenes. Insightful satire of the Russian court system or not, I just did not care but the time I got to this point. And unfortunately, my sympathies rested with Ivan and not his saintly little brother.

    • Same here. While I found some of the court scenes vaguely interesting, all the narrator’s comments about “the ladies” and their purely romantic interest in the case grated on my nerves, while I was just exhausted by the constant rehashing of the events. Bad pacing indeed. 🙂

      • It’s too easy, even a little lazy to blame flaws in a book on serialization. But I think that is the issue here. Part I of BK was published in January and February of 1879. The court scenes were not published until the fall of 1880. That’s a heck of a gap.

        Dostoevsky might have been reviewing the events of the novel for himself as much as for his readers.

  6. The Devil chapter was great–it seems somehow more modern that the rest, like it didn’t really fit in.
    The closing arguments were quite lengthy. I was envisioning all of those people at the trial getting fidgety like I was.
    I’ve enjoyed reading you thoughts for the readalong! I’m on to short books for a bit too.

    • I was definitely getting fidgety! 🙂 Glad to move on to short books.

  7. I was strongly reminded of the fact that this was a serialized tale when it first came out, by this new trail that Dostoevsky went abruptly down.

    Yes, I started to feel a bit of Dickens under the surface there myself.

    As for the devil chapter, agreed on its brilliance. And I think we have it to thank (at least in part) for quite a bit of The Master and Margarita, which just makes it that much more awesome.

    • The decision to make the subplot about “the boys” so prominent was not made until the winter of 1880, by which time the novel had been serially published for over a year(!). Dostoevsky’s favorite technique is the surprise lurch.

      It’s not filler, though, at least not to D., who had been working on a preliminary plan for a “novel about children” for several years.

      All of this, except for my invention of “the surprise lurch”, is from Victor Terras, A Karamazov Companion, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, p. 8.

      The “Devil” chapter was also a late addition, although Terras is unclear on how late.

      • Amateur Reader – I’m a fan of your “the surprise lurch”. Nicely put. Interesting about the insertion of Dostoevsky’s ideas for a book about children. I liked the story, it was just the abrupt appearance of it that left me quizzical.

        Nicole – Ooo, thanks for the reminder to shoot The Master and Margarita closer to the top of my TBR list. You’re the second person to mention it to me in connection to The Devil chapter. I’m sure I’ll like it. 🙂

  8. I dunno. I sort of like the subplot. Very Shakespearean. It seems to emphasize the novel’s childhood beginnings, where the brother’s are forgotten by their father and in return they forget their childhood. All but Alyosha who remembers a moment with his mother.

    It seems to Dostoevsky that childhood is very important for a person, in fact it defines the person, and it defines the society. At the end of the book we see Alyosha remembering the children, in particular Koyla, who would have been like Ivan I imagine, without Alyosha’s influence. Recall how Alyosha tells them to remember this moment, that even is they grow evil and cynical, to think back on this one moment, where they were good and when they loved well.

    • I definitely liked Koyla and his pals, I just didn’t care for the placement. Their little story was one of my favorite bits of the book, and it’s true that Koyla seemed to be on track to thinking like Ivan. His relationship with Alyosha as he continued to grow up and develop would be of interest to me, but fortunately, (since I don’t feel particularly compelled to read more Dostoevsky right now!) the book is closed on the subject…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: