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The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Context


Mysticism in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition

In 1054 one of many schisms occurred in Christianity. In this one, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church split into the Roman Catholic Church in the West, headed by the pope with his seat in Rome, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which was run by four patriarchs in various places. Eastern Orthodoxy came to Russia in the 10th century. By Dostoevsky's time, Moscow was a major center of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Mysticism in Christianity is closely associated with the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The "desert fathers" were 3rd- and 4th-century hermits who went to the Egyptian desert to live and pray in religious communities. They practiced asceticism (control of the senses) and contemplation, which in the Christian tradition is nonverbal prayer and the practice of mental stillness that focuses the mind on the love of God. In the novel, the elders are practitioners of this mental prayer, and as the narrator explains, the tradition of elders was somewhat new to the Russian monasteries.

Original Sin and the Role of Jesus

All religious traditions attempt to account for evil, and in the Christian tradition, evil comes into the world when human beings disobey God. In the Biblical story of the Fall, God places the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise, but he cautions them not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent in the Garden (later equated with the devil) tempts them to eat the fruit, and as a result of their disobedience to God, they are expelled from Eden and subject to suffering and death. God gave humans free will, and their choice to disobey him is the original sin. Man needed to be redeemed by God as a result of original sin, so God incarnated as a God-man. The understanding of Christian redemption differs in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. For Roman Catholics, to satisfy the justice of the God, only a God-man can atone for original sin. In the Eastern tradition, God incarnates as a second Adam to make whole the breach that occurred when the first humans disobeyed. Thus, through the mercy of Jesus, the breach between God and man can be healed, a belief that Ivan does not share. Zosima's doctrine that "all are guilty for all" is based on the idea that all men and women share original sin; thus, all are connected in sin, redemption, and brotherhood.

The Wedding at Cana

The Wedding at Cana is a particularly joyous occasion told in the Gospel of John in the New Testament. This is Jesus's first miracle, performed at the behest of his mother. They are attending a wedding, along with Jesus's disciples, when the hosts run out of wine. Although Jesus has not officially begun his ministry, he changes water into wine. When Alyosha meets Zosima in his vision, he references Cana and says he is at that celebration (joined with God), and he got there with "one little onion" (small good deeds done for others).

The Status of Serfs after Emancipation

The serfs, the agricultural slaves of Russia, were emancipated in 1861, but much like in the American South, it took some time before they actually received their freedom. Thus, the peasants still had a separate court of justice, and it was not uncommon for former masters to continue to abuse their serfs and servants, although laws were passed about the treatment of serfs. Grigory is an emancipated serf who chooses to stay on with Fyodor Pavlovich; he gets a small salary. Fyodor Pavlovich is a landowner and thus of the noble class, although he has no title.

Judicial Reform of 1864

In 1864, Tsar Alexander II instituted wide-ranging judicial reform, which included making the courts a separate branch of government, instituting trial by jury, establishing the legal profession, allowing court proceedings to be open to the public, and much more. Courts for peasants and the clergy remained separate, however, and in the early chapters of the novel, Ivan argues against ecclesiastical courts, which is situationally ironic given the existing situation. Dostoevsky's court scenes and his descriptions of court procedure faithfully represent how trials were conducted under the new reforms; he was also quite critical of these reforms in his nonfiction.

Dostoevsky and Anti-Semitism

For readers who love Dostoevsky, it is hard to ignore the anti-Semitic references sprinkled through his novels—in which Jews are stereotyped as shady money-grubbers who take advantage of people by loaning money at interest. In fact, the Jews were forced into the role of money lenders in Europe because Christians considered usury (lending money at interest) a sin. Because Jews were restricted from entering many professions, some of them loaned money. Jews were systematically persecuted in Europe and made to live in ghettos for hundreds of years. Another false charge put upon the Jews was ritual murder of Christian children, which Lise repeats to Alyosha in the chapter titled "The Little Demon." This accusation was often used to justify pogroms (mass slaughter) of Jews, especially in Russia. Many countries continued to have discriminatory laws against Jews up until the 18th and 19th centuries, and in one journal, Dostoevsky argued for extending the rights of Jews. While Dostoevsky depicts his characters' prejudices and not his own, he cannot be absolved of his anti-Semitic views, although critics argue about how deep they went and whether his views changed.

Polyphony and Genres in the Novel

Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1963) refers to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov as polyphonic because it allows the airing of a variety of opposing ideas and points of view without much mediation from the narrator. Moreover, he says that the opposing polemics of the novel—faith and doubt—are equally represented and thoroughly convincing. Bakhtin discussed the relation between the author, the author's creation, and the reader, as well as how each of these affects and influences the other within the context of the political and social forces at the time. In other words, Bakhtin says, nothing exists on its own; everything exists in relation to other things.

"Polyphony" means "many voices." In a novel, each of the voices has its own perspectives and validity. An author does not place his or her own narrative voice between the character and the reader. Also, each character exists in its own world and speaks for itself directly through the text. The voices, the characters, and the novel can only be understood when read together.

The Brothers Karamazov is remarkable for the number of genres it uses within the frame of the novel. Russian literature scholar Kate Holland points out in her essay "Novelizing Religious Experience: The Generic Landscape of The Brothers Karamazov" (Slavic Review, 2007) that the author had to "find a way of expressing religious experience within a novelistic narrative," and the use of multiple genres helped him to accomplish that. Thus, within the novel are a murder mystery, two love stories, a detailed representation of the court system under judicial reform, poems, biography, religious homilies, autobiography, folk legend (such as the story of the onion), hagiographic legend (stories of saints, as in the Life of Zosima), and apocryphal legends (stories that borrow from a religious canon but also step outside of it, as in "The Grand Inquisitor").

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