Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 58

The Brothers Karamazov : Books 1–4

The Brothers Karamazov (Brat'ya Karamazovy) achieves a classic expression of the great theme that had preoccupied Dostoevsky since Notes from Underground: the conflict between reason and Christian faith. The controlled and measured grandeur of the novel spontaneously evokes comparison with the greatest creations of Western literature. The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, King Lear, Faust—these are the titles that come to mind as one tries to measure the stature of The Broth- ers Karamazov, for these too grapple with the never-ending and never-to-beended argument aroused by the “accursed questions” of mankind's destiny. By enlarging the scale of his habitual poetics of subjectivity and dramatic conflict, Dostoevsky imparts a monumental power of self-expression to his characters that rivals Dante's sinners and saints, Shakespeare's titanic heroes and villains, and Milton's gods and archangels. Dostoevsky's personages seem to dwarf their surroundings with the same superhuman majesty as the figures of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

The characters of The Brothers Karamazov are not only contemporary social types, they are linked with vast, age-old cultural-historical forces and moralspiritual conflicts. The internal struggle in Ivan Karamazov's psyche, for example, is expressed through the legends and mystery plays of the Middle Ages in Europe, the autos-da-of the Spanish Inquisition, the eschatological myth of the returning Christ, and the New Testament narrative of Christ's temptations by Satan. Dimitry is surrounded with the atmosphere of Schiller's Hellenism and the struggle between the Olympian gods and the dark, bestial forces that had subjugated humankind before their coming. Zosima is the direct inheritor of the thousand-year-old rituals and traditions of the Eastern Church and a representative of the recently revived institution of starchestvo, both of which are evoked so solemnly in the early chapters. Alyosha is situated in this same religious context, and his crisis of doubt, which, like those of King Lear and Hamlet, calls into question the entire order of the universe, is resolved only by a cosmic intuition of the secret harmony linking the earth with the starry heavens and other worlds.

Feodor Pavlovich's anecdotes about Diderot and Catherine the Great, as well as his quotations from Voltaire, tinge his grossness and cynicism with a distinct

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