The Other Brothers

This article is part of a series on Dostoevsky’s Great Works. See also:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov: The Other Brothers
  2. Crime and Punishment: Flesh and Bronze
  3. The Idiot: The Moral Idiot

“Man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil.”

The Brothers Karamazov tells the story (many stories, actually) of three brothers, each very different, as they adventure through trial, love, and every emotion on earth. Dmitri is the oldest: he’s a recently retired soldier, rash, impetuous, and driven by emotional impulse; Ivan is the middle brother: he’s cynical, intellectual, and probably depressed, and hides an enormous well of philosophical wonder; Alyosha is the youngest: he’s bright-eyed, optimistic, and highly religious with unlimited faith. Ivan struggles through an existentialist “Rebellion”, denying the order of the universe (or, rather, denying willingness to reconcile with its lack of order); eventually, crushed by the criminal trial of his older brother, Ivan suffers taunting hallucinations and mental illness and eventually loses his mind.

I claim that Ivan himself is the site of a battle between the Devil and God. His “brain fever” is purposefully ambiguous: are his hallucinations the result of physical illness, or is the illness merely a convenient explanation for goings-on that are much deeper and more mystical? I’ll note here that his “illness”, I believe, had already begun back in Pro and Contra, when he sits down with Alyosha for “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor”…

And the Devil and God are both mighty-convincing! Surprisingly so: it’s much deeper than a trivial case of good vs. evil. Regarding Ivan’s desire to testify for his brother, the Devil taunts, “You are going to perform an act of heroic virtue, and you don’t believe in virtue; that’s what tortures you and makes you angry, that’s why you are so vindictive.” The Devil insists that only cowardice holds Ivan from betrayal; that only cowardice confines him to his facade of sacrificial virtue. These evil thoughts overwhelm Ivan’s mind: “Conscience! What is conscience?” he asks Alyosha. “I make it up for myself. Why am I tormented by it? From habit. From the universal habit of mankind for seven thousand years.”

God, in the form of Alyosha, teaches Ivan to love unconditionally. “Alyosha could not help crying, looking frankly at his brother. ‘Never mind him, anyway,’ ” urges Alyosha regarding Ivan’s hallucination; “ ‘have done with him and forget him. And let him take with him all that you curse now, and never come back!’” Later, as Alyosha thinks to himself: “ ‘Yes, if Smerdyakov is dead, no one will believe Ivan’s evidence; but he will go and give it.’ Alyosha smiled softly. ‘God will conquer!’ ”

The conflict reaches its peak around Ivan’s decision whether to testify for Dmitri’s innocence. At the end – in the truest tragedy of all – Ivan takes the side of the good, and it fails him. Ivan tries to testify for Dmitri, but, paralyzed by the decision, utters only an incoherent mess, consummating his insanity, and collapsing on the scene; Mitya gets convicted anyway, and is sent to hard labor in Siberia. Ivan gets neither his sanity nor an acquitted brother. At the end of the day, the Devil was right all along!

Alyosha offers hope at the end but it’s up to you whether you buy it.

And finally, Dmitri, in prison: “I’m innocent, but I’ve got to go to Siberia. I accept it. It’s all come to me here, here, within these peeling walls. There are numbers of them there, hundreds of them underground, with hammers in their hands. Oh, yes, we shall be in chains and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great sorrow, we shall rise again to joy, without which man cannot live nor God exist, for God gives joy: it’s His privilege—a grand one. Ah, man should be dissolved in prayer! What should I be underground there without God? And then we men underground will sing from the bowels of the earth a glorious hymn to God, with Whom is joy. Hail to God and His joy!”

What a great book.


3 comments on “The Other Brothers

  1. Richard says:

    In Dublin I was part of a reading group which read, among other authors, some Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov was a difficult read. If I remember correctly, most of what remains in my memory of that book comes from the passages of the tale of the the Grand Inquisitor which struck me considerably. In my mind, the monologue of the Inquisitor provides a reasonable defense of the motives of those who ally themselves willfully with conventionally less virtuous designs and in doing so rebuke the idea of God which can be found in the New Testament.

    • Josh says:

      If I remember correctly it was a bit more complicated.

      The Grand Inquisitor defended the actions of the masses (millions) who chose to be subservient under his tyrannical rule. Meanwhile, Jesus argued on behalf of those rare citizens (ten thousand) that rejected authoritarian rule and chose to be free.

      I think the point was that Jesus wanted people to follow him, and to be virtuous, on their on initiative, and not because they were told to.

      Paging @benediamond

    • Ben says:

      Richard is right in that the Inquisitor (the story) “provides a defense of the motives of those” — in this case, the Inquisitor (the person) — “who ally themselves willfully with conventionally less virtuous designs” etc. The Inquisitor himself, of course, does the defending here, and, as I clumsily hinted at above, it is his own policies (under which millions are forced to live trying existences so as to be subdued by the all-powerful forces of miracle, mystery, and authority) that he defends.

      So Josh, again, the Inquisitor defends his own policies while, yes, tacitly also condoning the tendency of his subjects to be enthralled by them. Famously: the Inquisitor insists that Jesus should not have declined to grant the Devil’s three temptations in the Gospels—as in declining He offered in exchange only “some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread—for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom.”

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