An image of The Brothers Karamazov

What You Gain by Reading The Brothers Karamazov

You will either love or hate this book. It has very few lukewarm reviews. You’ll be disappointed if you read The Brothers Karamazov like a Stephen King novel or the latest Harry Potter adventure. While it is a work of fiction, it demands far more from the reader than a casual relationship. 

At its core, this book addresses several philosophical and psychological ideas that will target everything you thought you understood about your own life. Reading this book without holding a mirror up to your deeds and beliefs is impossible. That is why it’s considered a classic and one of the greatest works of literature today. 

A good book should do more than entertain you – it should challenge your views, however stubborn they may be. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued that a writer’s job is not to entertain but to challenge the reader. Dostoyevsky has done the impossible and achieved both. 

A tip before we get started: Don’t lie to yourself.

You must read this book with an open and honest heart to get anything from it. One of my favorite quotes from the book is on this very subject. Dostoyevsky tells us:

“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 bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense.”

This quote is the essence of The Brothers Karamazov.

You are a complicated creature

You, my friend, are a complicated person. You come with emotional, mental, and physical challenges that sometimes make you a hot mess. 

I’m no different. When I think I’ve got life figured out, I discover that I’m too focused on immaterial outcomes, hurt the people I love, or fallen down yet another rabbit hole. 

In this book, you’ll meet several characters who share this universal yoke – that life is full of suffering, and we’re all dealing with it in our own ways. Dostoyevsky was a master at capturing life’s philosophical challenges and the psychological tricks we employ to navigate its choppy waters. 

As you read, you’ll see life at work in a very real and visceral way.

Which brother do you most identify with?

The Brothers Karamazov centers on the lives of a father and his sons and their dysfunctional family relationship. The beautiful thing is that each son has a distinct personality. 

First, you have Dimitri Karamazov, who is a sensualist. He lives his life in the moment, with heated passion. Ivan is an intellectual. He sees everything through a black-and-white lens. Either it makes sense, or it does not. Finally, Alyosha is the emotional and spiritual one. He has a relationship with God and approaches everything with a kind heart.

These personalities are powerful in their own distinct way. As you read, you will relate to one of the brothers. You will agree most with his viewpoint on life. 

Should you live for the moment as Dimitri does? Should life be weighed and measured as Ivan would have you do it? Or should you turn a blind eye and love regardless of the outcomes as Alyosha manages to do so?

It’s also fascinating that we have a little of all three brothers in us. Their combined personalities define what it means to be human.

Confront your beliefs for or against God

Dostoyevsky was a religious man. After reading this book, some might question his faith. Within these pages, you’ll find one of the most powerful arguments for atheism in all literature. 

In a section called The Grand Inquisitor, Ivan speaks with Alyosha about God and the impossible nature of free will. I won’t give any of it away, but I will tell you this: Ivan makes an excellent case against religion and God. His statements go on for pages, and every word is a mighty hammer (as Nietzsche would say) against belief in a higher being.

And then Alyosha responds with his argument for the existence of God, but he does so not with words but with action. It is up to you as the reader to decide who you agree with – Ivan or Alyosha.

I am a Christian, and while this book made me question my faith, it was good for me to read. Examining your beliefs is essential, especially if you haven’t come to them on your own. Ultimately, I decided to agree with Alyosha, and my convictions are better for it.

Regardless of your choice, you will walk away from this book valuing your decision. 

The importance of your family

This book is about dysfunctional families. That’s something we all can relate to in our own ways. It is a call to father and son and the relationship that exists between them. Dostoyevsky does an incredible job of painting how vital a father is to a child’s outcome.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the father, Fyodor Pavolitch Karamazov, is a horrible person in this book. He is a demon of a personality, and as you read about him on the page, you’ll feel your flesh crawling. You’ll also see how his narcissistic behavior affects his boys.

As a father of four, I loved reading the book with this perspective. It made me think of my kids and the relationships that we have. It also made me want to show up more for them, to be less selfish, and to be patient with them as they try to figure this life out. 

As previously discussed, I don’t have it figured out myself.

Psychology is a stick with two ends

One of my favorite aspects of this book comes in the last few chapters. Since the book jacket reveals that there is a murder, it’s not a spoiler to share it here. The real question is, who killed the victim, and why? 

During the court case, you come to believe that one of the main characters is guilty. However, when the defense attorney makes his final remarks, he says, “Psychology is a stick with two ends.” His point is that every argument has two sides. He shows us that our beliefs can often be dismantled, no matter how grounded and firm we are in them.

I found these pages exhilarating to read. It’s easy to think that I’m right and that the veracity of my position is unshakable. Dostoyevsky challenges me to consider the other side and to do so with an open heart before I commit. Wise words, indeed. 

Next time I’m in an argument, I’ll remember these words: Psychology is a stick with two ends. 

You’ll walk away from this book knowing more about yourself

The Brothers Karamazov is a book about self-reflection. You’ll meet a wide cast of rich and complicated characters, including yourself when you read it. 

You are in this book. All of your good and evil is laid bare in these pages, and if you dare to see what’s there, you’ll discover more about your personality and beliefs than you thought possible from reading a book.

Let’s be clear. 

Yes, this is a work of fiction. But it is also a conversation between you and yourself, with Dostoyevsky as the moderator. You will face the fundamental questions of life, which include suffering, God, love, and responsibility. And for that, I say, “Hold on, it’s going to be an interesting ride.”

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