The Brothers Karamazov

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Edward Garnett, 1927

Edward Garnett: Introduction to The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoevsky. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc.vii-xi. Dartmouth call number 891.1 D74 O7186


The Brothers Karamazov, the last of Dostoevsky’s novels, appeared in book form in the autumn of I880, after having run as a serial through the Russky Viestnik. Dostoevsky began it in the summer of I878, and wrote it, with intermissions, at a great pace. Thus, in his letter of I7 July, I880, to Frau E. A. Stackenschneider, he says, “On II June I returned from Moscow to Staraya-Roussa, was frightfully tired, but sat down at once to the Karamazovs and wrote three whole sheets at one blow.”[1] And in a letter to Pobiedonoszev, eight days later, he says, “I sit down to the Karamozovs day and night.” Nothing could better illustrate the amazing energy of Dostoevsky’s brain, “always at boiling point,” as M. Brodsky has put it, who quotes from Prince V. M.’s Reminiscences of F. M. Dostoevsky.[2]


He would clutch his head as though there immediately rushed into it so many ideas that he found it difficult to begin. Very often for that reason he began to speak from the end, from the conclusion, from a few very remote, very complicated entanglements of his thought; or he would express the first principal idea and then would develop the parentheses and begin expressing supplementary and explanatory ideas or anything that occurred to him apropos at the moment.


As was his thought so were his novels, excessively complicated and entangled. The history of the Karamazovs is fairly simple, but the narrative is extremely involved and intricate, by its harking back to past episodes and encounters, involving fresh deductions and considerations of the issues, which necessitate new digressions, variations and repetitions, all pieced into or embroidered in the story. But exhaustive and indeed distressingly diffuse as is Dostoevsky’s literary method, it holds one helpless in its clutch, so amazing in intensity and force is his creative genius. Immersed in this book one has the sensation of being carried along in a turbulent flood, engulfed in whirlpools of passionate feeling, whirled along in rapids of thought, caught up and held fast in fresh currents of mystical speculation. And the atmospheric pressure increases until the climax is reached. The Brothers Karamazov is both a great work of art and a great treasure-house of national psychical pathology. It emerged finally from a number of projects of novels which remained unwritten. In I870 Dostoevsky wrote to Strachov that he had projected a great novel, “The Life Story of a Great Sinner,” five stories in five complete parts. From a Dostoevsky notebook preserved in the Russian State archives we see that several characters of this unwritten work were reshaped and reappeared in The Possessed, A Raw Youth, and The Brothers Karamazov, while the thesis of “Atheism,” another unwritten novel, reappears in the tortured speculations of Ivan Karamazov concerning the existence of God. Continuations of The Brothers Karamazov were planned to follow, with Alyosha’s temptations in the world as the theme, but Dostoevsky died suddenly, 28 January, I88I, and nothing of these was written. The novel, as it stands, was designed to combat the philosophic materialism and unbelief and “common European” ideas of science of the younger generation. “Men,” wrote Dostoevsky, “are denying with all their might and main the divine creation, the world of God and its meaning,”[3] and the Karamazovs, the father Fyodor, his son Ivan, and his bastard son Smerdyakov, were typical of this general denial of God and fashionable materialism. The story begins with the struggle between the old father and Dmitri for the possession of Grushenka, and develops into the mystery of Fyodor’s murder by one of the sons. But by which? The reader lives at Dostoevsky’s pleasure on three intersecting planes, the plane of the Karamazov family life, the plane of the murder mystery, and the metaphysical plane. It is this method akin to that of Hamlet, which gives the novel its richly intricate pattern of thought and sensation in the struggle of flesh with spirit and spirit with flesh. His Karamazovs Dostoevsky drew not from fashionable types of the day, but rather from those whose social roots go down very deep in old Russian soil, and these characters are incarnations of a psychically diseased degenerate stock, shaped from Dostoevsky’s knowledge of the mentally unbalanced and the obsessed, and are illumined with light reflected from his own dream-world of metaphysical fancy.


Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, is designed as a foil to his brothers a representative of pure Christianity. Dmitri, the eldest, stands for man’s passionate lusts and his fierce will – to – live, obsessed by the claims of the world, the flesh and the devil while Ivan, the second brother, stands for the intellectual pride of the “scientific” man without faith, tormented by his negations. It is remarkable how individual are these figures, considering their definite, circumscribed rôles. The triumph of characterisation, however, is the father, Fyodor, who is stamped with diabolic force. The depths of human nastiness, of piggish depravity, of heartless malice, of spiritual baseness, no less than of simmering sensuality, are incarnated in old Fyodor, and yet so strongly are his roots planted in earth that we sympathise not indeed with his acts or words but with his fierce lust of life. He, the sinner, is judged indeed but is not cast out. There is something of epic force in the robust self-sufficingness of this terrible old buffoon. No less masterly in delineation is the disturbing figure of the valet, Smerdyakov, Fyodor’s bastard son by the idiot girl, Lizaveta. One should say Fyodor’s supposed son, for Dostoevsky’s habit of making reservations and conjectural asides and of casting faint shadows of doubt is what gives depths of tone to his aesthetic scheme. And the illusion of reality is sustained by the ceaseless babble of confidences, confessions and gossip both of the characters and of the neighbourhood. Everybody tells us innumerable things with contradictions, variations, affirmations. And his method of revealing bit by bit a situation, with an occasional flare of exciting disclosures, is of a piece with his gradual analysis of human motive and impulse. Dostoevsky’s characters are all the time insensibly disclosing to us and themselves the indefinite depths underlying the treacherous surface of their sentiments and acts. His people’s consciousness is generally split up into successive layers of unconscious aims. Only under the pressure of crisis in the upheavals of violent emotion is the ambiguity of people’s attitude to one another resolved-as, for example, Katerina’s to Ivan and Ivan’s to Dmitri. Good examples of these betraying upheavals are Chapter II., “The Injured Foot,” and Chapter III., “A Little Demon,” in Book XI. The reader is kept on tenterhooks as well as the characters. The fecundity of Dostoevsky’s genius is shown by the fact that after Dmitri’s arrest on the charge of murdering his father, the three hundred pages of the three Books, No. IX., ” The Preliminary Investigation,” No. XI., “Ivan,” and No XII., “A Judicial Error,” are the most thrilling and profound of the whole novel. The three scenes between Ivan and Smerdyakov especially disclose, by successive flashes, the spiritual abyss that is opening before the former. In Book XII., “A Judicial Error,” Dostoevsky rises to the height of his diabolic dexterity. Then, in the Epilogue, after terror comes reconciliation, followed by the closing scene of Ilusha’s burial where Dostoevsky strikes the harmonising note of joy and hope.


We are told by a recent Russian writer of the young generation, “Our [Russian] organism has grown immune to his [Dostoevsky's] poisons which we have assimilated and ejected.”[4] But are they ejected? are they not still working as national poisons under new forms? It is interesting to look back to the period 1868-80, when Dostoevsky in deifying Russia and the Russian people was anathematising “the gang” of Liberals and Progressives, from Byelinsky downwards, and writing: “The Nihilists and Occidentalists deserve the knout.” On I8 March, I869, he writes to Strachov:


“… the inmost essence and the ultimate destiny of the Russian nation: namely that Russia must reveal to the world her own Russian Christ whom as yet the people know not and who is rooted in our native orthodox faith. There lies, I believe, the inmost essence of our impending contribution to civilisation whereby we shall awaken the European peoples.”[5]


Assuredly, were Dostoevsky to rise from the tomb to-day he would fiercely cry that his prophecies had come true, and that Russia had been basely betrayed by the Liberals and Progressives and delivered into the hands of the Bolshevik Communists and Marxists. Whereas, with more justice, the Westerners would urge that Imperial Russia had been led to her ruin by the blind stupidity of the Autocracy and the dark forces of Rasputinism. It is impossible to separate Dostoevsky the fierce polemical champion of “orthodoxy” from Dostoevsky the artist, but it is only fair to him to add that in his scathing satire on his generation in The Possessed, he branded mercilessly both forces in the opposing camps. Though his political prophecies have been turned inside out, his creative projections of ominous national types came to life and walked the land a generation after his death. In essentials people remain much the same as their progenitors, and as a psychologist Dostoevsky was the most profound of the Russian seers. And who knows what will arrive to-morrow? The Slavophiles have disappeared only to be succeeded by the Russian “Eurasians,” whose regenerative mission is to Asia.



The following is a list of Dostoevsky’s works in order of their appearance:


Poor Folk, 1846; The House of the Dead, 1861; Letters from the Underworld, 1864; Crime and Punishment 1866; Insulted and Injured, 1867; The Idiot, 1868-9; The Possessed, 1871; Raw Youth, 1871; Journal of an Author (published monthly), 1876-7; The Brothers Karamazov, 1879-80. His stories include: The Little Hero, The Double, The Gambler, The Eternal Husband, The Landlady, etc.


See also the three suppressed chapters of The Possessed, published as Stavrogin’s Confession (Hogarth Press, 1922); Letters and Reminiscences (Chatto & Windus), 1923.


Dostoevsky Portrayed by his Wife (Routledge, 1926) (valuable as an intimate study); D. S. Mirsky’s Russian Literature from Earliest Times to death of Dostoevsky (Routledge, 1927); also monographs by J. Middleton Murry and Janko Lavrin; Works, 12 vols., trans. Constance Garnett (Heinemann).


Translations of Dostoevsky’s novels have appeared as follows: Buried Alive, or, Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia, translated by Marie v. Thilo, 1881. In Vizetelly’s One Volume Novels: Crime and Punishment, vol. 13; Injury and Insult, translated by F. Whishaw, vol. 17; The Friend of the Family and the Gambler etc., vol. 22. In Vizetelly’s Russian Novels: The Idiot, by F. Whishaw 1887; Uncle’s Dream; and The Permanent Husband, etc., 1888. Prison Life in Siberia, translated by H. S. Edwards, 1888; Poor Folk, translated by L. Milman, 1894.


See D. S. Merezhkovsky, Tolstoy as Man and Artist, with Essay on Dostoevsky, translated from the Russian, 1902; M. Baring, Landmarks in Russian Literature (chapter on Dostoevsky), 1910; Dostoevsky by E. H. – Carr, 1931.


The translation for the Everyman’s Library edition of The Brothers Karamazov is reprinted by kind permission of W. Heinemann Ltd.
[1] Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne. Chatto and Windus, 1914, p. 250.
[2] Stavrogin’s Confession, etc. The Hogarth Press, 1923.
[3] Dostoevsky. Letters, etc. Translated by S. S. Koleliansky and J. Middleton Murry. Chatto and Windus, 1923, p. 242.
[4] A History of Russsan Literature, by Prince Mirsky. Routledge, 1927, p. 358.
[5] Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky, p. 175.