Friends ask me if I am enjoying The Brothers Karamazov. Normally, it would seem a reasonable question to ask, but somehow, with this particular novel, it seems almost irrelevant. It’s a novel that I often find very strange: it puzzles me, and it frequently infuriates me. But at the same time, it also intrigues me, and fascinates me, and, indeed, haunts my imagination. So how can I sum up what I feel about this strange book? How can I possibly answer that simple and really quite reasonable question “Are you enjoying it?”
There are a great many elements that continue to puzzle me deeply. One is the behaviour of Grushenka, who, at no point, behaves in any way that seems to me in any way explicable. This may well be another aspect of Dostoyevsky’s contention that human behaviour is not susceptible to rational analysis because it is in no way rational. That may well be so, but when every single act of a character makes you wonder what on earth is the matter with her, then the action of the novel becomes hard to follow. Up to a point, I can see why Dmitri, Ivan, Smerdyakov – even Katerina Ivanovna – behave as they do, but everything Grushenka does is so very outré that I don’t even know how to start thinking about it.
The other character that puzzles me is Father Zosima. Up to a point, he is a sort of Tolstoyan saint – except, of course, Tolstoy would have made him a peasant rather than a monk. He is a wise, decent old man, whose goodness and compassion for his fellow human beings are simple, self-sacrificing, and unaffected. But what exactly does he mean when he speaks of everyone being guilty for everyone? The concept of shared guilt is a strange one. Surely someone who is saintly – someone such as, indeed, Zosima himself – does not bear the burden of guilt of someone who commits atrocities? And if he does, why? I cannot sympathise with this concept of shared guilt: I find this concept far too alien to my sensibilities. And yet, this concept seems to be at the heart of the novel: by the end, as I remember, a man who is innocent of a murder happily takes on the guilt of the murder, and agrees to be punished for it. And at this stage, my imaginative sympathy for the religious viewpoint – or, at least, for Dostoyevsky’s religious viewpoint – comes to an abrupt halt: try as I might, I can’t take in this concept. It’s not so much that I can’t accept this: I don’t understand how it is possible for anyone to accept this.
And what is the significance of Zosima’s body putrefying prematurely after his death? The other monks in the monastery – who are not depicted as in any way admirable – see this as evidence of Zosima’s unworthiness. Alyosha, however, continues to believe in Zosima’s saintliness; and yet, he is deeply disturbed by it all. He is so disturbed indeed that he is tempted away from his faith: he even allows Ratikin to take him to the house of the depraved Grushenka. But it is in Grushenka’s house that something happens – something that, once again, I don’t quite understand. Grushenka, who had been intent on seducing the chaste Alyosha, suddenly decides not to do so when she hears of Zosima’s death. And she tells a folk-story about an onion: it is a story about a mean old woman whose one good deed in all her life was that she once gave an onion to a beggar; and now, when her soul is in Hell, her good angel holds out an onion for her, so the old woman could grasp it and be pulled out. However, mean and selfish as ever, as she tries to grasp the onion, she kicks away the other souls in torment who are trying to grasp it also; and so the onion breaks, and she finds herself still in Hell, her last hope of redemption gone. What is the significance of this story here? Why does Grushenka suddenly pull back from her intention of seducing Alyosha? And, most importantly, why does this restore Alyosha’s faith? Maybe it would help if I had more of a religious outlook, but, although I can sense a great significance in all this, I find it very elusive: I cannot grasp it any more than the old woman in Hell could grasp the onion.
The chapter that follows, though, is one of the most wonderful in the whole novel. Alyosha, exhausted and half asleep, hears the story being read from the gospels of Christ’s first miracle – of how Christ had turned water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. That first miracle was one thatendorsed human pleasure, human joy; and hearing this, Alyosha experiences an ecstatic moment of mystic revelation. Once again, I don’t claim to understand any of this, but Dostoyevsky does convey movingly a visionary sense of epiphany, a momentary revelation of the transcendent.
To use that over-worked expression, this is a challenging book, and while I don’t feel I am always up to the challenge, I am enjoying being challenged by it. There’s much I don’t understand; and I continue to have a great many reservations about many aspects of it: but even so, this is one of those handful of masterpieces where it is the reader who is measured against the achievement, and not the other way round.