The 19th century is usually regarded as the high-water mark of the realist novel, but I don’t know that it makes much sense to regard The Brothers Karamazov from such a perspective. One can do so, of course, but viewed from a strictly realist perspective, the novel is bound to emerge, I think, as deeply unsatisfactory. But there are other approaches to the work that are, perhaps, more rewarding.
There’s a whiff of sulphur about this work, a whiff of the demonic. Translator David McDuff suggests in his introduction that it is actually the Devil himself who is the chief protagonist of the novel. Throughout, devils are referred to – sometimes casually in passing, but often with dark intent. When Dmitri, for instance, is being interrogated, and cannot understand the evidence presented before him, he says that it must have been the Devil who had killed his father. And, unless we insist on seeing it all from a strictly realist perspective, he was surely right.
I can’t think of another novel (except perhaps James Hogg’s much underrated masterpiece Confessions and Private Memoirs of a Justified Sinner) where the presence of the demonic is so apparent, so palpable. From the first chapter to the last, the Devil seems to be lurking around every corner. Dostoyevsky delays his actual appearance until that extraordinary climactic scene where the Devil in person appears to Ivan; and even there, he offers us the possibility that the Devil is merely a hallucination. But if the reader is aware of how persistent this diabolical presence has been throughout the novel, then the Devil need not be seen here as a hallucination at all. In Dickens’ Bleak House, the spontaneous combustion of Krook may simultaneously be taken both as metaphorical and as literal; similarly, the apperanace of the Devil here needs to be taken simultaneously on both levels.
The problem for the modern reader is, perhaps, to see through the realist trappings of The Brothers Karamazov. A novel such as, say, The Master and Margarita, presents itself as a work of fantasy throughout: The Brothers Karamazov, in contrast, presents itself as realist on the surface. But this surface is grossly misleading. 19th century novelists broke through the bounds of realism far more frequently than modernists or postmodernists like to imagine.
Perhaps Dostoyevsky intended the presence of God to be apparent also, but if this was indeed his intention, he surely failed. After Ivan’s departure towards the end of the second part, Dostoyevsky gives us three chapters devoted to Zosima: the episodes related from Zosima’s early life read like the sort of fable Tolstoy was writing in his old age (it is astonishing how many parallels seem to emerge between these two acknowledged opposites) and, while they don’t appear to fit comfortably with the rest of the novel, are fascinating; Zosima’s sermons, on the other hand, emerge merely as worthy but trite. And the saintly Alyosha never really convinces, even in the particular context of this novel. But once again, Dostoyevsky was hardly the first writer who had failed to make Good quite as vivid or as exciting as Evil. The presence of the Devil, however, is undeniable: it is this presence gives the novel an excitement and frission that I don’t think I’ve encountered elsewhere.