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Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Book “The Brothers Karamazov” Essay

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Updated: Jun 4th, 2020


The book The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky is a must-read Russian novel that was written in the 19th century with an aim of painting the dilemma that the society was facing in its pursuit to align itself with Christianity. The 19th century Russia was a reverent society that lived according to the Christian moral standards. This period was difficult for many people because they were living a life of deceit by following the Christian morals that were set by the Christian Orthodox Church and the bible while at the same time following a profane path. The Brothers Karamazov is a narration by the author about his life.

It narrates the story of a father, his children, and the relationship that reigned among them. The story includes key characters such as Karamazov and his children. Other characters support them to provide the continuation of the plot. The novel is divided into different books, which are further divided into chapters. This paper is aimed at analysing the book. The character of Ivan offers the central theme of the analysis.

Relationship between Reason and Faith

Reason and faith are two aspects in the human society. The two elements are in total conflict because of the way they instruct an individual. Philosophers usually front reason in an effort to understand and/or explain the nature of the world and the different scenarios that unfold in it. The world can be described as a mysterious universe because of the way nature controls everything that happens. Over a long period, humanity has tried to comprehend the nature without satisfaction.

Thus, people have decided to follow the religion as an answer to this problem. Religion is led by a belief system that cannot be fully comprehended. Therefore, it requires one to have faith. However, faith does not give the individual an opportunity to question discrepancies that may arise, thus giving rise to reason, which is philosophical thinking. Reason seeks to explain a situation as it is by asking many pertinent questions that try to bring out the reality of nature by connecting events using evidence. Therefore, when the two facets of life meet, they will always clash because reason always tries to question the basis of faith while faith has no place for reason.

Therefore, in the context of The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan brings out this clash while talking to his younger brother Alyosha (Dostoevsky 468). Ivan is an atheist while his brother Alyosha is a novice monk who has dedicated his life to Christ. Ivan grows up as an oppressed child whose father repulses and denies him the love that a child requires. Ivan spent a lot of his time while growing up on his own by shunning many things that other people loved. However, he dedicated his time to observing society and its tribulations. Ivan does not have any love for his elder brother Dmitry because he does not understand why he should love him (Dostoevsky 485). He also applies the same reason to his younger brother. Ivan believes that Christianity is unreasonable and that it is the greatest perpetrator of suffering to humankind.

Moral standards in society have been developed from religious teachings, which dictate what is right and what is wrong. Ivan believes that fixed morality is bad for society and wishes that men could have been left alone to pursue their desires. Ivan questions the teachings that require him to love his neighbour with actual reference to his brother Alyosha because he feels that there is nothing so compelling to make it necessary for him to love a neighbour. Faith requires one to submit to what he or she is told without questioning the rationale behind it. However, reason seeks the justification behind everything that one is told to do.

Therefore, reason and faith are largely incompatible. On the other hand, Alyosha is a novice monk who believes in the Christian religious teachings as they are without questioning them. He does not understand why his brother should take the path of a non-believer. By choosing the path of faith, Alyosha becomes incompatible with Ivan who mocks the Christian teachings by narrating the poem, ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’ This poem mocks the belief in Christ’s teachings by portraying the world as being no longer receptive to the teachings of Christ. Reason can be associated with a benefit system that requires an individual to filter the advantages and disadvantages of an act (Dostoevsky 506).

Therefore, pleasurable acts will be deemed excellent for the body because they make it feel good according to reason while they will be prohibited by faith because they are deemed immoral. The distinction between faith and reason is informed by the ability of reason to provide a justification where faith does not explain why a prohibition should observed. Although Ivan is portrayed as a man who does not have feelings for others, he finally falls in love towards the end of the novel. Ivan is led throughout his life by his philosophical thinking that guides his decisions.

Although he professes an atheist, he cannot forget the teachings of Christ that he is aware about and which he questions. He uses reason to fight the rules imposed on society, which he feels are more of an impediment to society as opposed to a guide. However, reason does not take way his knowledge of the religious teachings that have been imparted in him. The teachings seem to cause turmoil in his mind.

Ivan bases his reasoning on the observations he makes in society by judging the activities of the church, which are the hypothetical guide to faith. According to Ivan, the church is struggling to cope with the developing atheist society. This example is derived from Ivan’s poem when he says that the church does not need Jesus back as it tries to free people from his imposed ideas that have shackled them (the people) for a long time (Dostoevsky 506). Therefore, reason and faith as portrayed by Ivan are difficult to reconcile because a person will need to sacrifice one over the other since he or she cannot have the two together.

Motif of Reason and Faith

The motif of reason and faith has been developed in this book through the exposure of society in relation to the church. Reason is philosophical while faith is religious. The author uses the character Ivan to express his opinion about the two facets of life. The author develops the character Ivan by portraying him as a different person from the rest. This character is the author himself because it is his representation. Ivan has been developed as a quiet and critical thinking person who is not easily understood even by his own father who says that he fears him more than he fears Dmitry who openly antagonises him. Ivan is brought up under the Orthodox Church teachings, which he understands well and criticises according to his understanding.

This gives him the firepower to criticise religion because he understands the teachings of religion and/or how one is supposed to be obligated to it. Thus, the stage for faith versus reason has been set by the religious and societal makeup and its general interaction. During the days that the author is referring, the church was a very powerful organisation that influenced the general leadership of the country. The word of the church was taken as the law. Religious leaders exercised immense authority that surpassed the powers that they ought to have.

Therefore, when church leaders started living below the threshold of societal expectation, society started to question why the church was applying double standards. The motif is further strengthened when three out of a family of four people are not strong believers while one is a strong believer. This situation sets the stage for conflict within the family due to the expected differences in beliefs. Karamarov and his two elder sons are not people of faith compared to Alyosha. The latter dedicates his life to the monastery (Dostoevsky 507).

Out of the remaining three, Ivan comes out as the most critical of faith. He embraces reason as the ultimate path to his answers. Ivan is critical of the church because of how it is run together with how its teachings seem to make life difficult for people to live on earth. Although he despises the church and its teachings, he is heavily dependent on the church’s teachings as the basis that informs his philosophical thinking. Therefore, faith and reason have been inevitably paired. They are dependent on each other to create continuity.

Reason and faith continue to come up in the book in the form of two conflicting issues. Whereas there is faith, there is no reason while where there is a reason, there is no faith. When Ivan challenges the reason for Jesus not committing to the temptations from the devil, he does not get an answer from Alyosha as to why Jesus chose to ignore the devil. There is no explanation given, thus beating the logic according to Ivan. Zosima comes up with stories about his brother and his resistance to and criticism towards Christianity (Dostoevsky 586).

He goes ahead to tell how he one day changed and started professing the Christian religion strongly. Zosima expresses this decision as a matter of faith, which is devoid of explanation or reason for his change of heart. Such an assertion does not convince Ivan who is critical of blind belief that sets human beings to the path of hardship as a way of conforming to Christian teachings and beliefs. Ivan questions why he should love his neighbour for no reason.

Ivan finds himself in an awkward position when he discovers that his thoughts of moral responsibility are the reason for Dmitry’s killing of his father. Dmitry commits murder because he borrows from Ivan’s thoughts that there is no moral law. This thought inspires Dmitry to exterminate his father’s life due to rivalry. The author has used faith and reason, and lack of the two aspects, to reveal the situation in society as it was when the author was writing the book. Ivan reveals the dilemma that most members of society go through as they try to balance between faith and reason. According to the inquisitor, Jesus left people with freedom. However, he did not give them security.

The freedom that people have has made them captives of doctrines that cannot be proved when subjected to reason. On the other hand, reason opens society to anarchy because it deprives it of any moral guidance that regulates how everything is done. Ivan is highly informed on religious matters. This situation leads him to confront religious teachings with vigour. His comparison between faith and reason gives him the impetus to think beyond what religion offers because he finds that religion inhibits free will that comes with the human mind (Dostoevsky 1337).

However, these thoughts do not last long because they raise a lot of conflict within Ivan as he tries to fight one element against the other. The teachings by Zosima leave him with so many questions and doubts about what he wants to believe. Although he has chosen reason over faith, the latter proves too hard to ignore because it remains a strong reference point for his thinking. Ivan does not understand why the mother of God should pray for the forgiveness of her son’s tormentors. He believes that any loving mother should pray for the suffering of her son’s tormentors as motherly love or human nature dictates (Dostoevsky 507).

In this case, Ivan cannot connect the reasoning behind faith, beliefs, and true human nature. Therefore, he finds faith a fallacy that he chooses to shun. Rather, he decides to reason philosophically. Ivan’s desire to be on the devil’s side is made certain when it becomes paramount that he secretly wishes to join the ascetic world that does not have faith in Jesus. He believes that Jesus will relieve him of his suffering, although he chooses to remain the inquisitor because he does not want to be bonded to rules that he questions. The author has continuously used Ivan to depict a voice that is critical and opposed to Christianity. Although actions by other characters are anti Christian in nature, their silence on religious matters and reason have not been highlighted because they come out as moderates.

Explanation of Direct Quotes from the Novel

A passage in the book quotes Ivan telling Alyosha the following words according to Dostoevsky. “I never could understand how it is possible to love one’s neighbours…In my opinion, it’s precisely one’s neighbour that one cannot possibly love, perhaps if they weren’t so nigh” (Dostoevsky 485). This passage shows part of Ivan’s rebellion towards the church. He chooses his brother who is a devout Christian to express his opinion. Ivan questions the rationale of the need to love ones neighbours. Ivan’s criticism of the teachings of Jesus is borne out of frustration with the way everything happens around him. It is a depiction of how the wider society is confused with the expectations from the church, society, and the reality on the ground. The reality dictates that people are finding it difficult to cope with religious obligations. Church leaders too have fallen suit.

Zosima is quoted when talking to Alyosha about the divine being and/or where it is revealed. Zosima says, “Insofar as you succeed in love, you will be convinced of Gods being and of the immortality of your soul” (Dostoevsky 107). Zosima uses these words to create a sense of guilt in Alyosha as a way of creating fear in the Lord. Just like many clergy, Zosima strives to explain to Alyosha what it takes for one to become a divine being: by one having a loving heart. Zosima is teaching Alyosha the importance of the word love, which should help him in his pursuit of religion. Jesus taught love when he asked individuals to love their neighbours as they love themselves as emphasised by Zosima. Ivan was vehemently opposed to this same teaching.

The grand inquisitors speak the following words. “They will become timid and look to us and cling to us in fear, like chicks to a hen” (Dostoevsky 529). The words of the grand inquisitor as spoken by Ivan are meant to show how the church plans to take over the leadership of people by capitalising on their weaknesses to control them. These words are supposedly spoken to Jesus when the grand inquisitor tells him that people no longer need him. The grand inquisitor describes all the people below him as children who have nowhere to seek guidance from, except the grand inquisitor. The grand inquisitor loves people. Therefore, he does not need the coming back of Jesus. He believes that Jesus left people in a very awkward situation that they need to be freed from.

Captain Snegiryov says the following words while expressing love for his family. “If I die, who will so love them, sir, and while I live, who will so love me, a little wretched if not them” (Dostoevsky 417). The captain finds solace in his family because the family is the only place where he can express and get love. The world seems so cruel even to a captain who is a government official that he does not have any other source of love beyond his family. This observation is in contrast to Ivan’s situation since he has no love for his own family. The captain loves his family the way it loves him because when Ilyusha (the captain’s son) hears that Dmitry insults his father, he becomes sick out love for his father.

In a conversation between Dmitry and his driver, Dmitry asks his driver, “will Dmitry Fedorovich Karamazov go to hell or not” (Dostoevsky 859). Dmitry asks this question out of fear of going to hell. Although Dmitry is not a devout Christian just like other members of his family, the teachings of Christ still rings a bell in his head and creates a sense of guilt. Ivan keeps on fighting for this bondage. According to the grand inquisitor, man was given freedom that has left him insecure. The freedom of choosing right and wrong is in his hands, despite the rejoinder that man will pay for his sins. Dmitry has exercised this freedom during his lifetime, although his conscience cannot give him peace. Dmitry grapples with the fear of going to hell according to the Christian teachings he professes while not exercising them.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Moscow: The Russian Messenger, 1880. Print.

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