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“The Brothers Karamazov” a Novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky Essay

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Updated: May 19th, 2020

One of the reasons why the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is being commonly referred to, as such that represents high literary value, is that the themes and motifs contained in it are deeply philosophical. Partially, this can be explained by the fact that Dostoyevsky expected this particular novel to enlighten readers on what causes the conflict between reason and faith while deeming both of these notions conceptually incompatible. In this paper, I will explore the validity of this the above-stated at length.

Probably the main qualitative aspect about the character of Ivan is the fact that, despite his atheistic views, he nevertheless never ceased promoting the idea that religion is generally beneficial to people and that, as such, it should be incorporated within the society, as one of its main institutions. As he pointed out early in the novel: “Every earthly State should be, in the end, completely transformed into the Church and should become nothing else but a Church, rejecting every’ purpose incongruous with the aims of the Church” (Dostoevsky 120).

The reason for this is that, while remaining convinced that people are nothing but ‘hairless apes,’ Ivan could never bring himself to accept the idea that one may act in the morally appropriate manner, without having been forced to do so by some external power. Thus, Ivan’s seemingly revered attitude towards religion is rather explainable– he believed that, while being closely affiliated with a religion, people would be innately encouraged to refrain from committing crimes, out of their fear of ‘hellfire.’

Nevertheless, even though Ivan used to have a favorable outlook on religion, as a social institution, he remained deeply skeptical about the religion’s claim to be the actual ‘way of life.’ The main reason for this is that, despite the well-meaning sounding of the Christian fable about Jesus, who voluntarily sacrificed his life to redeem the sins of humankind, Ivan could not help reflecting upon it as being deeply inhumane. After all, it is based upon the assumption that, while provided with the gift of ‘free will,’ people will be naturally prompted to side with God. The actual realities, however, indicate something entirely opposite – the majority of individuals simply do not possess much of willpower, which would have allowed them to make a conscious choice in favor of living up to God’s commandments.

This, however, automatically exposes people to the prospect of facing the ‘eternal damnation’ in hell. In other words, there is the strongly defined spirit of hypocrisy to the very essence of Christianity – while being presumably concerned with offering ‘salvation’ to ‘sinners,’ this religion, in fact, denies them such an opportunity. In its turn, this implies either the inaptness of God (he endowed people with free will, without understanding what will account for the actual consequences of it) or the deity’s outright wickedness (he intentionally endowed people with free will, in order to enjoy seeing them suffer).

This explains the actual rationale, behind Grand Inquisitor’s (a literary character, invented by Ivan) decision to imprison Jesus – Grand Inquisitor simply did not want Jesus to tell people that they are at liberty to go to hell if that is what they prefer: “He (Grand Inquisitor) claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy… for the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men” (Dostoevsky 516). This, of course, suggests that while talking on the subject of religion and promoting the idea that religion should be an important part of people’s lives, Ivan used to be driven by the considerations of rationality alone. The apparent paradox, in this respect, can be well deemed the fact that the reason why Ivan had these considerations, in the first place, is that he was an innately good individual. After all, this contradicts the character’s mentioned assumption that people need a religion, in order to remain in control of their animalistic urges.

As opposed to what it happened to be the case with Ivan’s approach towards religion, the one of Alyosha could be best described as having been faith-based. The reason for this is that, unlike his older brother, Alyosha never thought of religion in terms of a ‘social tool’, but rather in terms of an all-encompassing love. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to Alyosha’s tendency not to judge harshly his father Fyodor Pavlovitch, on the account of the latter having been an extremely wicked person: “I am (Alyosha) not angry. I know your (Fyodor Pavlovitch’s) thoughts. Your heart better than your head” (Dostoevsky 275).

This implies that, unlike Ivan, Alyosha used to believe that religion is capable of changing one for better from within – a person simply needs to give himself in to Jesus and forget the fact that some of Christianity’s theological provisions do not make any logical sense, whatsoever. In Alyosha’s mind, this course of action was thoroughly justified, as it correlated well with his belief in the basic goodness of humanity: “There’s a great deal of love in mankind, and almost Christ-like love. I know that myself” (Dostoevsky 485). It is understood, of course, that the above-mentioned exposes Alyosha as a somewhat naïve individual, who was just little too trustworthy, in order to be able to attain a social prominence in the world, ruled by the ‘laws of the jungle’.

There is one more notable aspect to Alyosha’s faith-based approach to religion – while considering himself thoroughly committed to God, Alyosha used to experience the anxiety to be thoroughly reunited with the ‘creator’: “There is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything” (Dostoevsky 504). In its turn, this was causing Alyosha to grow ever more socially withdrawn and preoccupied with reflecting upon the nature of divinity – something that could hardly be considered beneficial to a young man, who is about to make important life-choices. This helps us to identify the main discursive implication of the discussed difference between the rationalistic and faith-based (idealistic) approaches to religion, which in Dostoevsky’s novel are being exemplified by the characters of Ivan, on one hand, and Alyosha, on the other.

Whereas, the first of these approaches appears to be concerned with turning religion into the tool of helping people to address life-challenges, the latter one presupposes that it is in the very nature of just about any monotheistic religion to cause its most committed adherents to grow suicidal, which in the eyes of God is being deemed ‘virtuous’. After all, in full accordance with Jesus’s commandments, it is only those people who are willing to renounce their ‘earthly existence’, as such that falls short of one’s existence in the ‘kingdom of heaven’, who deserve to be reunited with God, in the first place.

In light of what has been said earlier, there can be only a few doubts that the mentioned approaches to religion, on the part of Ivan and Alyosha, are indeed in conflict. This simply could not be otherwise, because, whereas, Ivan’s approach implies that people are fully capable of making a practical use of religion, the one promoted by Alyosha refers to religion in terms of a ‘thing in itself’. According to the youngest of Karamazov brothers, it is not only that in their relationship with God people are expected to act as his lowly servants, but also that they are not even allowed to question God’s goodness/omnipotence, due to the intellectually arrogant idea that ‘God’s ways are mysterious’.

Therefore, there is nothing too surprising about the fact that in the novel, Alyosha is represented as someone who could be the least referred to having belonged to the ‘talkative’ type – he does not appear to be bright enough to take part in the intellectual conversations. For example, after having been exposed to Ivan’s highly philosophical poem about Grand Inquisitor and Jesus, Alyosha could not do anything better than coming up with the infantile statement: “Your Inquisitor does not believe in God, that’s his problem!” (Dostoevsky 535). Therefore, contrary to what many literary critics tend to assume, it is rather doubtful whether in The Brothers Karamazov the character of Alyosha plays a necessarily positive role.

This presents us with the question. If, in comparison with Alyosha, Ivan was fully aware that religion could not possibly provide answers to how one may go about addressing the most acute challenges of life, then why did he end up declaring his willingness to accept Jesus towards the novel’s end? The answer to this question is as follows. After having realized that he did unwillingly encourage Smerdyakov to kill Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan started to experience the sensation of having a ‘guilty conscience’: “’God sees,’ Ivan raised his hand, ‘perhaps I, too, was guilty; perhaps I really had a secret desire for my father’s… death, but I swear I was not as guilty as you (Smerdyakov) think” (Dostoevsky 1326). Therefore, the character’s transformation, in this respect, is fully explainable – people’s unconscious sense of guilt is exactly what religions feed upon. Apparently, the realization of his guilt overwhelmed Ivan to such an extent that he ceased acting rationally – hence, his decision to allow himself to be turned into a de facto believer.

What also contributed to Ivan’s ‘metamorphosis’ at the end of the novel is that, despite having adopted the stance of an intellectually advanced and somewhat cynical sophisticate, he nevertheless could not help experiencing the idealistic urge to witness the eventual triumph of justice in the world. Initially, Ivan used to be able to rationalize this urge in terms of logic – hence, his early advocacy of the idea that there should not be any separation between the State and the Church. However, the sensation of an unbearable emotional distress, which he never ceased to be subjected to in the aftermath of Fyodor Pavlovich’s death, resulted in nothing short of the character’s intellectual incapacitation. In plain words, it was namely because, towards the novel’s end, Ivan has grown slightly insane, which caused him to turn religious – a rather commonly occurring phenomenon.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor 1880, The Brothers Karamazov. Web.

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