The Brothers Karamazov: Part 1

My copy of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is translated from Russian by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I bought it several years ago after my son gave me their translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Both read like a dream.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a “cunning and obstinate buffoon”, has three sons. Dmitri, the eldest, was born of his first wife Adelaida Ivanovna Miusov. Ivan and Alexei were born of his second wife, Sofia Ivanovna, who died when Alexei was four. Their upbringing was largely left to the family servant, Grigory, as Fyodor Pavlovich was a drunkard and a fool, too intent on debauchery to act as father.

Alyosha (Alexei) chooses to join a monastery due in part to his great affection for the elder, Zosima. When an enormous disagreement over inheritance and property accounts arises between the eldest son Dmitri and his father, they seek Zosima’s wisdom and influence. At this meeting, however, Fyodor is unable to contain his foolishness; he lashes out at everybody and calls for Alyosha to come home. A strange occurence, however, which has not yet been explained, is that Zosima bows at Dmitri’s feet, touching his forehead to the floor.

But the whole scene, which had turned so ugly, was stopped in a most unexpected manner. The elder suddenly rose from his place. Alyosha, who had almost completely lost his head from fear for him and for all of them, had just time enough to support his arm. The elder stepped towards Dmitri Fyodorovich and, having come close to him, knelt before him. Alyosha thought for a moment that he had fallen from weakness, but it was something else. Kneeling in front of Dmitri Fyodorovich, the elder bowed down at his feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow, and even touched the floor with his forehead. Alyosha was so amazed that he failed to support him as he got to his feet. A weak smile barely glimmered on his lips.

“Forgive me! Forgive me, all of you!” he said, bowing on all sides to his guests.

Dmitri Fyodorovich stood dumbstruck for a few moments. Bowing at his feet-what was that?” (p. 74-75)

Dmitri is engaged to Katerina Ivanovna, who is a rich, aristocratic colonel’s daughter. But the woman he seems to love is Grushenka, the kept woman of an old shopkeeper, whom he calls the “queen of insolence” at the end of Part 1. Apparently, Dmitri and his father each want Grushenka for his own.

To compound the difficulties of this triangle, Katerina Ivanovna seems to truly love Dmitri, despite the fact that he has spent three thousand rubles she gave him. Katerina and Grushenka are sitting together when Alyosha comes as messenger for Dmitri, and Grushenka rudely scorns Katerina by not returning her kisses and slandering her abominably.

“Insolent!” Katerina Ivanovna said suddenly as if suddenly understanding something. She blushed all over and jumped up from her place. Grushenka, too, got up, without haste.

“So I’ll go right now and tell Mitya that you kissed my hand, and I didn’t kiss yours at all. How he’ll laugh!”

“You slut! Get out!” (p. 152)

What I love about this book so far:

  • the dramatic relationships between father and sons, men and women, the public and the monastery (remember the women crying out to the elder for his blessing, particularly the one who had lost her son? It broke my heart! Dostoeyvsky himself suffered terribly through the loss of his own three year old son.).
  • the elements of faith that Alyosha has, epitomized by this sentence; “But before going to sleep, he threw himself down on his knees and prayed for a long time. In his ardent prayer, he did not ask God to explain his confusion to him, but only thirsted for joyful tenderness, the same tenderness that always visited his soul after praising and glorifying God, of which his prayer before going to sleep usually consisted. This joy that visited him always drew after it a light and peaceful sleep.” (p. 158)
  • The way the tension is slowly building, layer after layer, with intricate detail.

Questions I’m pondering as I conclude Part 1:

  1. Why did the elder Zosimov bow at Fyodor Pavlovich’s feet at the monastery?
  2. Why does Alexei feel so drawn to both the elder and that way of life? Is it in reaction to his father’s dishonor, or a true calling?
  3. What terrible thing is Dmitri predicting as he tells his brother, Alexei, of the darkness in his heart?

“You know me by now: a scoundrel, an avowed scoundrel! But know that whatever I have done before or now or may do later—nothing, nothing can compare in baseness with the dishonor I am carrying, precisely now, precisely at this moment, here on my chest, here, right here, which is being enacted and carried out, and which it is fully in my power to stop, I can stop it or carry it out, make a note of that! And know, then, that I will carry it out and will not stop it. I just told you everything, but this I did not tell you, because even I am not so brazen! (p. 156)


If you have written a review for Part 1, please leave a comment below to direct us to your post so that I can add your link here. If you haven’t written a review, please feel free to leave a comment. What are your thoughts so far? Until we meet again to discuss Part 2 on Thursday, April 15, happy reading!

Find other reviews here:

    Frances at Nonsuch Book

    Sarah at What We Have Here Is a Failure To Communicate

    Nicole at bibliographing

     Eva at A Striped Armchair

    Nadia at A Bookish Way of Life

    Allie at A Literary Odyssey

            Becca at Bookstack

            Shelley at Book Clutter

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29 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov: Part 1”

  1. Great sum up of the action so far! That scene where the Elder bows before Dmitri is astonishing and quite moving. I too wonder what it all means. The build up in this section is quite tense by the end. I'm afraid to read more, but I can't stand the suspense! :)(My post should be up in about an hour. 🙂 )


  2. Remember that the elder's bow to Mitya mirrors Katerina Ivanovna's bow, as well. She touched her head to the floor in front of his feet when he saved her father from ruin, not like the snob he perceived her as but as a "real Russian woman" or some such. Not that that gives me an answer to your first question.My post should be up in about four minutes, here.


  3. My post on part one is up! It's a bit incoherent, but I'm loving the book. :)


  4. I'm so impressed with you guys. I suppose it is wimpy of me to be intimidated by this book…its size, its complexity, all those Russian names! But you have nicely boiled it down to something really palatable. Reading this will continue to be one of those things I need to do before I die!


  5. I thought the suspense in Part 1 was incredible; it slows down a bit in Part 2 (can you tell I was impatient to go on?!) and now in Part 3 I cannot put it down! I'm wondering if the bow was an apology of sorts, that he was unable to do anything to assuage Dmitri's hostility…


  6. Eva, I'm so happy you're reading with us (I feel like I'm finally getting to know you a little better!), and even more so that you're liking it so far. I am, too, but this novel is probably not for everybody. 😉


  7. It's interesting that you mention Katerina's bow because I'd forgotten that. Why did the two of them do such an obsequient gesture to such an impulsive man? I hope I get a better grasp on this by the end of the novel.


  8. Nadia, I had a little booklet of scrap paper I made to take a few notes as I read; I didn't want to be lost with the Russian names! I wanted to keep everything that happened in chronological order as well, which is probably just an OCD aspect of my personality. I don't want this experience to read like a term paper, and yet I wanted people who hadn't read The Brothers Karamazov to perhaps be enticed to pick it up. I liked Frances' post, the only one I've had time to read so far, for the more lighthearted approach she took. Don't worry about being detailed; write what suits you!


  9. Really, Sandy, so much is made possible by the translation. If you have a well done, interesting translation, reading the work becomes a breeze. I hope you do feel compelled to pick it up some day when it suits you.


  10. "The way the tension is slowly building, layer after layer, with intricate detail."I just did not expect this level of engagement with the text. Especially enjoyed how each brother's personal (versus family) identity emerges in its own section. We see them clearly as individuals, and now I want to see the full scope of their interactions.Great pick, Bellezza!


  11. I think possibly I don't analyze things quite as deeply as you do, which is only meant as a compliment to you; rather than thinking very deeply about all the elements, I just read on. Plus, I'm used to long Russian names. 🙂


  12. Well, I don't know. You're right about the names, certainly – one gets used to the system pretty quickly. No complaints, though, about P&V's page of names and nicknames at the front of their version – very helpful. Their notes are good, too. (I cannot believe all of the references to Schiller – what do they mean?)


  13. What a beautiful and interesting review. I just read Frances' and I am so enjoying hearing more about everyone's reactions. I read this when I was about 16 and had no one to discuss it with, so I'm sure I missed a lot of it, and can barely remember it now. I should really reread it, as well as the other Russian classics I've forgotten. Some day!


  14. Maybe tomorrow for the 24 hour read-a-thon? Just kidding, the Brothers might be a bit much for such a long stretch! Still, I'm glad you're copy arrived, and it doesn't take as long to read as I thought.


  15. Booksnob, there's nothing like the classics, is there?! Especially when you can find other readers to discuss them. Thanks for visiting me today, and I'd love to read more Russian literature with you if you ever feel the urge.


  16. Grushenka was so right about Dmitri laughing about her not kissing Katerina's hand, wasn't she?Nicole, thanks for pointing that out about Katerina's bow because I hadn't picked up on that either. Food for thought. My only thought about the bow of Zosima to Dmitri is Rakitan's interpretation: that Zosima sensed that Dmitri would commit a crime and by bowing to him others will say that he foresaw the crime. I don't necessarily agree with him, but his cynical view is interesting.It's late, but I finally have something up for Part I:


  17. I didn't read all of your Brothers Karamazov posts because I do hope to read the book one day but I've gathered through my skimming that you're really enjoying it! I'm so sad I didn't get to participate with you guys–still trucking through Les Miserables (which I'm loving). After finishing that one I might brave up to this one. I've always been intimidated by the Russians.


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