The Brothers Karamazov: “Seek Happiness in Sorrow” (Thoughts on Part 1)

Contemplator by Ivan Kramskoy

Dmitri Karamazov, in his confession to his saintly little brother, represents what I know of the Prodigal Son.

“I threw fistfuls of money around—music, noise, gypsy women…I loved depravity, I loved the shame of depravity. I loved cruelty: am I not a bedbug, an evil insect? In short—a Karamazov!”

But Smerdyakov, son of Stinking Lizaveta, is not a Karamazov. Born in the garden’s bathhouse, he is taken in by Fyodor Pavlovich’s servants Grigory Vasilievich and Marfa Ignatievna.

We are told that Smerdyakov resembles the Contemplator, pictured above. “…perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both.”

In Part 1 of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky is giving us impressions of his characters. They are buffoons, like the father, or squandering sons, like Dmitri, or suspiciously silent like Smerdyakov. But, Alyosha? Alyosha believes that his father “is not just a buffoon.” He never remembers an offense. Alyosha is brave and fearless; he determines to live in a monastery under the care of his elder, Zosima, because it “presented him all at once with the whole ideal way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light.”

Another story within the novel involves romance. Both Fyodor Pavlovian and his eldest son, Dmitri, profess to love the same woman: Grushenka. Yet Dmitri is also involved with Katerina Ivanova, with whom he is engaged and from whom, to his great shame, he has taken three thousand roubles. He begs Alyosha to tell her that ‘he bows at her feet.’

The novel is full of scripture, although one wouldn’t necessarily recognize it if one was not familiar with the Bible. Clearly, Dostoevsky wants us to consider scripture, and faith, and purpose as he writes his novel. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Part 1:

“There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love? Only take care that you repent without ceasing and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it: even with your sin and in your sin he loves you. And there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men.”

“If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgement of one’s own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s society — that is, of the Church — will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself — that is, before the Church.”

“Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed and with everyone watching…Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”

“Can there be beauty in Sodom? Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that’s just where beauty lies—did you know that secret?”

“Again I say, do not be proud. Do not be proud before the lowly, do not be proud before the great either. And do not hate those who reject you, disgrace you, revile you, and slander you. Do not hate atheists, teachers of evil, materialists, not even those among them who are wicked, not those who are good, for many of them are good, especially in our time. Remember them thus in your prayers: save, Lord, those whom there is no one to pray for, save also those who do not want to pray to you. And add at once: it is not in my pride that I pray for it, Lord, for I myself am more vile than all…”

It is hard to believe that I read this novel eleven years ago. For it falls on me entirely afresh, and I now eagerly embark on Part II.


9 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov: “Seek Happiness in Sorrow” (Thoughts on Part 1)”

  1. Oh, you’re re-reading Karamazov! Dostoevsky is one of my favorite authors, he is such a master at human psychology and mixes it with so much compassion too. Some time back, I tried watching the movies too (the one with Yul Brynner, and another Russian version). But obviously they miss out so much from the book that I was sorely disappointed.

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    1. I must admit to preferring Tolstoy (Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books, ever). But, Dostoevsky does a masterful job at showing us our human nature, and for some of us, a longing to be more Christ-like. I remember reading The Idiot at the University of Toronto, which in a few ways reminds me of this book. There is the longing between its hero, and Alyosha, to leave brighten the darkness of this world. I have never seen either film of which you mention; the book is just about enough for me to get through. 😉

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  2. I’m surprised at Dostoevsky’s humour, often when he’s bringing out serious issues too. Enjoy the open and explicit discussions on spiritual matters. ‘The Lady of Little Faith’ is one of my favourite chapters. He’s apt in painting humans as bedbugs. Reminds me of the scene when the Pharisees ask the disciples why Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus replies “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Brilliant that Dostoevsky names this ‘bedbug’ with the same name as his. Thanks for joining in even though you’ve read it before, Bellezza. I’ve enjoyed reading Part I and well into the next part… just draws me in. Can’t stop. 🙂

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  3. I love this!! So wonderful to hear your thoughts on this wonderful novel. I also completely agree with Arti above that Dostoevsky can occasionally be very funny, rather darkly satirical — not many people seem to know that about him!

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    1. I don’t readily notice the ‘funny’ bits; satirical is easier for me to see. You must read Arti’s posts at Ripple Effects, if you don’t. She is most insightful and constantly shows me aspects of the text that seemed to pass me by. We have shared several reads together, and I am so glad to be rereading The Brothers Karamazov with her…and to have your comments, too! Thank you.

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  4. I love Dostoyevsky’s writing but he requires so much brain-work. Tolstoy is a master too but, like you, I do find him easier to read. So far BK is my favourite. I’d love to read it again. Thanks for giving me a quick look back at it. Love the quotes too!

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  5. You make me want to read it when you describe it. It’s when I read those quotes themselves that I get a little lost

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  6. I am still on it, but have not had time to read even the first part. But, I will do it in my own time. I loved the opening first book of the novel and am looking forward to following this peculiar family.

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