It is impossible to summarise Dostoevsky’s magnum opus, The Karamazov Brothers, in a few paragraphs. As the title indicates, it is the story of the three Karamazov brothers: Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha, in descending order of seniority, though Ivan plays the major role. Their father, Fyodor, is a lustful hedonist who loves only himself. He has one more son born out of the wedlock, Smerdyakov, a malicious character who ends up killing himself after killing his father. However, it is Dmitry who is accused of parricide and Ivan walks into the court and claims to be the murderer.
Dmitry is a man of the flesh, Ivan of the mind, and Alyosha of the spirit, in short. The novel is about the conflict among these. The body loves the world’s indulgences. The mind wants logic and reason. The spirit craves to transcend all these. Fyodor Karamazov’s murder brings out the dominant traits of his sons.
Evil is one of the dominant themes of the novel. Evil is a theme that has baffled philosophers and theologians for long. Ivan rejects God because of evil. If God is good, how come there is so much evil in his creation? If God is omnipotent, why doesn’t he eradicate evil from His world? Logically God is an impossibility. And if there is no God, everything is permitted and morality makes no sense. Smerdyakov takes that argument of Ivan literally and ends up killing his father who was his rival in the pursuit of the hottest woman around. But it is Dmitry who is accused of the crime because of circumstantial evidences.
Ivan is noble to take up the responsibility for making his step-brother a murderer. He realises that his kind of thinking can lead people to commit all sorts of atrocities. Most people won’t take logic and reason far enough to realise that good is a rational choice over evil. That is why people need food for their souls – religion, for instance.
Alyosha and his spiritual mentor at the monastery, Father Zosima, show what spirituality should mean to people. Their religion is a respect for all creatures irrespective of whether they are good or bad. The really spiritual person knows to accept both the good and the evil of God’s creation. Love is acceptance of the whole, warts and deformities included. To believe in God is to put your trust in love, kindness, forgiveness and a devotion to goodness.
Evil is caused by people who are not able to discover love and goodness in themselves and others. There are amoral evils like earthquakes and tsunamis. They are natural processes and even Ivan is willing to accept them. It is man’s evil that haunts Ivan’s thoughts like a vindictive demon. Why did God make human beings so evil?
There is no logical answer, Father Zosima would say. But there is a solution. The solution is faith. Believe in whatever goodness is there. Say ‘Yes’ to that goodness. The moment you say ‘Yes’ to something without having to look for logical props, you are beginning to put your trust in that reality. Trust leads to love. Trust is love. Hell is the absence of love. In the words of Father Zosima, hell is “the suffering of being unable to love”.
Suffering is good, Father Zosima teaches us. Suffering can be a purifying process. Suffering can be the crucible in which the soul melts and sheds its impurities. The pure soul can kneel down at the public crossroads, bend down and kiss the soil of the earth and say, ‘I accept.’ That acknowledgement of the given reality is the pure soul’s mantra. It accepts the earth with its brambles and briars too. The pure soul accepts its own insignificance. And then a whole new cosmos unfolds before you.
Ivan’s heart is as good as his logical brain. That is precisely the problem. The conflict within him between the heart that yearns for goodness and the brain that analyses the evil around is overwhelming. It leads him to delirium in the end. He can save himself either by accepting his little brother Alyosha’s religious faith as taught by Father Zosima or by coming to terms intellectually with his own responsibility to be good even if there is no God.
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
3. The Castle