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.

The Brothers Karamazov: Part 4

April 29, 2010

Dear Mr. Dostoevsky,

What, are you kidding me?! I read almost 800 pages of dialogue, description, mystery and intrigue, and you leave me not knowing for certain who killed Fyodor Karamazov?!

Sure I have an idea, but that’s all it is: my supposition. Is there any conclusive proof? Are we to decide for ourselves who the murderer was? I’d always heard the three brothers planned and then killed their father. And, if we take the words of the Bible that if we so much as think ill of someone we have as good as murdered them, then this is true. But, I do not believe for a minute that Dmitri actually took the brass pestle and killed his father with it. Although, he was willing to suffer, and bear the accusation, as he said:

You can revive and resurrect the frozen heart in this convict, you can look after him for years, and finally bring up from the cave into the light a soul that is lofty now, a suffering consciousness, you can revive an angel resurrect a hero! And there are many of them, there are hundreds, and we’re all guilty for them! Why did I have a dream about a ‘wee one’ at such a moment? ‘Why is the wee one poor?’ It was a prophecy to me at that moment! It’s for the ‘wee one’ that I will go. Because everyone is guilty for everyone else. All people are ‘wee ones.’ And I’ll go for all of them, because there must be someone who will go for all of them. I didn’t kill father, but I must go. I accept! All of this came to me here…within these peeling walls…It’s impossible for a convict to be without God, even more impossible than for a non-convict! and then from the depths of the earth, we, the men underground, will start singing a tragic hymn to God, in whom there is joy! Hail to God and his joy! I love him!” (p. 591-592)

I admire how you made a debased character, the biggest scoundrel of all the Karamazov sons, to be the one who in the end finds redemption through his belief and acceptance. “I accept the torment of accusation and of my disgrace before all, I want to suffer and be purified by suffering! And perhaps I will be purified, eh, gentlemen? But hear me, all the same, for the last time: I am not guilty of my father’s blood. I accept punishment not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him, and might well have killed him…” (p. 509)

I was puzzled at first, Mr. Dostoevsky, why you ended your novel with the tale of Ilyushka’s death; here is a poor boy, another victim of circumstances, whose role with his father is in direct contrast with that of Dmitri and his father:

  • Ilyushka’s father loves him to pieces, grieves and cares for him beyond all measure; Fyodor cares not one whit about any of his three sons, letting Grigory bring them up the best his manservant can.
  • In Ilyushka’s case, it is the boy who dies; with the Karamazovs, it is the father.
  • Yet both sons, Ilyushka and Dmitri, are victims of circumstances beyond their control. Ilyushka cannot overcome his sickness, Dmitri cannot overrule his sentence; they both suffer willingly for what has been their lot in life.
  • Alyosha reminds us all at the end that something good can come from the innocent child’s death.

    Perhaps we will even become wicked later on, will even be unable to resist a bad action, will laugh at people’s tears and at those who say, as Kolya exclaimed today: ‘I want to suffer for all people’-perhaps we will scoff wickedly at such people. And yet, no matter how wicked we may be-and God preserve us from it-as soon as we remember how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days, and how we’ve been talking just now, so much as friends, so together, by this stone, the most cruel and jeering man among us, if we should become so, will still not dare laugh within himself at how kind and good he was at this present moment! Moreover, perhaps just this memory alone will keep him from great evil, and he will think better of it and say: ‘Yes, I was kind, brave and honest then.’  (p. 775)

    I liked how you used this novel, Mr. Dostoevsky, to work through the grief you bore at your own son’s death, the questions you pondered about faith and God, and the way you wanted to leave a message to your Russian people. Through these instances, you have left messages for us, that fundamentally we are saved through our ability to love. Even when we may suffer terribly due to injustice or our own infallibility.



The Brothers Karamazov: Part 3

“Be so good, madame, as to listen for only half a minute, and I shall explain everything in two words,” Perkhotin answered firmly. “Today, at five o’clock in the afternoon, Mr. Karamazov (Dmitri) borrowed ten roubles from me as a friend, and I know for certain that he had no money, yet this same day, at nine o’clock, he walked into my rooms holding out for all to see a wad of hundred-rouble bills, approximately two or even three thousand roubles. His hands and face were all covered with blood, and it appeared as if he were mad. To my question as to where he got so much money, he replied with precision that he had just received it from you, and that you had loaned him the sum of three-thousand roubles to go, he said to the gold mines…”

Madame Khokhlakov’s face suddenly acquired a look of extraordinary and morbid excitement.

“Oh, God!” He’s murdered his old father!” she cried out, clasping her hands. “I gave him no money, none! Oh, run, run…! Not a word more! Save the old man, run to his father, run!” (p. 448)

If I accused Part 2 to be largely devoid of plot, Part 3 more than makes up for it. The pace is almost frenetic, as we go from the death of Alyosha’s cherished elder, Zosimov, to the death of the brothers’ father, Fyodor Pavlovich. Dmitri makes a mad dash to obtain money and catch up with his love, Grushenka. Breathlessly, we follow him as he leaves Katerina’s house, taking a brass pestle in his hand, and hides in the bushes outside of his father’s home certain that Grushenka is there. When he discovers she is not, he is overcome with hatred for his father.

Mitya watched from the side, and did not move. The whole of the old man’s profile, which he found so loathsome, the whole of his drooping Adam’s apple, his hooked nose, smiling in sweet expectation, his lips-all was brightly lit from the left by the slanting light of the lamp shining from the room. Terrible, furious anger suddenly boiled up in Mitya’s heart: “There he was his rival, his tormentor, the tormentor of his life!” it was a surge of that same sudden, vengeful, and furious anger of which he had spoken, as if in anticipation, to Alyosha during their conversation in the gazebo four days earlier, in response to Alyosha’s question. “How can you say you will kill father?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he had said then. “Maybe I won’t kill him, and maybe I will. I’m afraid that his face at that moment will suddenly become hateful to me. I hate his Adam’s apple, his nose, his eyes, his shameless sneer. I feel a personal loathing. I’m afraid of that, I may not be able to help myself…”

The personal loathing was increasing unbearable. Mitya was beside himself, and suddenly he snatched the brass pestle from his pocket…”

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .    (p. 392-3)

What has Dmitri done? We know not, as we follow him blindly to the official Pyotr Ilyich Perkhotin’s, where he buys back the pistols he had given for ten roubles, and orders an extravagant basket of sweets, fruit, pate and champagne to follow his troika to where Grushenka has apparently met with her former lover, Kalganov. It’s like a soap opera in its drama, and the best mystery you’ve ever read, and yet the horror of it strikes my very heart.

Through Mitya we discover what it is to be on trial. When his clothes are stripped from him, for material evidence, he feels completely debased. When the questions come at him unceasingly, he must force himself to reveal his intentions no matter how private they may be. And, as a reader, I am completely unsure as to who actually did kill Fyodor. Was it Dmitri? He claims he did not. Was it Smerdykov? He was lying on the point of death after a night filled with seizures from his “falling sickness”. Was it another brother, or another villain whose goals we know little about?

The suspense is killing me. I know not whom to trust. Could it really be true that Mitya is innocent of killing his father?

“Write it down? You want to write it down? Well, write it down then, I consent, I give my full consent, gentlemen…Only, you see…Wait, wait, write it down like this: ‘Of violence-guilty; of inflicting a savage beating on a poor old man-guilty. And then, within himself, too, inside, in the bottom of his heart, he is guilty-but there’s no need to write that down,” he turned suddenly to the clerk, “that is my private life, gentlemen, that doesn’t concern you now, the bottom of my heart, I mean…But the murder of his old father-not guilty! It’s a wild idea! It’s an utterly wild idea…! I’ll prove it to you and you’ll be convinced immediately. You’ll laugh, gentlemen, you’ll roar with laughter at your own suspicion…!” (p. 460)

Which brings to mind this question, “If we’re not guilty of killing someone physically, are we guilty if we kill them in our hearts? (Matthew 5: 21-22)

Find other reviews here:





The Brothers Karamazov: Part 2

For the world says, “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them”–this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide, for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. (p. 313)

In the beginning of this section, we find that Dmitri has not only insulted his fiance, Katerina, but he has also insulted a certain captain named Snegiryov by dragging him out of an establishment with his whiskers. Snegiryov’s son, Ilyusha, bit Alexei’s finger to the bone in revenge, simply because Alexei was a Karamazov.

When Katerina learned of the embarrassment Snegiryov endured at the hand of Dmitri, she sent Alexei off with two hundred roubles to try to comfort the family. But, there was no way that Snegiryov, destitute as he and his family was, could accept it; he ground the crisp bills into the dirt with the heel of his boot after displaying incredible longing for them and what they could provide.

After this bit of plot, the rest of Part 2 consists mainly of thought-provoking ideas portrayed through Ivan as well as the elder, Zosimov. Ivan seems to be questioning everything.

“I must make an admission,” Ivan began. “I never could understand how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors. In my opinion, it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possible love. Perhaps if they weren’t so nigh…It’s still possible to love one’s neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close.” (p. 236-7)

He also voices his great discontent with God in the chapter titled Rebellion:

And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“That is rebellion,” Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

“Rebellion? I don’t like hearing such a word from you,” Ivan said with feeling. (p. 245)

But, in Ivan’s “poem”, The Grand Inquisitor, he continues with his rebellion. He maintains that what man wants from God is miracles, yet what God wants is faith:

But you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles. And since man cannot bear to be left without miracles, he will go and create new miracles for himself, his own miracles this time, and will bow down to the miracles of quacks or women’s magic, though he be rebellious, heretical and godless a hundred times over. You did not come down from the cross when they shouted to you, mocking and reviling you: “Come down from the cross and we will believe that it is you.” You did not come down because, again, you did not want to enslave man by a miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous. You thirsted for love that is free, and not for the servile raptures of a slave before a power that has left him permanently terrified. But here, too, you overestimated mankind, for, of course, they are slaves though they were created rebels.” (p. 256)

Rather than faith, Ivan maintains that the stronger force is the Karamazov nature:

“There is a force that will endure everything,” said Ivan, this time with a cold smirk.

“What force?”

“The Karamazov force…the force of the Karamazov baseness.”

“To drown in depravity, to stifle your soul with corruption, is that it?”

“That, too, perhaps…only until my thirtieth year maybe I’ll escape it, and then…”

“How will you escape it? By means of what? With your thoughts, it’s impossible.”

“Again, in Karamazov fashion.” (p. 263)

Contrast this ideology with Zosimov’s last words, summarized for us by Alexei:

“Yet the Lord will save Russia, as he has saved her many times before. Salvation will come from the people, from their faith and their humility. Fathers and teachers, watch over the faith of the people-and this is no dream: all my life I have been struck by the true and gracious dignity in our great people. ” (p. 316)

When I compare this statement with Ivan’s, I find that the Karamazovs (in general) appear to refute Zosimov’s belief in Russia’s people. In fact, we are presented with this very disturbing fact in Part 2: if Fyodor Pavlovich should die, many people may benefit financially. Dmitri knows that his father has three thousand roubles sealed in a big envelope, tied with a ribbon and addressed to Grushenka (also known as Agrafena Alexandrovna).

“Besides, he considers that same three thousand, sir, as if it was his own, and he told me so himself: ‘My father,’ he said,’still owes me exactly three thousand.’ And on top of all that, Ivan Fyodorovich, consider also a certain pure truth, sir: It’s almost a sure thing, one must say, sir, that Agrafena Alexandrovna, if only she wants to, could definitely get him to marry her, I meant the master himself, Fyodor Pavolvich, sir, if only she wants to-well, and maybe she’ll want to sir…And she’s quite clever in her mind, sir. Why should she marry such a pauper as Dmitri Fyodorovich, sir? And so, taking that, now consider for yourself, Ivan Fyodorovich, that then there will be nothing at all left either for Dmitri Fyodorovich, that then there will be nothing at all left either for Dmitri Fyodorovich, or even for you , sir, along with your brother Alexei Fyodorovich, after your father’s death, not a rouble sir, because Agrafena Alexandrovna will marry him in order to get it all down in her name and transfer whatever capital there is to herself, sir. But if your father was to die now, while none of this has happened, sir, then each one of you would get a sure forty thousand all at once, even Dmitri Fyodorovich, whom he hates so much, because he hasn’t made his will, sir…” (p. 273)

Like the very voice of Satan, here Smerdyakov plants the seeds of doubt and greed into Ivan’s mind. If his father was to die, the three sons would greatly benefit; miracle, faith, or salvation be damned.

Find other posts on Part 2 here:








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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I’m wondering…

is there any interest in reading The Brothers Karamazov with me?

As much as I love Japanese literature, I’ve loved Russian literature first. This particular novel has been sitting on my shelf, calling my name, for at least two years. I’m thinking of starting it in April, when my commitments for reviews have died down a bit, and I’d love it if any of you would care to join in.

Just let me know in the comments!

Interested parties include:

Notes From The Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky
You may know of my newly found love for Japanese literature through the Japanese Literature Challenge 2.

But long before I began loving Japanese literature I loved Russian literature.

In fact, I took more Russian literature and history courses in college than I did American. Or, English. Or, Japanese.

I’m probably the only person you know who’s read Anna Karenina several times for pleasure, and once for a paper. I’m the person whose son bought her War and Peace for a Christmas present last year. I may be one of the few who remember that Dostoevsky was Madeleine L’Engle’s favorite author. I once read that she considered the most influential novel in her life to be The Brothers Karamazov.

With that said, it was important for me to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground. I wanted to read it as a part of my Russian literature knowledge base, but also to complete the Russian Literature Challenge held by Ex Libris. Coincidentally, it fulfills a reading for Carl’s RIP III Challenge, too, because this book is dark.

It didn’t start out terribly dark for me. Actually, I didn’t understand half of the beginning pages, but I plugged along anyway hopeful that things would become clear as they eventually do in Russian literature.

The first half is a description of despair. It made little sense to me until I came to the second part of the book.

In the second half we discover what a sad and miserable life the writer of these notes has had: tormented as a child by his peers, he never quit fit in. Nor, did he really want to. He felt himself to be physically inferior, but intellectually superior, to those around him. He now lives in a dirty little apartment, with shabby furnishings and clothes. He makes little money and has few friends. He dislikes his job and deliberately torments those who come to his office. He invites himself to a party being held by his former schoolmates who are now adults, but still have no friendship with them. After making a fool of himself in their presence, by having neither the personality nor the money to keep up with them, he wakes up in the room of a prostitute. For the first time, we see him able to make an emotional connection with someone, and yet that too, slips away due to his cruelty.

I have read many reviews of this critical work, said to be the precursor of such treatises as Crime and Punishment. Some people say that our hero is a non hero; some say he reflects the lack of freedom in Russia; others say he is a crazy person as exemplified by self contradictions which run rampant throughout the novel. I have read that he depicts the human condition, and it is this viewpoint toward which I am most inclined.

I think that the heart is deceitful above all things; we tend to chase after what we want, and when we have it we want it no longer. I think we’re constantly searching for meaning in our lives, and disappointed when we cannot find it where we look: our jobs, our relationships, our possessions. I think the key to this novel is finding out where to look for hope and purpose, and that of course, is ultimately up to each person who searches. But I don’t believe it can be found underground.

The Winter Classics Challenge Completed

On January 2, 2007, booklogged announced she was hosting the Winter Classics Challenge. In this delightful challenge, one chooses five Classics to complete in January and February. Luckily for me, I was home for all of December and January, and I was able to complete my five Classics before the end of this month. So, here they are in order of completion, the five Classics I read to meet this Challenge:

Dr. Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak was completed in 1956, smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1957, and first published in Russian in Milan at that time. It wasn’t until 1988 that it became published in the Soviet Union. Its 592 pages tell the story of The Russian Revolution of 1917, and the story of a man ((Zhivago) whose life is slowly destroyed by the violence of the revolution. It won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1958.

I loved this book because no one was left unscathed by the ravages of war; it seemed universally applicable to any culture. I also loved it for adding to my understanding of Russian history, for the beautiful setting in Winter, and for the portrayal of relationships. The movie, with Julie Christie and Omar Shariff, did not do this book justice in my opinion.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is set in between the period of 1775, at the beginning of the American Revolution, and 1789, at the storming of the Bastille in France. It tells the story of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, both of whom are in love with Lucie Manette. The story slowly, slowly builds to an astounding conclusion of sacrifice, while weaving in the characters of Lucie’s father and Madame DeFarge who is a female revolutionary with a grudge against the Darney family. The whole time I was reading it my father was saying, “Madame DeFarge, knitting, knitting, knitting…” and looking at me with raised eyebrows and a laugh. It’s opening line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” remains among the most famous lines in English literature.

This summer, I began working through the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, and California Teacher Guy recommended I read A Bell For Adano by John Hersey. It was first published in 1944, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. It tells the story of the town of Adano, in Sicily, whose 700 year old bell has been taken down and melted for ammunition by the Fascists. The Major who comes to this town, and transforms it into a democracy, is a character I will never forget. He has a heart, does not abide by the rules for rules’ sake, and empowers the people with his laughter, acceptance and courage. This has to be one of my favorite books of all time.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis was also recommended to me by a friend. (Interestingly, it’s author, Sinclair Lewis, worked at one time as a secretary for John Hersey in the 1930’s.) Sinclair Lewis was not an author I was familiar with, although he may be best known for his novel Babbit. Main Street was first published in 1920, and was Lewis’ first commercial success. It tells the story of small town America in the 20’s through the eyes of a young girl named Carol Kennicott. She comes to the town as a young bride, where she is quite distressed over its dullness. She attempts to transform it into an intellectually stimulating “city” with no success, running into a “wall of bigotry, hypocrisy and complacency” every where she turns. I was personally startled at what I perceived to be her selfishness, leaving her husband to go to Washington for a few years (which reminds me of Anne Tyler’s novel in which the woman is sick of her family and just leaves to begin a new life somewhere else. Who, with any character is able to do that?) and pretending to be more than she really is. Again, this novel is applicable to many places today. Only, I’m trying to get our Now Huge Town small again. But, that would be egotistical of me, wouldn’t it?

Finally, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky was first published in twelve monthly installments in 1866. Along with Tolstoy’s War and Peace it is considered one of the best known and most influential Russian novels of all time. It tells the story of Raskolnikov, who in many ways reminded me of my brother. Poor, destitute, and filled with little ability to make wise choices, Raskolnikov kills an old woman who is a pawnbroker for her money. Which he never, in fact, uses. Through the course of the novel, he gradually realizes the seriousness of his crime, and he develops a growing need to confess. Against this backdrop, we see him protect his sister from an awful suitor and potentially disastrous marriage. He also falls in love with a prostitute, who, in the end, provides his redemption. (I also counted this as the first of my Chunkster Challenge reads because of its 448 pages. I’m not sure if it’s quite fair to double up like that… )

In conclusion: Classics are my favorite genre. They contain lessons, and people of character which I sorely miss in contemporary fiction. Their length gives me enough time to be fully absorbed in the story, and it’s almost with dread that I finish the last page because I’m so immersed. I found Winter to be the perfect time to curl up with a classic, especially the Russian ones with their setting of snow. So, thank you, booklogged, for this exciting challenge which made me feel I’d really accomplished something during my weeks at home recovering from surgery.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky (Chunkster Challenge #1)

I have just finished Crime and Punishment. All 522 pages in the Signet Classics paperback edition. It’s a novel I’d always intended to read because of my fascination with Russia, because I want to strengthen my knowledge base of classic literature, and because it’s been sitting on my shelf since I chose it for a reading prize from our library’s incentive program a few summers ago.

Our hero, Raskolnikov, finds himself hungry, poor and suffering in St. Petersberg. He lives in an apartment which is so small that he is able to shut the door while still sitting on his bed. He eats very little: cabbage soup or the tea that his landlady provides when he pays his rent. Which he hasn’t in quite some time.

To obtain money, he has pawned family items of worth such as his deceased father’s gold watch. The pawnbroker is an old woman, a greedy and stingy person who does not give even half the value of the items she buys to their desperate owners.

By page 75, Raskolnikov has murdered this woman purposely, and her sister, who unexpectedly walked into the room, accidentally. This part is easy: there’s the crime.

But, the punishment? Not until page 434 is he even accused of committing the crime. In the interim we suffer with him as he falls ill, struggles to help other poverty stricken families, and interacts with his own mother, sister and her betrothed. We see Raskolnikov torment himself with the murders he has committed, although not necessarily guiltily. He has buried the money and items he stole from the pawnbroker, and never does use their worth to his advantage. It seems he has committed the murder solely to commit murder. To rid the world of this nasty woman.

I asked myself, throughout reading this novel, why do people commit crimes? Is it out of necessity from poverty? Is it for the thrill? Is it because of anger, or greed, or daring? Are crimes committed because of the Devil’s influence? Or, and this seems to be Dosteyevksy’s premise, do some people commit crimes for power as they consider themselves above the law?

In many places throughout the novel, Raskolnikov likens himself to Napoleon, in that it was fine for him to commit crimes as long as they served his purpose. While serving his jail term in Siberia, at the epilogue of the novel, he asks himself,
“In what was was my idea any stupider than the other ideas and theories that have swarmed and clashed in the world, one after the other, since the world began? All you have to do is look at it from a disinterested and completely independent point of view, free of the common preconceptions, and surely, if you do that, my idea turns out to be not quite so…grotesque. Ah, critics and five-kopeck philosophers, why stop always halfway?

“Why does what I committed seem so hideous to them?” he said to himself. “Because it was a crime? What does that word mean-crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, I overstepped, illegally; of course, the letter of the law was violated; blood was spilled Very well, satisfy the letter of the law-take my head, why not?-and let it go at that! Given that of course, we have quite a few human benefactors who did not inherit power but seized it for themselves; they should have been executed at their very first steps. But they followed their steps through, and so they were right; and I didn’t follow through, so it turns out I did not have the right to permit myself that first step.” (p. 516)

To me, this sounds like the excuse and rationalization of any person who doesn’t wish to be held accountable for his actions. It is all too easy to place blame on someone else rather than to accept it personally.
Fortunately, Raskolnikov is redeemed through love. At the end of the novel, Sonia, who was forced to work as a prostitute due to her alcoholic father’s proclivity to drink, and Raskolnikov determine that they love each other. They only have to endure the seven more years of his sentence, and then they can be together.
“At the beginning of their happiness they were both prepared at moments to look on these seven years as on seven days. At the time he did not know that a new life had not been given him for nothing, that it would have to be bought dearly, the he would have to pay for it with a great deed in the future…
That is the beginning of a new story, though: the story of a man’s gradual renewal and rebirth of his gradual transition from one world to another, of his acquaintance with a new reality of which he had previously been completely ignorant. That would make the subject of a new story: our present story is ended.

If we let it, can’t love redeem us all? Perhaps, the novel could have been called, “Crime and Redemption” instead.