There are long books, and then there is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

While shorter in page count than a few other books I’ve discussed in this blog, like Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov earns a special mention in regards to intense, long novels because it seems to revel in its length. When I first read this novel back in the late fall of 2017, my eyes bugged like they had bugged before when I saw page after page . . . after page . . . covered in a single paragraph with the words set in what appeared to be 2-point font (a joke, but still). I worked up enough bravery to discover that my copy of Brothers ran to almost one thousand pages.

With that in mind, I don’t blame many modern readers from shying away from this novel, Dostoevsky’s last. The author’s fondness to write on length about religion, morality, and philosophy might make The Brothers Karamazov even harder to understand in the 21st century, in addition to the strain the novel puts on your attention span.

Somehow, though, Dostoevsky pulls off an awing achievement in The Brothers Karamazov, in spite of—or perhaps because of, its mammoth proportions and weighty subject matter. Not only did I finish it, although that did take some time, I found myself wanting to reread it as soon as I came to the end. So what makes this Russian literary landmark so endearing one hundred and forty years after it came out?

The answer comes in the title. The three Karamazov brothers, as well as Fyodor Karamazov, their father, are one of the oddest and most fascinating families in literature.

Oldest brother Dmitri is locked in a poisonous struggle with his father over the romantic interest of a young woman. Middle brother Ivan, who wound up being my favorite character, stands out intellectually, but he suffers terrifying philosophical and moral crises. Youngest brother Aloysha is a devoted member of the Russian Orthodox Church . . . which makes it all the more awkward for him to deal with the worldly Dmitri and atheistic Ivan.

I found this fraternal trio to be so appealing because of their relatability. Even though one hundred and fifty years separate me from Ivan, I could understand his frustrations with trying to make sense of the world while also developing an identity.

Dysfunction rules the day with this family. Dmitri and Fyodor’s feud over romance blows up into an even more hostile conflict over money. Ivan gives his thoughts on religion in a famous chapter titled “The Grand Inquisitor” (a must-read portion of Brothers, although it’s quite the endurance race) before having a surreal encounter with the devil. Aloysha, meanwhile, befriends a group of schoolboys and does his best to see good in everyone, his fraught sibling situation notwithstanding. Just like in Crime and Punishment, there’s a climatic murder that sends all the surviving characters into a tailspin. This doesn’t sound cheery, because it’s not, and yet by the time Dostoevsky wraps things up, there’s a faint glimmer of hope and resilience instilled in many of the major characters.  

You’ll discover there’s a good reason why The Brothers Karamazov is so long if you dust it off: with the three brothers having such different interests and personalities, Dostoevsky has to give each of them their time on the stage. Dostoevsky’s wonderful (I’m not being sarcastic here) habit of going seemingly off-topic also adds pages aplenty. For instance, the author early on mentions a story about the birth of a curious young man named Smerdyakov. Smerdyakov doesn’t sound like anyone important, but his mysterious origins and his epilepsy play crucial roles in the novel’s murder.

The Brothers Karamazov takes dedication and even sometimes patience to read. But each of the nine hundred or so pages, each of the marathon paragraphs, pays off by featuring three brilliant characters, caught up in messy human affairs, that have the courage to ask what’s beyond the mere day-to-day humdrum of existence.

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