Classic Book of the Month – The Brothers Karamazov

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 7th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s time now for our Classic Book of the Month.

For that, book reviewer Emily Whitten joins us now from Nashville. Hey, good morning, Emily!


REICHARD: Well, so many of us are stuck at home these days. It’s a good time to pull out a classic book…maybe a long one? 

WHITTEN: I can help you with that, Mary! Today we’re talking about The Brothers Karamazov. It’s by a Christian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who lived in Russia during the 19th century. The audio version I listened to runs more than 34 hours, so it’s pretty absorbing. At times the plot crackles with electricity. Other times the characters seem to stop mid-frame, pondering big questions like the nature of good and evil. So, it’s an expansive book in more ways than one.

REICHARD: Before we get into some of those big questions, tell us a bit more about the plot.

WHITTEN: Sure. The book centers on a Russian family named Karamazov. A moderately wealthy landowner, Fyodor Pavlovitch, serves as the family patriarch. His oldest son, Dmitri, is from his first marriage. He has two more adult sons—Ivan and Alyosha—from a second marriage. A fourth young man, now a servant in the home, may be Fyodor’s child by a homeless woman. The conflict between them is intense. It stems from the father’s neglect and selfishness.

Here’s a short clip of an audiobook version read by Frederick Davidson. In this scene, the Karamazov’s meet with an elder, or religious leader, hoping he can help them resolve their differences. The first speaker here is the dad’s cousin, Musov, who served as the oldest son’s guardian:

MUSOV: Musov was on the point of shouting, but he checked himself and said with contempt, ‘You defile everything you touch.’ The elder suddenly arose from his seat. ‘Excuse me, gentlemen. I have visitors awaiting me who arrived before you. But don’t you tell lies, all the same,’ he added, turning to Fyodor Pavlovitch with a good humored face.

WHITTEN: But several family members already believe their own lies…and there’s no quick fix. Rather, it takes hundreds more pages to resolve their conflicts—conflicts that include which of them gets to marry a particularly bewitching prostitute. 

REICHARD: Well, that sounds rather gritty for a Christian writer.

WHITTEN: Dostoevsky doesn’t pull any punches, for sure. Although, it isn’t as graphic as many writers today in its depiction of sin.

REICHARD: Where do you see his faith at work in the story?

WHITTEN: To start with, Dostoevsky uses several themes and characters to attack atheistic communism. In a Just Thinking podcast with Albert Mohler, Northwestern University Professor Gary Saul Morson explains:

MORSON: Russian history tends to the extremes, and in the 20th century, that produced an entirely new form of society to which we gave the name totalitarian. But their opponents had been the great Russian writers— Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Checkov—who kept warning that their way of thinking would lead to no good and formulated alternatives. 

WHITTEN: His characters often extensively debate or monologue their inner thoughts or questions. This doesn’t always feel very realistic, and it turns some readers off. But it may help to realize he writes this way on purpose. He’s trying to help his readers see deeper spiritual and psychological realities of their lives. By bringing these things to the surface, he’s actually pushing back against a materialist view of the world.

REICHARD: That’s helpful to know. Emily, I recall that last month you invited listeners to write in with questions or comments. Did you get anything you’d like to share?

WHITTEN: Yes, Aaron Hensley found a lot to chew on in the famous Grand Inquisitor chapter. In it, one of the brothers, Ivan, wrestles with how a loving God could allow suffering. 

Missionary and author Elisabeth Elliot put her finger on the same section in a Ligonier Ministry teaching series decades ago. The series is called Suffering is Not for Nothing. I’ll let Elliot read that part of the passage for us:

ELLIOT: “‘Tell me yourself. Imagine you are creating the fabric of human destiny but it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature, and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell me the truth.’”

WHITTEN: Dostoevsky answers Ivan in a number of ways, but most clearly perhaps in the character of Ivan’s brother, Alyosha. He embodies a life of faith, even when he can’t understand God’s ways. 

REICHARD: In our current crisis, I expect many people may be dealing with questions of suffering in a fresh way. Is this a good resource for people who want to think more deeply about that?

WHITTEN: I do think it’s great if you want to frame the question abstractly. If you’re actually walking through suffering, I would recommend a more pastoral treatment like Paul David Tripp’s excellent book, Suffering. I also learned some things from Elisabeth Elliot’s free teaching series. It starts slow, but she wisely points readers to Christ’s cross as the ultimate place we see God’s love and human suffering meet.

REICHARD: Thanks for these recommendations, Emily.

WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading!

REICHARD: For March, Emily recommended Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. You can find other classic book recommendations at Just search for Classic Book of the Month.

(Photo/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Publisher)

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