‘Fathers, Provoke Not Your Sons’: The Brothers Karamazov and the Failure of Fathers

I don’t claim that my analysis of The Brothers Karamazov is original, and I don’t even claim it to be correct or intentional on Dostoevsky’s part. But I saw something of myself in all four of these brothers, and it’s something I perhaps didn’t want to see.

Ilustraition by Alice Neel, depicting the four Karamazov brothers with their father

*This article contains major spoilers, as well as discussions of sexual assault, abuse and suicide*

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is not really a book that needs more articles written about it. It’s one of the absolute pinnacles of world literature, and has been dissected, interrogated and expounded upon by philosophers and academics far smarter than I, and with a greater level of comprehension then I will ever possess. There’s good reason though — it is a fucking incredible book. It took me about 3 weeks to cleave through the book, and the number of reactions it elicited in me — shudders, slack jawed amazement, genuine laughter — was a complete a total surprise to me. I didn’t find it dour or overtly scholarly at all. It was dripping with ideas, dense with reference and insight, but it was also deeply relatable and almost uncannily familiar.

The uncanny sense of familiarity I took away from this book is something I mulled over all throughout reading it. Something about it really wriggled its way into my brain. The Brothers Karamazov may be a literary classic for its broad ideas about God, free will, rationalism and theology, yet it must surely have persisted for so long because of its meticulous attention to world building and character study. The characters in this book are so tautly constructed, presenting such a huge variety of multitudes, particularly its four titular brothers. They in particular hit me square in the chest. It’s not the book’s theological dimensions that left me wincing. To me this is about four men, with four very different worldviews, navigating a world whilst shouldered with the trauma of their youth. A trauma that shapes them and their actions as grown men, and a trauma that has its roots in the story’s central character — their father, Fyodor Karamazov. I don’t claim that my analysis of The Brothers Karamazov is original, and I don’t even claim it to be correct or intentional on Dostoevsky’s part. But I saw something of myself in all four of these brothers, and it’s something I perhaps didn’t want to see. But I’m glad I did.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s shadow hangs over this entire story like a thunderous cloud, more so after his death in fact. He is presented as a complex man — as insecure as he is domineering, as humorous as he is vulgar. But the life term effects of the abuse his sons suffered is far less morally grey. He has his sympathetic moments, even his pathetic ones, but this is a man who discarded his children when they stood in the way of his life of vice. One of his sons is (heavily insinuated to be) an illegitimate child, conceived through the rape of a developmentally disabled young woman. And the crux of the story’s central dramatic tension is born of him trying to steal his son’s lover. Fyodor Karamazov is a man driven by an impulsive craving for cardinal pleasure and vice, and his children were never able to stand in his way. At first I found it strange that the book sold itself as a book about patricide, when Fyodor’s murder is not confirmed until over halfway through the narrative. But this isn’t so much a book about the murder of fathers, as about the failure of fathers. Particularly how they fail their sons.

Queer people — especially queer men — who have difficult relationships with their fathers are hardly a new concept, in fact it’s something of a running joke. I’ve long held issue with the term ‘daddy issues’ because I feel it misplaces the blame, and because its always carried about it the whiff of misogyny. Little do we talk about the negative effects of fatherhood on young heterosexual men as examples of daddy issues. But the idiosyncrasies of each brother in this story is exactly that — is the fallout of their childhood experiences. Dmitry’s hot headedness and compulsive excess is most explicitly compounded by the rage aimed at his father, who neglected him, withheld his money and attempted to steal the love of his life. Ivan’s nihilistic rationalism, and Alyosha’s devoutness, though seemingly unconnected, are two signs of the same coin. Both brothers represent similarly all encompassing world views trying to make sense of their chaotic lives, and their father stands firm as the planet in which all their attitudes orbit. We know this by how even the generally gentile Alyosha is shamefully embarrassed by his father’s presence, whilst Ivan — who at one point in the story, claims that ‘everything is permitted’ — is openly hostile towards him.

Recall how I commended Dostoevsky’s ability to present ‘multitudes’ in his characters? I recognised as such because I could see elements of myself in each of them. The good and the bad — but how much of it is truly good? In Dmitry, I saw the hot headed, argumentative side of myself, at times incapable of dealing with the ‘failures’ of others. I certainly recognised Ivan’s coldness, his desire to sequester things into neat little boxes where he can understand and analyse them. And I certainly recognised Alyosha’s meek desire to be a people pleaser, to make right, to diffuse. These characters contain multitudes. I — and most survivors of familial abuse — contain multitudes. These reflections on the page were at times uncomfortable. Each character is undone by their coping mechanisms — Dmitry, innocent of the narrative’s central crime, is condemned in part because he is known as a violent drunk. Ivan’s rigid rationalism falls apart when he begins to envision the devil, an apparition who mirrors the darkest (more theological) parts of his psyche. Alyosha comes out relatively unscathed — but he too has to grapple with his devotions, and has his world view challenged. If the book were written today, maybe these behaviours would be labelled ‘coping mechanisms’ and ‘trauma responses’. These behaviour patterns will be familiar to anyone — specifically I argue, any man — who was raised with a negative patriarchal figure in their life.

Patriarchal trauma was wrapped up in the writing of the book. Dostoevsky’s son died part way through the writing process, an event which devastated the writer, and led to the inclusion of Ilyushhecka — the terminally ill child, driven to tears by the fact that his father was shamed by Dmitry in a drunken brawl. He does also allow for his characters to wax lyrical about the nature of fatherhood — Dmitry’s lawyer, Ipploit Kyrillovich, delivers an impassioned plea for Dmitry’s innocence due to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. His speech echoed many of my own sentiments, so truthfully that it stung:

“To father a child does not make one a father, a father is one who, having fathered a child, proves himself worthy of fatherhood. There is another point of view of course, another definition of the word father, which incorporates the idea that a father, even though he may be a monster, even though he may be a fiend to his children, nevertheless remains a father simply because he fathered a child. But this definition is, so to speak, mystical’

A shattering proclamation, and a thoroughly modern one too. Both Kyrillovich and Ilyushecka’s positions represent this dynamic — respect for patriarchy, respect for genealogy, regardless of reasoning. No wonder Sigmund Freud deemed it the most ‘magnificent novel ever written.’ The book is dripping in Oedipal complexes. It tunnels directly into the deeper levels of subconscious that come only from the betrayal of a primary caregiver. Maybe many will be shocked to find a small part of themselves sympathising with Smerdyakov, Fyodor’s aforementioned illegitimate son and his actual murderer. It’s hard to know whether Smerdyakov knows about the nature of his birth — but given his similarly subservient relationship with Fyodor as his servant, its possible that his decision to kill his master/father is driven by a similar vein of paternalistic resentment.

Where is the redemption? There isn’t much. Alyosha survives unscathed, but if we are to approach this book from a modern perspective, the solution of turning to god and spirituality seems quite unsatisfactory. Smerdyakov commits suicide after murdering his illegitimate father, Dmitry is still sentenced for a crime he did not commit, and the terminally level headed and rational Ivan is drawn to the edge of hysteria. As a courtroom drama, the novel is bleak, given the total miscarriage of justice. But as a commentary on patriarchy, it is wholly tragic. Three of Fyodor’s sons are ruined by the stories end — one mentally destabilised, one condemned by law, and one dead. As such, beyond being a masterful piece of world literature, and one of the best pieces of character study ever created in any medium, The Brothers Karamazov stands as a lasting testament to the ills of degenerate patriarchy. It remains thoroughly modern, unnervingly prescient, and generally uncomfortable material.

Blending deep-dive analyses of popular culture, politics and gender studies with autobiographical anecdotes and opinions.

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