The Implications of Dostoyevsky’s "The Brothers Karamazov" to the Family as an Institution

The novels of Dostoyevsky are seething whirlpools,

gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil

and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly

of the stuff of the human soul.

– Virginia Woolf


Virginia Woolf aptly says it directly and without pretentions that Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote from his soul and his soul is full of passion and is restless. What Woolf has failed to mention is what Mikhail Bakhtin has really coined out more appropriately – the term “polyphonic.” According Welleck (1980), “Bakhtin asserts that Dostoyevsky created a totally new kind of novel he calls “polyphonic” i. e., it consists of independent voices which are fully equal, become subjects of their own right and do not serve the ideological position of the author. He is undoubtedly right in emphasizing the dramatic nature of Dostoevsky’s novels, the sense of conflict Dostoevsky created, the power of empathy he shows with the most diverse ideological points of view and attitudes to life.” In this case, “The Brothers Karamazov” is just one proof of Dostoyevsky’s superb mind as a writer.

Truly, it is one of the best indeed. The novel is composed of 105 chapters divided into 13 books which ate up a total of 1,192 pages. However, the length is immaterial if one considers the richness of Dostoyevsky’s imagination, the sharpness of his ideas and the vividness of his rhetoric which had constituted the polyphonic nature of his novel.

The Karamazovs as a Family

According to Peschke (2001), the family is the primordial community. As the font of new human life, it is the normal, if not the only center in which the human person can develop bodily and spiritually is a healthy fashion. The moral and religious life of man his capability to love are first awakened by parental love. The three basic functions of the family are:

1. The family as an economic unit – The family provides for man’s everyday wants in food, shelter, and clothing. (Peschke 2001)

2. The family as the primary educational unit – The intellectual and moral development of the human person depends decisively on the education within the family. In its circle, the young persons receive their first knowledge and understanding of the world around them. It is in the family that they are first taught the unselfishness of mutual love. (Peschke 2001)

3. The family as the primary spiritual community of man – The family finally provides the most important spiritual home for its members. In daily living based on love, trust, esteem and respect, there is also an exchange of ideas, values, and attitudes, a sharing of the experience of joys and sorrows, successes and trials, such as we find in no other group. (Peschke 2001)

Basically, the Karamazov family does not fit to those provisions because, in the first place, the bond that ties the parents is deficient in its context. Love was not present in any of Fyodor’s two marriages and more so in his two carnal interludes. Fyodor is a “parvenu” or a social climber. Thus, his first marriage – with Adelaida – has been looked upon with scorn considering that Fyodor just married her because of her family’s wealth. When Adelaida left Fyodor (in which she died in the later part), the family also fell apart. Fyodor’s marriage with Sophia was also a failure. Though death was the principal reason, the failure of the marriage could mainly be attributed to Fyodor’s irresponsibility as a husband and as a father. The novel mentions of Sophia becoming a “shrieker” which is just a euphemism for her insanity. This insanity could be inferred as being caused by Fyodor himself due to his debauchery. But what else can be expected? He is only quenching his thirst for the flesh and after he got quenched through that 16-year-old adopted orphan, he resumes his caprices and extramarital affairs. Thus the narrator says: “However, in such a lecherous man that, too, might have been only a sensual attraction. Having taken her without any money, he did not stand on ceremony with her… he did not hesitate to trample on the ordinary decencies of married life. Women of the streets used to come to his house while his wife was there, and they would have wild parties.” (TBK P. 11)

Not being able to bear that, Sophia succumbs to insanity which leads to her death. As a result, the Karamazov family becomes dysfunctional as Fyodor abandons his children leaving them under the care of the servant Grigory and the brothers carry the stigma as they grow.

On Parental Rights and Duties

Peschke (2001) mentions that the responsibility of the parents arises from the fact that they, the parents, are the ones who gave life to their children. These young human beings come helpless into the world entirely dependent on their parents’ loving care.

The primary duty of parents, which precedes all the others, is responsible assumption of parenthood. Parents may only bring a child into the world if they have reasonable hopes that they will be able to rear and educate the child in a way worthy of human being. If ever an illegitimate child is born, the father is duty bound to aid the unmarried mother with material means in the upbringing of his child, in accordance with his own financial condition and the need of the mother and child. (Peschke 2001)

1. Well-ordered love – Love is the fundamental obligation of parents. As a natural feeling, it almost always motivates the hearts of the parents in a stronger and more forceful way than the hearts of the children. Inner alienation and hatred on the part of the parents are rarely to be found. But parental love can prove deficient in different degrees and ways, be it by defect or by excess.

2. Provision for life, health and material well-being – Parents have the serious duty to look after their children in a manner worthy of human beings. They have to provide for food, clothing, health, lodging and home. Furthermore, they must also procure some degree of material security for their children’s future and help them to found their own homes when the time comes.

3. Education – Parents are absolutely bound to educate their children to the best of their abilities and top look after their spiritual welfare. The development of the children’s personality is the most excellent task of the parents.

What happens in the novel is just the opposite of what has been stipulated. The brothers did not experience love and care from their parents. The death of the two mothers has deprived them of maternal care and affection. On the other hand, the father, who is supposed to provide the care, is not even doing his role as a father. Fyodor ignores his children and entrusts them to the servant. The only saving grace on the part of the children is that they all have caring relatives in the maternal side.

Furthermore, Fyodor has not been a good role model to the brothers. His immorality only causes resentment from them and this was aggravated when Fyodor had taken advantage of the lunatic Lizaveta with whom he had a child – Smedyakov. Fyodor does not acknowledge him as his son yet he admits him in his household to act as a cook – a treatment which Smedyakov resents.

When the brothers grew, instead of developing filial love, they had rather developed the feeling of indifference, aloofness and hatred towards their father. Fyodor, at his point, insists his authority as a father. His pride being the “father” has made him insensitive to the brothers. Instead of showing them affection, love and care, he only evokes anxiety, anger, and hatred in them. He deprives them of their inheritance and uses the money for his vices; he becomes a rival to their love and happiness – when he wants Alyosha to leave the monastery and when he becomes a rival of Dmity for the love of Gushenka.

Duties of Children towards Parents

Peschke (2001) writes that the children owe their parents many benefits. Consequently, the child has the obligation of love, reverence, and gratitude.

1. Reverence and honor – the inner spirit of reverence must manifest in external signs of honor. Children sin against the honor due to parents if they are ashamed of them, and disown them because of their humble state or poverty; or if they use offensive speech, treat them contemptuously, or raise their hands against them. However, it is deemed natural that if parents are found to be irresponsible, they will greatly hinder the development of true reverence in the children’s heart.

2. Obedience – Children sin if they disobey the parents “just” commands. The provisions in the Vatican II enumerates two types of obedience:

a. Educational obedience – the entire development of children requires the help and guidance of parents and educators and therefore enjoins obedience upon them.

b. Functional obedience – The domestic order claims submission to the authority of parents, and this is also from adult children as long as they stay at home.

3. Love and gratitude – Filial love must above all be a grateful love since children owe to their parents their life, livelihood, education and many other benefits. In a normal family, children are indebted to their parents more than to anybody else. Children sin against the love due to their parents if they foster sentiments of hatred; refuse to speak, to write or to see them, curse or speak ill of them; refuse to support them when they are old and indigent. However, egoistic interests and aims of parents can also be sources of harm to the child. (Peschke 2001)

Love towards the parents is inherent. It dwells in everyone but what keeps it from being manifested is subjected to rationalization. The brothers do feel the kind of longing for their father. Alyosha, for his part, decides to leave the monastery after the death of Father Zossima. Dmitry, though resentful, abandons Gushenka when he learned that Fyodor desires her and Dmitry, then, turns his attention to Katerina. Ivan strives to be civil with his father even if he abhors his father’s whims and vices. Yet, all throughout, they had developed the feeling of dislike and indifference to Fyodor because of his selfishness. Even Alyosha, who is suppose to be the most pious of the three brothers suffers from dilemma. Dmitry, for his part, his conflict with Fyodor has become physical. There comes a point when Dmitry hits Fyodor twice: the first was during an altercation about the inheritance and second was the controversial blow which implicated Dmitry to his father’s death. In Ivan’s case, he treats his father shabbily and avoids any conversation with him. But should the brothers be condemned because of those reasons? Why do the brothers have developed such attitude towards their father? Peschke (2001) explains that “the child’s love will, to a certain extent, be relative to the parents’ love.” Then, that answers the question.

And so Fyodor Karamozov dies. Smedyakov has inflicted the fatal blow. The brothers are haunted with guilt – that each of them has contributed to the father’s death. For Smedyakov, death begets death and so he commits suicide taking with him in his grave the truth. For Alyosha, he thinks that he did little in mending the discord between his father and his brothers. He could have been instrumental in fostering love in the family taking into consideration his spirituality being a disciple of Father Zossima who was venerated in the community.

Ivan, for his case, could have prevented the death had he not left his father and had he not also desired Katerina which contributed greatly to the anxiety and agitation of Dmitry. Ivan contends that his preoccupations to his own thoughts and philosophies had caused to be unmindful of his surroundings. And so his guilt gives him his schizophrenia.

Dmitry, the most tormented of all, bears the impact of the circumstances which he is bound to suffer in prison. This could be his reason for refusing to accept the plans to save him from prison which Dmity and Katerina have arranged.

Why should the brothers be haunted with guilt? Isn’t it that Fyodor was not a good father to them?

Peschke (2001) expounds that the children’s obligation of love and reverence is based on the fact that are, after God, the second source of life, growth and education. Peschke based these words on the pronouncements of St. Thomas and he simply means that in spite of what kind of father Fyodor had been, the brothers should have accorded him reverence, respect and love. This feeling is, again, part of the natural law of man. Then, if the father has not been a good father, he is then accountable for his action when the final reckoning comes. That would then be his accountability in the same manner as each of the brothers has to be accountable for his own soul.

Moreover, the brothers do carry in them the blood and genes of a Fyodorovich. And if the novel would be viewed through the Freudian point-of-view, Dmitry will then be Fyodor’s “Id” because of his unbridled passion and violent tendencies, Ivan as Fyodor’s “Ego” because of his nature as the thinker that results to his great concern for his “self” for which he becomes too self-centered. Lastly, Alyosha is Fyodor’s “Superego” because his refined character which is the offshoot of his spirituality. Had all these three been fused into one in the person of Fyodor, he would have become the ideal father that the three may have wished for.

It has always been said that a strong family shapes the strength of the society because the members of the society are, themselves, molded first inside the family structure. The family, when magnified, becomes the society as a whole. For sure, Dostoyevsky did not just write the novel in order to entertain the Russians. Dostoyevsky, himself, bore the stigma of the regime in him and being the writer that he was, he needed an outlet and the result of which is “The Brothers Karamazov.”