A Colossal Drama: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky

Set design for The Brothers Karamazov for Jacques Copeau’s Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier by Louis Jouvet.

I found it a bit baffling at first that my reading experiences with  The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace have been equally sublime and edifying even though they are written in such different styles.  I couldn’t quite grasp the difference between these novelists until I read George Steiner’s essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in which he compares the narrative of Tolstoy’s novels to epic and Homer and Dostoevsky’s to tragedy and drama.  For my mind these are the perfect analogies to describe the uniqueness of these Russian greats:

…More, perhaps, than those of any novelist of comparable dimension, Dostoevsky’s sensibility, his modes of imagination, and his linguistic strategies were saturated by drama.  Dostoevsky’s relationship to the drama is analogous, in centrality and ramification, to Tolstoy’s relationship to the epic.  It characterized his particular genius as strongly as it contrasted it with Tolstoy’s.  Dostoevsky’s habit of miming his characters as he wrote—like Dickens’s—was the outward gesture of a dramatist’s temper.  His mastery of the tragic mood, his “tragic philosophy,” were the specific expressions of a sensibility which experience and transmuted its material dramatically.  This was true of Dostoevsky’s whole life, from adolescence and the theatrical performance recount in The House of the Dead to his deliberate and detailed use of Hamlet and Schiller’s Räuber to control the dynamics of The Brothers Karamazov.  Thomas Mann said of Dostoevsky’s novels that they are “colossal dramas, scenic in nearly their whole structure; in them an action which dislocates the depth of the human soul and which is often packed into a few days, is represented in surrealistic and feverish dialogue…” It was recognized early that these “colossal dramas” could be adapted to actual performance; the first dramatization of Crime and Punishment was produced in London in 1910.  And referring to the Karamazovs, Gide remarked that “of all imaginative creations and of all protagonists in history none had been claims to being presented on a stage.”

When we read Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, we are not just experiencing the events of a day in the life of this father, son, husband and king; but we are witnessing all of the character traits of the House of Atreus, good and bad, that have seeped into his blood and his soul.  We are also given a hint as to the nature of his son’s soul which has equally been affected by these familial ties.  Similarly, in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky immediately launches us into a detailed account of the father, Fyodor, and his history of drunken and sexual debauchery.  And anytime one of his sons drinks excessively, seduces a woman, or is quick to anger Dostoevsky reminds us that this is a characteristic of a Karamazov.  I am not quite half way through the book yet, but I suspect that the inability of one or more of his sons to break from the father’s soul-destroying patterns will result in tragedy.


Filed under Classics, Essay, Russian Literature

7 responses to “A Colossal Drama: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky

  1. I am so impressed with your book choice. I remember this being hard to get through and then loving it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have always found Tolstoy and Dostovesky quite different – Tolsoy looking down from above, Dostoyevsky on his knees in the dirt looking up…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is indeed an epic read and the familial element so crucial. I found it most profound, powerful and memorable when I read it. And I love Grant’s analogy – spot on!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jamescraigvickers

    I love your post and your choice of novel. And I agree Grant’s description of the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is perfect! When I was in my mid to late teens and consuming a diet of books written by Beat writers and Sci fi writers, a friend of mine lent me The Brothers Karamazov. It was a two volume Penguin Classics translated by David Magarshak. I had never heard of Dostoyevsky. I was dubious. But I started to read. Initially I remember thinking how exotic it was. Nineteenth Century Russia. Samovars. Patronymics. But then the utter seriousness of the book hooked me. I had never read anything like it. I’m sure I didn’t understand at least half of it, but it changed my life. I wanted to read more books like this and to begin to understand them. Which eventually led to University and English literature, etc. That was over 40 years ago. Your post has made me think that it is probably time to reread Dostoyevsky’s classic. Thanks Melissa.


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