The Brothers Karamazov

Context and background

Although Dostoevsky began his first notes for The Brothers Karamazov in April 1878, he had written several unfinished works years earlier. He would incorporate some elements into his future work, particularly from the planned epos The Life of a Great Sinner, which he began work on in the summer of 1869. It eventually remained unfinished after Dostoevsky was interested in the Nechayev affair, which involved a group of radicals murdering one of their former members. He picked up that story and started with Demons.[2] The unfinished Drama in Tobolsk (Драма. В Тобольске) is considered the first draft of the first chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Dated 13 September 1874, it tells about a fictional murder in Staraya Russa committed by a praporshchik named Dmitry Ilynskov (based on a real soldier from Omsk), who is thought to have murdered his father. It goes on noting that his body was suddenly discovered in a pit under a house.[3] The similarly unfinished Sorokoviny (Сороковины), dated 1 August 1875, is reflected in book IX, chapter 3–5 and book XI, chapter nine.[4]

In the October 1877 A Writer's Diary article "To the Reader", Dostoevsky mentioned a "literary work that has imperceptibly and involuntarily been taken shape within me over these two years of publishing the Diary". His Diary, a collection of numerous articles, had included similar themes The Brothers Karamazov would later borrow from. These include patricide, law and order and social problems.[5] Although Dostoevsky was influenced by religion and philosophy in his life and the writing of The Brothers Karamazov, a personal tragedy altered the work. In May 1878, Dostoevsky's three-year-old son Alyosha died of epilepsy,[6] a condition inherited from his father. The novelist's grief is apparent throughout the book; Dostoevsky named the hero Alyosha, as well as imbuing him with qualities which he sought and most admired. His loss is also reflected in the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha.

Crime and Punishment and Dostoevsky's later (final) masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, are alike in one key respect: they place the reader inside the mind of a criminal.[7]

Henry Hitchings

The death of his son brought Dostoevsky to the Optina Monastery later that year. There, he found inspiration for several aspects of The Brothers Karamazov, though at the time he intended to write a novel about childhood instead. Parts of the biographical section of Zosima's life are based on "The Life of the Elder Leonid", a text he found at Optina and copied "almost word for word".[8]


Although written in the 19th century, The Brothers Karamazov displays a number of modern elements. Dostoevsky composed the book with a variety of literary techniques. Though privy to many of the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists, the narrator is a self-proclaimed writer; he discusses his own mannerisms and personal perceptions so often in the novel that he becomes a character. Through his descriptions, the narrator's voice merges imperceptibly into the tone of the people he is describing, often extending into the characters' most personal thoughts. There is no voice of authority in the story (see Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics for more on the relationship between Dostoevsky and his characters). In addition to the principal narrator there are several sections narrated by other characters entirely, such as the story of the Grand Inquisitor and Zosima's confessions. This technique enhances the theme of truth, making many aspects of the tale completely subjective.

Dostoevsky uses individual styles of speech to express the inner personality of each person. For example, the attorney Fetyukovich (based on Vladimir Spasovich) is characterized by malapropisms (e.g. 'robbed' for 'stolen', and at one point declares possible suspects in the murder 'irresponsible' rather than innocent). Several plot digressions provide insight into other apparently minor characters. For example, the narrative in Book Six is almost entirely devoted to Zosima's biography, which contains a confession from a man whom he met many years before. Dostoevsky does not rely on a single source or a group of major characters to convey the themes of this book, but uses a variety of viewpoints, narratives and characters throughout.


Although The Brothers Karamazov has been translated from the original Russian into a number of languages, the novel's diverse array of distinct voices and literary techniques makes its translation difficult. Constance Garnett performed the first English translation, which was released in 1912.[9]

In 1958, David Magarshack and Manuel Komroff released translations of the novel, published respectively by Penguin and The New American Library of World Literature.[10] In 1976, Ralph Matlaw thoroughly revised Garnett's work for his Norton Critical Edition volume.[11] This in turn was the basis for Victor Terras' influential A Karamazov Companion.[12] Another popular translation is by Julius Katzer, published by Progress Publishers in 1981 and later re-printed by Raduga Publishers Moscow. In 1990 Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky released a new translation; it won a PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize in 1991 and garnered positive reviews from The New York Times Book Review and the Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank, who praised it for being the most faithful to Dostoevsky's original Russian.[13]

In The Oxford Guide to Literature in English translations, academic Peter France writes in the section for Dostoevsky on Constance Garnett's translations: "[her] translations read easily...the basic meaning of the Russian text is accurately rendered on the whole. It is true, as critics such as Nikoliukin have demonstrated, that she shortens and simplifies, muting Dostoevsky's jarring contrasts, sacrificing his insistent rhythms and repetitions, toning down the Russian colouring, explaining and normalizing in all kinds of ways....Garnett shortens some of Dostoevsky's idiosyncrasy in order to produce an acceptable English text, but her versions were in many cases pioneering versions; decorous they may be, but they allowed this strange new voice to invade English literature and thus made it possible for later translators to go further in the search for more authentic voice."[14]

France goes on to comment on the other translations in the market. On David Magarshack's Dostoevsky translations he says: "it is not certain that Magarshack has worn as well as Garnett. He certainly corrects some of her errors; he also aims for a more up-to-date style which flows more easily in English....Being even more thoroughly englished than Garnett's, Magarshack's translations lack some of the excitement of the foreign."[15] On MacAndrew's American version, he writes: "He translates fairly freely, altering details, rearranging, shortening and explaining the Russian to produce texts which lack a distinctive voice."[15] On David McDuff's Penguin translation he continues: "McDuff carries this literalism the furthest of any of the translators. In his Brothers Karamazov the odd, fussy tone of the narrator is well rendered in the preface....At times, indeed, the convoluted style might make the reader unfamiliar with Dostoevsky's Russian question the translator's command of English. More seriously, this literalism means that the dialogue is sometimes impossibly odd—and as a result rather dead....Such 'foreignizing' fidelity makes for difficult reading."[16] On the Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation, France writes: "Pevear and Volokhonsky, while they too stress the need to exhume the real, rough-edged Dostoevsky from the normalization practised by earlier translators, generally offers a rather more satisfactory compromise between the literal and the readable. In particular, their rendering of dialogue is often livelier and more colloquial than McDuff's.... Elsewhere, it has to be said, the desire to replicate the vocabulary or syntax of the Russian results in unnecessary awkwardness and obscurity."[17] In commenting on Ignat Avsey's translation, he writes: "His not entirely unprecedented choice of a more natural-sounding English formulation is symptomatic of his general desire to make his text English....His is an enjoyable version in the domesticating tradition."[17]

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