Illustration by MICHAEL MAHLE
BY ALEXEI ARCHER Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of western literature, is a story of three brothers — Ivan, Dmitri, and Alexei — and their reunion in an unnamed provincial town in Russia, and the ensuing murder of their father, Fyodor Pavlovich. It is a novel that seeks to reconcile faith in God and atheism, free will and slavery, compassion and isolation. Although it was written in 1880, The Brothers Karamazov remains current in its approach and construction, utilizing modernist literary devices such as meta-narration, subjective reality and multiple points of view to convey the themes of the book. There are also many instances where Dostoyevsky use the writings of various characters — poems, letters, articles, suicide notes, or love letters — to advance the plot and character development. There are consequently many layers to the book, and readers will have their work cut out for them as they attempt piece together the puzzle of the father’s death, as well as the mysteries of God and the human heart.
Reading this book at 14 irrevocably altered the course of my life. I came to see The Brothers Karamazov as less a novel than a field guide to being a complete person. Dostoyevsky taught me to see my suffering as a gift, not a burden. My childhood was the stuff of Russian novels, something to be stoically endured rather than savored. I was routinely abused, both physically and sexually, by my parents and severely bullied in school. Not surprisingly, this gave me a very jaundiced view of life. By the time I was 12, I self-identified as both a nihilist and an atheist. I saw the world as inherently meaningless, chaotic, and built around personal gain and gratification. I cut off all ties with external reality and lived completely in my own head, living my life through the books I read — titles by Huxley, Proust, Kafka, Orwell, and Flannery O’Connor. Eventually, I happened upon The Brothers Karamazov and for the first time saw my inner self articulated. The book taught me how to purify myself through suffering, and, as a result, become a stronger, more loving person despite the things that had been done to me. I realized I had a choice, that we all have a choice, to either love ourselves or to reject the world.
That paradise is right now, wherever you are, in whatever form it takes. I came to believe that life is a blessing, and loving yourself leads to loving everyone without exception. The novel’s dichotomy between faith and disbelief, between meaning and meaningless, captivated me and ultimately put me on a path toward genuine happiness. I became a Christian, and began the first tentative steps of rejoining humanity. This remains a work in progress, as I continue to make certain people uncomfortable just by being myself: a blind, transgender, and bisexual person of mixed ancestry. Nevertheless, I began to realize that by inflicting this suffering upon me, God had a purpose—to make me a loving person. In the novel, Dostoyevsky asserts that by forgiving yourself, you would forgive all for their sins, and love everyone without exception. My newfound faith would sustain me through multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, a suicide attempt, and a gender transition from female to male to some combination of the two.
There are two characters in The Brothers Karamazov that I instantly identified with on a primal level. The first is Ivan Fyodorovich. From childhood, Ivan had been an independent, solitary boy with a great capacity for learning which all the adults in his life encouraged. He was given over to pedagogues and trained for an intellectual life. But he used his considerable intelligence more as a parlor trick than a gift, toying with ideas in a way that was not quite sincere and yet not quite a joke. In society, he would mostly remain silent, except to say shocking philosophies about God—namely, that without immortality, “Everything is permitted.” Having rebelled against God, Ivan lived a lonely existence cut off from humanity, lamenting his intelligence while at the same time finding glory in it. His table talk of nihilism captivated one character in particular—the murderer of Ivan’s father, who used Ivan’s philosophy as a justification for murder. Thus, Ivan became the intellectual-murder of his father, a fact which he confessed in court to no one’s belief. Ultimately, he was the most unhappy of the three brothers—and the character I saw myself the most in at the time.
I had become untamable. I lived for the thrill of the intellectual heights I could achieve, flaunting my thoughts in gatherings with a shocking effect—the more I shocked, the more superior I felt. Having fended off my father from raping me, something in me had become so soiled, so dark, that I would do anything to deflect my tormentors’ gaze from this spot. I was helpless to understand why my father had done this, as he never acknowledged it had ever happened: I lived in a reality that was never witnessed, bearing the effects of that night while at the same time my scars remained invisible. Ivan’s troubled relationship with his father mirrored my own: namely, that we both feared we were the children who most resembled him, and that we both wished for our father’s death.
The second character from the novel that completely captivated me was Alexei Fyodorovich (Ivan’s younger brother), the quiet, meek hero of the novel. For most of the novel, he would remain silent, listening to the confessions of other characters, accepting everything he heard and offering them love. Of all three brothers, he was the most joyful and the most happy. He did not succumb to violence and remained chaste and pure. All loved and cared for him like a son or a brother, and many in the novel would profess their love and affection for him, from holy men to kept women. In Alexei, I did not yet see myself—but I saw that he was the child I had lost to my father’s abuse, and that if I allowed it of myself, I could achieve his level of happiness and human connection.
After years of abuse, I began to realize that if I didn’t escape my family I would die by suicide. For so long, I had allowed my family to define who I was—the freak, the trouble-maker, the manipulator, the mental case. They found my blindness, my bipolar disorder, my bisexuality, my gender, my mixed race status deeply shameful and a secret I must keep from the world. At twenty six, I had defected from my family to live entirely independently.
In this transitional time I reread The Brothers Karamazov for guidance. Within its pages, I discovered who I was to become: Alexei, the youngest son and the most joyful, who for his whole life remembered the love of his deceased mother and thus was sustained through a difficult childhood. His simplicity of spirit, his humbleness, his kindness and truth telling reflected back to me my core self that had been hidden for so long. Following Alexei’s lead, I vowed to become a calming presence in people’s lives, someone who never judged but reflected back the beauty of the world. My whole life I have felt inhuman, an alien amongst the crowd, a museum object to be stared at but never touched. After reading The Brothers Karamazov, I realized that I am human: that I can touch others and be touched in return, that I am like everyone else—a human being capable of love.