Bonding with literary characters is one of reading's greatest rewards. When we discover that we share common concerns or priorities with a character, or that his or her predicament exemplifies a broader truth about the human condition, it pulls us deeper into the story and provides profound satisfaction. It's uniquely edifying to uncover truths about oneself through an encounter with another, albeit fictional, personality – it's why many of us read fiction.
The experience is no less rewarding when, over the course of a novel, it becomes clear just how poorly we measure up to some noble figure. A character's heroic actions might throw our shortcomings into relief to reveal how dramatically we are lacking by comparison. In some cases their exemplary behavior may even motivate us to reform. When literature leads to self-reflection it becomes more than a frivolous pastime, it serves as a powerful vehicle for personal growth and transformation.
The Heart of a Russian Monk
No novel I've read to date has transformed me more than The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's epic tale of sin, faith and redemption. Alexei Karamavoz, the novel's twenty-year-old monk protagonist, is a model of Christ-likeness, a selfless servant caught in the midst of an absurd familial dispute who must moderate between his hot-headed siblings and profligate father. Alexei's intense desire to do good in an impossible situation is infectious, and his single-minded purity of heart ranks him among the most noble and appealing of figures I've encountered in literature.
A Philosophical Masterpiece
The novel as a whole, while widely regarded as Dostoevsky's best, is not without faults. Published in serial form prior to its completion in 1880, certain segments of the narrative strike me as disjointed and meandering, as though Dostoevsky himself was not exactly sure where the plot was taking him as he wrote it. But the philosophical and psychological pathos of the The Brothers Karamozov is extraordinary, and Dostoevsky's mastery of character is in full force throughout. Many passages radiate with intensity and deep feeling, especially those touching on matters of faith, morality and the nature of evil.
Take for instance Alexei's response to the death of his elder monk, Father Zossima. Overwhelmed by the passing of his spiritual mentor, Alexei – also referred to as Alyosha – falls to his knees under a starry night sky:
“Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever.”
His love of creation extends to all of humanity:
“He longed to forgive every one and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything.”
Time and again throughout the novel, Alexei exhibits this unconditional love and eagerness to forgive. And forgive he must, as virtually every other character in the book wrongs him in some fashion or another. Whether in dealing with his repulsive father, his debaucherous brother, licentious women or various despisers of religion, Alexei is patient, generous with his time and considerate to all. His tireless kindness is met with amazement, and the reader cannot help but admire the quality of his character.
A Call to Respond
With The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky delivers a convincing defense of Christianity, though not through an expository, discursive argument. Instead he models the essence of the Gospel, Christ Himself, in the form of a young Russian monk. It's a compelling demonstration that demands a response to what we might call the problem of beauty. How is such goodness possible, and how can I too achieve it? It's a demonstration that, for me, led to personal transformation, and which continues to impact me today.