Existentialism-Determinism Debate in The Brothers Karamazov

Existentialism-Determinism Debate

    The Brother Karamazov is a remarkable work of fiction by the literary genius, Fyodor Dosteovsky, whose work not only set the literary world ablaze back in the day, but still manages to catch the eye of literary enthusiasts to this day. Although, the Brother Karamazov is an antediluvian novel and many of its literary and philosophical aspects have been beaten to death, yet I suspect the debate mentioned in the title is still untapped.  In this write-up, I will explain briefly the meanings of free will or existentialism and fate or determinism, and then discuss them viz-a-viz some of the major characters in the novel. The present analysis will examine the extent to which the characters under consideration are influenced by determinism.

    First we will discuss succinctly the meanings of the terms existentialism and determinism. Existentialism and determinism are two contrasting philosophical doctrines that offer divergent perspectives on the fundamental nature of human existence.

    Existentialism or free will is a philosophical perspective that posits the notion of human freedom in the creation of one’s own meaning and purpose in life. Existentialist philosophy posits that individuals are not endowed with a preordained purpose, but rather must actively select their own trajectory in life. The concept of freedom entails a significant level of accountability, given that individuals bear the ultimate responsibility for their decisions and behaviours.

    Determinism or fate is a philosophical concept that posits the notion that every event is predetermined by the causes that preceded it. According to the determinist philosophy, free will is non-existent, and all occurrences are the outcome of a sequence of events that has been initiated since the inception of the universe.

    Both perspectives affect our lifestyles differently. Existentialism emphasizes self-determination and life purpose. Determinism holds that our choices are pointless because they are predetermined.

    Following an elucidation of the concepts of existentialism and determinism, we shall proceed to their application to our chosen characters. These are Alyosha, Ivan, Dmitri, and Grushenka. The rationale behind my choice of focusing on these characters, despite the significant impact of Zosima and Katya on the plot, is their conspicuousness.

    Our first character is Grushenka. She is depicted as a woman of great pride and passion, her fiery spirit igniting the hearts of men throughout the town. Her headstrong nature only added to her allure, making her an almost universal object of desire. It was this very desire that fueled much of the antagonism between Fyodor Pavlovich and Dmitri, both vying for her affections. But her past experiences explains why she is like that. She is brought to the town by Samonov after getting betrayed by her lover who abandons her. Samsonov is a clever old businessman who becomes Grushenka’s “patron”. This devastating experience makes her manipulative and teach her how to get what she wants and control her admirers. Thus, it can be stated that, she did not want to be like that as we discover later in the novel that she changes her ways, but was forced by the external factors to turn into a vixen.

    The next character in question is Dmitry. He is delineated as a short-tempered, well-built guy who has worked in the army. Moreover, he is portrayed as the outcast among the trio of siblings, namely Alyosha, Ivan, and himself. Owing to be accused of parricide, he ends up in jail. At first glance, it appears that his lifelong demeanour of frivolity and nonchalance may have contributed to his unfortunate demise. In reality, all these things happened because of his father and Grushenka. The novel portrays Dmitry’s father, Fyodor, as a confounded moron and brutally selfish individual. The individual in question exhibits a pattern of disregarding his paternal responsibilities towards his offspring, Dmitry, while engaging in frivolous and irresponsible behaviour, such as orchestrating an elopement with his second spouse, who is the mother of Ivan and Alyosha. Dmitry finds himself in the homes of others and experiences instances of child neglect. Furthermore, upon his return from years of military service, the individual seeks to claim his rightful share of property or inheritance from his father, only to be deceived once again. Consequently, he harbours a longstanding resentment towards his paternal figure. Moreover, the love of his life, Grushenka, entraps both him and his father. Thus along with a grudge, a vicious feeling of jealousy too aroused in Dmitry against his father. Thus, the argument I wish to posit is that while the individual in question may not have possessed inherently negative qualities, it was the influence of his surrounding environment or, more specifically, external circumstances that compelled him to develop in a reprehensible manner.

    Following Dmitry, we will talk about Ivan. He has an intellectual and erudite outlook. He is a person who is logical and objective. He cannot be convinced through spiritual or nontangible factors. In one of the encounters of his with Alyosha in the tavern, he narrates him a story of a criminal, called Richard, which tells a lot about his deterministic mindset. He narrates that this Richard was someone’s illegitimate child who gives him away to a shepherd. This shepherd treats him like cattle: no upbringing; he steals food from the domesticated pigs. When he grows up, he steals from other people, and once while doing that he kills a man. He gets executed for this murder. Through this precedent, he wants to prove to Alyosha, how one’s surroundings shape one’s personality, and then one is driven by that one’s whole life.

    After Ivan, comes the most important character, Alyosha, who happens to be the author’s hero. He is a meek fellow who looks up to his elder, father Zosima immensely, who tells him that he will someday leave the monastery and go out in the world (a manifestation of determinism). Following the passing of Father Zosima, whom Alyosha holds in high esteem, his body undergoes the natural process of decomposition. Alyosha and many other members of the monastic community believe that he, Zosima, was not a common man, rather he was spiritual and he may not experience this mark of mortality, at least not so early. It is noteworthy that his body commenced the process of decomposition at an early stage, a development that was novel and worrisome. This phenomenon prompts individuals to raise inquiries regarding the untaintedness and devoutness of the departed. This makes Alyosha very disappointed on the grounds that God was unfair to his man by embarrassing him in front of everyone. Owing to this reason, he goes to Grushenka’s along with Rakitin, where he is about to drink and fully convinced to leave his old spiritual ways. Only then, Grushenka utters something which I will not elaborate here as it is not important to know, but the point is that utterance moves Alyosha immensely and he goes back to the church. He experiences a renewed sense of spiritual vitality within himself.

    This incident hints at determinism quite cogently. Alyosha was compelled to go astray because of an external factor and then redeemed by an external factor. Furthermore, the father had already prognosticated that he, Alyosha, will someday leave the monastery, which really happens later on after his demise.

    Suffice to say, the novel The Brothers Karamazov revolves around the debate of determinism and existentialism. Furthermore, when the one of the characters, in the novel, say that sensualism at the root of all Karamazovs, the author is making determinism to be the central theme of the novel. This attitude is well-manifested through the characters as we discussed in the context of Grushenka, Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha.

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