This summer I read through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky is one of my favorite authors, and this is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s a classic for a reason: in this book there meets together beauty and ugliness, grandeur and the mundane, good and evil, death and life, suffering and salvation. It functions as a compelling apologetic for the Christian faith in a secular age.
I wanted to share seventeen memorable quotes from the book. There are massive limits to what I’m doing here. It’s a novel, after all. These brief excerpts cannot capture the impact of a whole chapter or section or how masterfully Dostoevsky develops a theme, image, or character through the whole book.
Nevertheless, there are lots of great quotes to be found. Here are seventeen that stood out to me:
“Fyodor Pavlovich was drunk when he learned of his wife’s death, and the story goes that he ran down the street, lifting his hands to the sky and joyfully shouting, ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ Others say that he wept and sobbed like a little child, so much so that they say he was pitiful to see, however repulsive they found him. Both versions may very well be true—that is, that he rejoiced at his release and wept for her who released him, all at the same time. In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we” (9)
“A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea—he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility” (44).
“Consider, what contempt can there be if we ourselves are just the same as he is, if everyone is just the same as he is? Because we are just the same, not better. And even if we were better, we would still be the same in his place . . . I don’t know about you, Lise, but for myself I consider that my soul is petty in many ways. And his is not petty, on the contrary, it is very sensitive . . . No, Lise, there is no contempt for him! You know, Lise, my elder said once that most people need to be looked after like children, and some like the sick in hospitals . . .” (217).
“A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it” (319).
“Oh, of course, in the monastery he believed absolutely in miracles, but in my opinion miracles will never confound a realist. It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith. A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his realism, he must also allow for miracles” (26).
“I looked at this one for three or five seconds, then, with terrible hatred—the kind of hatred that is only a hair’s breadth from love, the maddest love!” (114).
(Dostoevsky often likes to call attention to the natural silliness and quirks of human behavior, as in the following quote:) “Suddenly he felt so well. He tried to strike up a conversation with the coachman, and found something in the peasant’s reply terribly interesting, but a moment later he realized that it had all flown over his head and, in fact, he had not understood what the peasant had replied. He fell silent; it was good just as it was: clean, fresh, cool air; a clear sky” (279–80).
“‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me'” (57).
“And I’m tormented by God. Tormented only by that. What if he doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin is right, that it’s an artificial idea of mankind? So then, if he doesn’t exist, man is chief of the earth, of the universe. Splendid! Only how is he going to be virtuous without God? A good question! I keep thinking about it. Because whom will he love then—man, I mean? To whom will he be thankful, to whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says it’s possible to love mankind even without God. Well, only a snotty little shrimp can affirm such a thing, but I can’t understand it. Life is simple for Rakitin: ‘You’d do better to worry about extending man’s civil rights,’ he told me today, ‘or at least about not letting the price of beef go up; you’d render your love for mankind more simply and directly that way than with any philosophies.’ But I came back at him: ‘And without God,’ I said, ‘you’ll hike up the price of beef yourself, if the chance comes your way, and make a rouble on every kopeck.’ He got angry. Because what is virtue?—answer me that, Alexei. I have one virtue and a Chinese has another—so it’s a relative thing. Or not? Not relative? Insidious question! You mustn’t laugh if I tell you that I didn’t sleep for two nights because of it. I just keep wondering how people can live and think nothing about these things” (593).
“We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves” (313–14).
“Selfishness, however, prevented me from offering her my hand at the time: it seemed a hard and fearful thing to part with the temptations of a depraved and free bachelor’s life at such an early age, and with money in my pocket besides” (296).
“These, following science, want to make a just order for themselves by reason alone, but without Christ now, not as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, there is no sin. And in their own terms, that is correct: for if you have no God, what crime is there to speak of?… Verily, there is more dreamy fantasy in them than in us. They hope to make a just order for themselves, but, having rejected Christ, they will end by drenching the earth with blood, for blood calls to blood, and he who draws the sword will perish by the sword” (318).
“Until now neither their wisdom nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create another, higher image of man and his dignity than the image shown of old by Christ. And whatever their attempts, the results have only been monstrosities” (171).
“‘One loves for some reason, and what has either of you done for me?’
‘You should love for no reason, like Alyosha’” (353).
“There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love? Only take care that you repent without ceasing, and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it; even with your sin and in your sin he loves you” (52).
“‘And do you see our Sun, do you see him?’
‘I’m afraid … I don’t dare to look,’ whispered Alyosha.
‘Do not be afraid of him. Awful is his greatness before us, terrible is his loftiness, yet he is boundlessly merciful, he became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests, now and unto ages of ages. See, they are bringing the new wine, the vessels are being brought in …’
Something burned in Alyosha’s heart, something suddenly filled him almost painfully, tears of rapture nearly burst from his soul … He stretched out his hands, gave a short cry, and woke up” (362).
Finally, the verse that Dostoevsky puts on the dedication page at the start of the book:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).