On the Emotions

by brianpetry on

The book “The Brothers Karamazov” is a deep psychological and philosophical novel.  There are many important themes in this book, including faith and doubt, free-will, moral responsibility, justice, and redemption through suffering.  However, only one theme really affected me, the theme of how we ought to deal with our emotions.

Dostoevsky attempts to teach us a few things about how we should interact with our emotions.  He does this by first teaching us the different ways that we can interact with our emotions.  Then he teaches us how each of the interactions with our emotions will affect our lives.  He does this by acknowledging that we are rational animals.  That is that we are both emotional and intellectual beings.

Dostoevsky uses four main characters; each character represents a way to deal with our emotions.  The first is the father, Fyodor, he allows himself to be completely enslaved to his emotions.  Then there is his first son, Dmitri, who is constantly battling between his emotions and rational, and usually his passions get the best of him.  Then there is Ivan, the intellect, who avoids his emotions and focuses solely on rationalizing everything.  Then there is the hero of the story, Alexei, who accepts his emotions and his rational and creates a healthy balance of the two.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov was the father of the Karamazov brothers.  He was first married to a woman by the name of Adelaida Ivanovna Miusov, and she gave birth to their first son.  Shortly after their son turned three, she left Fyodor and ran off with a seminarian to Petersburg where she died of either starvation or typhus. Fyodor married a second time to Sofia Ivanovna, who was the daughter of a deacon and became orphaned very young.  Fyodor was attracted to her innocence and she was looking for an escape from her benefactress. Fyodor did not give Sofia the basic respects of marriage, as he continued his debauchery especially in regards to alcohol and sex, as he often held orgies in their house.  Sofia bore two children, Ivan and Alexei, but developed a disorder that lead to her death only eight years after she married Fyodor.  Fyodor was an absent father, who abandons all three of his children, by sending them off with relatives.  He died by the hands of his illegitimate son, Smerdyakov.

Fyodor represents living for nothing more than satisfying the passions.  This is made clear throughout his life.  A very clear example of this that Fyodor was constantly fighting with his son, Dmitri over a woman named Grushenka.[1]  This shows the type of man that Fyodor was and that he put his passions above even his own son.  Fyodor went to Father Zosima to try to settle this dispute between himself and his son, Dmitri, and at the meeting Fyodor acted like a buffoon as he usually did.  Father Zosima told Fyodor to stop lying to himself because by lying himself he gives himself “up to his passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality.”[2]  During the trial for Fyodor’s murder, the prosecutor described Fyodor as a man that “saw nothing in life but sensual pleasure.”[3]  I conclude that Dostoevsky was trying to paint a picture that Fyodor lived for nothing other than to please his emotions.

Many problems are presented in this book with living merely to please your emotions.  One problem is in constantly living to please your emotions it is impossible to hold a real relationship with anyone.  This is shown symbolically through losing both of his wives, as well as more blatantly through his sons who all but Alexei have contempt for their father and all wished that he was dead.  He becomes enslaved to his passions, which prevent him from being free or living a life of meaning.  He always wishes that he could live a more meaningful life, and that he would not be doomed to hell, but almost against his will he cannot change.  The biggest problem associated with living to please the passions are that they leave you so vulnerable.  This is evident by his murder, that he had made himself vulnerable and was just living like an animal waiting to one day be slaughtered.

Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov

Dmitri was Fyodor’s first-born son.  He was born of Fyodor’s first wife, Adelaida Ivanovna Miusov.  When his mother left, he was neglected by his father and was raised by the household servant Grigory Kutuzov Vasilievich.  After his mother died, Pyotr Alexandrovitch Miusov, a cousin of Dmitri’s mother, took him away.   Soon after taking Dmitri in, Pyotr moved back to Paris and sent Dmitri to live with his cousin, a Moscow woman, because Pyotr wanted to be a part of the February Revolution.  The Moscow woman died shortly after and Dmitri was sent to live with one of her daughters.  He never finished his education and joined the military.  Since he was born of Adelaida, a wealthy heiress, he was the only one of his brothers who felt entitled to an inheritance and this caused many arguments between him and his father.

Dmitri is depicted as always being at war with himself, especially towards his emotions.  In The Brothers Karamazov, the way the brothers interact with their father also symbolically shows how they interact with their emotions.  Since Dmitri was always arguing with Fyodor, we can see that that is how he also interacts with his emotions.  This is shown when he Father Zosima bows to him after he exclaims that a man as his father ought to not exist.[4]  His passions are telling him that he should kill his father, and he really wants to but he is never capable of actually doing it.  More evidence that he is at war with his passions is evident when he confesses to Alexei that he had tried to seduce Katerina to sleep with him by offering her money to save her father’s life.[5]  After she arrives, he cannot follow through with his plan, and he lets her go but takes out his sword in an attempt to kill himself.  This shows that his passions are trying to get a hold of him, but that he is fighting them.  He also shows that his passions do get the best of him, even when he is fighting his passions.  This is evident when he falls in love with Grushenka even though he is engaged to Katerina.[6]  He steals three thousand rubles from Katerina in order to seduce Grushenka, and he knows that this is wrong.  He is embarrassed to admit what he has down because he wants to live a more virtuous life, but his passions are too strong for him to control.

One will encounter many problems if they live their life constantly fighting their emotions.  One problem is that their passions are generally strong and it is difficult to win in a fight against ones passions.  Just as living your life merely to satisfy your emotions, fighting with your passions tends to cause a lot of damage to relationships.  This is because we do not have control over ourselves and this makes it difficult to hold a relationship with someone else.  Another problem is that we are constantly putting ourselves on trial, as Dmitri was literally put on trial; we put ourselves on trial figuratively.  We will always be disappointed in what we have done and what we become, because we wanted to fight our passions but lost to them, and even if we do not lose to them, we are still judging ourselves for having those passions to begin with.   Father Zosima bowed to Dmitri, because he saw that Dmitri’s life would be full of suffering and pain as long as he was at war with his emotions.

Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov

Ivan Fyodorovich was the first born of Fyodor’s second marriage to Sofia Ivanovna.  When he was eight years old, his mother died and Madame Vorokhov, the previous benefactress of his mother, took him.  Not long after this, Madame Vorokhov passed away and Yefim Petrovich Polenov raised him.  Ivan grew up always “gloomy and withdrawn.”[7]  He was abnormally intelligent and grew to be very prideful.  He was always aware that he was living off someone else’s charity and he resented that.  He put himself through college by at first teaching, and later by writing newspaper articles.  He gained a lot of fame from the articles that he would write, especially an article about the ecclesiastic courts, which had some irony to it considering that he was an atheist.  He did not live a life of sensuality, as someone once said, “He doesn’t like drinking and debauchery.”

Ivan attempted to suppress his passions and tried to rely completely on rationalizing everything.  We can see this with the way he acted towards his father, Fyodor.   He had contempt for his father and was disgusted with his way of life.  However, we can see with his interactions that he did control his passions.  It was said that he “had a notable influence over the old man; the latter almost began to listen to him occasionally, though he was extremely and at times spitefully willful; he began sometimes to behave more decently.”[8]  His father later confesses to Alexei that he fears Ivan more than he fears Dmitri.

It appeared to me that Ivan was probably the best of the brothers because he helped to “tame” his father.  Then I realized that it was not even remotely true, there are so many complications that come about through interacting with the emotions in this way.  One serious issue is it does not allow relationships to form.  Even as a child, he could not feel free to accept help from his benefactor, because he was pushing his emotions aside.  Even more importantly, he never developed a relationship with God, because without emotions and passions we cannot have any relationship at all.  He tried so hard to come to terms with God, but he could not because he was pathetically trying to create a relationship through logic.  However, the biggest flaw with interacting with emotions in this way is that it is unhealthy for your mental health.  This is made evident when Ivan hallucinates and sees the devil, who mocks Ivan for his beliefs and in court when he is testifying and becomes almost hysterical and his testimony becomes discredited.

Alexei Karamazov

Alexei was the second born son of Fyodor’s second wife Sofia Ivanovna.  He was raised with his brother Ivan.  His mother died when he was four, and he had memories of his mother holding him up to an icon of the Mother of God.  Everyone always loved him.  When he was young living with Yefim Petrovich Polenov, he was taken in as one of the family.  It was said that he was “the only man in the world who, were you to leave him alone and without money on the square of some unknown city with a population of a million, would not perish, would not die of hunger, for he would immediately be fed and immediately be taken care of.”[9]   He never finished school and joined the seminary where Father Zosima counseled him.

Alexei has a healthy balance between being rational and emotional.  He reflects this in his relationship with his father.  He is the only brother who shows no contempt for his father, which is a symbol of passions.  This means that he does not fight with his emotions, but rather he allows himself to experience the emotions without allowing them to control his life.  There are a few examples in the story, such as when Father Zosima dies and his body starts to corrupt, Alexei feels the emotion, he does not fight it, or ignore it, he takes it on headfirst and he feels the emotions.  Another example is when he talks to Lise about getting married.  He was not overcome by his passions as his brothers have and he does not pretend that these passions do not exist.  The greatest example of this balance of rational and emotional consciousness is when he tells Dmitri that he should escape and go to America with Grushenka.  The reason this is such a good example is that he knows that Dmitri needs to suffer in order to be redeemed but if he goes to suffer doing manual labor in Siberia, his suffering will be in vain.  You do not always have to choose the most difficult path, but rather you should the path that is good for you both emotionally and a rationally.  If Dmitri was avoiding his emotions, he would have taken the difficult path and accepted the suffering, and if he were living enslaved to his passions then he would have tried to avoid any suffering.  This choice was the best option for Dmitri, which is why I argue that it proves that Alexei had a proper integration of reason and emotion.

Dostoevsky says that this is the appropriate interaction with the emotions, because he says in the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov that Alexei was the hero of the story.  Through the balance that I shall call “wise mind”[10] Alexei is capable of creating meaningful relationships.  Many characters come up to him and confess to him all that burdens them, and he helps them heal from their pangs.



One of the main themes of the book The Brothers Karamazov is how we ought to interact with our emotions.  In the past, I have struggled with how to interact and I have been every character.  There was a time when I was like Fyodor and did not care about anything but pleasing my passions.  Then I realized that my life was losing its meaning, its value, and its purpose.  Then I became like Dmitri and I fought with my passions and I wanted to overcome my passions.  I struggled a lot and was always harshly judging others and myself.  Then I tried to eradicate my emotions and rely on just my intellect as Ivan had.  I tried every way except the right way to interact with my emotions.  I had difficulty with any kind of relationship, because of the ways that I had interacted with my emotions.  I was never truly happy or ever felt at peace with myself.  Then after a serious event in my life that put me in a very serious emotional crisis at the beginning of this quarter, I decided to go to therapy.  In therapy, I learned about “wise mind”, which is the integration of the reasonable mind and the emotional mind.  While I was reading this book, everything started to make so much sense.  Now after 9 weeks of therapy and classes on the book The Brothers Karamazov, I see what I have been doing wrong my whole life.  I need to feel my emotions and come to terms with my emotions and I need to think rationally and reconcile the two together so that I can be complete and so I can develop meaningful relationships, and more importantly to impact culture for Christ.


[1] Book 2 Chapter 6

[2] Book II Chapter 2

[3] Book XII Chapter 6

[4] Book II Chapter 6

[5] Book III Chapter 4

[6] Book III Chapter 5

[7] Book I Chapter 3

[8] Book I Chapter 3

[9] Book I Chapter 4

[10] Term used in DBT

Written by: brianpetry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *