What is a father? A biological relation? A familial position? A role? One of the themes in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov is the effect of a reprobate father on his sons. It involves treachery, murder, lust, betrayal, loyalty, compassion, and sorrow to name a few.
This theme culminates at the end of the story in the closing arguments of the lawyer for Dmitri Karamazov, who is on trial for the murder of his father. This lawyer separates the biological father from the traditional role of father and beseeches the jury to recognize the difference between the two. The consequence of convicting Dmitri for the murder of Fyodor as his father are what is at stake. He argues that to convict Dmitri for this murder is to isolate him and condemn him to eternal damnation. It is a confirmation to himself that he is evil and that those convicting him are evil. He is evil for killing his father and the judge, jury, and prosecution is evil for forcing him to acknowledge that Fyodor was his father.
Fyodor was a cruel, selfish, petty, and malicious man who thought only of himself and his lusts. He cared nothing for his children and stole the little amount of money that was their inheritance from their mothers (the three boys were half siblings). In the end, the jury convicts him of the murder of his father and in so doing, Dostoevsky leaves a chilling thought in the air that the role of father is convicted along with him. What will become of fathers?
I think time has come to answer that question and the result is not favourable. Men who beget children have lost much of what it means to be a father in the century since Dostoevsky asked the question.
If Fyodor was cruel, selfish, and petty, then what should a father be and why should a father act in that manner? To start, could we say a father should be the opposite of Fyodor, which would be caring, selfless, and honourable? The second question is “why” a father should act a certain way.
Dostoevsky’s way of answering that question was through his detailed story that followed that lives of these three boys, each with unique personalities, ambitions, and outcomes. Dmitri was the headstrong soldier whose undisciplined life led to his downfall. Ivan was the smart, educated intellectual who scorned his father and God. His intellectual pursuits, sorrow, and scorn for God led him to lose his mind in the end. Only the innocent monk Alyosha comes out in the end and avoids the disaster of a reprobate father. In the end, it is not strength or intelligence that overcomes, but strength of spirit.
Alyosha has learned to love other people under the tutelage of the Orthodox monks he had been living with. If the role of father will survive and overcome selfishness, then we as people seeking to live together, with strong and healthy familial relationships, must learn to love, and I would add, learn to love from Jesus Christ.
Just before his death, Jesus knelt in a garden overlooking Jerusalem and asked God that if there was any way possible that he would not have to die on the cross. His desire nevertheless was not his will, but God’s will that would be done.
This relationship of son to father is the perfect model for us. Not in that God caused his son to suffer terribly, but in that they shared a perfect love that overcame even the most disastrous life events through not strength
nor intelligence, but spirit.