In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov is a complex and multifaceted character who embodies many of the qualities of a modern Greek tragic hero. Tragic heroes are characters who are doomed to suffer and fail due to their own flaws or weaknesses, and who struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that is often cruel and arbitrary.
Like some Greek tragic heroes, Ivan is a deeply philosophical and intellectual character, who is obsessed with ideas and questions about the nature of God, free will, and the meaning of life. He is constantly questioning and doubting and is willing to engage with complex and challenging ideas even when it is difficult or uncomfortable. This intellectual curiosity and bravery are admirable and make Ivan a hero in his own way.
At the same time, however, Ivan is also deeply troubled and suffering, torn by guilt and self-doubt. His quest for truth and understanding ultimately leads him down a path of despair and nihilism, as he becomes convinced that there is no meaning or purpose in the world, and that God is either non-existent or malevolent. This sense of despair and hopelessness is tragic and makes Ivan stand close to the tragic heroes of Greek myth.
We can also relate Ivan’s hero to his brother Alyosha, who is more of a spiritual hero. Both men share the same father and mother, and they both strive for purity but in very different ways. As a course at Harvard noticed, there is an important distinction that you can make in German between Reinheit and Lauterkeit. While the precise meanings of these terms can vary depending on the context in which they are used, they are often associated with ideas of purity and honesty.
Reinighet is often translated as “cleanliness” or “purity,” and refers to the state of being free from dirt, contamination, or impurities. It can be used to describe a wide range of things, including physical objects, ideas, or abstract concepts. This is the purity the Greek hero Ivan pursues, who wants to wash away all distractions and dark thoughts.
Lauterkeit, on the other hand, is often translated as “honesty” or “fairness,” and refers to the quality of being open and honest with oneself and others. It is often associated with ideas of integrity, righteousness, and moral virtue. This is the purity the spiritual hero Alyosha pursues, who instead wants to transform the darkness into something positive, and therefore he wants to join the monastery.
So, yes, heroism is present in the Brothers Karamazov, but in a multitude of ways, especially as expressed by Ivan and Alyosha.
Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay