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The Brothers Karamazov: Background information when reading The Family Chao

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The Family Chao

A Novel

by Lan Samantha Chang

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang X
The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2022, 320 pages

    Aug 2022, 320 pages


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The Brothers Karamazov

This article relates to The Family Chao

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The Brothers Karamazov book coverThe Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang is a modern reimagining of the novel The Brothers Karamazov (1879) by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). The plot of Dostoevsky's book centers around a family of three brothers — Dmitri, Ivan and Alexei (aka Alyosha) — and the murder of their father, Fyodor Karamazov. As Dmitri and his father have been in conflict over Dmitri's inheritance and their mutual attraction to the same woman, he becomes the prime suspect in the crime, and the end of the novel features his trial.

Each of the brothers represents an archetype: Dmitri is a hedonist ruled by emotion; Ivan is an intellectual; and Alexei is a deeply pious Christian, committed to living an ascetic lifestyle in a monastery. Through these characters' interactions with one another, Dostoevsky explores some of the paradoxes of Christian belief. Ivan, for instance, wonders if there is any reason to live a moral life if there is no God and no heavenly reward. Alexei has a crisis of faith, but in the end believes firmly that human behavior matters regardless of God's existence — that people have an obligation to treat one another with care and kindness. Dostoevsky was a devout follower of Russian Orthodoxy, but was plagued by doubts about the existence of God, particularly later in his life.

Like Dostoevsky's other most famous work, Crime and Punishment (1866), The Brothers Karamazov revolves around questions of morality posed by a criminal act and the related prospect of punishment by the state. During his youth, Dostoevsky associated with liberal socialists and was almost executed for his involvement in the public reading of a literary work that was critical of a writer favored by the tsarist government. Just as The Brothers Karamazov questions the authority of God, it also questions the state. Secondary characters like Ilyushechka and his father live in appalling conditions of poverty meant to draw attention to the challenges of everyday life for ordinary Russian people under the Romanovs.

The Brothers Karamazov was not particularly well-received by critics when it was published. The Spectator wrote "the most carefully composed of [Dostoyevsky's] novels, the constructions seems often to collapse entirely; there are the strangest digressions and the most curious prolixities." Nevertheless, it is considered by many to be one of the best novels ever written, and numerous authors have cited it as an inspiration or favorite, from Haruki Murakami to William Faulkner. Walker Percy called it "maybe the greatest novel of all time." Sigmund Freud agreed, declaring that The Brothers Karamazov was "the most magnificent novel ever written." In a 2009 essay for The Millions, Lan Samantha Chang mentioned she was reading the book for the fourth time, and explained her fascination: "This book is so long, and contains such startling characters, and explores its message in so many ways, that I don't seem to be able to hold all of it in my head at the same time. So each time I reread it I actually do feel I'm rediscovering it, and each time I'm in awe of the work."

The novel has been adapted for both the large and small screen, with the quintessential version being the 1958 film starring Yul Brenner as Dmitri and William Shatner as Alexei Karamazov. Lee J. Cobb was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance as Fyodor Karamazov, and director Richard Brooks was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, among other awards.

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This "beyond the book article" relates to The Family Chao. It originally ran in February 2022 and has been updated for the August 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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