The father of the four young men in The Brothers Karamazov is one of the most convincingly loathsome of all literary villains. “He was sentimental,” says the author. “He was evil and sentimental.” Fyodor Karamazov is a man whose evil lies as much in his capriciousness as in any premeditated wickedness.
Fyodor is a congenital liar of the sort so brazen that one is almost taken in by his audacity. We see his dishonesty at work in the comical interview that he has with Father Zossima very early in the story. (Dostoyevsky is superb at bringing out the absurd even in his darkest tales.) At one point the old libertine makes up an implausible anecdote about the French atheist Diderot, claiming he converted to Christianity while visiting a holy man in Russia. The lie is quickly discovered and the insincere Fyodor begins to grovel in mock penitence. In a poor imitation of the rich young man in the gospels he asks: “What must I do to gain eternal life?” To which the perceptive Zossima answers: “Don’t give way to drunkenness and incontinence of speech…. And, above all—don’t lie.” Karamazov idiotically asks if that means he shouldn’t lie about Diderot, to which the priest retorts, with a hint of humorous annoyance, “No, not about Diderot. Above all, don’t lie to yourself.”
Not surprisingly, Karamazov proves incapable of taking such advice. He has spent so much time lying that can no longer distinguish between the real world and what he has made up. He is a consumate actor who lives for each scene and enjoys “making scenes,” even at his own expense. As Zossima warns him
having no respect [the liar] ceases to love. And in order to distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures and sinks to bestiality in his vices—all this from continual lying to other men and to himself.
Lies have a cumulative effect. In the Karamazov family they end in tragedy, just as the deceptions of the original Father of Lies magnified themselves over time to afflict all humanity. While the sons are not fatalistically doomed to repeat the lies of the father, they are inclined to follow his example. Even the best of the them pays a price just as we must pay for the transgressions of our First Parents. If there is any lesson here it is that there is no such thing as a “private sin.”
Let me add that there are few writers as fascinating (or as challenging) for a Christian reader as Dostoyevsky. Even when one doesn’t agree with him, it is hard to dismiss him.