Everything is permitted

16 December 2010 § Leave a comment

It struck me again, this evening, reading Brothers Karamazov, when Smerdyakov throws back Ivan’s words at him – “Everything is permitted” – that this is one of the themes that drives everything, not just in Brothers Karamazov but everything Dostoevsky writes. Isn’t it a tempting proposition.  I can envy the way that so often in Dostoevsky’s novels, people just let rip, and do and say what they please, without hiding their emotions. Wouldn’t it be liberating to throw off the good manners and social niceties, step into a parallel Dostoevsky universe and let your passions go wild. What would you do first?

Of course, it doesn’t really work like that though. Like Raskolnikov, Smerdyakov soon discovers that actually, when it comes down it, not everything is permitted. However much they try, most people still possess a shred of goodness somewhere (I was trying to explain this to my son not long ago after we had watched Return of the Jedi). Even rejecting God doesn’t mean that you can do what you like. This is obvious to us today, when atheism abounds, but was possibly just a little more shocking in the 1880s.  However much the Karamazovs try to push to the limits the idea that everything is permitted (and they all embody it, in their own way, even Alyosha) they all run up against that elusive human quality that, in the end, keeps us all under control. It cannot be for nothing that man evolved a conscience.

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