The Guilt of Each for Everyone: The Common Sensibility in The Brothers Karamazov, Forgiveness Vespers, and Breaking Bad

“Everyone is guilty for everyone else,” claims Dmitri Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In the same breath, he declares his innocence and need for punishment, crying to Alyosha in jail, “I didn’t kill father, but I must go [to Siberia]. I accept!” (Dostoevsky 591). When he is first arrested, Dmitri bids farewell to the gathered crowd by crying “Farewell and forgive,” having just spent his energy trying to convince the police that he is not the murderer (Dostoevsky 510). Dmitri, completely convicted of his personal guilt for the fallen state of the world, believes that he deserves all the retribution human society desires to inflict. If you accept his premise, his reasoning is logically and emotionally quite satisfying. Consider, if you lost the human race its only guarantee of happiness, if somehow you caused all the damage and misery of every adult, and every child that you know, would you not long to punish yourself, to expiate, to grasp even the chance of condemnation? Would you not leap at a chance to travel to Siberia for your deed?

        However, the problem for the reader is accepting this guilt in the first place. Though he harbors murderous anger toward Fyodor Pavlovich, Dmitri did not actually murder him. There is a difference between temptation to murder after long provocation, and actually committing a patricide. Just societies do not preemptively punish criminals, because intentions, unless confirmed and acted upon, are not the same as a crime. How can we accept Dmitri’s premise? 

        Perhaps surprisingly, Dostoevsky does not present Dmitri’s psychology as merely the fruits of a passionate and overstimulated mind. The personal sense of guilt for the world’s sin is incessant in the novel, especially in its best characters: Alyosha and Fr. Zosima. Alyosha and Ivan are both Karamazovs, and Karamazovs are by reputation, and by the father’s blood in their veins, sensualists. Alyosha’s awareness of this inclination drives him towards monastic life. Alyosha longs to have a life of penance to purge his Karamazov nature before it can severely destroy anyone around him. Fr. Zosimov is the first character within the novel to state “Everyone is guilty for everyone else” (Dostoevsky 289). He recounts these words of his dying brother, who used to beg “Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you” (Dostoevsky 289). This early memory is a seed buried in Fr. Zosimov’s soul, which later breaks through the dirty soil of worldly life to blossom into the holy man’s conception of life. “Everyone is guilty for everyone else,” presents itself to the reader again and again. But repetition does not necessarily cause conviction. Again, readers ask what in their life suggests any kind of experiential assent to personal responsibility for the guilt of society? 

        I do not have a syllogistic answer, but I do have an experiential observation. While reading The Brothers Karamazov in my senior year at Wyoming Catholic College, I had an experience that caused my assent to Dmitri’s claim. The college’s Byzantine chaplain was facing me. Fully vested, he prostrated himself, folding down into the fetal position, forehead to the tiled floor. As he arose, he asked, “Forgive me, my sister Olivia.” I also prostrated. Rising up, we clasped each others’ shoulders. While we kissed each others shoulders three times, on the right shoulder, the left shoulder, and the right again, I responded, “May God forgive us both.” I stepped to the left and the server looked me in the eye. Crossing himself, he prostrated and asked, “Forgive me, my sister Olivia.” I once again mirrored his action and responded, “May God forgive us both.” I stepped to the left in front of the next server, and the actions were repeated. This continued until I reached the end of the line. Then I joined it. I turned to face the person who was coming after me, looked him in the eye, sank down in prostration and begged, “Forgive me . . .” In the line behind me were fellow upperclassmen, underclassmen, professors, their spouses, and children. Each person present came through the line, begging and responding in turns. This was Forgiveness Sunday Vespers, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent. It was the second time I have experienced a ritual of mutual forgiveness in the Byzantine rite. Both experiences caused me and many present to shamelessly weep in the Dmitri Karamazov fashion. The Byzantine liturgical book, the Lenten Triodion, prescribes the ceremony, “The priest stands beside the analogion, and the faithful come up one by one and venerate the ikon, after which each makes a prostration before the priest . . . the priest also makes a prostration before each, saying the same words . . . after receiving the priest’s blessing, the faithful may also ask forgiveness of one another” (Lenten Triodion 183).

        Why? Because “everyone is guilty before everyone else.” This is an obvious truth repeated by the propers of the day. “Adam was banished from paradise through disobedience and cast out from delight,” is sung in the same breadth as “therefore let us make haste to accept the season of the Fast” (Lenten Triodion 169). Adam’s sin implies our guilt, just as if there is a Karamazov nature passed down in the bloodstream to all his descendants. Indeed, the propers ask us to sing a familial identity with Adam: “We have sinned against thee, Christ our King” (Lenten Triodion 181). Our guilt comes from belonging to the same race. Most shocking of all, however, the first Stichera of Matins sound as if I am Adam: “The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth and formed me into a living creature . . . In my wretchedness I have cast off the robe woven by God, disobeying Thy divine command” (Lenten Triodion 169). If I am Adam, I have not only disobeyed God, but somehow am responsible for the guilt of the entire human race. After contemplating the sinner responsible for all, the liturgical day concludes with the ceremony of mutual forgiveness.

        “Everyone is guilty for everyone else” is not just a quirk of Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodoxy or the Byzantine Rite’s liturgy. The 2008 series Breaking Bad suggested the same thesis in its very first episode. High School Chemistry teacher Walter White is first presented as a product of loneliness and failure. The show begins by focusing on the influence of his immediate circle. None of the characters surrounding Walter are at all accessible to him, and so none of them can be morally influential. His brother-in-law, condescendingly offers the toast, “Walter, you have the brain the size of Wisconsin, but we love you anyway.” His wife of many years is stroking him in bed on his birthday, but mentally she’s more interested in an Ebay bid. Walter has no friends or co-workers who know him well enough to notice when he collapses from coughing at his car-wash job. He is alone, figuratively and literally, when he faces the doctor who informs him he is dying of lung cancer. It is this incredible loneliness and lack of respect that makes Walter’s dabble in the drug world possible. In the drug world, his “knowledge is power,” and both Jessie and Crazy Eight tell him he is an “artist.” 

As the show develops, Walter is presented as a free-agent of his sin when he consciously chooses to create and sell meth, breaking the law and committing murder in the process. Indeed, his colossal pride and shame are more and more fully revealed as the drive in his moral descent. But at first, the presentation of Walter’s loneliness suggests a haunting “what if?”. Perhaps if his wife or his brother-in-law or even a coworker had given love, actual respect, or even more attention to Walter, he would not have been cleaning up his victim’s guts from a kitchen floor.        

“Everyone is guilty for everyone else,” is a mysterious truth, but a truth nonetheless. Whether in ancient liturgical customs or modern story telling, it appears as a human reality. There is something communal and personal about the sin of our nations and neighborhoods.

I do not mean to cause any sense of despairing guilt. Rather, accepting that “Everyone is guilty for everyone else” is the first necessary step to adopting the Karamazov desire for atonement. You need this desire to atone for how you “in [your] wretchedness have cast off the robe woven by God.” We all need this desire. Therefore, we must learn to sing from our hearts the propers of Forgiveness Sunday: “When I think of my works, deserving every punishment, I despair of myself, O Lord. For see, I have despised Thy precious commandments and wasted my life as the Prodigal. Therefore, I entreat Thee: cleanse me in the waters of repentance, and through prayer and fasting make me shine with light, for Thou alone art merciful; abhor me not, O Benefactor of all, supreme in love” (Lenten Triodion 181). 



“Pilot.” Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, season 1, episode 1, High Bridge Productions, 2008.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2002.  

The Lenten Triodion. Translated by Mother Mary of the Monastery of the Veil of the Mother of God, Faber and Faber Limited 1977.

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