Your Favorite Passages, From Dostoevsky to Animorphs

Fyodor Dostoevsky's notes for a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. (Wikimedia)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, I invited readers to send in the literary passages that most spoke to them and shaped them. Here’s Jen, with a passage from Dostoevsky:

I first read The Brothers Karamazov when I was 17, on a rocky family vacation. At first, it was a melodramatic Russian escape from my fighting parents’ slow-ending marriage. But then I got to the chapter “Rebellion.” I couldn’t look away from the page. It was my teenage introduction to the existential unfairness of the world. It was heartbreaking and exhilarating, depressing and empowering. Even now when I read it, my heart beats faster as Ivan breathlessly works his way up to his declaration. He feels as real to me as the impossible dilemma with which he struggles.

It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to “dear, kind God”! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.

Adam Bielka wrestled with similar questions after reading a very different text, The Answer by K.A. Applegate:

In the ending of the Animorphs series, the titular child superheroes manage to take control of the mothership of the Yeerks—a race of alien parasites intent on enslaving all of humanity, and the Animorphs’ main antagonists. At this moment the Animorphs’ leader, Jake, considers whether to massacre the Yeerks aboard by flushing them into space.

Seventeen thousand. Living creatures. Thinking creatures. How could I give this order? Even for victory. Even to save Rachel. How could I give this kind of order?

They could have stayed home, I thought. No one had asked them to come to Earth. Not my fault. Not my fault, theirs. No more than they deserved. Aliens. Parasites. Subhuman.

“Flush them,” I said.

Having spent over fifty books watching the noble Animorphs fight the Yeerks, I had internalized a deep hatred for them. At the time I first read this, I full-heartedly agreed with the decision to massacre them, despite the fact they posed no longer posed a threat. Later, after some reflection, both Jake and I reconsidered the moral stakes, and regretted the moment’s extreme vitriol.

This passage stuck with me because it pointed to a dark part of my own soul. It was a jarring picture of how noble causes can turn horrible so quickly, and how easy it was to internalize hate and dehumanize enemies. An important lesson, and one that really shattered my confidence that I was an inherently good person.

I remember Animorphs as a staple of my middle-school-library shelves, which makes me think of another turn our literary-passage series could take: Can you recall a children’s book or young adult novel in particular that shaped your views growing up? If so, let us know. Emma has one:

In high school, I discovered Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I still maintain that it was the best discovery of my life.

It’s about angsty teens in Pittsburgh (my hometown) trying to make sense of their surroundings, friends, family, and themselves as they plan for high school graduation and college. It fit me almost too well. As a bored, middle-class suburban kid, I always wanted to get out of this town and pursue my own life outside of the social constraints of my high school and the family obligations at home. I always felt tied down and held back, never able to fully break away from the rut I was in growing up.

There’s a passage that struck me like lightning when I read it:

So I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.

This was magic to me as a 16-year-old. It very simply told me that no, I can’t change where I’ve been and who I’ve been in the past, but I can change myself going forward, and I don’t have to feel guilty about it. We all have our pasts, but we are the captains of our futures, and that is so powerful to hear as a kid stuck in the suburbs.

Lastly, here’s Sarah Dorger, with a passage by Aldous Huxley:

I had to read Brave New World in my senior-year literature class in high school (Thanks, Mrs. McFarlan!). I remember being interested in it and enjoying it because I’d always liked the exploratory nature of science fiction, but it wasn’t sticking as something that was particularly meaningful until I’d nearly reached the end. Then, in chapter 17:

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

I still can’t describe the emotion that this passage induces. It still makes me feel like someone’s taken my bones out of me. What really sticks with me isn’t even necessarily what’s being said; what sticks with me is that silence. That still, held-breath, precipice-standing, heavy Silence as John the Savage considers the weight of walking away from bliss and convenience, and then, with paradise right at his feet: “I claim them all.”

I could write about the significance of this moment academically; I could talk about the meaning in the choice to accept life’s lows as part of the beauty of the human experience; but I don’t want to. I don’t want to approach this with detachment, I just want to feel it. And I have felt it; I can’t get it out of my head. I've thought about it for years. It’s become such a bone-deep part of my understanding of the world that I couldn’t imagine forgetting it.

If you’ve got a passage you can’t forget, please send it our way: