Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The plot of The Brothers Karamazov revolves around the murder of Fyodor Karamazov, a grasping Russian landowner with three legitimate children—Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. Each son has a dominant personality trait: Dmitri possesses broad passions, Ivan is a cool intellectual, and Alyosha has a spiritual orientation. Another member of the Karamazov household, a servant named Pavel Smerdyakov, is rumored to be Fyodor’s illegitimate son, and he emanates corrosive malevolence.
As the novel opens, Fyodor and Dmitri are in competition for the affections of a young woman named Grushenka. Although Dmitri is betrothed to Katerina Ivanovna, a proud woman of the gentry, he has fallen madly in love with Grushenka, but Grushenka keeps both Dmitri and Fyodor at a distance because she has hopes of a reunion with her first lover, a Pole who abandoned her years earlier. Discovering that Grushenka has unexpectedly left home one evening, Dmitri suspects that she has gone to Fyodor’s house. Frenzied, he snatches up a pestle and rushes off to his father’s house. Catching sight of him in an open window, Dmitri feels such revulsion that he is on the verge of striking him, but, at the last moment, he restrains himself. Running away from the house, Dmitri is seized by his father’s servant Grigory. Dmitri hits Grigory with the pestle and, believing him to be dead, leaves him behind.
Dmitri learns that Grushenka has gone to an inn in a nearby town to meet her former lover. Dmitri follows her there, planning to see her one more time before he kills himself. Once there, however, he realizes that Grushenka has become disenchanted with the Pole, and she and Dmitri declare their love for each other. Dmitri is torn between joy over his newfound love with Grushenka and grief over the thought that he has killed Grigory. The police arrive and charge Dmitri with murder, not of Grigory but of Fyodor. Grigory’s wound was not fatal, but Fyodor was found brutally murdered. Dmitri is interrogated at length and then is allowed to sleep briefly. He has a vivid dream featuring a mother with a suffering child, and he feels a deep determination to help. He awakens with a new sense of resolve. He declares that he is ready to accept...
(The entire section is 910 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Like Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov revolves around a murder. Fyodor Karamazov, a corrupt provincial landowner and businessman, has fathered four sons: Dmitri, an army officer, by his first wife; Ivan, a teacher and scholar, by his second wife; Alyosha, a monk in training, also by his second wife; and Smerdyakov, an epileptic servant in his household and his illegitimate child by a retarded local girl. Fyodor is murdered by Smerdyakov, but Dmitri’s freewheeling anger and violence make him the suspect. After his arrest, a spectacular trial is held. The prosecution builds a solid case, and Dmitri is found guilty and sent to Siberia. Ivan learns that Smerdyakov is the real murderer, but, since nothing can be proved, Dmitri must suffer the consequences of the deed to the end. Ivan has a nervous breakdown, Smerdyakov commits suicide, and Alyosha goes to Siberia to offer what comfort he can to his brother.
The four brothers are symbolic of the basic causes of human spiritual isolation. Dmitri is a deeply sensual person, constantly involved in physical pleasures such as drink, sexual seduction, and material comfort; yet he is aware that his physical excesses are a grave weakness. Ivan is a self-aware intellectual whose arrogance isolates him from meaningful contact with common people. Alyosha has a narrow catechistic faith that imprisons him within the walls of religious naïveté. Smerdyakov represents the distorted drives of the classic passive manipulator. Gross sensuality, proud intellectualism, narrow religiosity, and scapegoating irresponsibility infect the entire series of relationships, not only between the brothers but also between them and the other characters, as well. The weaknesses of the brothers are projected as the fourfold nature of fallen humankind, the representation of spiritual failure and the legacy of Original Sin.
It is in the episode called “The Grand Inquisitor” that Dostoevski’s philosophy of sin and...
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In the middle of the nineteenth century in Skotoprigonyevski, a town in the Russian provinces, Fyodor Karamazov fathers three sons, the eldest, Dmitri, by his first wife, and the other two, Ivan and Alexey, by his second. Fyodor, a good businessman but a scoundrel by nature, abandons the children after their mothers die. A family servant, Grigory, sees that they are placed in the care of relatives.
Dmitri grows up believing he will receive a legacy from his mother’s estate. He serves in the army, where he develops wild ways. Becoming a wastrel, he goes to his father and asks for the money that he believes is due him. Ivan, morose but not timid, goes from a gymnasium to a college in Moscow. Poverty forces him to teach and to contribute articles to periodicals, and he achieves modest fame when he publishes an article on the position of the ecclesiastical courts. Alexey, or Alyosha, the youngest son, a boy of a dreamy, retiring nature, enters a local monastery, where he becomes the pupil of a famous Orthodox Church elder, Zossima. When Alyosha asks his father’s permission to become a monk, Fyodor, to whom nothing is sacred, scoffs but gives his sanction.
When the brothers all reach manhood, their paths cross in the town of their birth. Dmitri returns to collect his legacy. Ivan, a professed atheist, returns home for financial reasons.
At a meeting of the father and sons at the monastery, Fyodor shames his sons by behaving like a fool in the presence of the revered Zossima. Dmitri, who arrives late, is accused by Fyodor of wanting the legacy money in order to entertain a local adventuress to whom he himself is attracted. Dmitri, who is betrothed at this time to Katerina, a colonel’s daughter whom he rescued from shame, rages at his father, saying that the old man is a great sinner and in no position to judge others. Zossima falls down before Dmitri, hitting his head on the floor, and his fall is believed to be a portent of an evil that will befall the oldest son. Realizing that the Karamazovs are sensualists, Zossima advises Alyosha to leave the monastery and go into the world at Zossima’s death. There is further dissension among the Karamazovs because of Ivan’s love for Katerina, the betrothed of Dmitri.
Marfa, the wife of Grigory, Fyodor’s faithful servant, gives birth to a deformed child. The night that Marfa’s deformed baby dies, Lizaveta, a girl of the town, also dies after giving birth to a son. The child, called Smerdyakov, is taken in by Grigory and Marfa and is accepted as a servant in the household of Fyodor, whom everyone in the district believes is the child’s true father.
Dmitri confesses his wild ways to Alyosha. He opens his heart to his brother and tells how he spent three thousand rubles of Katerina’s money in an orgy with Grushenka, a local woman of questionable character with whom he fell passionately in love. Desperate for the money to repay Katerina, Dmitri asks Alyosha to secure it for him from Fyodor.
Alyosha finds Fyodor and Ivan at the table, attended by the servant, Smerdyakov, who is an epileptic. Entering suddenly in search of Grushenka, Dmitri attacks his father. Alyosha goes to Katerina’s house, where he finds Katerina trying to bribe Grushenka into abandoning her interest in Dmitri. Grushenka, however, cannot be compromised. Upon his return to the monastery, Alyosha finds Zossima dying. He returns to Fyodor, to discover his father afraid of both Dmitri and Ivan. Ivan wants Dmitri to marry Grushenka so that he himself can marry Katerina. Fyodor wants to marry Grushenka. The father refuses to give Alyosha any money for Dmitri.
Spurned by Dmitri, Katerina dedicates her life to watching over him, although she feels a true love for Ivan. Ivan, seeing that Katerina is pledged to torture herself for life, nobly approves of her decision....
(The entire section is 1577 words.)