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...
(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 entire section is 814 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1577 words.)
Part 1 Summary
The Brothers Karamazov is set over a period of two-and-a-half months in 1866, in a small Russian town near Moscow. A third-person anonymous narrator tells the story thirteen years later after the events of the novel. In Part I, the Karamazov family is introduced: Fyodor and his three sons Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. There is assumed to be a fourth son, Smerdyakov, born illegitimate.
Because their mother is dead, and Fyodor has abnegated his fatherly obligations, the sons are brought up outside the Karamazov home.
Each brother—except for Smerdyakov— appears to represent a particular human aspect: Dmitri is the sensualist (body); Ivan is the intellectual (mind); and Alyosha is the spiritual one (soul). As all three aspects struggle and balance one another in the individual, so too do these three brothers in the family. Although different, they exhibit a characteristic Karamazov trait, like their father: they are passionate, do not consider the consequences of their actions, and compulsively tell what they believe to be the truth.
Two brothers appear to escape the Karamazov destiny. Born illegitimate, Smerdyakov is rational and deceitful. Alyosha is profoundly influenced by two father-figures, in particular Father Zossima, who provides spiritual guidance.
Dmitri and Fyodor visit Father Zossima to have him settle a dispute over Dmitri's inheritance. Zossima is dying, and soon Alyosha will take over this position...
(The entire section is 261 words.)
Part 2 Summary
At first Alyosha works to reconcile the hostile factions of his family and community together, but soon he wonders: is he a monk or a Karamazov? Alyosha's dilemma dominates Part II.
Before Zossima dies, he tells his life story to Alyosha. As a youth, Zossima had been a wild young man—much like Dmitri—until he realized God's goodness and the world's beauty. After Zossima felt remorse after slapping a servant, he decided to treat everyone—servants, children, animals—with love and respect.
Perhaps the most well-known passage in the novel occurs in Part II: Ivan's philosophical essay on "The Grand Inquisitor." The poem is set in sixteenth-century Spain during the inquisition when the Church was burning heretics (non-believers) at the stake. It is an imaginary dialogue between a Grand Cardinal and Christ, which parallels the situation of Ivan speaking with Alyosha.
The Cardinal explains his cynical and pragmatic view of humanity, that all a person wants is "someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill." Because people are hungry, they will accept slavery.
Alyosha is strongly affected by both speeches, but by Ivan's in particular. He experiences a crisis of faith. At the end of Part II, Zossima dies.
(The entire section is 218 words.)
Part 3 Summary
Fyodor is murdered and the investigation begins. Dmitri becomes the prime suspect when it is revealed that he has apparently spent a large amount of Katerina's money on a party with Grushenka, precisely the same amount that Dmitri believes Fyodor owes him. Instead, Fyodor offered this money to Grushenka. Dmitri in fact saved half of the money so that he and Grushenka could leave town and begin a new life elsewhere. In everyone's eyes, Dmitri is insane with jealousy and this is assumed to be his motive for his father's murder.
One night, with Alyosha at the monastery grieving for Zossima, Ivan in Moscow, and Smerdyakov apparently fallen into an epileptic fit, Dmitri goes to his father's house looking for Grushenka. When he discovers that she left with a former lover, Dmitri strikes Fyodor's servant Gregory and leaves him for dead. He chases after Grushenka, who welcomes Dmitri's love and offer of escape. At that climactic moment the police arrive to arrest him for the murder of his father. With so much evidence against him, Dmitri's plans to escape are thwarted.
(The entire section is 181 words.)
Part 4 Summary
Part IV is set two months later. The scandal has become national news and attracts much attention. A notorious Moscow lawyer has even offered to defend Dmitri. Before the trial begins, Alyosha's maturation into a father-figure to several of the boys in town further develops, and Ivan makes his love for Katerina known.
A number of characters are sick, including Ivan, Smerdyakov, and a young boy, Ilyusha. Ilyusha's relationship with his father contrasts with that of the Karamazovs as Ilyusha and his father lovingly defend one another's honor. Ilyusha also admires the precocious Kolya, who in turn admires Alyosha; these bonds cross class and age barriers.
Smerdyakov admits to Ivan that he killed Fyodor after Dmitri left the house. Smerdyakov commits suicide. Tragically, Ivan has a mental breakdown the night before the trial begins. As a result, this new evidence is never seriously considered. The trial is filled with dramatic tension, and both the prosecutor and the defense attorney deliver convincing arguments on the guilt and innocence of Dmitri Karamazov. There is a collective sense of guilt in the courtroom. According to the narrator's sense of courtroom's reaction just prior to the verdict, Dmitri will be judged innocent. Yet the verdict is...
(The entire section is 278 words.)