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 responsibility for his father’s death, even though he was not the actual murderer, because he had had the intention of killing him.
While Dmitri’s experiences represent a major focus of the novel, the other brothers have important roles to play as well. Whereas Dmitri is filled with turbulent passion, Ivan is filled with skepticism and doubt. In a conversation with Alyosha, Ivan cites examples of the suffering of innocent children as the grounds for a searing attack on the idea of a beneficent God. He then narrates his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” the protagonist of which declares that humans are too weak to bear the freedom of choice that Jesus asked of them. Ivan’s Inquisitor says that he has learned that the way to bind human hearts is through miracle, mystery, and authority, as suggested in the three temptations presented to Jesus by the devil in the wilderness.
Tormented by Ivan’s diatribe, Alyosha undergoes a crisis of his own when his spiritual mentor, the monk Zosima, dies. Alyosha had hoped that the man’s saintliness would be marked by miracles after his death, but instead, the corpse began to decay and smell at an unusually rapid rate. In an echo of Ivan’s position, the grief-stricken Alyosha feels ready to reject God’s world, but an unexpected encounter with Grushenka triggers a sharp reversal. Grushenka’s compassion for...
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Alyosha’s grief leads him to a new appreciation of the instinctual goodness of people. He returns to Zosima’s cell and has a radiant vision of the resurrected monk beckoning him to a divine feast. When he awakens, he feels himself to be a new man.
Near the end of the novel, Ivan learns from Smerdyakov that Smerdyakov had murdered Fyodor, and that he had done so because of Ivan’s oft-stated conviction that without immortality, all things are permitted. After his last meeting with Smerdyakov, Ivan returns to his lodging and has a conversation with a mysterious figure who claims to be the devil, but Ivan cannot decide whether it is an authentic figure of evil or merely the product of his own fevered imagination. This shabby demon serves to mock and expose the rank cynicism of Ivan’s cherished ideas.
The next day, Ivan goes to Dmitri’s trial and makes a confession of Smerdyakov’s crime and his own complicity in it, but his words strike the public as the ravings of a deranged mind, and the jury is not swayed. Dmitri is found guilty of his father’s murder. At the end of the novel, Dmitri’s fate is uncertain: Will he accept the verdict and go to prison in Siberia, or will he escape? Ivan’s fate is also uncertain: He lies near death with brain fever. Alyosha, on the other hand, has found his calling. In the last scene of the novel, he makes a stirring speech prompted by the death of Ilyusha, a young boy whom he had befriended. Alyosha exhorts the boy’s companions, including the charismatic youth Kolya Krasotkin, to use their memories of Ilyusha to lead them to a life of goodness and mutual concern.
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 redemption is distilled. Ivan tells the story to Alyosha in order to explain why he is so troubled by his inability to grasp the essence of religion intellectually. Set in sixteenth century Spain, the narrative portrays Christ’s return to earth at a time when faith had been nearly eradicated by the Catholic Inquisition. Christ comforts the enemies of the Church, who are being burned at the stake, gives sight to the blind, weeps with those who mourn, and raises the dead. All who see Him know who He is. The Grand Inquisitor also recognizes Him and has Him arrested for performing acts contrary to the procedures of the Church. One evening, the old Inquisitor visits Christ in His vile prison in order to explain to Him why He must be burned at the stake. Christ must die, the old man insists, because His return would ruin the Church’s centuries-old attempt to save humankind. Christ committed a grave error in rejecting Satan’s three temptations in the wilderness, because those three temptations strike at the core of human weakness: Their eradication through Christ’s power would mean human freedom, something that all of history proves is the root of disaster. Had Christ’s example empowered human beings to happiness through freedom, the Church’s work would be in vain. In any case, there is no evidence that humanity can handle freedom, so the Church, out of love for all people, establishes rules and indices to enslave them. In this way, the problems created by impossible freedom can be avoided. During this explanation, Christ slowly rises to His feet and finally kisses the old man gently. Deeply moved but clinging to his doctrine, the Grand Inquisitor warns Christ never to return and then releases Him.
This episode ties together the entire novel and shows The Brothers Karamazov to be a drama of the irony of the soul’s choice. Mortality is defined by the necessity of choosing good over evil and creating freedom with those choices; yet such freedom is incompatible with human nature. Human beings might choose only the right through authority and spiritual coercion, and these motivations are the opposite of the example of Christ. The problem is that Christ Himself was perfect; that is, He embodied freedom and wanted it for all people. People, however, are not perfect and are not capable of disinterested righteousness, and that is why human beings will never choose freedom. The Grand Inquisitor’s explanation of the world’s future gives a vision of the problem: Human beings will whine and rebel until the age of reason and science brings about so much confusion and disturbance that they will begin to destroy each other. The very weakest will be left, and they will beg the Grand Inquisitor and his institutional religion to make their decisions for them. They will then be “happy” because they will be allowed no moral responsibility. The world will eventually be like a stern parent with many “happy” babies waiting to be coddled.