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 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...
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