The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Start Free Trial

Characters Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov

Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov (FYOH-dohr PAHV-loh-vihch kah-rah-MAH-zof), a crude buffoon of a father and the extremist, sensual, materialistic progenitor of a line of doomed sons. As an aging libertine he is brought in competition with his sons over a woman, money, and status, and also by a sheer determination to live and control his destiny without interference. His manners are as threatening as his brooding appearance, and as a sensual his debauchery is extreme, unabated even in his dwindling years. He is crafty, greedy, close-fisted, exhibiting a low cunning which speaks of a special kind of intelligence. His pose is artful; his lust for life and his voluptuousness are phenomenal. Obscene as he is, a malignant joker of low order, he has about him an air of magnificence gone to seed in an aging domestic tyrant.


Dmitri (DMIH-trihy), often called Mitya, his oldest son, who most resembles his father and most despises him for the wrong done the dead mother and himself. Morbidly fearful of his heredity, Dmitri reviles his father not so much for what he has done as a man who has cheated his son of both birthright and lover, but for what he is, a cruel, crafty despoiler of all that is decent. Like his father, he is muscular, though slender, sallow, with large dark eyes. He is a kind of scapegoat, the one on whom the curse of sensuousness falls most heavily, given as he is to strong feelings and actions. He has a brooding Russian personality, an excitability, a violent nature capable of deep emotions and lasting love and antagonisms, though he has also simplicity, natural goodness, an open heart, directness, and awareness.


Ivan (ih-VAHN), his half brother, an intellectual, poet, and atheist, given to visions and flights of fancy, secretiveness, remote aloofness. Five years younger than Mitya, he seems older, more mature, better poised. He has a subtle mind, both skeptical and idealistic, mercurial and unrealistic. Although none of the boys, having been cared for by relatives, is close to their tempestuous father, Ivan is the least known to Fyodor Karamazov and the one he most fears for qualities so remote from his own. Though he wills his father’s death, he is greatly shocked at the deed and his part in it, and he suffers a guilt complex so great that it unhinges his dualistic mind. He serves as the author’s mouthpiece in the long Grand Inquisitor scene and the account of his private devil. Ivan is loved distantly and respected by his brothers for this very lucidity and clairvoyance. He inherits the lust, the extremism, the egocentricity of his father, but in a refined, inward, though almost as compulsive a way.


Alyosha (ah-LYOH-shuh), also known as Alexey (ah-lehk-SAY), Ivan’s brother and Dmitri’s half brother, the spiritual son who is the peacemaker, the sympathizer, the trusted and beloved brother if not son. Nineteen, healthy, bright, personable, good-looking, Alyosha, out of goodness and love, forms a bond with his unregenerate father and his distrustful brothers. His devotion to the good Father Zossima, his acceptance of his own worldliness at war with his spirituality, and his sheer love of life make him an attractive character, a natural, human person among grotesques.


Grushenka (GREW -shehn-kuh), beloved by father and son, an intemperate temptress, an earthy type who realizes more than she can communicate. She appears a hussy, but she is also devoted, loyal in her own way, and loving. Primitive, independent, free of the petty vindictiveness that...

(This entire section contains 856 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

plagues her lovers, Grushenka enlivens the story with a wholesome, womanly, even motherly quality.

Katerina Ivanovna

Katerina Ivanovna (kah-tehr-IHN-uh ih-VAH-nohv-nuh), beloved by Ivan but engaged to Dmitri, an aristocrat and compulsive lover of great force of character. Willing to beg for love, to buy her beloved, she also has a fierce pride that flames up in revenge. Though she is attractive in a more austere way than Grushenka, they share many eternally feminine traits.


Smerdyakov (smehr-DYAH-kof), a half-witted servant, perhaps a natural son of Karamazov, and his murderer. He is scornful and sadistic. As the murderer who cannot live with his guilt, he is seen as more sinned against than sinning, the victim more than the antagonist. He hates his master and Dmitri, but he is curiously drawn to Ivan and in reality dies for him. Smerdyakov hangs himself.

Father Zossima

Father Zossima (ZOH-seh-mah), a devout religious ascetic, Aloysha’s teacher in the monastery to which the boy retires for a time. Aware of the sensual nature of the Karamazovs, the old priest advises the boy to go back to the world. Because of his holy example, his followers expect a miracle to occur when Father Zossima dies. Instead, his body decomposes rapidly, a circumstance viewed by other monks as proof that the aged man’s teachings have been false.


Marfa (MAHR-fuh), a servant in the Karamazov household and Smerdyakov’s foster mother.


Grigory (grih-GOH-ree), Marfa’s husband.


Lizaveta (lyee-zah-VEH-tuh), the half-witted girl who was Smerdyakov’s mother. Many people in the village believed that Fyodor Karamazov was the father of her child.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Anyone familiar with Joseph Conrad's novel Victory (1914; see separate entry) may recall the three levels of evil represented by Mr. Jones and his cohorts. In The Brothers Karamazov, there is something of a similar gradation, but of another sort: The range proceeds upward from the morally bankrupt Ivan (the real cause of Fyodor's murder) through the bestial Smerdyakov, on through the impulsive but often well-intentioned Dmitri, to the saintly Alyosha. Some readers have complained that this book is too didactic in places (particularly the scenes in which Zossima preaches or deals with those who plead for his spiritual help); but, if one compares the morally best character, Alyosha, with, say Prince Myshkin, in The Idiot (1866; in one of his notebooks for The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky alludes to Alyosha as "the idiot" ), there is a realism and roundness that raises the young man above the level of allegory. In his introduction of the character, Dostoevsky says, referring to Alyosha's desire to enter the monastery, "Alyosha was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion, at least, was not even a mystic . . . He was simply an early lover of humanity." Having lost his mother at age four (the author says that he never forgot this beloved parent), Alyosha wished to leave the "darkness of worldly wickedness" in order to attain "the light of love." Alyosha was, the novelist insists, "fond of people: he seemed throughout his life to put implicit trust in people: yet no one ever looked upon him as a simpleton or naive person." Even as to physical characteristics, Dostoevsky works to present a rounded personage: "Some of my readers may imagine that my young man was a sickly, ecstatic, poorly developed creature, a pale consumptive dreamer. On the contrary, Alyosha was at this time a well-grown, red-cheeked, clear-eyed lad of nineteen, radiant with health." A number of scholars have stated that, in all probability, Dostoevsky depicted in Alyosha the man he wished he was, while in Ivan he painted the figure that he feared that he was.

It is in Ivan's relationship with Alyosha, with whom he becomes closer than to anyone else, one sees both the internal conflict of the older brother revealed (they have several intimate conversations with each other) and the heartfelt attempts of the virtuous younger man to help his tormented brother. Ivan has been portrayed as another "double" character in Dostoevsky's work. He wants to believe in God—indeed, he does, in his way, but fears that such a belief is irrelevant, since he cannot accept God's world. This unhappy set of attitudes leads to the awful effect that his conversation has on the impressionable Smerdyakov (whom Ivan claims to hate, but with whom he converses at some length). Ivan's impassioned confession of moral guilt at the trial of Dmitri is the result— his emotional state is mirrored by the fever from which his body suffers, and his confession is discounted by the jury.

Apart from the Karamazov family and Zossima, the most important characters are the two female persons: Grushenka and Katerina. These women form a sort of dual image, the former a low-born woman of dubious reputation and the latter the daughter of a colonel and a far more complex character. The relationships of Grushenka and Katerina to the Karamazov family is pivotal. Dmitri is betrothed to Katerina at the opening of the story (he had saved her from a shameful situation), but he soon develops a deep infatuation for Grushenka, a feeling that marred though it is by her infidelity, the overtures to her of his own father, and her later infidelities (at one point, she runs off with another man, partly to escape the unstable Karamazov family), turns into genuine love.

The association with Katerina is far more "tangled" and subtle. She is a very contradictory person; though spurned by Dmitri, Katerina first attempts to bribe Grushenka to relinquish her lover (an effort that fails) and later declares that, "even if he marries that creature," she will remain devoted to him for the rest of her life. Ironically, Ivan does love Katerina (an emotion that seems to be returned); however, by a perverse endeavor to achieve a lofty sense of self-sacrifice, she declares that she will never abandon him and is prepared to go to great lengths to help him. Yet, at Dmitri's trial, she produces a damning letter in which he had expressed an intention to kill his father in order to get the money that he owed her. Later, at the end of the novel, she apologizes sincerely for her act of jealousy and begs Dmitri for his forgiveness—it is typical of Mitya's changed attitude toward life that he asks Katya for her forgiveness. The two former lovers reconcile; Katerina says, "Love is over, Mitya . . . . but the past is painfully dear to me." So, this intelligent but emotionally unstable woman finds peace at last, even promising Grushenka, with whom she has had a reciprocal hatred, that she will "save" Dmitri (the chapter is called an "Epilogue" but is entitled "Plans for Mitya's escape" ) for her former rival.

This rival is a more complicated person than she at first appears. She is certainly an apt match for the "sensualist" Dmitri, but she is also a cunning temptress, playing the father off against the son and confounding her enemy. The revelatory scene between these impressive female characters is highly dramatic. Before it, Katerina has believed that Grushenka is almost saintly; she tells Alyosha that Grushenka "is one of the most fantastic of fantastic creatures. I know how bewitching she is [Grushenka has formed a fondness for the pure young man and wishes to seduce him, without success], but I know too that she is kind, firm and noble." Later, Grushenka has gone back on her word, as Katerina perceives the situation, to abandon Dmitri, and then takes Katerina's hand, stating that she will kiss it (as Katerina has kissed her hand three times), but drops it with a look of "bright gaiety."

Katerina realizes that she is being made a figure of fun and, typically, becomes furious: "Vile slut! Go away!" Grushenka is unmoved by the insults and turns to Alyosha, showing the insouciance that marks her personality well, and says, "Alyosha, darling, see me home!" By the close of this verbally violent scene, Alyosha is completely distressed: He wrings his hands, and "His heart ached." As always, this central figure reacts as the author hopes the reader will, also; or, at least, the author hopes that the reader will understand the scene more deeply.

It is Alyosha who holds the plot and the themes together. In the third section of the "Epilogue" (some believe it to be a "tacked-on" scene), the very last passage in the novel, Alyosha attends the funeral of a boy whom he had befriended (by a clever plot device, this lad was the son of the Captain Snegiryov whom Dmitri had beaten and humiliated). He comforts the family and speaks to the other boys attending the ritual. His words of fondness for the deceased and for the rest of the boys ("I have a place in my heart for you all" ) and his uplifting comments and pleas for happy remembrance move the lads to great joy: "Karamazov, we love you!" says one of the boys; and, in one of the most famous last lines in a novel, they all cry out, "Hurrah for Karamazov!" It is a fitting tribute for one of the most admirable, and believable, of literary heroes.




Critical Essays