The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Start Free Trial

Christian Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Early in the novel, Dmitri declares that God and the devil are at war, and their battlefield is the heart of man. In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevski sought to depict the battle between God and the devil, good and evil, faith and doubt, in vivid and eminently human terms. In one corner stands Ivan Karamazov, who offers wrenching examples of the senseless cruelty inflicted upon innocent children and uses these examples to cast doubt on the concept that the Christian God is all-good if he is all-powerful. Ivan’s posture of corrosive doubt casts a pall on the other characters, and his denial of the notion of immortality and divine justice encourages Smerdyakov in his conviction that he can kill with impunity.

Significantly, Dostoevski does not try to rebut Ivan’s attack on the righteousness of God’s universe through direct argumentation. Instead, he deploys a series of indirect arguments to present a different view of God’s world and the potential for human goodness latent within it. To begin, he introduces the Russian Orthodox monk Zosima, a kind and compassionate man who preaches a doctrine of active love and personal responsibility for the well-being of others. Not only are Zosima’s teachings presented in an extended conversation recorded by Alyosha, but the monk is also shown at work among the people, putting into practice what he preaches. His active selflessness contrasts distinctly with Ivan’s passive and egocentric peroration.

What is more, Dostoevski uses figures of suffering children, such as Ilyusha Snegiryov, to suggest the ultimate good that can emerge from what at first glance seems to be tragic and painful. Finally, Dostoevski introduces a series of scenes in which the sadness of death is followed by the discovery of a joyful new beginning, and thus the entire novel becomes an affirmation of the basic message of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

God and Religion
The central theme of the book is the question of God's existence and the role of religion in modern society. At the time he wrote Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was deeply religious and felt that the only true religion was Russian Orthodoxy. Even so, the question of God's existence bothered him to the day he died. In the novel, he employs the narrative technique of two inset works—an article and a story within the novel—in order to debate religious concerns. The former is Ivan's article on the position of ecclesiastical courts, and the latter is Ivan's philosophical essay featuring the Grand Inquisitor.

With the story of the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan doubts the existence of God. Presented as a debate in which the Grand Inquisitor condemns Christ for propagating the belief that man has the choice between good and evil, the essay reflects on redemption, the conflict between intellect and faith, and the role of evil in Christianity. If one is a Christian, one becomes consumed with questions, such as if God is all-powerful and good, why do children suffer as in Dmitri's nightmare?

Alyosha exemplifies the idea that the answers do not matter. He views a belief in God as a way to spread love. Thus, Alyosha is a man of action, a realist working within the system, while Ivan is paralyzed by doubt and fear.

The questions are not decided by the end of the novel. Still, there are definite lessons: love is all-important and people should love freely; life after death should be an integral belief for all; people are capable of evil, especially when they attempt to divorce themselves from their sensuality; and man must be his brother's keeper.

Finally, salvation...

(This entire section contains 596 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

for mankind—as Alyosha expresses it to the group of boys at the end of the novel—depends upon social solidarity. Isolation of people from each other must end; people must be guided by their spiritual leaders. This last message is almost a prophetic warning to the communists who hoped to create solidarity without spiritual kinship.

Justice and Injustice
There are many instances of injustice in the book—Dmitri beats Ilyusha's father, Fyodor rapes Lizaveta—but none of these injustices are punished or resolved. In fact, the legal system seems to be a mockery of justice. Courts, lawyers, and punishment are for the weak and are often ineffectual. In the novel, the criminals punish themselves and seek their own redemption. For this reason, the role of the church becomes more important; if secular society cannot effectively punish transgressors, then religion must impose a sense of guilt and eventual punishment for sinners.

Artists and Society
Both the prosecution and the defense use the analogy of the novelist for the case of Fyodor's murder. The imaginative artist, Fetiukovich, has a better grasp of the facts than Kirillovich. Yet Kirillovich triumphs because the average man, who sits on the jury, cannot perceive what is "real."

According to Dostoevsky, reality cannot be explained in terms of environmental factors, social facts, and evidence, but in the impossible terms of faith. If the jury can be made to believe that something else might have happened, then Dmitri is innocent.

The trial's debate over reality and Dmitri's fate is allegorical of the debates in the novel as a whole. Dmitri is not as smart as Ivan, but he knows to focus on the important issues. He believes that people are stuck in the trivial concerns of life and give too little attention to immortality. Apparently, the role of the novelist is to accentuate this situation.

Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

This novel arose largely from the material in A Writer's Diary (or The Diary of a Writer, 1876-1877, 1880-1881), where Dostoevsky reveals his philosophical and religious concerns. One of these was the proper relationship of man to God. In the same letter in which he declares that personal immortality and God are the same thing, Dostoevsky asks, "If there is no immortality, I need but live out my appointed day, and let the rest go hang . . . . Why am I to live decently and do good, if I die irrevocably here below?" This troubling thought informs Ivan's philosophy. Near the beginning of the text, in Book Two, aptly entitled "An Unfortunate Gathering," Ivan admits (in the presence of his family, the older Zossima, an acquaintance, and several monks—the meeting is at a monastery; another aspect of Dostoevsky's research involved visits to a monastery to learn more about life in such an establishment) that he has stated openly that morality and even love depend entirely on the fact that "men have believed in immortality." The corollary to this assertion is that, if that faith were destroyed," not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful." When Zossima asks whether Ivan really means what he seems to be saying, the young scholar responds," Yes that was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality."

This perilous belief is the justification for Smerdyakov's murder of old Karamazov, and it torments Ivan throughout the novel, since he wants desperately to believe but finds it almost impossible to do so. In perhaps the most famous chapter in world literature, "The Grand Inquisitor," Ivan tells Alyosha of a "poem in prose" that he wrote: It is set during the Spanish Inquisition in Seville. Christ returns to earth and is captured and interrogated by an inquisitor. The essence of the questioner's criticism of Christ is that He promised men freedom, which is not what they really want: "Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only be free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us." The Inquisitor offers a number of examples from history to support his argument. At the close of the interview, after the Inquisitor has promised to burn his victim at the stake (and after Alyosha has protested against the "atheistic" story), Ivan relates that he closed the episode by having Christ approach the old man and kiss him "on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved," and he releases his prisoner, saying, "Go, and come no more . . . . come not at all, never, never!"

While Ivan is the most intellectually interesting character in the novel, Dmitri captures the reader's attention more vividly. He represents the spiritual aspect of the theme in a more lively and dramatic fashion. Dmitri essentially despises his father, who he believes is robbing him and alienating the affections of the pretty young Grushenka. The Karamazov zest for life is fully reflected in the behavior of this former soldier, who wastes money, chases women, and often behaves outrageously, drinking heavily and on one occasion pulling a man who has offended him out of a tavern by his beard—the victim says that he had done nothing, only that Dmitri "was in a towering rage and happened to come upon me." Yet, this wastrel and passionate misbehaver feels remorse for his actions, and he seems capable of genuine love, first for Katerina Ivanovna, to whom he is for a time betrothed, and then for Grushenka, of whom he is extremely jealous (which is part of his antipathy for his father). Further, by the close of the plot, he, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, has a strange dream which persuades him that, although he is innocent of the murder, he must suffer for the crimes of mankind (this sort of martyr state of mind persists for a long time).

Dmitri is so open to the love of God by the very end that he tells Alyosha, in his final appearance in the text, that "I shall condemn myself, and I will pray for my sin for ever." A moment later, he says, "I love Russia, Alyosha, I love the Russian God, though I am a scoundrel myself." He even plans to return to Russia from America, where he will go if he can escape from prison. This sentiment sounds a great deal like what Dostoevsky says in numerous passages in his letters and journals. The way to God, the Russian God, is through humility and remorse.

The moral hero, however, is Alyosha (Dostoevsky says as much in the Preface); he is, as the author says, "eccentric" and "odd," but, "For me he is remarkable. . ." Despite his singularity, on which Dostoevsky insists, "it happens sometimes that such a person, I dare say, carries within himself the very heart of the universal, and the rest of the men of his epoch have for some reason been temporarily torn from it, as if by a gust of wind." Alyosha represents the adherence to the principles of righteousness that the author wishes to promote, while nearly all the other characters (especially the men, and those of his family) stand for "the men of his epoch."

Appropriately, Alyosha enters a local monastery and becomes a disciple of the saintiy monk Zossima. While he later leaves the confines of the institution, he never loses the Christian virtues and beliefs so dear to Dostoevsky's heart. He loves his brothers, respects his father, finds goodness in the lusty Grushenka, and accepts the tenets of the Church wholeheartedly. His faith is unwavering; as the author, speaking in the first person (as he does several times in the text), says,

Alyosha was more of a realist than anyone. Oh, in the monastery he fully believed in miracles, but, to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling- block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief . . . Faith does not, in the realist, spring from miracles but the miracle from faith.

So it is with Alyosha, whose relationships with other characters help not only to hold the plots together (subplots abound in this novel), but also to provide a sort of moral center-point for the themes.

As he judges people, so the author wishes the reader to judge them. An example is his own father, whom he treats with respect, even when the old man is behaving outrageously, because Alyosha knows that "He was sentimental. He was wicked and sentimental." The wickedness Alyosha forgives, and the sentiment he applauds. Alyosha somewhat develops what could be called a "double vision" of his father (and of several other characters—he loves Ivan but is terrified of this man's philosophy) and may be viewed as an adherent to one of Dostoevsky's more memorable aphoristic remarks: "As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too." Alyosha would support this assertion.

In this way, Alyosha forms a worthy contrast to the other main characters, especially Ivan, with whom he sympathizes so warmly. While Ivan has conversations with the Devil which only serve to intensify his agnosticism, Alyosha, the true realist, deals with life on everyday terms, though with spiritual support. The blessed young man and his family (and several lesser characters) impose an image of perhaps the most pervasive themes in all of Dostoevsky's work: the Problem of Evil. In simple terms, the problem is that one finds it difficult to account for the presence of evil in a world presumably created by and "run" by a benevolent God. However, the question, in terms of Dostoevsky's vision, must be considered in connection with the concept of freedom (very forcefully developed in the Grand Inquisitor passage). As critic Berdyaev says, in his book on Dostoevsky, "The problem of evil and of wrongdoing is part and parcel of the problem of freedom. Without freedom evil is unexplainable, wherever there is freedom there is evil: if there were no freedom then God alone would be responsible for evil." This critic goes on to say that Dostoevsky held this view of the problem and also believed "that without freedom goodness would not exist either."

Such an answer to the problem may not satisfy all, as it does not satisfy Ivan, who wants justice here and now, not in God's good time or in another world. But, time and again, the characters display their freedom of will and also often their willingness to suffer the consequences of their actions (Dmitri is the best example)— a phenomenon that may remind one of the craving for freedom of the Underground Man, even if it means taking self-defeating actions. And, several characters do so. Dmitri threatens his father (early in the text, near the close of Chapter Six, Dmitri, during a violent quarrel with Fyodor at the monastery, asks, "Why is such a man alive? . . . Tell me, can he be allowed to go on defiling the earth?" ) and attacks him physically; however, he is bound to suffer for his impulsiveness (it has been suggested that Father Zossima's bowing down to him is in recognition of all the suffering that the young man is going to undergo), as he does several times during the plot's advance.

Taking money from Katerina is another "wild" act, and Dmitri comes to regret it. All the while, Mitya, as he is familiarly called, is expressing his need to be free, and to make moral choices, many of which he regrets and tries to atone for. The principal atonement, of course, is his conviction for the murder of his father. This fact leads to what might be interpreted as something of an apotheosis for the formerly untamed and passionate young man. But, he has chosen "good," and deserves credit for it because he did so freely.

This problem haunted Dostoevsky, who reveals more about evil in its various forms than almost any other novelist in the world. He did so largely, many believe, because he felt the impulses toward it in himself—as in the assertion, made perhaps most notably by Freud, that Dostoevsky's relief at the news of his father's death, which he had unconsciously wished, initiated the patricidal element in this novel.

Previous

Summary

Next

Characters