Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will first read a brief summary of Dostoyevsky's ''The Brothers Karamazov.'' Then, you will learn a little bit about the main characters in the novel.


The Brothers Karamazov is a novel with a simple plot about a murder, and a complex discussion of faith, doubt, and morality. We begin with the father, Fyodor Karamazov. Fyodor is a cruel and lustful man who has fathered three sons: Dmitri, a man driven by his passions; Ivan, a man driven by his intellect; and Alexei, also called Aloysha, who is driven by his faith in Christ. He was cruel to the boys and their mothers, and sent the boys away to be raised by others.

Dmitri, the oldest son, comes of age and returns to see his father to ask for his inheritance. Although, Dmitri is engaged to a beautiful girl named Katerina, he has fallen in love with a woman named Agrafena, also known as Grushenka, and wants to run off with her. Fyodor laughs at this request for money, and it is revealed that Fyodor and Dmitri are romantic rivals for the love of Grushenka. Dmitri and Ivan hate and are embarrassed by their father. Alexei, who was raised in the monastery and mentored by the good Father Zossima, only hopes to redeem his family members. We then find out that Fyodor probably fathered another son with a mentally disabled woman. This son is named Smerdyakov, and works as a servant in Fyodor's house. He also hates the old man.

Ivan is skeptical of God and morality and debates the existence of God with Alexei. Ivan also shares his philosophy with Smerdyakov that the world is immoral and everything is permissible. Meanwhile, Alexei is confronted by the death of his mentor Father Zossima, and then begins to mentor a young sickly boy named Ilyusha. These experiences test and strengthen his faith. Meanwhile, Dmitri continues his quest for Grushenka.

Brothers Karamazov book cover art
Brothers Karamazov book cover art

When Fyodor is found murdered, the town suspects all of the brothers. However, the circumstantial evidence seems to point at Dmitri. Dmitri is arrested and must stand trial. Each of the brothers contemplates his own guilt for Fyodor's demise. Eventually, Smerdyakov reveals to Ivan that he murdered Fyodor. However, Smerdyakov argues that Ivan is also guilty of this murder, because he convinced him that everything is permissible. Smerdyakov believes that he was just Ivan's instrument. Ivan is destroyed with guilt, and suffers a mental breakdown.

During his brother's trial, Ivan takes the stand in a crazed mental state and confesses that he is responsible for the murder. Katerina, who has fallen in love with Ivan, is horrified by his testimony. To save him, she produces a letter for the court that Dmitri wrote her. In it, Dmitri claimed that he would be willing to murder his father. The letter gets Dmitri convicted. After the trial, Ivan helps Dmitri plan to escape and live in exile with Grushenka. Finally, Alyexei attends young Ilyusha's funeral, and convinces the boy's friends of the promise of faith.

The Brothers Karamazov

There are three main brothers in this novel. The eldest brother is Dmitri who is also called Mitya and Mitka. He is driven by his passions, frustrations, and lusts. He is engaged to a woman named Katerina, but falls in love with a woman with a scandalous reputation named Grushenka. It turns out that his father is also in love with Grushenka making the two rivals. Dmitri hates his father who treated him cruelly.

Ivan is the middle brother. He is also called Vanya, and he is the intellectual heart of the book. He is a smart man, but he is tormented by his skepticism in God and morality. His discussions of faith and disbelief make up the central issue in the novel. Dostoyevsky wants us to grapple with questions of faith, morality and redemption, and Ivan is primarily concerned with those questions too. He hates his father for being a cruel and lecherous man.

Alexei is the youngest son, and is also called Alyosha. Alyosha lives at the monastery under the care and education of Father Zossima. Alyosha is deeply religious, and is almost saintly in his love and care for everyone including his wicked father. Alyosha's faith and gentle nature make him a foil for his brothers.

The Other Karamazov Family Members

We must, of course, discuss Fyodor Karamazov, the father. Fyodor is described as a wicked, lecherous, cruel man. He is driven only by his basest desires and lusts. He was cruel to each of the boys and their mothers, and ensured that each boy was raised far away from him. When he falls in love with Grushenka, he becomes a romantic rival to his son Dmitri. Fyodor is mysteriously murdered by one of his sons.

There is one more Karamazov brother to consider. That is the brother, Smerdyakov. Smerdyakov was most likely fathered by Fyodor who slept with a well-known mentally disabled girl in town. He works as a servant in Fyodor's house. After a discussion with Ivan, he is convinced that anything is permissible. He uses this as justification for murdering Fyodor. He eventually confesses this to Ivan, and adds that Ivan is just as guilty as he is.

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