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The Brothers Karamazov: Summary, Characters & Analysis

Instructor: Robin Small

Robin has a BA/MAT in English Ed, and teaches 6th grade English and Writing Lab.

In 'The Brothers Karamazov' Dostoevsky uses the conflicts of these complex characters to ask the big questions about life, meaning, God, and human nature. In this lesson, we will look at how the brothers and their interactions with their father hint at underlying issues around justice, family, and responsibility.

The Brothers Karamazov
Cover Art Brothers Karamazov

Characters

Fyodor Karamazov: This is the father of the brothers Karamazov and a vile and boorish man. He's interested only in sensual pleasure and selfish pursuits and does not care at all for his sons.

Dmitri Karamazov: The son of Fyodor's first marriage, and the only one of the boys who expects to have some inheritance when he's grown. Dmitri is ruled by passion, spends his money with abandon, and has a quick temper.

Ivan Karamazov: The elder son of Fyodor's second marriage, Ivan's personality is ruled by reason and logic. Think Mr. Spock, but a Russian human. He believes intellect holds the answers to life's questions. Reason and emotion are opposites to him, and he's hard-pressed to find a way for the two to coexist.

Alexey Karamazov: Alexey is ruled by his love of humanity. He's much more peace-loving and passive than his brothers. Where Ivan is frustrated and unable to mesh his belief in reason with the passions of his heart, Alexey struggles to live in a way that proves love for neighbor, love for creator, and love for life matter the most.

Smerdyakov This poor man was the product of an affair, or rape, between Fyodor and a townswoman known as 'Stinking Lizaveta' because she was out of her mind, and seldom washed. Fyodor employed him as a cook and treated his illegitimate son no better than a slave or a servant.

Grushenka She's the town beauty, who Dmitri Karamazov is determined to win over and marry. Fyodor also shamelessly pursues her and hopes to win her affection. She's one of the strongest females in Dostoevsky's novels, which tend to include strong female characters in general.

Katerina Ivanovna Known as Katya by those close to her, she's Dmitri's fiancee at the beginning of the novel. Katya's attraction to Dmitri's brother Ivan and his intellectual tendencies, promises the possibility of happiness for Katya after Dmitri's rejection, but her pride and passionate nature cause her and the brothers a lot of unhappiness.

Father Zossima This priest occupies an important role in the town, as a spiritual leader. Some peasants even suspect he's a saint, and that he's even responsible for small miracles. He's Alexey's mentor at the monastery, and while he may not be a saint, he does teach a doctrine of love and forgiveness worthy of one.

Money and the Love of a Beautiful Woman

Dmitri shows up in town, trying to get money from his father, but Fyodor says he's spent it all and won't give him any. Alexey brings his brother and Fyodor to Father Zossima hoping an outside opinion would settle their conflict, but Fyodor acts like a jerk in front of the holy cleric and embarrasses Alexey. Dmitri doesn't show up for the meeting at all, and this dispute over money comes back to haunt Dmitri later.

Readers learn of Smerdyakov's history, and how he was raised by Grigory. He's their illegitimate half brother, a cook and servant in Fyodor's house. Soon, a fight breaks out between Dmitri and Fyodor over money, and Dmitri beats his father and kicks him in the head.

Crime, Blame, and the Other Brother

Alexey finds himself as a go-between, listening to Katya, Grushenka, and Dmitri confess their troubles. Soon, Dmitri engages in a wild rush to acquire the money he owes Katya, in hopes that he will convince Grushenka to marry him once he's free of the debt. In his fury, he sneaks into his father's house, looking for hidden money, and on the way out is knocks out Grigory the servant. He tries to clean up the blood from this incident, and soon news of Fyodor's death makes Dmitri the prime suspect.

He has three thousand rubles tied in a piece of cloth around his neck, and his dispute with his father and need for the money was well known. Investigations get underway. And Dmitri's brother's Alexey and Ivan try to sort out whether Dmitri killed his father.

Dmitri feels responsible for his father's death, because of his hatred toward his father. Ivan has a conversation with Smerdyakov, where he discovers that Smerdyakov is actually the murderer, but that he killed Fyodor because he thought Ivan wanted him to and that Ivan deserved the inheritance. Ivan is horrified and suffers a nervous breakdown of sorts, involving conversations with the devil.

Ivan Karamazov
Ivan Karamazov

Smerdyakov is heartbroken at Ivan's reaction and kills himself. Ivan names him when he testifies in court, but his nervous condition and his mention of the devil calls in to question his credibility. Dmitri pleads not guilty to the charge of murder, and Alexey offers convincing evidence to support his innocence. Katya first supports Dmitri, then uses a letter he wrote while drunk to claim that he did indeed kill his father. Dmitri is found guilty.

Law of Love vs. Law of Man

As the book closes, Ivan has a plan to help Dmitri escape prison and live in exile. Alexey helps arrange a meeting between Katya and Dmitri so that she can ask him for forgiveness. He doesn't blame her, though, and Katya promises to do everything she can to help him escape. Grushenka accepts this, and her apology as well. The law of love and forgiveness is proven more important than the law of courts and men, and Alexey embarks on a career preaching Father Zossima's teachings.

Analysis

Alexey, Ivan, and Dmitri approach the trouble with their father from their three different perspectives laid out below:

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