The Brothers Karamazov Summary
The Brothers Karamazov is a philosophical novel, meaning there are lengthy passages of the characters describing their philosophical and religious beliefs. Some of the best known philosophical passages are Father Zosima's final speech before his death and Ivan Karamazov's parable "The Grand Inquisitor."
The monastery in Staraya, where Alyosha studies in the novel.
Each of the three Karamazov brothers embodies a different philosophy:
- Dmitri: hedonism
- Ivan: nihilism
- Alyosha: Christian existentialism
The heart of the novel is Alyosha. When his brothers return to town to discuss an inheritance, Alyosha tries to mend ties with his brothers and father. Despite losing his spiritual father, Zosima, and then his biological father in a murder for which his eldest brother is arrested, Alyosha's Christian existentialism sees beauty in everyone around him, no matter who they are, and that brings hope to the world.
'The Brothers Karamazov" is divided into twelve books and an epilogue.
Book One: A Nice Little Family
The beginning introduces Fyodor Karamazov, a cruel man who abused both of his wives: Adelaida, from whom he had Dmitri, and Sofia, from whom he had Ivan and Alyosha. Raised apart from Fyodor, all three are now adults, and return to town to settle an inheritance dispute.
Book Two: An Inappropriate Gathering
Alyosha's mentor at the monastery, Father Zosima, invites all three brothers and Fyodor to a mediation. Fyodor behaves in a disrespectful manner towards the monks and his sons; the meeting ends in disaster.
Book Three: The Sensualists
Dmitri tells Alyosha that he and Fyodor are pursuing the same woman: Grushenka, who is toying with both. Dmitri punches his father and threatens to kill him. Alyosha visits Dmitri's fiancee, Katerina, who sticks by Dmitri out of her own pride. Katerina is then visited by Grushenka, who taunts her.
Meanwhile, the narrator introduces a servant in Fyodor's household named Pavel Smerdyakov: Smerdyakov is the son of a mentally ill, homeless woman known as "Stinking Lizaveta", and suffers from epilepsy. Fyodor all but admits to raping Lizaveta, who then died giving birth to her son. Smerdyakov carries Fyodor's patronymic (a middle name based on the father's name with a gendered suffix)"Fyodorovitch", but is not legally acknowledged as his son with Fyodor's surname. Smerdyakov was raised by Fyodor's servant who would beat him frequently. Despite a general misanthropic attitude, Smerdyakov deeply admires Ivan.
Book Four: Lacerations
Alyosha intervenes to stop the bullying of a child; the child attacks him. Alyosha then discovers the boy is Ilyusha Snegiryov, whose father was humiliated by Dmitri. Ilyusha's father refuses financial compensation from Alyosha.
Book Five: Pro and Contra
On Zosima's advice, Alyosha decides to get engaged to Lise Khokhlakov, a young girl who idolizes him. Ivan and Alyosha meet; Ivan describes his moral objections to God on the basis of the suffering of children, illustrating these objections with his parable "The Grand Inquisitor".
Book Six: The Russian Monk
Father Zosima, on his deathbed, expresses that the beauty of life reinforces his faith in God. He dies.
Book Seven: Alyosha
Grieving Zosima, Alyosha finds his own faith shaken. Grushenka accepts a challenge to attempt to seduce Alyosha for amusement; instead, their conversation results in Alyosha's faith restored and Grushenka deciding to redeem herself.
Book Eight: Mitya
Dmitri expresses his rage at his father and leaves his house under cryptic circumstances. Distraught, Dmitri plans to commit suicide, but Grushenka finds him and confesses that she loves him and wants to marry him. However, Dmitri is then arrested for Fyodor's murder.
Book Nine: The Preliminary Investigation
Fyodor was beaten to death and the only one with motive and means is Dmitri. Dmitri was seen running from the house by one servant; the other, Smerdyakov, was having an epileptic fit at the time of the crime.
Book Ten: Boys
Ilyusha's schoolmate Kolya meets Alyosha while visiting Ilyusha, who has tuberculosis. Alyosha and Kolya become friends, with Kolya and his classmates committing to forgiving and befriending a bedridden Ilyusha.
Book Eleven: Ivan
Lise tells Alyosha she hates him and sends him away as a form of self-harm. Ivan carries out his own investigation of his father's murder. Smerdyakov confesses to Ivan that he, not Dmitri, murdered Fyodor, and tells Ivan that it was Ivan's own philosophies that motivated Smerdyakov. Horrified, Ivan experiences a mental breakdown, while Smerdyakov hangs himself to ensure the Karamazov family's destruction: he uses Ivan's intellectualism, Dmitri's hedonism, and Alyosha's naivete to engineer their downfall.
Book Twelve: A Judicial Error
Dmitri is put on trial. Haunted by Smerdyakov's words, Ivan's testimony is filled with guilt-ridden anxiety; when it looks as if Ivan might come under suspicion, Katerina Ivanovna, who had been financing Dmitri's defense, hands over evidence that ensures Dmitri will be found guilty. Katerina is in love with Ivan and could not see him implicate himself. Dmitri is convicted.
Epilogue: The Brothers Karamazov
Katerina nurses a desperately ill Ivan. Alyosha plans to help Dmitri escape prison and run away to America with Grushenka. Ilyusha dies, and Alyosha attends his funeral with Kolya and the other schoolboys. While at Ilyusha's grave, Alyosha exhorts the boys to never forget Ilyusha and the joy they shared with him.
'The Brothers Karamazov' Characters
|Dmitri Fyodorovitch Karamazov
||The hedonistic eldest son of Fyodor, Dmitri is accused of murdering his father over Grushenka.
|Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov
||The intellectual middle son, Ivan's philosophies inadvertently inspired his father's murder.
|Alexei Fyodorovitch Karamazov
||The pious youngest son, Alyosha once studied to be a monk.
|Pavel Fyodorovitch Smerdyakov
||A servant and the son of a mentally ill woman presumably raped by Fyodor, Pavel is epileptic and often overlooked, but is deeply intelligent.
|Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov
||A cruel, lustful man who torments his sons for sport.
|Katerina Ivanonva Verkhovtseva
||The prideful daughter of a captain, Katya becomes engaged to Dmitri after she asked for his help. However, she is in love with Ivan.
|Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova
||Grushenka takes delight in bringing men to ruin; when the novel opens, Fyodor and Dmitri are fighting over her. However, after an encounter with Alyosha, she redeems herself and stands by Dmitri.
||A young girl healed after a bout of paralysis, she becomes engaged to Alyosha.
||Alyosha's mentor and the spiritual core of the novel.
|Ilych Nikolayevitch Snergiryov
||The son of a military man Dmitri insulted, Ilyusha is cruel to those around him and is subsequently ostracized. Ilyusha contracts tuberculosis and dies towards the novel's end, but not before Alyosha and the local children befriend him.
The Brothers Karamazov Analysis
The Brothers Karamazov is in many ways a timeless novel thanks to its complex themes and psychological realism. The questions it wrestles with are ones society has and will always wrestle with, including:
- Faith and logic.
- Logic and passion.
- Passion and active love.
- Privilege and free will.
- Personal responsibility vs. societal expectations.
The author of The Brothers Karamazov: Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Dostoyevsky outlined and drafted several works with themes and plot elements that would eventually coalesce into The Brothers Karamazov, including The Life of a Great Sinner. Dostoyevsky's previous published novels also contain prototypes of characters who would eventually appear in The Brothers Karamazov; for example, a dying Makar Dogolruky from The Adolescent gives a similar final speech to Father Zosima's.
Dostoyevsky also drew from personal experiences. Like Dmitri, Dostoyevsky was arrested for a crime he did not commit and sentenced to Siberia. He suffered from epilepsy like Pavel, and had lost his son Alyosha at the age of three to that same illness. He spent time studying at the Optina Monastery in Staraya Russa after Alyosha's passing. His grief over the death of his son can be seen in the novel's depiction of Ilyusha's death, in the hero's name, and in the theme of the sins of the father, whom he named Fyodor after himself, passing onto the son.
Point of View
The narrator is an unnamed person who has omniscient insight into each character's thoughts and motivations.
The house Dostoyevsky resided in while staying in Staraya; he wrote The Brothers Karamazov from inside that house.
The story takes place in Staraya Russa, a town where Dostoyevsky lived at various points in his life and where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov. As with many of Dostoyevsky's novels, it addresses contemporary concerns plaguing 19th century Russia, including popular nihilistic beliefs from western philosophers (to which Dostoyevsky was decidedly opposed), social struggles including the plights of women and the poor, and the desperate desire among youth for a revolutionary way to find meaning in their lives.
The Brothers Karamazov is rich in themes. The story explores free will and moral responsibility. Ivan's philosophies hinge almost entirely on the concept of free will and his determination to take sole responsibility over his choices; he does not think he has any responsibility to those around him. Ivan's devotion to free will leads to him becoming a slave of his philosophy. Smerdyakov reveals the futility of Ivan's philosophies by crediting Ivan's philosophy with inspiring Fyodor's murder: Ivan's beliefs do affect those around him, and Ivan is himself affected by those around him.
Additionally, the focus on the societal treatment of underprivileged characters like Smerdyakov and Ilyusha ask the reader to what extent characters really have free will, and to what extent choices are societally and even biologically determined. Smerdyakov is a product of rape, has a hereditary physical condition, and possibly a hereditary mental condition as well. He was never treated with respect or love; what choices did he really have?
There are also themes of crime and justice, and of redemption. The novel asks to what extent Dmitri, Ivan, Smerdyakov, and Fyodor himself are responsible for Fyodor's murder and Dmitri's wrongful conviction. Dmitri's conviction is objectively unjust. However, even if Smerdyakov had been tried instead, would that have been justice or just more cruelty? Smerdyakov's self-execution just brings more pain. Father Zosima previously commented that suicide victims should not be condemned (as was the common religious practice of the time), but instead pitied. Justice may be unattainable in this world because not all crimes can be made up for (the dead remain dead), but through faith and active love, as defined by Father Zosima, the people can seek redemption. Grushenka, Dmitri, Ilyusha, and Kolya are inspired to redeem themselves by empathy and love; Katarina and Ivan also have the opportunity to do this at the end of the novel, with Katarina putting aside her pride to nurse an ill Ivan.
The novel also explores suffering as a theme; in particular, the suffering of children. Ivan identifies this as his moral objection to God. Zosima's counter to this is not through a dismissal, but instead an acknowledgment that in this life the suffering of children cannot be made up for; however, he expresses faith that someday, in another life, everything will be made up for, and every cruelty will not only be made up for but be worth it in the end.
The Brothers Karamazov Publication
The Brothers Karamazov was published in serial installments in the magazine The Russian Messenger (which also published Dostoyevsky's novels Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Demons). The chapters came out between January 1879 to November 1880; Dostoyevsky died four months after its completion, and was never able to write its planned sequel.
The Brothers Karamazov Reception
The Brothers Karamazov has been revered since its publication. Dostoyevsky's contemporary Leo Tolstoy deeply admired the novel. Later admirers included physicist Albert Einstein, fellow novelists James Joyce, Hermann Hesse, and Franz Kafka, as well as psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud referred to the novel as "the most magnificent novel ever written."
'The Brothers Karamazov' Translations
The novel has been translated into dozens of languages. The English translations include those by:
- Constance Garnett in 1912;
- David Magarshack in 1958;
- Andrew MacAndrew in 1970;
- Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 1990;
- David McDuff in 1993;
- Ignat Avsey in 1994; and
- Susan McReynolds in 2011.
The Brothers Karamazov Adaptations
The Brothers Karamazov is challenging to adapt for television and film due to its complexity, genre, and large cast. However, it has been adapted numerous times in not only its native Russia, but in various cultures across the world. Notable versions include a 1915 silent film, a critically praised Russian series in 2009, and a 2013 Japanese drama.
The Brothers Karamazov is the final novel of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Inspired by tragedies in Dostoyevsky's own life, it is considered his magnum opus. Major characters include:
- Hedonistic Dmitri, intellectual Ivan, and pious Alyosha Karamazov;
- Their respective love interests: Grushenka, Katerina, and Lise;
- Their cruel and lecherous father, Fyodor;
- Their illegitimate fourth brother, a servant named Pavel Smerdyakov,
- Father Zosima, Alyosha's mentor; and
- Ilyusha, a terminally ill boy whom Alyosha befriends.
The novel follows the Karamazov brothers in the days leading up to Fyodor's murder. Dmitri is convicted of the murder, but the true murderer is Smerdyakov. However, the novel is more interested in empathizing with each character than in condemnation.
The Brothers Karamazov is a philosophical novel, asking questions about the meaning of life and our place in the world. Its universal themes have made the novel popular with many well-known figures in literature, science, psychology, and theology, and it has been translated into numerous languages and adapted into numerous mediums. These themes include:
- Free will
- Moral responsibility
- Crime and justice
- Suffering (especially of children)
- Faith and active love