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The Brothers Karamazov

Kaitlyn Danahy, Erin Carroll
  • Author
    Kaitlyn Danahy

    Kate has a bachelor's degree in literature & creative writing from Gordon College. She taught high school literature, philosophy, and writing in India and has tutored for the same subjects in the US.

  • 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

Explore Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” Read the novel’s summary and analysis, review its characters, and find details about its reception and translation. Updated: 08/11/2021

Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov is the last novel of the prolific Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyesvky; it is often regarded as one of the world's best novels and as Dostoyevsky's magnum opus. The titular brothers Karamazov are Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, who are the sons of the town reprobate. The novel follows the circumstances leading up to the murder of the brothers' father Fyodor, and the subsequent arrest of one of them for the crime.

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  • 0:04 ''The Brothers…
  • 3:05 The Karamazov Brothers
  • 4:22 The Other Karamazovs
  • 5:18 Other Important Characters
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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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.

The monastery in Staraya, where the novel is set.

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.

Chapter Summaries

'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

Name Nickname Role
Dmitri Fyodorovitch Karamazov Mitya The hedonistic eldest son of Fyodor, Dmitri is accused of murdering his father over Grushenka.
Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov Vanya The intellectual middle son, Ivan's philosophies inadvertently inspired his father's murder.
Alexei Fyodorovitch Karamazov Alyosha 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 Katya 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 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.
Liza Khokhlakova Lise A young girl healed after a bout of paralysis, she becomes engaged to Alyosha.
Father Zosima - Alyosha's mentor and the spiritual core of the novel.
Ilych Nikolayevitch Snergiryov Ilyusha 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.

Background

The author of The Brothers Karamazov: Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Fyodor Dostoyesvky

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who are the Three Brothers Karamazov?

The eldest brother is Dmitri Fyodorovitch Karamazov, who is hedonistic and the son of Fyodor Karamazov's first wife, Adelaida. Next is Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov, an intellectual, and lastly is the pious Alexei (also known as Alyosha) Fyodorovitch Karamazov. Ivan and Alyosha are both the sons of Fyodor's second wife, Sofia. However, there is also a fourth son: Pavel Fyodorovitch Smerdyakov, who although never given the Karamazov name and brought up by a servant, was given Fyodor's patronymic and widely assumed to be Fyodor's son via Fyodor's rape of a mentally ill woman named Lizaveta.

What is the message of The Brothers Karamazov?

Alyosha states the novel's ultimately existentialist message during Ilusha's funeral in the story's final pages. He urges the children, all of whom are grieving a child who should not have died, to remember the moments of goodness and love in life. It is the memory of these moments, the fact that these moments did exist, that may save someone from evil and comfort them in the midst of suffering.

Is The Brothers Karamazov a true story?

The Brothers Karamazov is a work of fiction. However, aspects of the novel were influenced Dostoyevsky's real life experiences, including the death of Dostoyevsky's beloved son Alyosha at the age of three from epilepsy (an illness Alyosha had inherited from Dostoyevsky himself) and Dostoyevsky's own wrongful conviction. It is also set in the town where Dostoyevsky wrote the novel: Staraya Russa.

What does the Brothers Karamazov teach us about the problem of evil?

The Brothers Karamazov suggests that evil originates in the heart of men (as shown in the symbolism of Ivan hallucinating the devil after realizing the ineptitude of his own isolationist moral philosophy). Men are capable of actions of the utmost beauty, but also of the utmost cruelty; this duality is present in each character. It is never too late for people to choose to focus on the beauty through active love, and so redemption is always possible.

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