’s “The Brothers Karamazov” Essay, Research Paper
Book Report on Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”
The main characters of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov are, as
the title suggests, the members of the Karamazov “family,” if it can indeed be
called such. The only things that the members of this family share are a name
and the “Karamazov curse,” a legacy of base impulses and voluptuous lust.
References to this tendency towards immorality are sprinkled heavily throughout
the novel; phrases such as “a brazen brow and a Karamazov conscience,”
“voluptuary streak,” and “Karamazovian baseness” abound.
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father of the brothers Karamazov, is the
embodiment and the source of this immorality. In him Dostoevsky creates such
perversity and depravity that one can feel no positive emotions for the man.
His physical appearance–he is “flabby” with “small, suspicious eyes” and a
“long, cavernous mouth with puffy lips, behind which could be glimpsed small
fragments of black teeth”–accurately reflects his foul, disgusting character.
He has no respect for himself; he enjoys playing the part of the shameless
“buffoon” for attention, even though the attention he receives is negative.
Because he has no respect for himself, he can have no respect for others, either.
He has no respect for women, for example; he is a despicable “voluptuary,” and
he satisfies his lust at any cost. He drives his wife to madness by bringing
“women of ill-repute” into their house right in front of her. Even more
shockingly, he rapes a mentally retarded woman, who later dies giving birth to
his illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, who grows up as his father’s servant.
Fyodor is even more blatantly disrespectful to his three legitimate
children. After his wife’s death, he abandons them, for they “would have been
a hindrance to his debaucheries.” He is never a true father to any of them.
When his oldest son, Dmitry, becomes an adult, Fyodor is even so cruel as to
deny Dmitry his inheritance and instead use the money to seduce Grushenka, with
whom his son is in love.
It is Alyosha, the youngest brother, that is most successful in escaping
the curse of the Karamazovs. Miraculously, he is almost the complete opposite
of his father; he is an easygoing “lover of mankind” whom everyone likes. When
the reader first meets Alyosha, he is a young monk of strong faith, a disciple
of the Elder Zosima; he is the embodiment of Zosima’s teachings that one must
love man unconditionally and not condemn man’s actions. Indeed, Alyosha treats
everyone he meets with respect and love, and consequently everyone responds to
him in the same way. He tolerates anything without censure, even the “filthy
lewdness” of his father. As a result, even his father grows to be “sincerely
fond of him.”
Alyosha plays the role of the mediator in the novel. Dostoevsky
deliberately creates Alyosha as a static character who undergoes few changes,
and, therefore, he is the stable, solid character around whom the conflicts of
the novel unfold. He moves in and out of these various conflicts and attempts
to ameliorate the existing tensions and solve the problems. And, indeed, the
other characters open up to him and trust him because of his refusal to judge
them and their actions.
Alyosha is not a Christ figure, however, nor is he a mere “holy fool.”
He is, in fact, a “real Karamazov” , and he has more credibility as a mediator
because as a Karamazov, he knows and understands the lowest depths of the soul.
The ability that he has to understand the depravity inherent in man gives him,
and therefore the reader, great insights into the personalities and motives of
the other characters. For example, it is Alyosha that guesses that Katerina
Ivanovna does not truly love Dmitry, and that she acts out this “false love”
only so that she can, out of pride, “observe [her] heroic sacrifice of
faithfulness and reproach [Dmitry] for his unfaithfulness.” Dostoevsky uses
Alyosha’s insights into the minds of others as a unique way by which to develop
Ivan, the second youngest of the brothers, is much different from both
Fyodor and Alyosha. Ivan is a cold and haughty yet brilliant man incapable of
forming lasting relationships with anyone; his intellect is the only thing he
values. He rarely talks to anyone about anything but his ideas; he is, as
Dostoevsky describes him, “a man who needs [nothing but] the resolution of his
ideas.” As Dostoevsky develops Ivan’s character, however, one sees that it is
his intellect, the very thing that he most prizes, that is the cause of anguish
and eventual madness.
Ivan, unlike Alyosha, does change in the course of the novel. At the
beginning of the novel, Ivan, although he is a self-proclaimed atheist, is
struggling with conflicting views about God. He struggles with this interior
conflict during the entire course of the novel, and his inability to resolve it
causes him to slowly change from a rational, albeit confused, man to an
incoherent, delirious one. At the end of the novel, at Dmitry’s trial, Ivan is
so deranged that he has to be dragged out of the courtroom, kicking and fighting
and “howling with a loud voice.” After the courtroom scene Ivan immediately
comes down with a severe fever, and he lays in a state of unconsciousness for
the remainder of the novel. Dostoevsky ultimately leaves Ivan’s fate unresolved.
It is Dmitry, the oldest of the brothers, that is, in a way, the central
character of the novel. Dostoevsky creates in Dmitry a dual character that is
the most complex of all of the major characters, and therefore the most human.
Dmitry is the brother most driven by the Karamazovian “virtues” of unrestraint
and depravity. At the same time, however, Dmitry is an honorable man capable of
the noblest of impulses. This duality in character is summed up in his conflict
between his reverence for his betrothed, Katerina Ivanovna, a noble, beautiful,
educated girl, and his passion for Grushenka, a woman of questionable morals.
Several of Dmitry’s actions as well help to develop his paradoxical character.
For example, when Dmitry first meets Katerina, she is in desperate need of
money; Dmitry’s first thought is to use money to seduce her. When Katerina
comes to collect the money, however, Dmitry’s sense of honor causes him to
simply give her the money along with a “reverential and most heartfelt bow.
“Dmitry is the character that changes the most in the novel. Although he is a
Karamazov, depraved and unrestrained, he has hope of redemption. And, indeed,
he does redeem himself; he changes from a reckless, unrestrained man who is
ruled by his emotions to a responsible, humble man who has a strong faith in
God. When he is wrongly convicted of his father’s death, he realizes that
although he is not responsible for the sin of his father’s murder, he is
responsible for a great many others, and so he accepts the sentence of exile
given to him by the jury. He even looks forward to carrying it out, as he sees
suffering as a way of purifying himself and thus “rising up in joy.”
Although the action of the plot is centered around the four characters
of Fyodor, Alyosha, Ivan, and Dmitry, there are other characters in the novel
that are of vital importance. One such character is Grushenka. She is the
“proud and unblushing” woman with whom both Dmitry and Fyodor are passionately
in love. She loves neither of them, however; she simply teases them and leads
them on capriciously. She allows both of them to court her and propose to her
without giving either an answer. By doing so, she causes the preexisting
tensions between the father and son to escalate to dangerous levels; thus she is
central to the development of the major conflict of the novel.
PLOT AND STRUCTURE
The Brothers Karamazov has a very concrete, definite structure. The
novel is organized to build to not only one large climax but also to several
smaller ones. The events that comprise the plot of the novel are, for the most
part, arranged chronologically. The sequence of events is only occasionally
disrupted; Dostoevsky will, for example, document Alyosha’s proceedings for a
certain part of the day and then go back and document how Dmitry spent the same
part of the day. Therefore, there are no gaps in the story; in a novel in which
every action and every phrase is significant, it is important that the reader
know all that happens. Dostoevsky also occasionally documents the childhood
reminiscences of a character, which disrupts the chronological progression of
events but which helps to develop a particular character or theme.
In the novel there is one major unifying conflict which ties together
all of the characters and forms the basis for the plot. Dostoevsky wastes no
time in establishing the conflict; after a brief introduction to the characters,
the novel opens with Dmitry, as an adult, attempting to collect his inheritance
from his father. He desperately needs the money to pay back Katerina Ivanovna,
from whom he has stolen money. His father will not give him his due
inheritance; instead, he uses the money to attempt to seduce Grushenka. To
complicate matters, Dmitry is insanely and passionately in love with Grushenka
himself, although he is betrothed to Katerina.
Dostoevsky builds suspense with several hints that Dmitry may try to
kill his father. For example, Dmitry is so in love with Grushenka that he vows
he will kill his father if his father succeeds in seducing her. Indeed, once,
when he suspects that Grushenka has gone to Fyodor, he bursts frantically into
his father’s house and beats his father viciously; thus the reader is forced to
believe that Dmitry is capable of murder. Additionally, Dmitry vows that he
will “murder and rob someone” before he will appear as a thief before Katerina,
and the reader logically assumes that the “someone” will be his father.
To further complicate the conflict, Ivan is in love with Katerina; he
secretly hopes that Dmitry will kill Fyodor, that “one vile reptile will consume
the other,” so that he can have Katerina. Alyosha, meanwhile, frantically
attempts to mediate the conflict. Alyosha eventually has to return to the
monastery, however, and Ivan purposely leaves town; the suspense continues to
build as Dostoevsky subtly manipulates these events so as to leave Fyodor
The conflict is indeed resolved with the murder of Fyodor, and all
pieces of evidence suggest that Dmitry is the murderer. Dostoevsky only
eventually reveals that Smerdyakov, Fyodor’s sadistic and atheistic illegitimate
son and servant, is the murderer; nevertheless, Dmitry is convicted of the crime.
Ivan discovers the truth, but his descent into madness prevents him from
reporting it. Smerdyakov, the only other link to the truth, commits suicide.
Dostoevsky also develops within most of the major characters interior
conflicts, the most developed of which is that of Ivan. Ivan struggles
throughout the novel with his beliefs about God. Ivan believes that God must
exist, for he believes that man is too “savage and vicious” an animal to have
conceived of an idea “so sacred” as the idea of God. Yet Ivan cannot find proof
of God’s mercy and love in a world of suffering and depravity; he cannot accept
a God that allows cruel people to exist and innocent people to suffer.
Ivan also believes that God placed an intolerable burden of freedom on
man; God expects man to freely choose heavenly rewards over material things.
Ivan argues that the great majority of men are not able to “disdain earthly
bread for the heavenly sort,” and that these men are tormented by their
knowledge of their weakness. Ivan believes that man can only be happy if his
freedom to choose between heaven and earth, between good and evil, is taken
away; he argues that man should renounce God and that the world should be run
by a totalitarian government that take’s away man’s freedom and forces him to be
obedient. He feels that men will “submit . . . gladly and cheerfully . . .
because it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure
at present in making a free decision for themselves.”
Ivan, out of principle, renounces God, as well as his freedom to choose
between good and evil. He firmly believes that, having renounced this freedom,
that “all things must be lawful” to him, and he shares this idea with others,
including Smerdyakov. It is not until Smerdyakov, influenced by the idea that
“all things are lawful,” murders Fyodor that Ivan realizes the implications of
his ideas. He realizes that happiness resulting from a renunciation of God is a
delusion; he discovers that it is God that is keeping the entire race of man
from sinking into the depravity and cruelty that he could not accept in the
first place. Confronted by a conflict in ideas that he is unable to solve, he
declines into madness.
One of the major themes of The Brothers Karamazov is the idea that life
without God can only lead to destruction. Dostoevsky develops the theme largely
through the description of Ivan’s struggle between acceptance and renunciation
of God; Ivan is, in fact, a representation of the Western world, which has dealt
with the same struggle for centuries. Ivan believes that man’s suffering and
unhappiness are caused by the freedom that God gave him to choose between
material objects and heavenly rewards. Most men cannot differentiate between
material objects and life, however, and thus the decision torments them. Ivan,
therefore, believes that man should establish a state of government akin to
socialism, in which God is abolished and in which obedience and material wealth
are emphasized; the government would, in other words, take away the freedom
which so torments man and reinforce the belief that material wealth is, indeed,
Dostoevsky warns, however, that a man’s renunciation of God will
eventually destroy him. He may be made falsely happy, for a while, but he will
soon realize, as Ivan does, that without God there can be no virtue. He will
both descend into madness and despair, as Ivan does, and destroy himself and
others, as Smerdyakov does.
Dostoevsky emphasizes that it is only those that decide to live for God,
as Dmitry eventually does, that can truly be happy. Dmitry’s unhappiness and
despair throughout much of the novel stems from his preoccupation with material
objects, especially money. It is largely because of this preoccupation that he
commits the immoral actions that he does. It is only at the end of the book,
when he renounces his past sins, accepts God, and begins to live for Him that he
becomes truly happy. He realizes that he may now “rise up in joy,” for his soul
has been brought “from the den of thieves into the light.”
POINT OF VIEW
The point of view of The Brothers Karamazov is that of an impartial,
omniscient narrator, a narrator that is never developed as a character in the
novel. Dostoevsky uses the omniscient point of view out of necessity; for the
reader to truly comprehend Dostoevsky’s ideas, the reader must know every
character’s perception of every aspect of the novel, not merely the perceptions
of one character. If Dostoevsky had, for example, written the novel from the
point of view of Alyosha, the novel would have lost a great deal of its meaning.
The reader would not have been able to so clearly comprehend the inner conflict
with which Ivan struggles, for example, and thus the reader would probably
overlook one of Dostoevsky’s major themes.
It is also important that Dostoevsky uses a first person omniscient
point of view–that is, an omniscient narrator–rather than a third person
omniscient point of view. Although Dostoevsky never develops his narrator, the
narrator still serves to draw the reader into the novel. The narrator
establishes a familiarity with the reader and puts the reader at ease.
Additionally, the narrator tells the story excitedly and sometimes almost
impatiently; he is constantly “getting ahead of [himself]” in his impatience to
tell the story. The reader, whether he knows it or not, adopts this excitement
himself, and thus becomes more eager to learn the outcome of the story.
SETTING AND ATMOSPHERE
Dostoevsky purposely reveals little about the basic setting of the novel.
He merely reveals that the story takes place in a relatively small provincial
town in Russia, and he forces the reader to infer the time period in which it is
set from his descriptions of historical events. Dostoevsky deliberately
describes his setting vaguely in order to emphasize that the themes and ideas of
the novel are so universal that they transcend time and place.
Although Dostoevsky reveals almost nothing about the setting of the
novel, he is still able to develop an almost tangible atmosphere of tension and
tragedy through his choice of words. Dostoevsky establishes the atmosphere in
the first sentence of the novel; he states that Fyodor Karamazov is to die “a
tragic and fishy death.” He reinforces the uneasy, dire atmosphere throughout
the novel with subtle yet descriptive phrases; he says several times, for
example, that a “catastrophe” is about to occur, and that the Karamazov
household “reeks of foul play.”
The words and actions of the characters exude anxiousness and despair as
well, and therefore help to contribute to the development of the tense and
oppressive atmosphere. Dmitry’s impassioned vows that he will kill his father,
for example, serves to heighten tenseness and suspense. Similarly, the scorn
inherent in all of Ivan’s words and actions adds to the negativity of the
Dostoevsky’s style is very realistic and straightforward. He almost
never uses flowery or poetic language or figures of speech; his language is
simple and spare, as if he tried to eliminate all that wasn’t absolutely
necessary. Similarly, he is unpretentious in his choice of words. He generally
states things in the simplest terms possible. Contrastingly, however, his
sentences are often fairly complex; despite their complexity, though, they are
easy to understand and thus do not detract from his simplicity and
Because the book consists largely of dialogue, Dostoevsky changes his
style frequently, for each of his characters has a unique style of speaking that
complements his character. Dostoevsky writes Ivan’s dialogue, for example, in a
very verbose, complex style that reinforces Ivan’s characterization as an
intellectual. He writes Dmitry’s dialogue in a very random, disjointed style
that underscores Dmitry’s tendency to allow his passion and his emotions to
cloud his logic. Finally, he writes Alyosha’s dialogue in a simple style very
similar to his own, as Alyosha is himself simple and unpretentious.??O?