Book Report On Dostoevsky

’s “The Brothers Karamazov” Essay, Research Paper Book Report on Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” CHARACTERIZATION The main characters of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov are, as

’s “The Brothers Karamazov” Essay, Research Paper

Book Report on Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”

CHARACTERIZATION

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

his characters.

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

vulnerable.

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.

THEME

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,

life.

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

atmosphere.

STYLE

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

straightforwardness.

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?