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Themes

At the center of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is the sensational murder of Fyodor Karamazov. With the ensuing trial, the novel questions the possibility of an earthly justice, a notion of justice without the guiding influence of religious authority and divine law. The court systems in the novel are demonstrated to be weak at their core. The wrong man is found guilty by an incompetent jury that is easily manipulated by lawyers for the prosecution. His punishment – exile to Siberia – is hardly likely to offer him any hope of being anything other than a criminal for the rest of his life. In contrast, the novel stresses the importance of a religious ideal of justice, in which everyone accepts guilt for everyone else (see our discussion of the theme of "Guilt and Blame"), and religion provides the moral guidance that alone can provide a criminal a chance to mend his ways.

Questions About Judgment and Justice

  1. Many of the characters present their own ideas about how to rehabilitate or reform a criminal; think, for example, of the elder Zosima, Ivan Karamazov, Kirillovich, and Fetyukovich. Compare and contrast their theories.
  2. Take a look at the prosecutor's and the defense attorney's speeches. If you were a member of the jury, which way would you have voted? Who do you think provides the most convincing case? Why?
  3. What do you think is the novel's attitude toward the criminal justice system in Russia? Consider the way the novel depicts trials by jury, such as Dmitri's trial, and the statements various characters make about justice, criminal behavior, and punishment of criminals.

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov shows that reform of a criminal is actually inspired by religious faith, not by any form of punishment from the courts.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is skeptical of trials by jury because they offer so much room for biased interpretation of the facts.

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