So you're looking at those "Tone" words thinking, how can a novel have so many contradictory tones? Has the novel got multiple-personality disorder? Well, yes and no. The novel aggressively tries to get into everyone's heads, to piece together the way they feel about the world – so aggressively, in fact, that it seems to fall apart under the weight of all of these voices. At the same time, the narrator's attitude emerges from time to time, casting an ironic light on one character's struggles here, a more sympathetic light on another character's view there. Despite these oscillations in attitude, the narrator is so clearly and completely invested in the fate of the characters that we can't help caring about even the most unsympathetic ones.
The Brothers Karamazov spans almost 800 pages (at least in its English translation) – which leaves plenty of room for various literary genres. The novel's way of turning characters into symbols of ideas inspired the genre of symbolist novels in Russia, but The Brothers Karamazov is widely considered a realist novel for its detailed portrayal of the mores and controversies of its time. The tempestuous Karamazovs provide the core family drama that explodes into a suspenseful whodunit over the murdered Fyodor Karamazov. Alongside this juicy plot runs an intense debate about weighty philosophical questions such as the existence of God, free will, and the fate of humanity. The Brothers Karamazov masterfully orchestrates these various genres into a comprehensive literary work, making it one of the great classics of literary fiction.
The super obvious answer is that the whole novel is about the Karamazov brothers. It follows the course of their lives from birth to young adulthood, at which point they are all drawn back to their hometown, to the home of their horrible father. The ensuing conflict determines the course of the rest of their lives.
But this is Dostoevsky, and in Dostoevsky's world, things are complicated. Who are the Karamazov brothers? Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha share the same last name and are recognized as legitimate sons by their father and by society. Each of them seems to represent some essential aspect of human nature – Dmitri in his sensuality, Ivan in his intellectualism, Alyosha through his spirituality. The title invites us to consider them together; without each other, each brother is only a fragment of a self. The title suggests that the theme of a more universal brotherhood – where we must act toward everyone as if they were our closest kin – is being played out in the story.
But wait – there's more. What about Smerdyakov? No one knows his parentage, but everyone assumes he is the illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov. The novel never lets us know for sure. He both is and is not a Karamazov brother. Smerdyakov is the "x" factor in the novel, an unknown quantity but also indubitably, inexplicably evil. Where does he fit into the novel's view of universal brotherhood? Does universal brotherhood also mean accepting, even loving, despicable people like Smerdyakov, as the elder Zosima might argue? The novel certainly makes it tough to find Smerdyakov lovable in any way.
Like much in Dostoevsky's novel, what starts out as a mere matter of fact takes on a more universal, even metaphysical dimension. Other characters such as Rakitin and Kirillovich frequently speak of the "earthy Karamazov force" as if it were the Force, a force that works not just within the novel, but within Russian society and even world history at large.
Given the sensational events of the novel – murder! theft! scandal! – the ending seems a bit anti-climactic, even sappy, right? For the closing scene, Dostoevsky sends us to Ilyusha's funeral. By this point in the novel, you're like, who? Ilyusha is the young son of Captain Snegiryov, who was humiliated by Dmitri at a local tavern. Roughly two hundred pages and three books earlier, we learned that Ilyusha, after having gotten into a few fights at school over his father, had fallen very ill. This illness prompted a reconciliation with the other boys, who were encouraged to visit him after Alyosha took an interest in his case. There is much tear-jerking here at the ending, as Dostoevsky offers image after pathetic image of the Snegiryovs and the children mourning poor waifish Ilyusha's death.
Meanwhile, the novel has left a lot of plot strings unresolved. Will Dmitri escape exile and emigrate to America with Grushenka? Will Ivan recover from his illness and marry Katerina? Will Alyosha return to the monastery, or will he marry Lise?
The answers to these questions are embedded precisely in this seemingly unrelated scene at Ilyusha's funeral. The funeral echoes back to the epigraph, which cites a passage from the New Testament about how a grain of wheat may "die," but once planted in the soil, "bringeth forth much fruit" (see "What's Up With the Epigraph?"). Ilyusha's death is the "seed" that will bear the fruit of goodness in those who survive him. In his earnest and loving defense of his father, Ilyusha is the model son that none of the Karamazovs ever were. Even in death, he reminds all those around him of the essential goodness of life. As Alyosha reminds his young friends, "even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve one day for our salvation" (Epilogue.3.49).
The Brothers Karamazov is set in the tumultuous years following Russia's abolition of serfdom in 1861. (To be more precise, if the novel is set "thirteen years" before its publication, as the narrator tells us, this places the time of the novel around 1866.) By setting the novel in a provincial town rather than an urban setting, Dostoevsky can explore how the abolition of serfdom transforms social relations across different classes, from the peasants to the landed aristocracy.
The 1860s were a volatile period in Russian intellectual history. The abolition of serfdom was but one consequence of the influence of Western European philosophies of liberalism and socialism on Russian society. This period also witnessed the rise of radical political movements, including the People's Will, which assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the year Dostoevsky died. These ideas are embodied in intellectual characters such as Ivan and Rakitin.
But the novel also registers the strong conservative, Slavophilic currents that arose in reaction to these radical ideas. (Slavophilism is the celebration of the Slavic roots of the Russian people.) The novel is largely sympathetic in its portrayal of more conservative characters such as the elder Zosima, who stresses the centrality of the Russian Orthodox religion and champions the intrinsic moral superiority of the Russian people.
Although the novel is set in the 1860s, it registers the controversies over judicial reform in the late 1870s. The fact that Dmitri's jury consists of, to put it gently, men of mediocre intelligence is in line with the conservative view that juries cannot handle the demands of justice (source: Terras, Victor. A Karamazov Companion. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981. P 63).
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12:24)
The epigraph echoes the elder Zosima's teachings. He cites this particular passage from the New Testament's Gospel of John to suggest that suffering should not be the cause of our rejection of God, but an avenue into faith (6.1.14). In other words, suffering – particularly the suffering of innocents – may cause us to doubt the existence of a God who is just and all-powerful. But Zosima argues that suffering is necessary; it is the "seed" that can produce the "fruit" of a greater, a more robust faith. Through suffering we lose our pride and conceit; we become humble, and, in our humility, we are able to empathize with all human beings because we no longer consider ourselves superior to them. This empathy, or love, as Zosima stresses, connects us to the greater mystery of God's love.
In some sense, the novel is a test of what happens when suffering is sown in the fields of skepticism or faith, to stick to the gardening metaphor. If you are a skeptic like Ivan, suffering results in madness. If you are a man of faith, as Dmitri becomes at the end of the novel, suffering is a source of spiritual strength and regeneration.
Let's be honest – this is one long novel. You have to live with this novel for a while – it just takes a long time to read. Plus the action is frequently interrupted by long, philosophically dense passages – the Grand Inquisitor chapter, the elder Zosima's life and times, the speeches at Dmitri's trial. Fortunately there's enough blood, scandal, gossip, and twisted romance so you don't have to get overwhelmed by all the philosophy. The Brothers Karamazov will either dazzle you or baffle you – or both.
Many readers of Dostoevsky's novels are struck by the amount of dialogue in his novels. You have to wonder if anyone really talks as much as Dostoevsky's characters do. But this is also what makes Dostoevsky's novels so gripping to read. He is able to capture the speech rhythms of each of his characters, from the Dmitri's frenetic idealism to Ivan's cool cynicism, from Alyosha's awkward sincerity to Fyodor's clownish malice. Even the minor characters have distinctive speech patterns – think, for example, of the way the young Kolya Krasotkin parrots the intellectual fashions of the day. You get the sense that each of these characters is speaking to you directly, drawing you into their world through their words.
Dostoevsky draws on religious and folk archetypes to give an allegorical depth to his novel. It's a way to show how a common trove of cultural meaning – such as religion – connects to everyday life.
Perhaps the three most important archetypes are the devil, the wise man, and the holy fool. While the devil, or Satan, is often represented as a towering, threatening figure of evil and terror – or, as in Milton's Paradise Lost , a Romantic, anti-establishment anti-hero – Dostoevsky's devils are decidedly less intimidating. The frailty of Ivan's Grand Inquisitor, and the shabbiness of the devil who meets Ivan in his room, and even Smerdyakov's sickly physiognomy, all indicate how evil lacks the vitality that comes from faith and love.
The two actual fools in the novel – Father Ferapont and Stinking Lizaveta – are at the margins of society, but still have an important place in it: Father Ferapont is honored by the other monks, and Stinking Lizaveta is cared for by the townspeople. These figures on the margins are revered or at least respected for being otherworldly, so intimately connected to the divine order that they seem mad.
The wise man may seem to be the opposite of the holy fool, but they are actually quite intimately connected. The truly wise man often appears to be a fool to others; his otherworldly wisdom doesn't compute with the worldly concerns of most people. The characters' reactions to the two "wise men" of the novel – Zosima and Alyosha – are usually uninhibited laughter and joy. When Zosima – in his early life as the young officer Zukovy – concedes the duel and explains his spiritual enlightenment to others, he is greeted by puzzlement and joy. Similarly, characters automatically react to Alyosha with friendship and confidence, if not joy. Zosima and Alyosha's friendliness bears out the thesis presented in the novel that "a man must suddenly set an example, and draw the soul from its isolation for an act of brotherly communion, though it be with the rank of holy fool" (6.2.d).
The Brothers Karamazov is often interrupted by long narratives that don't further the plot and could probably stand on their own as novels. Mini-novels nested within the novel, such as Ivan's "The Grand Inquisitor" fantasy and Zosima's "Life and Times," serve as allegories to help develop the message of the novel as a whole. Indeed, these two stories represent two radically opposed world views that are tested in the course of the narrative. Significantly, Zosima's "Life and Times" is actually authored by Alyosha, writing out his recollection of Zosima's words. Alyosha's act of writing parallels the work of the narrator in The Brothers Karamazov: both attempt to produce an image of human goodness in the face of great suffering, with the same universal appeal that Zosima ascribes to the simple stories in the Bible.
Money isn't just the source of conflict in The Brothers Karamazov; it symbolizes a basic absence of values in modern society. While everybody and their mother seems to gab on about Dmitri's "3,000 roubles," the irony is that no one except Dmitri has ever counted the money. "3,000 roubles" is a fantasy, a collective hallucination, a mirage generated by word of mouth. Even the actual 3,000 roubles – the wad of incriminating cash Smerdyakov has stashed in his room – can't save Dmitri from the fabled 3,000 roubles everyone imagines he has. This imaginary, valueless money is made all the more symbolic by the fact that many of the wealthy characters – Fyodor Karamazov, Kuzma Samsonov, Madame Khokhlakov, Pyotr Miusov – are also the most morally bankrupt.
The novel constantly refers to the earth as a source of life. The epigraph prepares us for the earth as a metaphor for spiritual renewal (see "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for more). Zosima himself encourages everyone to kiss the ground while they pray. This gesture is not only one of humble obedience toward God, but a way to connect to the Russian soil, the land that provides a living for a largely rural Russia. Moments of revelation often occur when the characters experience natural beauty, as when Alyosha steps outside in the "Cana of Galilee" chapter:
The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens," we are told, "the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars.
These recurring references to the earth prepare us for the "earthy force" of the Karamazovs, who become a symbol for the Russian people as a whole.
Each of the Karamazov brothers is subjected to three temptations, a nod to the Biblical story of the temptation of Christ that provides the foundation for Ivan's Grand Inquisitor. Their fates are largely determined by how well they resist these temptations. Ivan becomes mentally unhinged after his temptations – the three conversations with Smerdyakov in the months leading up to the trial. After his own three torments during his interrogation by the prosecutor, Dmitri begins to accept his suffering as a path to redemption. Even Alyosha is tempted: first by the death of the elder Zosima, then by Rakitin, and finally by Grushenka. He successfully survives these temptations with a stronger sense of faith that carries him through the rest of the novel. Notably, each of the brothers experiences a kind of vision or revelation: Alyosha in the "Marriage at Cana" episode, Dmitri on his second trip to Mokroye, and Ivan with his devil.
The passages devoted to the circle of schoolboys around Kolya and Ilyusha are only loosely connected to the main plot but carry a heavy allegorical significance. In the novel, the suffering of children is invoked by Ivan as a reason to reject God: he finds it inexcusable that God could allow the suffering of innocents. The irony, of course, is that Ivan doesn't really seem to care about the suffering of children. The circle of schoolchildren that surrounds Kolya and Ilyusha experience in miniature, as it were, the larger tragedy developing around the Karamazov brothers. They experience a moment of communion and reconciliation at Ilyusha's grave that the adults – with the exception of Alyosha – never achieve, which perhaps suggests that we are all born with a goodness with which we lose touch as we grow older and more focused on worldly concerns.
The Brothers Karamazov will sometimes break out a startling image to stand in for a concept. For example, Grushenka tells a story about an old woman whose guardian angel attempts to pull her out of hell with an onion (yes, all the angel could muster was an onion). When Grushenka mentions that her act of kindness is her "onion," the onion serves as shorthand for the idea that even one small act of goodness can redeem a soul. Another notable example is the "galloping troika" of the prosecutor's speech. Despite the narrator's ironic treatment of the prosecutor, the image of the galloping troika as a stand-in for a Russia careening out of control is powerfully evocative.
A first-person narrator in The Brothers Karamazov? That the narrator in fact steps in to say "I" may surprise you. It's easy to get lost in all the details of the book, but you might have noticed that the narrator pops in from time to time, generally getting into all kinds of seemingly meaningless digressions and apologizing for being such a terrible narrator. We never get his name; all we know for certain is that he is a local of the town, Skotoprigonyevsk, where everything takes place.
Through this narrator, Dostoevsky is able to have the best of both worlds. The narrator has just enough familiarity with everybody in the novel to be able to speak with the chumminess of a really good gossip. But he is also just vague enough that we don't pay any attention to him for much of the novel, when the drama of the Karamazovs takes center stage.
This unique narrative voice has drawn a lot of critical attention. Perhaps the most influential literary theorist on Dostoevsky is Mikhail Bakhtin, who argued that the peculiar invisibility of Dostoevsky's narrator enables the novel to relay a number of different voices: the narrator gives everybody a chance to speak for themselves. And given how much of the novel is taken up by dialogue – rather than the monologue of a single narrator or character – it might also be no surprise that Bakhtin calls Dostoevsky the master of a "polyphonic" ("multi-voiced") style in his Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics.
Dostoevsky also embeds some hints about his narrative technique within the novel. Check out how both the prosecutor Ippolit Kirillovich and the defense lawyer Fetyukovich contrast their version of events with that of a novelist. The narrator himself steps in to give his opinion on both Kirillovich's and Fetyukovich's speeches. Kirillovich, he says, uses "a strictly historical method of accounting, which is a favorite resort of all nervous orators" (12.9.1). Basically, Kirillovich lacks imagination, which prevents him from grasping the way the world works and the real story behind Fyodor's murder. He tells everything – inaccurately – in chronological order.
Fetyukovich, on the other hand, speaks "somehow scatteredly at the beginning, as if without any system, snatching up facts at random, but in the end it all fell together" (12.10.1).
It seems to us that Dostoevsky is giving us a big, big hint here about how he thinks a narrator ought to tell a story. Reality is complicated, truth is complicated – so stories have to be complicated. Like the defense lawyer, our narrator seems to present events in a scattered away (for instance, he neglects to narrator Fyodor's murder...hello!) but that's because reality is scattered and hard to interpret.
Both the defense lawyer and the narrator sometimes have difficulty with the correct way of putting things, which helps make them more relatable to the reader. After all, haven't you ever found yourself tongue-tied in the face of a shocking or inexplicable situation? We witness the narrator's attempts to make sense of an astonishing torrent of events and piece together scattered shreds of reality, which we, then, must attempt to make sense of ourselves.
Fyodor Karamazov is more than just a really, really bad father in Dostoevsky's novel; he's a force of evil, ruining the lives of everyone in his family. All of the Karamazov brothers have to deal with the fact that they may have inherited his evil nature, including the angelic Alyosha.
Each of the brothers tries to come to terms with their father in a different way: Dmitri through violence, Ivan through arrogance and intellect, and Alyosha through purity of heart. But they're no match for Fyodor, and even Alyosha's faith is shaken by the death of the elder Zosima, his spiritual guide and, in some sense, replacement father.
It seems that the Karamazovs succumb to the "Karamazov force," the dark and evil nature they seem to have inherited from their father. (Seemingly, because we're dealing with a "Rebirth" plot; skip ahead to Stage E for a spoiler.) Dmitri is the prime suspect in his father's murder, but all the Karamazov brothers must grapple with the fact that they may have been in some way complicit in his death.
So the novel is a real downer at this point. Dmitri is innocent but is found guilty and awaits exile to Siberia. Ivan gets some kind of brain fever and is reduced to a babbling idiot. Smerdyakov hangs himself. Alyosha abandons the life of a monk. At this point, we have to wonder if there's any point in living in such a terribly unfair world filled with suffering and disappointment.
But wait – things aren't so terrible! Dmitri actually looks forward to his sentence, sort of, because it compels him to mend his ways. Ivan's illness finally wins him Katerina's undivided attention. And Alyosha is revived by the innocent love of Ilyusha's friends.
The brothers find themselves back in or near their father's home, for vastly different reasons. All that Karamazovian fury concentrated in one locale leads to an incredibly volatile situation where desire, greed, pride, and resentment explode into murder.
The real engine for the conflict is Fyodor Karamazov, the father. This wily, dirty old man cons Dmitri out of his inheritance and attempts to seduce his love interest. But Dmitri isn't the only one out for a piece of the Karamazov fortune: Smerdyakov is around to slyly remind Ivan that he, too, has a vested interest in Fyodor's death. Meanwhile, the monkish Alyosha doesn't understand why his elder insists that he attend to his brothers instead of his monastic duties, especially when his elder is so near death.
Ivan seems to have escaped Smerdyakov's sly plans by leaving town, and Alyosha finds his faith temporarily shaken by Zosima's death. Dmitri desperately seeks a loan of 3,000 roubles, believing the sum will enable him to claim Grushenka for himself, and also to settle a debt of honor with his former fiancée.
The death of Fyodor, the man causing so much trouble for his sons, determines the rest of the action of the novel. It's also interesting that we never see Fyodor murdered; there's a break where the murder should be. Oddly this makes the murder even more climactic, because we genuinely don't know, can't know, what happened to Fyodor until hundreds of pages later...and that's called suspense. Which takes us to the next stage . . .
Because Smerdyakov confesses to the murder on the evening before the trial, the suspense of the trial scenes consists in whether Dmitri will be convicted or saved by the truth.
The truth loses out: nobody believes Ivan when he relates Smerdyakov's confession, and Dmitri is found guilty. While his brothers work for his escape, Dmitri welcomes the possibility of becoming a "new man," purified by the experience of suffering.
The conclusion of the novel finds Alyosha at Ilyusha's funeral. Surrounded by Ilyusha's friends and united by their love, Alyosha asks them all to remember this moment of shared goodness.
The three brothers Karamazov return to their father's home. Relations are particularly tense between Dmitri and his father because of an inheritance dispute and a romantic rivalry.
With Dmitri and his father's relationship at an all-time low, his father is murdered.
Dmitri is wrongly convicted of his father's murder and awaits exile in Siberia.