In his journal, Dostoevsky wrote against the notion that societies were formed from the mere "need to live together": "This is not true; rather, it always happened as a result of a great idea" (source). The Brothers Karamazov is an extended dialogue about what exactly this "great idea" is and ought to be. Some characters advocate a society based on secular, liberal humanistic values and socialism. But the novel questions the wisdom of these ideals, criticizing them as Western European imports and thus alien to the true spirit of the Russian people. As the elder Zosima, the moral core of the novel, points out, these ideals exclude the Russian Orthodox faith. Without religion, these ideals have no moral core and thus are easily corrupting, leading to a society based on tyranny and injustice. Individuals such as Ivan Karamazov who are skeptical of religion are torn apart by doubt. The novel can be read as an attempt to offer up an idea or an "image" of a just society grounded in Russian Orthodoxy.
Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov is ironic toward intellectual characters who over-estimate the power of reason to create an ideal or just society.
In its melding of religious values and literary realism, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov aspires to offer a vision of human nature and human society that is both ideal and realistic at the same time.
Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is an extended reflection on religion, specifically Russian Orthodoxy, not only as a guide for individual morality but as a force in human history. Ivan's poetic fantasy "The Grand Inquisitor" has often been cited as a powerful argument for skepticism and doubt and against religious faith. It presents a view of human beings as essentially weak and frail, eager to give up the terrible burden of free will to a higher, despotic authority. Christianity is simply a mask for this authority. In contrast, many characters endorse an opposing view of the Russian Orthodox religion as one that honors the potential for good in man. In contrast to other religions (most notably Catholicism), the Russian Orthodox Church is presented as a religion firmly grounded in the Russian people, a religion that embraces all of Russia, and potentially the world, in its vision of universal love and humility.
Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov tests the idea that to attain paradise, we must only recognize that we have already attained it in our lives here on earth.
Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov pits faith against skepticism; it is unclear which side wins because both sides presented in equally compelling ways.
Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov explores the question of free will by presenting and contesting different explanations of human behavior. The novel challenges the notion that in the absence of moral laws, man is free to do whatever he chooses: characters who advocate an amoral freedom tend to be the most anxious and self-destructive in the novel. But the novel also challenges psychological and social determinism, that is, the idea that either our psychological makeup or our position in society controls the way we act. None of these theories – the amoral, the psychological, or the social – can offer a satisfactory explanation for the idiosyncratic and inconsistent behaviors of Dostoevsky's characters – or, one might argue, of anyone. Paradoxically, the one vision of freedom the novel seems to endorse is a religiously committed one. Only through the complete abandonment of one's selfish desires and the acceptance of religious morality in one's life can one be truly free.
Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov demonstrates the self-destructive consequences of the character Ivan's philosophy that "everything is permitted."
In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, only the characters who can discipline their desires can truly experience love and joy.
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.
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.
Dostoevsky's characters in The Brothers Karamazov are put through the wringer. They are tormented by romantic disappointment and financial misfortune, by anxiety and jealousy and pride, by physical and psychological pain, by the malice of other characters and even the devil himself. As if that weren't enough, Dostoevsky details the suffering of children, including harrowing tales of child abuse. However, suffering in Dostoevsky's novel is a way for characters to seek moral redemption and strengthen their religious faith. Through their own and others' suffering, characters' faith in a just and omnipotent God is terribly shaken. But it is also through the experience of suffering that characters are able to break free of their own selfish desires. They can finally empathize and commune with others who suffer like themselves. Dostoevsky stresses the quasi-religious aspect of this suffering by using the language of resurrection and rebirth.
In Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, the most acute suffering is caused by pride or selfishness.
Ivan's challenge to Christianity is undercut by his own inability to step outside his own intellectual arrogance and genuinely care for others.
Our common-sense notion of guilt tells us we should only feel guilt over a specific act that we commit, for which we take responsibility. The Brothers Karamazov works with a much more generalized notion of guilt: we are guilty for everyone, not just ourselves. That is, we are so intimately connected with each other that we are responsible for everything everyone does, including those who live on the other side of the world. The novel draws on the Biblical notion of original sin – that we are all born guilty because we've inherited Adam and Eve's primordial error in the Garden of Eden. The novel takes this notion of original sin not just as a fact (we're all stuck with it) but as a general principle that guides our actions. Since we're stuck with this guilt, we must act toward others with humility and respect, and we must share in their pain and suffering. The characters in the novel who arrogantly reject this sense of guilt are doomed to anxiety, isolation, and suicidal despair. In the rare moments when characters do recognize their guilt, they experience a sense of spiritual enlightenment and potential reconciliation with the rest of the world.
In Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, the ability to feel guilt or shame is a necessary prerequisite to feeling love for other human beings.
Dmitri's trial is a satire on the legal notion of guilt, which ascribes responsibility for crime to one individual. In fact, as the novel shows, there are many individuals who contribute to a particular crime. True guilt should take a broader view of how the community as a whole contributed to a crime.
The Brothers Karamazov laments the profound isolation of the individual in 19th-century Russian society. The culprits? The waning influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, the decay of traditional social relations, the impoverishment of the peasantry after the end of serfdom, and the spread of modern, liberal "Western" notions of rationalism, socialism, and individualism. (See "Setting" and "In a Nutshell" for more on this.) All of these forces collude in giving the individual the promise of greater independence and wealth – a promise they can't keep. Instead, the individual is set adrift from society, which leads many characters in the novel to contemplate – and commit – suicide.
In Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, pride and self-consciousness drive many characters into a solitude that is ultimately self-destructive.
Dostoevsky's novel contains many instances where brotherly love saves characters from their own self-isolating tendencies.
Family values? What family values? In his depiction of the Karamazovs, Dostoevsky gives us a seriously dysfunctional clan that seems to undermine every traditional notion of what a family ought to be. No loving ties or tender care here. Fyodor is hardly the moral authority you'd expect in a father figure, and the sons – well, forget filial piety. And then there's the small matter of Fyodor's murder. While Smerdyakov may confess to the actual murder, Dostoevsky's novel suggests that all of the brothers, and in some sense, all of the readers, are symbolically responsible for Fyodor's death. The novel repeatedly draws attention to the ways that the exceptional Karamazovs actually represent the turbulent society of Dostoevsky's Russia, where conventional authorities such as the monarchy and the Russian Orthodox Church were challenged by liberal and radical ideas.
Fyodor's neglect of his duties as a father led to his death.
Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov suggests that the whole of Russian society lacks a fatherly authority figure that can give it moral guidance. Like the Karamazov family, it is doomed to self-destructive violence.