Study Guide

The Brothers Karamazov Themes

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    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.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Take a look at the "intellectual" characters in the novel – Ivan and Rakitin, certainly, but to a lesser degree Miusov and Smerdyakov. How do they define human nature? Why do they attack religion?
    2. What is the novel's attitude toward psychological and medical explanations for human behavior, particularly in Book 7, "A Judicial Error"?
    3. Ivan's "Grand Inquisitor" fantasy is so long that it could be called a "mini-novel" embedded within Brothers Karamazov. Take a look at other such "mini-novels" within the novel – Zosima's biography, Fetyukovich's and Kirillovich's long speeches, etc. What "great ideas" are presented in these mini-novels? Which mini-novel do you think provides the best or most convincing idea, as a vision of humanity and human society?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Religion

    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.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Take a close look at Zosima's teachings, primarily in Book 5, Chapter 3, "From the Talks and Homilies of Father Zosima." What are the main features of Russian Orthodox faith according to Zosima? For example, how does he explain such ideas as faith, love, redemption, and paradise?
    2. Ivan's Grand Inquisitor takes a pessimistic attitude toward human nature, claiming that man is essentially weak and needs to be controlled through "miracle, mystery, and authority" (5.5.11). How does the novel debunk each of these three claims?
    3. Dostoevsky's novel focuses on the Russian Orthodox faith as a specifically Russian religion. How does the novel draw attention to the close link between the Russian Orthodox faith and the Russian people?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Fate and Free Will

    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.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. According to the intellectual character Ivan, free will is accepting the motto that "everything is permitted." How does Ivan come to believe in this motto? What are the consequences of this belief? Do you think he is really "free"?
    2. According to the elder Zosima, free will is "perfect freedom" through "self-mastery." Explain Zosima's definition of free will through reference to his religious teachings. Do you think Zosima is really "free"? How does his view compare or contrast with Ivan's? Which version – Ivan's or Zosima's – wins out in the novel?
    3. Other characters in the novel take a deterministic view – either society or psychology is responsible for our actions, and we have no control over them. Can you identify which characters take a deterministic view of human nature? Explain these views. What is the novel's attitude toward them?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Judgment and Justice

    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

    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.

  • Suffering

    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.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. The characters experience many different kinds of suffering in the novel – physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Take a look at a few of the characters that speak the most to you. How do they suffer? Is the cause of their suffering external (think of Alyosha's anxiety over his brothers, or Dmitri's false conviction) or internal (think of Ivan or Katerina's pride)?
    2. Ivan doesn't deny the existence of God so much as refuse Christianity on the grounds that it permits the needless suffering of innocent children. Do you think he has a valid point? How does Ivan's attitude toward the suffering of children contrast with Dmitri's concern for the "wee ones"? Does the novel provide a strong enough defense of Christianity against Ivan's challenge?
    3. Dmitri keeps saying that through suffering he will become a "new man" (11.4.36). How does his use of a Christian language of resurrection and rebirth help us understand what he means by a "new man"?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Guilt and Blame

    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.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Take a look at scenes where different characters feel guilt or shame. What do they feel shame about? How does the experience of guilt change them? How are they different from characters who feel little if any shame, such as Smerdyakov?
    2. The elder Zosima's idea that we are guilty for everyone's sins sounds confusing, even indefensible. Check out the passages where he explains his ideas about guilt and love. Do they make sense to you? Would you be able to explain them to someone else?
    3. Clearly Dmitri is not guilty of murder, but he is found guilty by a jury anyway. What do you think Dmitri's wrongful conviction says about the novel's attitude toward legal notions of crime and punishment?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Isolation

    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.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Take a look at the scenes where characters are alone. What drives them into solitude? What happens to their state of mind when they're alone? Consider, for example, scenes such as Ivan alone in his room when he hallucinates about the devil.
    2. Take a look at all of the instances when different characters contemplate hurting or killing themselves. Dmitri and Smerdyakov are probably the two most obvious examples, but think also of Lise, who slams a door on her thumb. Why do these characters want to hurt themselves? What finally pushes Smerdyakov over the edge?
    3. What characters in the novel seem to bring joy and comfort to others? In what way do they offer a glimmer of hope to these solitary souls?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Take a look at the way the Karamazovs behave toward each other. Does Fyodor act like a father to his sons? Do his sons treat him as a father? How do the brothers act toward one another?
    2. Why do you think there is so much conflict in the Karamazov family? Consider, for example, the role that disputes over money and attitudes toward women (both romantic interests and mothers) play.
    3. Do you think Smerdyakov is Fyodor's son? Does he count as a Karamazov brother? Why or why not?
    4. Do you think Fyodor's murder was justified? Why or why not?
    5. Take a look at other father-son and other brother-brother relationships in the novel. You might consider Captain Snegiryov and his son or Zosima and his elder brother, or look at foster father figures, such as Zosima with Alyosha. How do these relationships differ from the Karamazov relationships?
    6. Consider Kirillovich and Fetyukovich's lectures on fatherhood in Dmitri's trial scene. If, as Kirillovich claims, the Karamazov family stands in for society as a whole, what does that say about society?

    Chew on This

    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.