Study Guide

The Brothers Karamazov Fate and Free Will

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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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.

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