Study Guide

The Brothers Karamazov Isolation

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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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.

The Brothers Karamazov Isolation Study Group

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