Study Guide

The Brothers Karamazov Suffering

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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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.

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