The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov (Братья Карамазовы in Russian) is generally considered one of the greatest novels by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky and the culmination of his life's work. It has been acclaimed all over the world by authors as diverse as Sigmund Freud, Andrew R. MacAndrew, Konstantin Mochulsky, Albert Einstein, and Pope Benedict XVI and is often regarded as a masterpiece of literature and one of the greatest novels ever written. The book is written on two levels: on the surface it is the story of a patricide in which all of the murdered man's sons share varying degrees of complicity but, on a deeper level, it is a spiritual drama of the moral struggles between faith, doubt, reason, and free will. The novel was composed mostly in Staraya Russa, which is also the main setting of the book. Dostoevsky spent nearly two years writing The Brothers Karamazov, which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger, and completed in November of 1880. He died less than four months after publication.
- 1 Context and background
- 2 List of major characters
- 3 Synopsis
- 3.1 Book One: A Nice Little Family
- 3.2 Book Two: An Inappropriate Gathering
- 3.3 Book Three: Sensualists
- 3.4 Book Four: Strains
- 3.5 Book Five: Pro and Contra
- 3.6 Book Six: The Russian Monk
- 3.7 Book Seven: Alyosha
- 3.8 Book Eight: Mitya
- 3.9 Book Nine: The Preliminary Investigation
- 3.10 Book Ten: Boys
- 3.11 Book Eleven: Brother Ivan Fyodorovich
- 3.12 Book Twelve: A Judicial Error
- 3.13 Epilogue
- 4 The novel's influence
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Context and background
Dostoevsky began his first notes for The Brothers Karamazov in April of 1878. Several influences can be gleaned from the very early stages of the novel's genesis. The first involved the profound effect the Russian philosopher and thinker Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov had on Dostoevsky at this time of his life. Fyodorov advocated a Christianity in which human redemption and resurrection could occur on earth through sons redeeming the sins of their fathers to create human unity through a universal family. The tragedy of patricide in this novel becomes much more poignant as a result because it is a complete inversion of this ideology. The brothers in the story do not resurrect their father but instead are complicit in his murder, which in itself represents complete human disunity for Dostoevsky.
Though religion and philosophy profoundly influenced Dostoevsky in his life and in The Brothers Karamazov, a much more personal tragedy altered the course of this work. In May of 1878 Dostoevsky's novel was interrupted by the death of his three-year-old son Alyosha. As tragic as this would be under any circumstances, Alyosha's death was especially devastating for Dostoevsky because the child died of epilepsy, a condition he inherited from his father. The novelist's grief for his young son is readily apparent throughout the book; Dostoevsky made Alyosha the name of the stated hero of the novel, as well as imbuing him with all of the qualities he himself most admired and sought after. This heartbreak also appears in the novel as the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyushechka.
A very personal experience also influenced Dostoevsky's choice for a patricide to dominate the external action of the novel. While serving his katorga (forced labor) sentence in Siberia for circulating politically subversive texts in the 1850s, Dostoevsky encountered the young man Ilyinsky who had been convicted of killing his father to acquire an inheritance. Nearly ten years after this encounter Dostoevsky learned that Ilyinsky had been falsely convicted and later exonerated when the actual murderer confessed to the crime. The impact of this encounter on the author is readily apparent in the novel, as it serves as much of the driving force for the plot. Many of the physical and emotional characteristics of the character Dmitri Karamazov are closely paralleled to those of Ilyinsky.
Although it was written in the 19th century, The Brothers Karamazov displays a number of modern elements. Dostoevsky composed the book with a variety of literary techniques that led many of his critics to characterize his work as "slipshod." The most poignant example that comes across to the reader is the omniscient narrator. Though he is privy to many of the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists, he is a self-proclaimed writer, and characterizes his own mannerisms so often throughout the novel that he becomes a character himself. Through his descriptions the narrator's voice merges imperceptively into the tone of the people he is describing. Thus there is no voice of authority in the story.
Speech is another technique that Dostoevsky uniquely employs in this work. Every character has a unique manner of speaking which expresses much of the inner personality of each person. For example, "The attorney Fetyukovich habitually says 'robbed' when he means 'stolen', and at one point declares five possible suspects in the murder 'completely irresponsible.' " Thus the reader can perceive that this attorney is attempting to sound more learned than he really is and uses words incorrectly as a result. The novel also digresses from the plot a number of times to provide insight into other characters that may not even initially seem important to the reader. The narrative in book 6 is almost entirely devoted to the story of Zosima's biography which in itself contains a confession from a man Zosima met many years before who has nothing at all to do with the events chronicled in the main plot.
The diverse array of literary techniques and distinct voices in the novel makes choosing a good translation of great importance. The Brothers Karamazov has been translated from the original Russian into a number of languages. In English, the translation by Constance Garnett probably continues to be the most widely read. However, some have criticized Garnett for taking too much liberty with Dostoevsky's text while translating the novel in a Victorian manner. A case in point is that in Garnett's translation the lower class characters speak in Cockney English. This is obviously a matter of personal preference so it would serve the reader well to sample many translations before deciding on a particular text. In 1990 Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky released a new translation that strove to come closer to the stylistic quality of the original and has been met with much critical and academic acclaim from such sources as The New York Times and the University of Illinois.
List of major characters
Is a 55-year-old sponger and buffoon who has 3 sons during the course of his two marriages. He is also rumored to have fathered a fourth, illegitimate son whom he employed as his servant. Fyodor took no interest in any of his sons. So as a result they were all raised apart from each other and their father. The murder of Fyodor and the ensuing implication of his oldest son provides much of the plot in the novel.
===Dmitri Karamazov=== (Mitya, Mitka, Mitenka) Is the only son of Fyodor by his first marriage. Dmitri's personality is closest to that of his father among the three sons; He has an insatiable lust for living, is a sensualist on all levels, and gambles and carouses away enormous sums of money. In his youth Dmitri was also a soldier, participated in a duel, and generally dishonored himself in numerous ways. At the outset of the novel Dmitri is embroiled in a bitter dispute with his father over his inheritance and a local woman who has infatuated them both. The turmoil between father and son is one factor that leads to Dmitri becoming the primary suspect in his father's murder.
===Ivan Karamazov=== (Vanya, Vanka, Vanechka) Is the middle son and first by Fyodor's second marriage. He is a fervent rationalist and atheist, disturbed especially by the apparently senseless suffering in the world. As he says to Alyosha in the chapter "Rebellion" (Bk. 5, Ch. 4), "It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket [to salvation]."
From an early age Ivan was sullen and isolated from everyone around him. He carries a hatred for his father that is not openly expressed but which leads to his own moral guilt over Fyodor's murder and contributes to his later insanity. Some of the most memorable and acclaimed passages of the novel involve Ivan, including the chapter "Rebellion," his "poem" The Grand Inquisitor immediately following, and his nightmare of the devil (Bk. 11, Ch. 9).
===Alexei (Alyosha) Karamazov=== (Alyoshka, Alyoshenka) Is the youngest of the Karamazov brothers. He is proclaimed as the hero of the novel by the narrator in the opening chapter. At the outset of the events chronicled in the story Alyosha is a novice in the local monastery. In this way Alyosha acts as a counterbalance to his brother Ivan's atheism. He is sent out into the town by his Elder and subsequently becomes embroiled in the sordid details of his family's dysfunction. Alyosha is also involved in a side story in which he befriends a group of school boys whose fate adds a hopeful message to the conclusion of an otherwise tragic novel.
Was born from a mute woman of the street and is widely rumored to be the illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov. When the novel begins Smerdyakov is Fyodor's lackey and cook. He is a very morose and sullen man, and, like Dostoevsky himself, is epileptic. As a child he would collect stray cats so he could hang and later bury them. Smerdyakov is aloof with most people but holds a special admiration for Ivan and shares his atheistic ideology. He later confesses to Ivan that he and not Dmitri was the murderer of Fyodor and claims to have acted with Ivan's blessing.
===Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova=== (Grushenka, Grusha, Grushka) Is the local Jezebel and has an uncanny charm among men. She was jilted by a Polish officer in her youth and came under the protection of a tyrannical miser. Grushenka inspires complete admiration and lust in both Fyodor and Dmitri Karamazov. Their rivalry for her affection is one of the most damaging circumstances that leads to Dmitri's conviction for his father's murder.
===Katerina Ivanovna Verkhovtseva=== (Katya, Katka, Katenka) Is Dmitri's fiancé, despite his very open forays with Grushenka. She became engaged to Dmitri after he bailed her father out of a debt. Katerina produces a further love triangle among the Karamazov brothers as it is learned that Ivan is in love with her. She is characterized as exceedingly proud and her magnanimity is a constant source of torment for Dmitri.
Is Alyosha's starets in the town monastery. He is something of a celebrity among the townspeople as he displays certain prophetic and healing abilities. This fact inspires both admiration and jealousy amidst his fellow monks. The task of refuting the powerful atheistic arguments of Ivan is left to the spirituality espoused in Zosima's life and teachings.
Is one of the local schoolboys, and the protagonist of the most important subplot in the novel. His father, Captain Snegiryov, is an impoverished official who is insulted by Dmitri when Fyodor hires him to threaten the latter over his debts, and the family is brought to shame as a result. We are led to believe that it is partly because of this Ilusha falls ill, and eventually dies (his funeral is the concluding chapter of the novel), undoubtedly to illustrate the theme that even minor actions can touch heavily on the lives of others, and that we are "all responsible for one another".
Book One: A Nice Little Family
Introduces the Karamazov family and relates the story of their distant and recent past. The details of Fyodor's two marriages as well as his indifference to his three children's upbringing is chronicled. The narrator also establishes the widely varying personalities of the three brothers and the circumstances that have led to their return to Fyodor's town. The first book concludes by describing the mysterious religious order of Elders to which Alyosha has become devoted.
Book Two: An Inappropriate Gathering
Begins as the Karamazov family arrives at the local monastery so that the Elder Zosima can act as a mediator between Dmitri and his father Fyodor in their dispute over Dmitri's inheritance. Ironically it was the atheist Ivan's idea to have the meeting take place in such a holy place in the presence of the famous Elder. Dmitri, in appropriate fashion for him, arrives late and the gathering soon degenerates and only exacerbates the feud between Dmitri and Fyodor. This book also contains a touching scene when the Elder Zosima consoles a woman mourning the death of her three year old son. The poor woman's grief parallels Dostoevsky's own tragedy at the loss of his young son Alyosha.
Book Three: Sensualists
Provides more detail into the love triangle that has erupted between Fyodor, his son Dmitri, and Grushenka. Dmitri's personality is explored in the conversation between him and Alyosha as Dmitri hides near his father's home to see if Grushenka will arrive. Later that evening, Dmitri bursts into his father's house and assaults him while threatening to come back and kill him in the future. This book also introduces Smerdyakov and his origins, as well as the story of his mother Stinking Lizaveta. At the conclusion of this book Alyosha is witness to Grushenka's bitter humiliation of Dmitri's betrothed Katerina, resulting in terrible embarrassment and scandal for this proud woman.
Book Four: Strains
Introduces a side story to the novel which will show up again in more detail later in the novel. It begins with Alyosha observing a group of schoolboys throwing rocks at a sickly one of their peers named Ilyushechka. When Alyosha admonishes the boys and tries to help, Ilyushechka bites Alyosha's finger. It is later learned that Ilyushechka's father, a former staff-captain named Snegiryov, was assaulted by Dmitri who dragged him by the beard out of a bar. Alyosha soon learns of the further hardships present in the Snegiryov household and offers the former staff captain money as an apology for his brother and to help Snegiryov's ailing wife and children. But after initially accepting the money with joy, Snegiryov throws the money back at Alyosha and runs back into his home.
Book Five: Pro and Contra
Was described by Dostoevsky as the culminating point in the novel. The rationalist and nihilistic ideology that permeated Russia at this time is defended and espoused passionately by Ivan Karamazov while meeting his brother Alyosha at a café. In the chapter titled "Rebellion" Ivan proclaims that he rejects the world that God has created because it is built on a foundation of suffering by innocent children. Later in perhaps the most famous chapter in the novel, The Grand Inquisitor, Ivan narrates to Alyosha his imagined poem that describes a leader from the Spanish Inquisition and his encounter with Jesus, who has made his return to earth. The Inquisitor challenges Jesus that by giving humanity free will he had in fact doomed them to misery and despair.
Book Six: The Russian Monk
Relates the life and history of the Elder Zosima as he lies near death in his cell. Zosima describes his rebellious youth, how he found his faith while in the middle of a duel, and as a result decided to become a monk. Some of Zosima's homilies and teachings are then described which preach that people must forgive others by acknowledging their own sins and their guilt before others. Zosima teaches that no sin is isolated and in this way everyone is responsible for their neighbor's sins. Dostoevsky wrote this book as the answer and refutation to Ivan's challenge to God's creation described in the previous book.
Book Seven: Alyosha
Begins immediately following the death of Zosima. It is a commonly held perception in the town, and the monastery as well, that exceedingly holy men's bodies do not succumb to putrefaction. Thus the expectation for the Elder Zosima is that his deceased body will also not decompose. It comes as a great shock to the entire town that Zosima's body not only decays, but begins the process almost immediately following his death. Within the first day the smell of Zosima's body is already unbearable. For many this calls into question their previous respect and admiration for Zosima. Alyosha is particularly devastated by the sullying of Zosima's name due to nothing more than the corruption of his dead body. One of Alyosha's companions in the monastery named Rakitin uses Alyosha's vulnerability to set up a meeting between him and Grushenka. The book ends with the spiritual regeneration of Alyosha as he embraces the earth outside the monastery and cries convulsively until finally going back out into the world, renewed.
Book Eight: Mitya
Deals primarily with Dmitri's wild and distraught pursuit of money so he can run away with Grushenka. Dmitri owes money to his fiancé Katerina and will believe himself to be a thief if he does not find the money to pay her back before embarking on his quest for Grushenka. This mad dash for money takes Dmitri from Grushenka's benefactor to a neighboring town on a fabricated promise of a business deal. All the while Dmitri is petrified that Grushenka may go to his father Fyodor and marry him because he already has the monetary means to satisfy her. When Dmitri returns from his failed dealing in the neighboring town he learns that Grushenka's former betrothed has returned and taken her to a lodge near where Dmitri just was. Upon learning this, Dmitri loads a cart full of food and wine and pays for a huge orgy to finally confront Grushenka in the presence of her old flame. In the course of this debauchery Grushenka promises that she really is in love with Dmitri. But just as the book concludes, the police enter the lodge and inform Dmitri that he is under arrest for the murder of his father.
Book Nine: The Preliminary Investigation
Introduces the details of Fyodor's murder and describes the interrogation and torment of Dmitri as he is questioned and suspected of a crime he did not commit. The reader learns that Dmitri had the opportunity to kill his father, and even wanted to, but did not. He instead almost killed the family servant Grigory by bludgeoning him on the head with a pestle while scaling over the fence in Fyodor's yard. All of the evidence points against Dmitri; the only other person in the house at the time of the murder was Smerdyakov and he was incapacitated due to an epileptic seizure he suffered the day before. Smerdyakov actually faked this attack and, it is learned later, actually killed Fyodor. As a result of the overwhelming evidence against him, Dmitri is formally charged with the patricide and taken away to prison to await trial.
Book Ten: Boys
Reintroduces the story of the schoolboys and Ilyushechka last referred to in book 4. The book begins with the introduction of the young boy Kolya Krasotkin. Kolya is a brilliant boy who proclaims his atheism and beliefs in the ideas of Europe. He seems destined to follow in the spiritual footsteps of Ivan Karamazov; Kolya is bored with life and constantly torments his poor mother by putting himself in danger. As part of a prank Kolya lies underneath railroad tracks as a train passes over and becomes something of a legend for the feat. All the other boys look up to Kolya, especially Ilyushechka. Since the narrative left Ilyushechka in book 4, his illness has gotten progressively worse and the doctor states that he will not recover. Kolya and Ilyushechka had a falling out over Ilyushechka's father's humiliation by Dmitri. But thanks to Alyosha's intervention the other schoolboys have reconciled with Ilyushechka and Kolya soon joins them at his bedside. It is here that Kolya first meets Alyosha and begins to reassess his nihilist beliefs.
Book Eleven: Brother Ivan Fyodorovich
Chronicles Ivan Karamazov's destructive influence on those around him and his descent into madness. It is in this book that Ivan meets three times with Smerdyakov, the final meeting culminating in Smerdyakov's dramatic confession of murdering Fyodor Karamazov. Smerdyakov expresses disbelief at Ivan's professed ignorance and surprise. Smerdyakov claims that Ivan was complicit in the murder both by telling Smerdyakov when he would be leaving Fyodor's house, and more importantly, by instilling in Smerdyakov the belief that in a world without God "everything is permitted." The book ends by Ivan having a hallucination in which he is visited by the devil, who torments Ivan by mocking his beliefs. Alyosha finds Ivan raving and informs him that Smerdyakov killed himself shortly after their final meeting.
Book Twelve: A Judicial Error
Details the Trial of Dmitri Karamazov for the murder of his father Fyodor. The courtroom drama is sharply satirized by Dostoevsky. The men in the crowd are presented as resentful and spiteful, and the women are irrationally drawn to the romanticism of Dmitri's love triangle between himself, Katerina, and Grushenka. The turning point in the trial occurs with Katerina's damning testimony against Dmitri in which she reproduces a drunken letter he wrote to her saying that he would kill Fyodor. The tragedy continues when Ivan's madness takes its final hold over him and he is carried away from the courtroom after telling of his final meeting for with Smerdyakov and the aforementioned confession. The book concludes with the impassioned closing remarks of the prosecutor and the defense, and the final verdict that Dmitri is guilty.
The Epilogue opens with an ambiguous plan developed for Dmitri's escape from his sentence of 20 years hard labor in a work camp. Ironically, in the deep suffering of this affair Dmitri has become spiritually regenerated and is ready to accept his fate. The novel concludes at Ilyushechka's funeral. Alyosha promises to remain close to Kolya and the other boys. He implores them to love each other and to always remember Ilyushechka. The boys promise Alyosha that they will be kind, love life, and keep each other in their memories forever.
The novel's influence
The Brothers Karamazov has had a tremendous influence on some of the greatest writers and philosophers that followed it. Sigmund Freud called it "The most magnificent novel ever written" and was fascinated with the book for its Oedipal themes. In 1928 Freud published a paper titled "Dostoevsky and Patricide" in which he investigated Dostoevsky's own neuroses and how they contributed to the novel. Freud claimed that Dostoevsky's epilepsy was not a natural condition but instead a physical manifestation of the author's hidden guilt over his father's death. According to Freud, Dostoevsky (and all sons for that matter) wished for the death of his father because of latent desire for his mother; and as evidence Freud cites the fact that Dostoevsky's epileptic fits did not begin until he turned 18, the year his father died. The themes of patricide and guilt, especially in the form of moral guilt illustrated by Ivan Karamazov, would then obviously follow for Freud as literary evidence of this theory.
Franz Kafka is another writer who felt immensely indebted to Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov for influencing his own work. Kafka called himself and Dostoevsky "blood relatives" perhaps because of Dostoevsky's existential motifs. Also, Kafka battled his own debilitating illness, tuberculosis, as Dostoevsky struggled with epilepsy. Another interesting parallel between the two authors was their strained relationships with their fathers. Kafka felt immensely drawn to the hatred Fyodor's sons demonstrate toward him in The Brothers Karamazov and dealt with the theme of fathers and sons himself in many of his works, but most explicitly in his short story "The Judgement".
- Mochulsky, Konstantin translation by Minihan, Michael A.(1967). Dostoevsky: His Life and Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Dostoevsky Studies: Kafka and Dostoevsky as "Blood Relatives." http://www.utoronto.ca/tsq/DS/02/111.shtml
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor translation by Pevear, Richard and Volokhonsky, Larissa(1990). The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- The Brothers Karamazov, e-text of Garnett's translation (1.9 MB).
- The Brothers Karamazov, HTML version of Garnett's translation (as one big file) at the CCEL
- Who's Who in the Brothers Karamazov, a cast of characters.
- Full text in the original Russian
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