Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov—the father of the family. At the time of the book he is an elderly widower. He has been a lecher all his life and is the father of the illegitimate son, Smerdyakov.
Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov (Mitya)—The passionate oldest son who is a veteran of the military and is entangled in two love interests: Katya and Grushenka.
Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov--The intellectual nihilist (2nd son) who loves Katya (unrequited) and is filled with contradictory feelings about his atheism and general worldview.
Alexei (Alyosha) Fyodorovich Karamazov--(3rd son). He is the spiritual center of the novel. He becomes a novice monk and then follows his mentor’s (the Elder Brother Zosima’s counsel) call for him to enter into the world and do good (= love his fellow humans).
Stinking Lizaveta—A young retarded girl who is treated as the village idiot. She dies giving birth to Smerdyakov. Most of the town believes that the father of the child is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who continually raped her over a period of time.
Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov--The illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov and Lizaveta. He is epileptic and is the real killer of Fyodor Karamazov. He was raised by Grigory Kutuzov and his wife Marfa (servants to Fyodor).
Grigory Kutuzov--servant to Fydor Pavlovich Karamazov. He and his wife, Marfa, raise Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov.
Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova (Grushenka)--At a young age she has an affair with a Polish officer who abandons her (thus ruining her “reputation”). She travels to another town and is taken on by a merchant as a mistress and then involves herself with Fyodor Karamazov and then with his son Dmitri. This causes much of the tension in the novel.
Katerina Ivanovana Verkhovtseva (Katya)--Dmitri’s finance until he turns to Grushenka. There was an early incident in which Katya needs money (before she realizes her wealth) in which she begs him for money so that she might redeem her father’s good name. This “goes against her intense pride.” She feels forever beholden to Dmitri so that she becomes his espoused. Her flip over this event makes her want to be Dmitri’s slave, but the more she wants him, the more he is moved to Grushenka. Her love-hate relationship includes showing some attention to Ivan and to her hysterical testimony at Mitya’s trial in which she produces a letter that seals his fate.
The Elder Monk, Brother Zosima--He is a revered monk (revered one who is treated as a saint and spiritual center). Alyosha is very close to him. In the novel we have two glimpses of him. In the first case we see many who come to him for advice and for healing. In the second case he is the spiritual advisor for Alyosha. He tells Alyosha to go out into the world—away from the monastery—to live in the world (including taking a wife and raising a family). When he dies, many are disappointed that his body smells just like any other corpse. What his followers wanted was a miracle in which his body would smell like a garden. Some questioned his spiritual status because of this. Alyosha was not so affected. But he followed the advice and gave up his monk’s clothes for lay attire and went out to the world and is the center of the rest of the novel.
Katerina Ospovna Khokhlakov (Madame Khokhlakov)--A wealthy lady in town who is also a friend of Katya. Her crippled daughter, Lise, is fixated upon Alyosha (who says he wants to marry her). She is rather coy showing affection and then proclaiming it all to be a joke.
Mikhail Osipovich Rakitin—a seminary acquaintance of Aloysha. Aloysha likes Rakitin mildly, but Rakitin despises Aloysha out of jealousy. Rakitin is a Nietzsche aficionado.
Ilyusha Snegiryov—a local school boy whose father is insulted and beaten by Dmitri Karamazov. He is taunted by his peers who throw stones at him. He bites the finger of Alyosha, but later befriends him before his early death.
Captain Snegiryov--Ilyusha’s father who no longer has a position and feels shame because of it. His son takes on the brunt of this as the boy tries to defend his father’s reputation against his school mates.
Nikolai Ivanov Krasotkin - (Kolya) A bold, intelligent young boy who claims to know who founded “Troy.” (This is a claim that cannot be verified since it is unknown). Kolya befriends Alyosha after Ilyusha becomes ill and is a positive element in the final scene in the book.
Fetyukovich--A renowned defense attorney from Moscow who represents Dmitri at the trial.
Ippolit Kirrillovich--The prosecuting attorney at Dmitri’s trial.
Structure of the Book:
Author’s Note & Book I: A Nice Little Family, Chapters 1–5
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering, Chapters 1–4
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering, Chapters 5–8
Book III: The Sensualists, Chapters 1–11
Book IV: Strains, Chapters 1–7
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapters 1–4
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapters 6–7
Book VI: The Russian Monk, Chapters 1–3
Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4
Book VIII: Mitya, Chapters 1–8
Book IX: The Preliminary Investigation, Chapters 1–9
Book X: Boys, Chapters 1–7
Book XI: Brother Ivan Fyodorovich, Chapters 1–10
Book XII: A Judicial Error, Chapters 1–14
Epilogue, Chapters 1–3
A brief summary: The novel begins with the family coming together in the town of their father after being apart for a while being in the care and employ of others. Each has a particular reason to be there. Dmitri wants to settle his inheritance with his father. Upon the death of their mother each child was to get 3,000 roubles. The tight-fisted Fyodor doesn’t want to do it—even though he’s worth 60,000-80,000 roubles. He is an evil man in several dimensions.
Aloysha is there because he is a novice at the local monastery.
Ivan is there perhaps for the same reason as Dmitri or to assist him.
One source of friction arises when Dmitri (who is engaged to Katya) has taken to Grushenka, instead. But Fyodor is also interested in Grushenka—even though he is old enough to be her father. Fyodor is a bad man.
The Karamazovs go the monastery to solicit the opinion of the elder Zosima. But Fyodor causes a ruckus and that nixes that idea. Aloysha seeks out Dmitri, who has been hiding in the garden, and the brothers talk. Dmitri tells the story of how Katya humbled herself to get money from Dmitri to redeem her father’s good name. After that, Katya devoted herself to Dmitri, who then asked her to marry him.
After a time, Dmitri falls for Grushenka, gets money (3,000 roubles) from the now wealthy Katya to carry on his affair with Grushenka.
Aloysha goes to his father’s house and finds Ivan, Fyodor, Smerdyakov, and Grigory engaged in a religious dispute. This is really a metaphorical confrontation on how each of them relates to the other. The only stand-out is the nihilist intellectual approach of Ivan. He represents the solely rational man. Out of nowhere Dmitri comes in and beats his father and runs away. [This is a sort of “red herring.”]
Aloysha also exits and goes to Katya who just happens to be entertaining Grushenka. But when Aloysha arrives, Grushenka insults Katya and is asked to leave. Katya’s maid hands Aloysha a note upon his departure. When Aloysha arrives at the monastery he finds the note is from Lise who declares her love for him (later she says it just a “joke”).
The next day Brother Zosima directs Aloysha to check on his family. Aloysha goes to his father who is angry to the point of being delusional about his other two sons. Aloysha leaves heading for Katerina Khokhlakov’s (and Lise) when he meets the Snegiryov family including the boy, Ilyusha, who had bit his finger viciously earlier in the day. Former Captain Snegiryov rejects Aloysha’s offer of charity. Aloysha is going back to his father’s house where he meets Smerdyakov who tells Aloysha that Ivan and Dmitri are having a conference at a local tavern.
Aloysha goes to the pub and finds Ivan alone. They dine together and Ivan defends his theological position via the poem: “The Grand Inquisitor”
“The Grand Inquisitor”: The narrator is Ivan with brief queries by Aloysha. In the narrative poem Christ comes back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition in the town of Seville, Spain. Christ performs miracles to establish his identity and the people praise him (reminiscent of Palm Sunday). But the authorities take this differently. The Inquisition hierarchy view Christ as a threat and arrest him and sentence him to death (just like the aftermath of Palm Sunday). The main problem that the Inquisitor has with Jesus mirrors the three temptations of Jesus by Satan at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the 40 days in the wilderness. In the end, it is Jesus’ doctrine supporting human free will that upsets the Inquisitor. “Non-freedom” is preferable from the viewpoint of a church that sees itself as a political institution (mirroring the social/political tensions in Russia at the time).
The ultimate judgment of the Inquisitor is that Jesus was wrong to give the answers he did to Satan. In fact, Satan was correct!
In this way, Ivan is purporting that the Church is Satan and antithetical to the doctrines of Jesus—and that the Church (in taking this position) is correct!
This is powerful nihilism in this context. It will provide intellectual support for the forthcoming Russian Revolution which will abolish the Church in Russia.
The novel now turns to Ivan. Ivan returns to his father where he first runs into Smerdyakov who insinuates that Fyodor may be vulnerable to murder. This upsets Ivan. The next morning Ivan’s father, Fyodor, asks Ivan to go to Chermashnya to get a price on some wooded land that Fyodor owns and to bargain a higher price. Ivan does go, but is not successful in the mission. He heads to Moscow.
We now turn to Aloysha who attends to his spiritual advisor, the Elder Zosima who is near death. Aloysha seeks direction in his life. Brother Zosima tells Aloysha his story of how he was once a soldier almost killed a man in a duel. This story is centered around what it means to be “brave.” It contrasts competitive, macho values vrs. strength of virtue. This difference marks the difference between those who appear to be good as oppose to those who actually are. This is a key point in the novel as Aloysha internalizes this and acts it out effectively. It makes Aloysha the hero of this tale.
The next day the Elder Zosima dies. Since the man was so revered in the region, people looked for a miracle to appear. But instead of a miracle the body decays as other bodies do. His monastic followers (including Aloysha) morn his passing by prayer and the reading of scriptures. [Note back to “The Grand Inquisitor” for the common folk miracles are important. But are they really important in the physical sense? Isn’t the character of a man much more important?]
Now Dmitri is out and about looking for 3,000 roubles (the amount he had taken from Katya). Both Kuzma Samsonov and Madame Khokhlakov turn him down. Then he heads to his father’s. He is consumed with the thought that Grushenka might be there with his father, but he gets a bird’s eye view through the window that no visitor is there so he decides to exit. Unfortunately, he runs into the servant Grigory who tries to restrain him. Dmitri extricates himself by hitting Grigory over the head causing profuse bleeding. Grigory screams, “Parricide!”
Dmitri returns to Grushenka's. He finds out from the servants that Grushenka has left for Mokroye to meet the Polish lover, who turned her over five years ago and thereby ruined her reputation. Dmitri rushes off to Mokroye, where Grushenka rejects her Polish lover (when she finds out that he will leave her with a financial inducement from Dmitri) and declares her love for Dmitri. They throw a party to celebrate, but the festivities come to an end when officials arrive to arrest Dmitri for the murder of his father.
The novel now returns to the story of Ilyusha Snegiryov. There is an incident in which Ilyusha believes that a needle that he had put in food that his dog ate had killed the dog. The pain of this contributes to Ilyusha becoming ill. Kolya, another boy in the school who is very bright, takes a liking to Aloysha who comes to visit. Aloysha rallies the very same boys who had thrown stones at Ilyusha when he had been defending his father. Kolya brings Ilyusha a dog that they convince the sick child was his old dog come back: that Ilyusha had not killed his dog. Despite this change in spirit, a Moscow doctor that Katerina (Katya) had paid for makes the prognosis that Ilyusha does not have long to live.
It is now time for Dmitri’s trial. Just before the trial Ivan questions Smerdyakov privately. The duplicitous servant admits to killing Fyodor and taking the three thousand roubles. Smerdyakov hands over the money to Ivan. Ivan and Smerdyakov talk about confessing in court: Ivan for wanting his father dead and Smerdyakov for doing it. Later that day Smerdyakov kills himself.
Dmitri’s case rests on the money. When he had taken 3,000 from Katya he had used ½ of it for a bender with Grusenka. The other half he had put in a pouch that he carried around his neck. After leaving his father and heading for Grusenka for another bender he spent a little less than the 1,500 left. There was no further money left on his person, so it would seem that he didn’t steal 3,000 from his father or there would be 3,000 on his person.
The case made by the prosecutor, Ippolit Kirrillovich, emphasized a certain psychological profile that would explain the “facts.” However what really made a difference is when Katerina (Katya) testified in an emotional outburst that she felt that Dmitri was seriously thinking about killing his father and had written a note to that effect when he was drunk the day before.
The defense, Fetyukovich a renowned lawyer, also used a psychological profile that made different fundamental assumptions. The crowd all thought that Dmitri would be acquitted. He wasn’t.
Ivan, who fell apart during his testimony, had gone a way towards setting up the proper bribes that might allow Dmitri to escape before going to Siberia. From there he would leave Russia for America with Grusenka. Katya would pay the bill.
Aloysha meets with Dmitri in jail. Aloysha give his moral judgment that it would be all right for Dmitri to follow Ivan’s plan. The novel ends before we find out if that is actually effected.
Then we go to the dying scene and wake of Ilusha with his twelve comrades (once antagonists) who are drawn together by Aloysha and Kolya. The group rallies around the grave site and Aloysha tells the boys that this is a sacred moment which will yield a memory that they should hold onto all their lives. It will give sacred meaning and life is all about finding and holding onto sacred meaning. The insight and goodness of Aloysha makes this final moment the ultimately most valuable moment in a novel filled with bitterness and sorrow.
Themes: One quick and easy dichotomy might be to contrast the “sensualists” (Book III) with Aloysha’s spiritualism (Books VI and VII). The way of the world is via competition and money. It is the exercise of power over others. But the use of extreme power is also dangerous because it can turn its back on the perpetrator as it does to Fyodor, Dmitri, and Smerdyakov. A tangent to this is to use intellect or perverse emotion to try and cope with life’s tragedies: Ivan, Katerina, and the early Kolya. Intellect is important but it is not the most important ingredient in the human soul.
Love, on the other hand, comes from the spirit and self-control (right conduct). Aloysha is the standard-carrier here. He is a transformational character who is not so good as to be “unreal.” Love truly does offer an option in times of crisis. And the humble execution of the same creates a real agent of positive social change.
Assessment: Dostoevsky is a fine writer. It is this reviewer’s opinion that The Brothers Karamazov is his best work. Further, I believe it to be one of the best novels ever written that I have read. When I first pursued this work forty years ago I was not able fully fathom the existential truth of the contrast of the three approaches: power via sensualism, power via reason, vrs. unconditional love. It can take a lifetime to understand how to weigh these options. Surely the way of the world is to lean toward the sensualist or rationalist, but though these roads may be the most powerful, they are not the most choiceworthy. Our only hope for survival as a species lies in unconditional love. This novel expresses via fictive narrative philosophy the truth of that normative proposition.
Attempted: *****/ Accomplished: *****