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Literature / The Brothers Karamazov

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Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of a landowner from our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall speak of in its proper place.

The Brothers Karamazov was the last novel by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, published in serial segments in 1880. It centers around the internecine conflicts of the Karamazov family, established in the novel's opening book:

  • Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov - The father. A libertine and glutton, Fyodor is also said to be a shrewd businessman and financier. Overall a thoroughly horrible man, he sires three sons with two wives, driving both wives to death before their time because of how impossible it is to live in the same house as him. His murder serves as one of the major pivotal plot points. He is around fifty years old.
  • Dmitri - The eldest brother. After his mother's death, he was raised for some time by Fyodor's servant Grigory, but was then taken away by his maternal uncle to serve in the Russian military and then lived abroad in Europe. He grew up believing that his father owed him an inheritance, and as the novel begins he has returned home to demand it. He is twenty-eight years old.
  • Ivan - The middle brother, half-brother to Dmitri and older brother to Alyosha. Ivan grew up with his father's servant Grigory after his and Alyosha's mother died, and then went off to university in Moscow supported by an inheritance left to him by his maternal grandmother, writing articles and editorials for periodicals and school newspapers there. He acquires some fame after publishing an article about ecumenical politics and the emerging atheism of the modern age, in which he famously declares of the new morality, "If God does not exist, then everything is permissible." He is twenty-four years old.
  • Alexei - The youngest brother, half-brother to Dmitri and full brother to Ivan, and the protagonist of the novel. He is usually addressed as Alyosha. He was raised alongside Ivan for some time after their mother died, but was taken to live with a provincial marshal who had been his mother's friend before her marriage. Alyosha showed an aptitude for spiritual matters, was loved by everyone, and confided in by everyone. At the beginning of the novel, he is a novice monk at the local monastery under the tutelage of Father Zosima. He is twenty years old.

The town is also populated with a whole cavalcade of interesting supporting characters, of which a few:

  • Grigory - The Karamazovs' elderly manservant and Smerdyakov's warden, this man is Loyalty Incarnate and grounded in his sensibilities. He took in the titular brothers when they were all but abandoned by their father and raised each of them in their early years.
  • Smerdyakov - The son of Stinking Lizaveta, a mentally challenged beggar-woman who hopped the fence of the Karamazov house one night and gave birth to him, aided by Grigory and his wife. The rumor is that he's an illegitimate child of Fyodor's, which is strongly supported by the text. He works as a manservant and cook in the Karamazov house after having been trained in Moscow for a time, and is generally misanthropic and antisocial. He is around twenty years old.
  • Katerina - An aristocratic lady of Russia's upper crust, she met Dmitri while he was serving in the military. Due to a favor he did for her years past, she's come to the town seeking to marry him, convinced that they are in love.
  • Agrafena - A disreputable but immensely attractive woman who has been a public fixture in the town for around half a decade. Rumors fly about her being a prostitute with a price too high for any man, but ultimately worth every kopeck. Grushenka, as she is most commonly known, is desired by both Fyodor and Dmitri, setting up the initial Love Triangle of the story.
  • Father Zosima the Elder - A high Church authority at the local monastery, Father Zosima is the very incarnation of Christianity and, indeed, morality itself. He is famed as a living saint, boundless in his wisdom, and receives petitioners from across the world. He was based in part on an actual saint that lived in Dostoevsky's time, and his life's story has some parallels to St. Augustine's biography. He is Alyosha's role model and mentor.
  • Ilyusha - A schoolchild whom Alyosha encounters one day being teased by the other schoolboys. When Alyosha attempts to help him, Ilyusha bites his hand. The story of Ilyusha is a subplot throughout most of the book, involving his destitute family and their run-ins with members of the Karamazov family.
  • Madame Khokhlakova - A lady of modest income and good standing, Madame Khokhlakova is introduced when she appears at the monastery seeking an audience with the Elder Zosima for her daughter Lise, a sick girl confined to a wheelchair. She later establishes herself as a town gossip, due to just really not knowing when to shut up. She is the source of a lot of comedy because of this.

The novel's plot is mostly conveyed through a series of monologues and dialogues. Most of the monologues are to Alyosha, who, as mentioned above, is considered trustworthy by everyone. In the dialogues, characters debate any range of topics, most of the more interesting ones centering around questions of faith, guilt, free will, suffering, and temptation. These themes are played out as the tension between Dmitri and his father gradually grows, up to the moment one night when Fyodor Karamazov is murdered and Dmitri is arrested for it. From this point on, the mindgames and schemes that each character has been playing against the other begin to unravel as events take on a life of their own.

Adaptations of note include a 1958 Hollywood film starring Yul Brynner and William Shatner, a 1969 Russian film, and a 2009 12-part Russian TV series.

This book provides examples of: (warning: major spoilers ahead)

  • An Aesop: Build good, loving memories while you can, because they're your best chance of getting through the dark times ahead.
  • All-Loving Hero: Alyosha's expansive love for all people contrasts sharply with the spite and selfishness of the other characters, and allows him to maintain good relationships with pretty much everyone no matter what "side" they're on.
  • Aloof Big Brother: At first, Ivan is this a bit toward Alyosha, but later warms up to him. Averted with Hot-Blooded Dmitri, who admires Ivan and adores Alyosha from the start.
  • Asshole Victim: Fyodor was at best an absent father, and at worst straight out abusive. Had he completed his will, he'd have left nothing to any of his children. And that's not even mentioning his rape of Lizaveta.
  • Author Filibuster: At times the monologues can seem like rants, but they only serve to further the story.
  • Author Tract: Free will, guilt, suffering, "blood is Thicker Than Water", etc.
  • Bastard Bastard: Smerdyakov.
  • Betty and Veronica: Katerina Ivanovna as the honourable, well-bred, high-society Betty, Grushenka as the disreputable temptress Veronica. Played with, in that they end up being similar, with both of them having the potential for kindness as well as having a vicious streak a mile wide.
  • Big Good: Zossima's plans for Alyosha indirectly save several people.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Dmitri Karamazov is a respected captain in the Russian army and a menacing presence to everybody except for his brothers.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: In the form of a sealed envelope that also qualifies as part of the MacGuffin.
  • The Butler Did It: The murderer was Smerdyakov.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Both Ivan and Dmitri pull no punches in letting their father know what a disgusting individual he is as well as how badly he's wronged them and others, not that Fyodor cares. Alyosha is too much of an All-Loving Hero to say it in the same way, though even he makes it clear how much it saddens him to watch his father degrade himself and harm others to such a degree.
  • Character Filibuster: An exceptionally long one in Ivan's Grand Inquisitor. The two lawyers' speeches at the trial also qualify.
  • A Chat with Satan: Ivan's brain fever drives him to imagine a devil following him around and chatting with him.
  • The Chessmaster: Smerdyakov. From convincing Ivan out of town with Reverse Psychology, to feigning an epileptic attack, to lying to Dmitri about the envelope, to Mind Screw-ing Ivan into believing he's partially responsible, and killing himself so that he couldn't be proven guilty, Smerdyakov all but guarantees Dmitri's conviction.
    • Kansas City Shuffle: Each and every person in the town, up to and including the police, prosecutors, judges, attorneys and Dmitri himself, is fully convinced Fyodor Pavlovich had been killed to be robbed of the envelope with money. The only questions they ever ask are only about how much the evidence points to Dmitri and not Smerdyakov. Nobody even considered the possibility of Fyodor Pavlovich marrying Grushenka and disinheriting his sons from his great fortune of 120 000 rublesnote . Nobody except Smerdyakov. A half-insane poorly educated epileptic Out-Gambitted everyone in sight.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Dmitri.
  • Clear My Name: Everyone but Dmitri (and Alyosha) seems convinced that he killed his father.
  • Deliverance from Damnation: Attempted in The Fable of an Onion, a Nested Story. A wicked woman is sent to a lake of fire after death, but her Guardian Angel remembers that she has one good deed to her name: she gave an onion to a beggar. God allows the angel to pull the woman out using that onion: if the latter doesn't break, she can go to Heaven. The angel brings the onion to the lake, gives it to the woman and starts pulling her out, but then the other sinners in the lake grab at her legs, hoping to get out as well. The woman pushes them away, saying it's her onion and it's she who's being rescued, and the onion immediately breaks.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Smerdyakov has a vicious streak that is clearly visible to all around him and is quite willing to show his high intelligence in a conversation, yet manages to be Beneath Suspicion regardless.
  • The Devil Is a Loser: Smerdyakov is a petty, bitter, resentful man who achieves nothing. Also, Ivan's hallucination is far from impressive in either his appearance or his charisma.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The novel is set up as though it is a recounting of actual historical events (with even an introduction from its fictitious author presenting it as a biography), and the narrator himself expresses himself in such a way that he cannot help but become a character in the novel, even though he does not directly affect any of the action.
  • Dragged Off to Hell: The evil peasant woman in The Fable of an Onion is dragged off by demons to the lake of fire for her wickedness in life. Her Guardian Angel dismayed, reasons with God she did do one good deed in giving an onion to a beggar. He's instructed to use that very deed to haul her out. Other sinners try to pull on the woman to escape in her place. Her cruelty in kicking them off ensures the onion snaps, and she's dragged off to Hell a second time. If only she didn't, her angel could've saved the only person it was ever meant to save, her.
  • Driven to Suicide: Dmitri almost, only changing his mind when it seems like there is a possibility of a happy life with the woman he loves, also Smerdyakov, though in his case it may be more of a Thanatos Gambit.
  • Dysfunction Junction: All of the brothers except perhaps Alyosha have their fair share of neuroses. Almost all major supporting characters have had something tragic happen in their lives. Alyosha's afraid of women and experiences a crisis of faith because his spiritual mentor's body starts decaying after death and the monastic community therefore rejects him.
  • Fatal Flaw: Ivan's intellectual arrogance, Dmitri's hedonistic intemperance, Katerina's wounded pride, Grushenka's spite, all end up bringing them to serious trouble in one form or another.
  • Freak Out: Ivan. Starting when he lets slip that he believes he is "visited" by someone, and then escalating from there into a full-blown brain fever that leaves nobody in any doubt he has lost his mind (hopefully temporarily).
  • Freudian Trio: The three brothers: Dmitri is the id, Ivan is the superego, and Alyosha is the ego.
  • Gambit Pileup: Everyone's mindgaming everyone else, apart from Alyosha who is loved and trusted by all parties so acts as a witness to their confessions.
  • Grand Inquisitor Scene: The Trope Namer is the story Ivan tells Alyosha about the interrogation of Christ returned by The Spanish Inquisition. In this story-within-the-story. The Grand Inquisitor claims Christ did wrong by not giving in to the devil's famous three temptations - because giving in would have meant giving man food, miracles to believe in, and an authority to rule them. Here's the other wiki's explanation. The Grand Inquisitor believes that Christ should have had His followers trade free will and a choice in whether or not to worship God for a comfortable life by making that choice for them.
    It's Ivan's struggle to reconcile the alternatives of either an uncaring Godnote  or its alternative of a nonexistent God; the latter of which he believes would lead to a world where morals don't matter since heaven and hell don't exist to act as a deterrent.note  His Grand Inquisitor's solution is that the Church should rule the world. Christ did not allow this, ergo in the Inquisitor's eyes he "sinned" against the church, and the Grand Inquisitor yells at him for it. In other words, man may not live by bread alone—but without it he will surely perish. Most people are not equipped for the kind of hardships Jesus went through. Give them safety and then they can worry about morals.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Dmitri's has disastrous consequences, not only for himself but also for the completely innocent family of a man he humiliates and beats, ending in the death of Ilyusha as a result of the sequence of events he started.
  • Heroic BSoD: Ivan's conversation with Smerdyakov leaves him completely stunned and unable to make heads or tails of his own morality. The loss of confidence in himself is one of the factors in his downward mental spiral.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Ivan declaring that atheism means anything goes with morality. However, he also gets to make some very poignant arguments in favor of atheism.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Grushenka.
    • It's partly subverted, though, as she is more decent than she seems at first, but, even after she falls in love with Dmitri, she does not exactly become a sweet, gentle wallflower either.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Alyosha.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: "Without a clear perception of his reasons for living, man will never consent to live, and will rather destroy himself than tarry on earth, though he be surrounded with bread."
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: The ultimate end to the love triangle is two of the parties agreeing to remember that they loved one another once, even if they can't make the relationship work.
  • Jerkass: Fyodor. It is impossible to tell how much of his shameful behaviour is genuine stupidity and how much is him pretending to be stupid in order to get away with saying terrible things, but it is true that not a single person in town mourns him and only care because the crime of patricide is more offensive to them than simple murder.
  • The Kirk: Alyosha. Appropriately enough, a pre-Star Trek William Shatner played him in the film adaptation.
  • Knight Templar: The Grand Inquisitor believes freedom leads to chaos, and is on a self-appointed mission to save humanity from itself.
    "Anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take his freedom away from him."
  • Left Hanging: The thematic conflicts are resolved, but there are several plot threads which are ongoing or unresolved as the novel ends, most likely because Dostoevsky intended this as the first arc of a much longer story that he never lived to finish (see What Could Have Been below).
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: Subverted with Ilyusha, who does not recover in an inspiring way, but dies in a heartbreaking one.
  • Love Dodecahedron: At first a cause of underlying tension, then later becoming the main cause of the tension.
  • MacGuffin: Fyodor Karamazov's fortune.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Smerdyakov in the truest sense, but really, most of the cast with the exceptions of the (legitimate) brothers themselves.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In keeping with the book's ongoing theme of faith vs. doubt, it's left to the reader to decide how literally to take Ivan's conversation with the Devil.
  • The McCoy: Dmitri.
  • Meaningful Funeral: The death of Ilyusha is devastating to everyone, but is the trigger for Alyosha to deliver An Aesop about what really matters to the younger generation of boys, and allow some healing and hope for the future.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Karamazov is made of two roots: "kara" meaning "black" in Turkic languages (but not in Russian) as well as "maz" which implies the Russian verb "mazat" meaning smear plus "ov", the suffix for surname. Thus Karamazov means "black-smearing" or "black-smeared". Of course only if one knows what kara means, which an ordinary Russian speaker does not.
    • Smerdyakov means approximately "Stink-son" with smerdet meaning stink and ov being the suffix for surname. Of course in his case it is intentional as his mother was called Lizaveta Smerdyashaya, smerdyashaya being a present tense participle for the same verb smerdet (thus she was called nearly exactly Lizaveta the Stinking as she was a hobo).
  • Mentor Archetype: Father Zosima, whose lessons shape Alyosha, and, through him, many others in the story.
  • Messianic Archetype: Father Zosima the paragon of virtue who inspires Alyosha in his role as the All-Loving Hero.
  • Mind Screw: In a previously completely realistic and grounded story, the discovery that Ivan is regularly visited by Satan (or an extremely convincing hallucination of him) changes the tone of the story completely.
  • Mistaken Confession: Poor Dmitri rants for two entire chapters to the police about what he did earlier that evening when his father was murdered, and the police only see mounting evidence. Any lawyers reading the book probably start facepalming a lot around those chapters.
  • Morality Pet: Smerdyakov to Fyodor, who takes him in after his mother Lizaveta's death and is unnaturally kinder to him than he is to everybody else (even his own sons and Smerdyakov's possible half-brothers). For all the good that it does for Fyodor, given Smerdyakov murders him.
  • Motive Rant: Many characters have one (almost all of them to Alyosha), though unlike many examples of this trope they tend to fully admit their negative qualities when they do so, rather than try to justify themselves.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Supposed to be part of Mitya's motivation for murdering Fyodor.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: The song sang by the girls before Mitya's arrest - "The soldier boy will pack his kit / And drag me with him through ..."
  • No Animosity in the Afterlife: This concept is discussed by Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan says that he couldn't accept a world where a mother embraces a torturer and murderer of her son, and they exclaim aloud with tears, "Thou art just, O Lord!". Alyosha has to agree with him.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: In The Fable of an Onion the wicked woman's single good deed isn't enough to save her from Hell, she's ironically undone by it, and it seals her damnation. She preferred to remain wicked and selfish, even over against her one-time good deed. All her Guardian Angel can do is mourn at the failure.
  • The Philosopher: Many of the characters, but particularly Ivan and Father Zosima, who each occupy extreme points on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Madame Khokhlakov, who has no real role in the story beyond annoying the hell out of everyone with her inability to stop her mouth from running.
  • Power Trio: Alyosha is the ego, Dmitri the id and Ivan the superego.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Characters frequently repeat themselves, get distracted, or have to backtrack. Further complicated by many of them being in states of drunkenness, heightened emotion, or questionable sanity during key scenes.
  • Reasoning with God: The Guardian Angel from The Fable of an Onion tries his best to convince God, the soul of the wicked woman he watched over in life doesn't deserve Hell, because of one single good deed. She gave an onion to a beggar woman. God tells him to use said onion to pull her out of damnation. He fails, when her true Jerk with a Heart of Jerk nature shows.
  • Satan: Appears during the aforementioned Mind Screw.
  • Shout-Out: Fyodor Pavlovich refers to Luke 7:47 saying that Grushenka the whore will be forgiven by the Christ for "the great love she has shown". The priest objects that the biblical woman was saved for the other kind of love but Fyodor Pavlovich insists that the woman who was a sinner was saved for exactly the same sort of love as practiced by Grushenka.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The novel falls somewhere in the middle, with each character being tacked on to different points in the spectrum.
  • The Spock: Ivan.
  • Straw Nihilist: Ivan, Smerdyakov, and possibly Fyodor.
  • Surprise Witness: Radically subverted with Ivan and Katya who end up either not helping the case or deliberately make it worse out of pure wounded pride.
  • "Take That!" Kiss: Two of the rare examples where the giver is generally considered morally above the receiver: Christ to the Great Inquisitor, and Alyosha to Ivan (who identifies it as plagiarism, but is nevertheless gratified).
    • Played straight with Grushenka to Katerina.
  • Talking the Monster to Death
    • It's a subversion: the devil laughs his ass off when Ivan tries to do that during his nightmare/vision. And Smerdyakov's suicide kind of ruins Ivan's plan.
  • ‹bermensch: Out of the brothers, Alyosha is very representative of the older "Knight of Faith" version of this tropes, as he places absolute faith in the ideals of Christianity and love as a conscious decision with no fear or thoughtlessness. Perhaps surprisingly, Ivan (who is a highly intelligent atheist who can justify his arguments well,) does not actually qualify because he does not build his own code or act in accordance with it, instead acting in a completely conventional way despite critiquing it.
  • The Unpronounceable: If you aren't a Russian speaker, many of the names can be this. ex: Iljúsjetjka Snegirjóv, Lizaveta Smerdjasjtjaja.
    • The difficulty of pronunciation can vary with the way the names (and especially the Russian letters «щ» and «ш» in them) were transliterated. Ilyushechka is a lot easier to pronounce than Iljúsjetjka , especially if you know which syllable is stressed (Pevear and Volokhonsky put an index at the beginning to help readers pronounce Russian names.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly, explaining his reasons for including or omitting certain details, and speaking as if he is a resident of the town who witnessed the events unfolding directly. Somehow, he seems to know exclusive details of private interactions between characters, as well as the contents of Ivan Fyodorovich's feverish hallucination. Yet hilariously, the narrator apparently had no idea what Grushenka's surname was until it was mentioned in court near the end of the story.