The main characters of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov are, as the title suggests, the members of the Karamazov “family,” if it can indeed be called such. The only things that the members of this family share are a name and the “Karamazov curse,” a legacy of base impulses and voluptuous lust.
References to this tendency towards immorality are sprinkled heavily throughout the novel; phrases such as “a brazen brow and a Karamazov conscience,” “voluptuary streak,” and “Karamazovian baseness” abound.
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father of the brothers Karamazov, is the embodiment and the source of this immorality. In him, Dostoevsky creates such perversity and depravity that one can feel no positive emotions for the man.
His physical appearance–he is “flabby” with “small, suspicious eyes” and a “long, cavernous mouth with puffy lips, behind which could be glimpsed small fragments of black teeth”–accurately reflects his foul, disgusting character. He has no respect for himself; he enjoys playing the part of the shameless “buffoon” for attention, even though the attention he receives is negative. Because he has no respect for himself, he can have no respect for others, either.
He has no respect for women, for example; he is a despicable “voluptuary,” and he satisfies his lust at any cost. He drives his wife to madness by bringing “women of ill-repute” into their house right in front of her. Even more shockingly, he rapes a mentally retarded woman, who later dies giving birth to his illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, who grows up as his father’s servant. Fyodor is even more blatantly disrespectful to his three legitimate children.
After his wife’s death, he abandons them, for they “would have been a hindrance to his debaucheries.” He is never a true father to any of them. When his oldest son, Dmitry, becomes an adult, Fyodor is even so cruel as to deny Dmitry his inheritance and instead use the money to seduce Grushenka, with whom his son is in love. It is Alyosha, the youngest brother, which is most successful in escaping the curse of the Karamazovs.
Miraculously, he is almost the complete opposite of his father; he is an easygoing “lover of mankind” whom everyone likes. When the reader first meets Alyosha, he is a young monk of strong faith, a disciple of the Elder Zosima; he is the embodiment of Zosima’s teachings that one must love man unconditionally and not condemn man’s actions. Indeed, Alyosha treats everyone he meets with respect and love, and consequently, everyone responds to him in the same way.
He tolerates anything without censure, even the “filthy lewdness” of his father. As a result, even his father grows to be “sincerely fond of him.” Alyosha plays the role of the mediator in the novel. Dostoevsky deliberately creates Alyosha as a static character who undergoes few changes, and, therefore, he is the stable, solid character around whom the conflicts of the novel unfold. He moves in and out of these various conflicts and attempts to ameliorate the existing tensions and solve the problems.
And, indeed, the other characters open up to him and trust him because of his refusal to judge them and their actions. Alyosha is not a Christ figure, however, nor is he a mere “holy fool.” He is, in fact, a “real Karamazov”, and he has more credibility as a mediator because as a Karamazov, he knows and understands the lowest depths of the soul.
The ability that he has to understand the depravity inherent in man gives him, and therefore the reader, great insights into the personalities and motives of the other characters. For example, it is Alyosha that guesses that Katerina Ivanovna does not truly love Dmitry and that she acts out this “false love” only so that she can, out of pride, “observe [her] heroic sacrifice of faithfulness and reproach [Dmitry] for his unfaithfulness.”
Dostoevsky uses Alyosha’s insights into the minds of others as a unique way by which to develop his characters. Ivan, the second youngest of the brothers, is much different from both Fyodor and Alyosha. Ivan is a cold and haughty yet brilliant man incapable of forming lasting relationships with anyone; his intellect is the only thing he values. He rarely talks to anyone about anything but his ideas; he is, as Dostoevsky describes him, “a man who needs [nothing but] the resolution of his ideas.”
As Dostoevsky develops Ivan’s character, however, one sees that it is his intellect, the very thing that he most prizes, that is the cause of anguish and eventual madness. Ivan, unlike Alyosha, does change in the course of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Ivan, although he is a self-proclaimed atheist, is struggling with conflicting views about God.
He struggles with this interior conflict during the entire course of the novel, and his inability to resolve it causes him to slowly change from a rational, albeit confused, man to an incoherent, delirious one. At the end of the novel, at Dmitry’s trial, Ivan is so deranged that he has to be dragged out of the courtroom, kicking and fighting and “howling with a loud voice.”
After the courtroom scene Ivan immediately comes down with a severe fever, and he lies in a state of unconsciousness for the remainder of the novel. Dostoevsky ultimately leaves Ivan’s fate unresolved. It is Dmitry, the oldest of the brothers, that is, in a way, the central character of the novel. Dostoevsky creates in Dmitry a dual character that is the most complex of all of the major characters, and therefore the most human.
Dmitry is the brother most driven by the Karamazovian “virtues” of unrestraint and depravity. At the same time, however, Dmitry is an honorable man capable of the noblest of impulses. This duality in character is summed up in his conflict between his reverence for his betrothed, Katerina Ivanovna, a noble, beautiful, educated girl, and his passion for Grushenka, a woman of questionable morals. Several of Dmitry’s actions as well help to develop his paradoxical character.
For example, when Dmitry first meets Katerina, she is in desperate need of money; Dmitry’s first thought is to use money to seduce her. When Katerina comes to collect the money, however, Dmitry’s sense of honor causes him to simply give her the money along with a “reverential and most heartfelt bow. “Dmitry is the character that changes the most in the novel.
Although he is a Karamazov, depraved and unrestrained, he has hope of redemption. And, indeed, he does redeem himself; he changes from a reckless, unrestrained man who is ruled by his emotions to a responsible, humble man who has a strong faith in God. When he is wrongly convicted of his father’s death, he realizes that although he is not responsible for the sin of his father’s murder, he is responsible for a great many others, and so he accepts the sentence of exile given to him by the jury.
He even looks forward to carrying it out, as he sees suffering as a way of purifying himself and thus “rising up in joy.” Although the action of the plot is centered around the four characters of Fyodor, Alyosha, Ivan, and Dmitry, there are other characters in the novel that are of vital importance. One such character is Grushenka.
She is the “proud and unblushing” woman with whom both Dmitry and Fyodor are passionately in love. She loves neither of them, however; she simply teases them and leads them on capriciously. She allows both of them to court her and propose to her without giving either an answer. By doing so, she causes the preexisting tensions between the father and son to escalate to dangerous levels; thus she is central to the development of the major conflict of the novel.
PLOT AND STRUCTURE
The Brothers Karamazov has a very concrete, definite structure. The novel is organized to build to not only one large climax but also to several smaller ones. The events that comprise the plot of the novel are, for the most part, arranged chronologically.
The sequence of events is only occasionally disrupted; Dostoevsky will, for example, document Alyosha’s proceedings for a certain part of the day and then go back and document how Dmitry spent the same part of the day. Therefore, there are no gaps in the story; in a novel in which every action and every phrase is significant, it is important that the reader know all that happens.
Dostoevsky also occasionally documents the childhood reminiscences of a character, which disrupts the chronological progression of events but which helps to develop a particular character or theme. In the novel, there is one major unifying conflict that ties together all of the characters and forms the basis for the plot. Dostoevsky wastes no time in establishing the conflict; after a brief introduction to the characters, the novel opens with Dmitry, as an adult, attempting to collect his inheritance from his father.
He desperately needs the money to pay back Katerina Ivanovna, from whom he has stolen money. His father will not give him his due inheritance; instead, he uses the money to attempt to seduce Grushenka. To complicate matters, Dmitry is insanely and passionately in love with Grushenka himself, although he is betrothed to Katerina.
Dostoevsky builds suspense with several hints that Dmitry may try to kill his father. For example, Dmitry is so in love with Grushenka that he vows he will kill his father if his father succeeds in seducing her. Indeed, once, when he suspects that Grushenka has gone to Fyodor, he bursts frantically into his father’s house and beats his father viciously; thus the reader is forced to believe that Dmitry is capable of murder.
Additionally, Dmitry vows that he will “murder and rob someone” before he will appear as a thief before Katerina, and the reader logically assumes that the “someone” will be his father. To further complicate the conflict, Ivan is in love with Katerina; he secretly hopes that Dmitry will kill Fyodor, that “one vile reptile will consume the other,” so that he can have Katerina.
Alyosha, meanwhile, frantically attempts to mediate the conflict. Alyosha eventually has to return to the monastery, however, and Ivan purposely leaves town; the suspense continues to build as Dostoevsky subtly manipulates these events so as to leave Fyodor vulnerable. The conflict is indeed resolved with the murder of Fyodor, and all pieces of evidence suggest that Dmitry is the murderer.
Dostoevsky only eventually reveals that Smerdyakov, Fyodor’s sadistic and atheistic illegitimate son and servant, is the murderer; nevertheless, Dmitry is convicted of the crime.
Ivan discovers the truth, but his descent into madness prevents him from reporting it. Smerdyakov, the only other link to the truth, commits suicide. Dostoevsky also develops within most of the major characters’ interior conflicts, the most developed of which is that of Ivan. Ivan struggles throughout the novel with his beliefs about God.
Ivan believes that God must exist, for he believes that man is too “savage and vicious” an animal to have conceived of an idea “so sacred” as the idea of God. Yet Ivan cannot find proof of God’s mercy and love in a world of suffering and depravity; he cannot accept a God that allows cruel people to exist and innocent people to suffer.
Ivan also believes that God placed an intolerable burden of freedom on man; God expects man to freely choose heavenly rewards over material things. Ivan argues that the great majority of men are not able to “disdain earthly bread for the heavenly sort,” and that these men are tormented by their knowledge of their weakness.
Ivan believes that man can only be happy if his freedom to choose between heaven and earth, between good and evil, is taken away; he argues that man should renounce God and that the world should be run by a totalitarian government that takes away man’s freedom and forces him to be obedient.
He feels that men will “submit . . . gladly and cheerfully . . . because it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.” Ivan, out of principle, renounces God, as well as his freedom to choose between good and evil. He firmly believes that, having renounced this freedom, that “all things must be lawful” to him, and he shares this idea with others, including Smerdyakov.
It is not until Smerdyakov, influenced by the idea that “all things are lawful,” murders Fyodor that Ivan realizes the implications of his ideas. He realizes that happiness resulting from a renunciation of God is a delusion; he discovers that it is God that is keeping the entire race of man from sinking into the depravity and cruelty that he could not accept in the first place. Confronted by a conflict in ideas that he is unable to solve, he declines into madness.
One of the major themes of The Brothers Karamazov is the idea that life without God can only lead to destruction. Dostoevsky develops the theme largely through the description of Ivan’s struggle between acceptance and renunciation of God; Ivan is, in fact, a representation of the Western world, which has dealt with the same struggle for centuries. Ivan believes that man’s suffering and unhappiness are caused by the freedom that God gave him to choose between material objects and heavenly rewards.
Most men cannot differentiate between material objects and life, however, and thus the decision torments them. Ivan, therefore, believes that man should establish a state of government akin to socialism, in which God is abolished and in which obedience and material wealth are emphasized; the government would, in other words, take away the freedom which so torments man and reinforce the belief that material wealth is, indeed, life.
Dostoevsky warns, however, that a man’s renunciation of God will eventually destroy him. He may be made falsely happy, for a while, but he will soon realize, as Ivan does, that without God there can be no virtue. He will both descend into madness and despair, as Ivan does, and destroy himself and others, as Smerdyakov does. Dostoevsky emphasizes that it is only those that decide to live for God, as Dmitry eventually does, that can truly be happy.
Dmitry’s unhappiness and despair throughout much of the novel stems from his preoccupation with material objects, especially money. It is largely because of this preoccupation that he commits the immoral actions that he does. It is only at the end of the book, when he renounces his past sins, accepts God, and begins to live for Him that he becomes truly happy. He realizes that he may now “rise up in joy,” for his soul has been brought “from the den of thieves into the light.”
POINT OF VIEW
The point of view of The Brothers Karamazov is that of an impartial, omniscient narrator, a narrator that is never developed as a character in the novel. Dostoevsky uses the omniscient point of view out of necessity; for the reader to truly comprehend Dostoevsky’s ideas, the reader must know every character’s perception of every aspect of the novel, not merely the perceptions of one character.
If Dostoevsky had, for example, written the novel from the point of view of Alyosha, the novel would have lost a great deal of its meaning. The reader would not have been able to so clearly comprehend the inner conflict with which Ivan struggles, for example, and thus the reader would probably overlook one of Dostoevsky’s major themes. It is also important that Dostoevsky uses a first-person omniscient point of view–that is, an omniscient narrator–rather than a third-person omniscient point of view.
Although Dostoevsky never develops his narrator, the narrator still serves to draw the reader into the novel. The narrator establishes a familiarity with the reader and puts the reader at ease. Additionally, the narrator tells the story excitedly and sometimes almost impatiently; he is constantly “getting ahead of [himself]” in his impatience to tell the story. The reader, whether he knows it or not, adopts this excitement himself, and thus becomes more eager to learn the outcome of the story.
SETTING AND ATMOSPHERE
Dostoevsky purposely reveals little about the basic setting of the novel. He merely reveals that the story takes place in a relatively small provincial town in Russia, and he forces the reader to infer the time period in which it is set from his descriptions of historical events.
Dostoevsky deliberately describes his setting vaguely in order to emphasize that the themes and ideas of the novel are so universal that they transcend time and place. Although Dostoevsky reveals almost nothing about the setting of the novel, he is still able to develop an almost tangible atmosphere of tension and tragedy through his choice of words.
Dostoevsky establishes the atmosphere in the first sentence of the novel; he states that Fyodor Karamazov is to die “a tragic and fishy death.” He reinforces the uneasy, dire atmosphere throughout the novel with subtle yet descriptive phrases; he says several times, for example, that a “catastrophe” is about to occur, and that the Karamazov household “reeks of foul play.”
The words and actions of the characters exude anxiousness and despair as well, and therefore help to contribute to the development of the tense and oppressive atmosphere. Dmitry’s impassioned vows that he will kill his father, for example, serves to heighten tenseness and suspense. Similarly, the scorn inherent in all of Ivan’s words and actions adds to the negativity of the atmosphere.
Dostoevsky’s style is very realistic and straightforward. He almost never uses flowery or poetic language or figures of speech; his language is simple and spare, as if he tried to eliminate all that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Similarly, he is unpretentious in his choice of words.
He generally states things in the simplest terms possible. Contrastingly, however, his sentences are often fairly complex; despite their complexity, though, they are easy to understand and thus do not detract from his simplicity and straightforwardness.
Because the book consists largely of dialogue, Dostoevsky changes his style frequently, for each of his characters has a unique style of speaking that complements his character. Dostoevsky writes Ivan’s dialogue, for example, in a very verbose, complex style that reinforces Ivan’s characterization as an intellectual.
He writes Dmitry’s dialogue in a very random, disjointed style that underscores Dmitry’s tendency to allow his passion and his emotions to cloud his logic. Finally, he writes Alyosha’s dialogue in a simple style very similar to his own, as Alyosha is himself simple and unpretentious.