The Brothers Karamazov is a family tragedy centered around a father and his sons. Fyodor, the eldest Karamazov, has three sons: Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. Ivan and Alyosha have the same mother, but Dmitri, the oldest, has a different mother. Fyodor is a greedy landowner, a bawdy lecher, and a neglectful father. Hence, the Karamazov brothers end up growing into young men under the care of various other people. But they all have returned home to visit their father, and it is the first time they all have been together for quite some time.
Dmitri has a dispute with Fyodor over his inheritance, and Alyosha, who is living in a monastery, suggests that they see Father Zossima, Alyosha’s mentor. Alyosha believes that the wise old man can settle the dispute peacefully. Father Zossima is patient and kind, but Fyodor and Dmitri end up quarreling anyway. After Fyodor drives the men to frustration, they leave the monastery separately, and Alyosha worries about their family’s future. Alyosha talks to Dmitri, who confesses his complicated situation with women and money. Dmitri promised to marry a girl named Katerina, and she lent him 3,000 rubles. Instead of paying it back, he spent it on another girl named Grushenka. He wants to run away with Grushenka, but he feels that he needs to pay Katerina back before he can do so. This is why he is so interested in getting the money from Fyodor.
Back at Fyodor’s house, Smerdyakov is talking to the Karamazovs. Smerdyakov is an epileptic servant who was adopted by Grigory and Marfa, Fyodor’s other servants. He was born to a woman named Lizaveta who died in childbirth. She was the town idiot, and she lived off charity from the other townspeople. Everyone called her “Stinking Lizaveta,” and when the town found out she was pregnant, they were furious at whoever could do such a thing to a helpless girl. They decided Fyodor must have been the culprit. Grigory and Marfa gave birth to a deformed child, and when they buried the child, they found Lizaveta, who had just given birth to Smerdyakov. They adopted the child immediately, and Fyodor named him.
Father Zossima is dying, and Alyosha is distraught. Instead of asking Alyosha to stay with him during his last days, however, Father Zossima tells Alyosha he should leave the monastery to be with his family. His life gets even more complicated when a young crippled girl named Lise expresses that she has feelings for him. Alyosha visits Katerina, the girl who is engaged to marry Dmitri. Ivan is in love with her, but he feels that Dmitri is a better match for her. Frustrated and disgusted with his family’s situation, Ivan says he is going to leave town. Alyosha sees a boy being picked on by his schoolmates, and he tries to talk to the boy, but he bites Alyosha’s hand and runs away. Later, when Alyosha is bringing money to a man named Captain Snegiryov, who has been beaten by Dmitri, he recognizes the man’s son. It is Ilusha, the boy who bit his hand. The family is poor, but Captain Snegiryov refuses to take the money because he feels that he needs to earn his son’s respect after being humiliated by Dmitri—and accepting charity, especially from a Karamazov, is out of the question.
When Alyosha goes back to see Katerina, he finds Lise, Madame Hohlakov’s daughter. The two realize that they love each other, and they decide to get married. Alyosha goes to visit Ivan, and he finds him in a restaurant. Ivan has gone there to get away from his father, and Alyosha sits down with him to have an intimate talk. Ivan tells his brother about his thoughts regarding God and the world. He recites to Alyosha a poem he has written called “The Great Inquisitor.” The poem describes Christ returning to earth in the sixteenth century. The Church throws him in jail, and The Great Inquisitor explains to him that his presence is problematic for the world. The Church has spent years trying to replace the sense of freedom Christ gave man with security. He talks about how cruel the world is, especially to innocent children. After their meal, Alyosha and Ivan part ways, feeling closer than ever. Ivan sees Smerdyakov when he goes back to his father’s house, and Smerdyakov tells him he is worried about Fyodor. He is worried Dmitri will come to kill him and the old man will be helpless to save himself. Ivan goes to sleep very troubled.
Father Zossima is on his deathbed, and Alyosha goes to visit him. The Elder tells those around him how much Alyosha reminds him of his older brother, a boy who died when he was a youth. He talks about being a profligate youth in the army. One day, he challenged another man to a duel because of a girl. Before the duel, however, he had a change of heart. He did not shoot and, after the duel, he retired from the army and joined a monastery. He talks about how much the Bible has affected him and says that everyone should embrace the world and the people in it. He dies. Many predicted that a miracle would happen upon Father Zossima’s death, but his body begins to putrefy, filling the monastery with an awful smell. This fills the other monks with doubt that Father Zossima was the saintly man they thought he was. Alyosha is shaken by the news. He goes to see Grushenka, who has sent for him, and she admits to wanting to “ruin” him. When he tells her that Father Zossima has died, however, she becomes contrite about her callousness. She says she thinks she is a wicked person, and the two comfort each other. When Alyosha leaves, he has a renewed faith in Father Zossima and his teachings because Alyosha feels how wonderful it is to love and be loved in return.
Meanwhile, Dmitri has become desperate. He wants to be with Grushenka, but he wants to pay Katerina back first. He goes on an odyssey, hoping that he can depend on the charity of others. He visits a man named Samsanov, a man who used to pursue Grushenka, and he hates Dmitri. He sends Karamazov to see a surly drunk, tricking Dmitri into thinking this man may be helpful. The man is practically incoherent, however, and Dmitri goes to find Madame Hohlakov. She tells Dmitri that the only way he will find 3,000 rubles is in the gold mines. In confusion, Dmitri concludes that Grushenka has gone to visit his father, and he goes to his father’s house in a rage, carrying a brass pestle. When he arrives, he does not find Grushenka, but as he is leaving, Grigory, his father’s servant, thinks he has come to murder Fyodor. The two scuffle, and Dmitri hits Grigory on the head with the pestle.
After determining that the man is not dead, Dmitri flees the scene and looks for Grushenka. She is with Kalganov, a former lover who had treated her poorly. Dmitri decides that he will not end up with Grushenka and decides to kill himself after seeing her one more time. He crashes her party and sits down with her gentleman friend and some other men. The situation becomes tense, and after the gentlemen make some disparaging remarks about Russians and Dmitri, Grushenka decides she does not want to be with such an insulting and vicious man. She decides that she loves Dmitri, and as the two are coming to terms with their love, the police come to arrest him for the murder of Fyodor. As the police question Dmitri, it becomes clear that the facts all support the conclusion that he did indeed murder his father, even though he did not commit the crime. He was at the scene of the crime, wielding a weapon, the night of the murder. He had said he would kill his father on several occasions. He publicly announced he was looking for 3,000 rubles and was desperate to find them, and Fyodor reportedly had an envelope with 3,000 rubles that was stolen the night of the murder. Dmitri is carried away, and very few people believe that he is innocent of Fyodor’s murder.
Meanwhile, Alyosha is visiting Ilusha, the boy who bit his hand, in the hospital. The boy has fallen quite ill, and Alyosha has gotten to know many of the boy’s friends, who are also visiting him. One boy, Kolya Krassotkin, is a leader among the boys. He and Ilusha were friends, but they had a falling out because Ilusha fed a pin to a dog, and Kolya did not approve of his cruelty. When Alyosha comes to visit, he and Kolya talk for quite some time. The boy looks up to this wise man about which he has heard so much from the other boys, and he wants to impress him. The two become friends, and Alyosha treats all the boys as equals. When Kolya goes in to see Ilusha, he gives him a dog as a present. He reveals that the dog is none other but the dog Ilusha gave the piece of bread with a pin in it. Kolya has nursed the dog back to health and has fully trained him as a gesture of friendship to Ilusha. The mood is dampened, however, when the doctors go in to see Ilusha. Without even saying it, everyone understands that the boy does not have much time left. Ilusha is brave, and he tries to lift the spirits of those around him.
Later, Alyosha visits his brother in jail. Dmitri tells Alyosha that Ivan has concocted a plan for his escape from jail. Alyosha goes to talk to Ivan, who feels strangely guilty about his father’s death. Alyosha tells his brother that he should not feel responsible for a crime that he did not commit, but Ivan stalks off angrily. He meets Smerdyakov, who tells Ivan he thinks the Karamazov brother is guilty as an accomplice to the murder. He says that Ivan wanted his father dead and left the night of the murder to try to free himself of the responsibility of protecting his father. Ivan is angry and troubled by this, and when he talks to Smerdyakov later, Smerdyakov flatly admits to hilling Fyodor. He says that Ivan’s theories and ideas were the basis for his crime and that Ivan’s talks with Smerdyakov basically rationalized the deed. When Ivan returns home after this meeting, he sees a devil in his room. The devil chastises him for being a wicked person with weaknesses and foibles that have led to disastrous circumstances. Alyosha bangs on the door and finds his brother in a feverish state, muttering about a devil and Smerdyakov. Alyosha stays the night with his brother to take care of him.
Dmitri’s trial begins. Many people from all around come to see the spectacle of the parricide trial. Dmitri has an excellent lawyer, but it is a hard case to win. The prosecution brings many witnesses who testify to seemingly damning evidence against Dmitri. The defense, however, discredits one after another of these witnesses, showing ulterior motives or mitigating circumstances. Alyosha defends his brother from the stand, and Katerina gives a moving account of Dmitri’s honorable nature. Then Ivan comes into the courtroom, waving money and implicating Smerdyakov. Since he is yelling nonsense, disrupting the trial, and generally acting crazy, the court does not believe him. Suddenly, at the end of the trial, Katerina stands up again, showing a letter from Dmitri that clearly states Dmitri’s intention to kill Fyodor as a last resort. She has a change of heart and no longer wants to lie to protect a man who has hurt her so much. Word comes to the courtoom that Smerdyakov has hanged himself. After final statements are made, the verdict comes back: guilty. Dmitri is sentenced to jail. Dmitri welcomes this chance to become a new man, but he does not want to be in exile in Siberia for the rest of his life; he wants to return to his home country before he dies.
Ivan is still sick, and Katerina takes care of him. Alyosha visits the boys with whom he has become friends. They are sad because Ilusha has died. Alyosha passes along Father Zossima’s teachings of love and understanding, and they all embrace his words, cheering him.