Fyodor Karamazov and his three sons have just been reunited after many years, and the novel’s first chapters concern themselves mostly with the family’s backstory. We meet Fyodor, a “muddle-headed” eccentric who has led a reckless and selfish life. Though many thought him too impulsive to be crafty, he died with 100,000 rubles, proving that he must have been keen in some ways. He has few friends and many enemies, and he is an enigma to all. He married a fiery, romantic woman named Adelaida, who thought his lifestyle was “bold.” After bearing him a son whom they named Dmitri, she ran off with a tutor. Fyodor was crushed by her desertion, but he also relished the idea of his humiliation so much that those who heard him talking about his situation thought that he somehow enjoyed his position as a cuckold.
Neglected by his father, young Dmitri fell under the care of various servants and relatives through the years. He grew up “unruly” and “impatient.” When he was old enough, he joined the military. His impassioned character led him to be demoted for dueling, but he was re-promoted for “gallantry.” His extravagant lifestyle had put him far into debt by the time he left the military, and he came home to collect his inheritance from his father.
After Adelaida left him, Fyodor married a beautiful innocent named Sofia. He was won by the sixteen-year-old’s innocence, and he said of her, “those innocent eyes of hers slit my soul open like a razor.” She had two sons, Ivan and Alyosha. Because Fyodor felt that she should be “indebted to him” for saving her from a bad situation, he felt justified in treating her cruelly, sleeping with other women in the house, sometimes in front of her. His mistreatment of his young wife eventually led to her having a nervous breakdown. With both parents unsuitable for taking care of their children, General Vorohkov’s widow—Sofia’s former benefactress—took in the children. She left each of the boys 1,000 rubles for his education. Ivan grew up sullen and quiet, embarrassed about living on charity from others and more embarrassed about his father. He was a fiercely intelligent boy, and he made money by tutoring, freelancing, and reviewing books for money. He wrote a relatively famous article about the ecclesiastical courts that was debated in political and religious circles alike. He came to town rather unexpectedly.
The youngest boy, Alyosha, was well-loved by Fyodor. He was popular, fearless of others, and, unlike his brothers, unconcerned with money. Instead of finishing school, he became quite taken with an elder named Father Zossima in the nearby monastery. He decided to join the monastery, and Fyodor gave him his blessing. Alyosha was the sort of boy who believed in miracles, but he was curiously very much a realist. Alyosha was a “member of the younger generation.” Many believed that studying under an elder in a monastery was a “terrible apprenticeship”—by self-annihilation, one might achieve self-realization. Father Zossima was sixty-five years old and a former officer in the army. He was kind to even the worst sinners, and he was locally famous for his saint-like status.
When Alyosha meets his brothers for the first time, he quickly takes a liking to Dmitri. He finds Ivan “absorbed in something within himself, something very important, that he was pursuing some goal, perhaps a very difficult goal, which left no room for Alyosha in his thoughts.” Dmitri, however, likes Ivan. Because of the dispute between Dmitri and Fyodor over Dmitri’s inheritance, the newly reunited family decides to see Father Zossima to help resolve the issue. Alyosha, who is very close with Father Zossima, fears that the family is going to make a ridiculous scene and treat a serious occasion like a farce. But Dmitri assures his brother that he will act respectfully and calmly and that everything will go fine.
In this first book, the reader gets to know the Karamazovs. The eldest Karamazov is a licentious old curmudgeon and a bad father. Readers begin to wonder how his behavior and treatment of his sons will be reflected in their own personalities and lives. These early chapters serve as introductions, and they do not focus much on the present. Interestingly, Fyodor and his three sons have not been together for some time, so the reader knows that any interactions they have will not be the tried, worn conversations of longtime acquaintances. Instead, it is clear that the conversations the family share will be new and telling of future relationships. There is drama and suspense leading up to the meeting with Father Zossima, for not only will a family dispute be mediated, but all four Karamazovs will be in the same place. This will be the first legitimate gathering at which the reader will see all the Karamazovs.
Dmitri seems very much his father’s son. His inconsistent nature and his inclination to violence and sex remind the reader very much of Fyodor. Still, he seems to have a noble streak that is absent in Fyodor. Even though he was demoted in the army, he was re-promoted “for gallantry.” The disparity between Dmitri’s extremes is great. He seems like he will be a loose cannon, and the reader is anxious to see how he will deal with a formal meeting about a hotly-contested issue; he seems capable of both civility and wild rage.
Ivan is less obviously observable. He is quieter than his older brother, and he is very much ruled by his intellect, not his viscera. He seems to be very proud, refusing to ask his father for money and working very hard to make it. He and his older brother are also the sons of different mothers, and the significance of this detail is undeniable. It is not entirely clear yet how his personality is different from his brother’s because of this fact, though. His mother was an innocent woman, not a passionate woman like Dmitri’s mother. Ivan does not seem innocent, for he seems to understand the world enough to find a way to fend for himself. He also seems to understand the concept of reputations, for he is deeply embarrassed by his own father. Dmitri does have a predilection to follow his whims that Ivan does not have. Ivan seems very measured and in control of himself. He is the brother whose story is most concise. Alyosha and Dmitri are described at length, but Ivan has only a small section devoted to him. This is not because he is a lesser character—his role becomes clear later—but because he is more of an enigma. His motivations and actions are not as open and forthright as his brothers’. Dostoevsky thus leads us to want to unlock Ivan’s mysterious character.
Alyosha seems to be the hero of the novel even at this early stage. In fact, most of the novel will revolve around his experiences, for he is involved in everyone’s problems. When a character is described as having very few flaws, jaded modern readers suspect that one of his flaws might hurt him by the end, and we become interested to see how Alyosha might fall. But Alyosha never fully compromises his character. He retains a grand love for all mankind throughout the novel, and any missteps are minimal. He remains likeable and admirable throughout the novel, and his integrity is constant.
The three brothers thus may represent three distinct ideologies. Dostoevsky is prone to making his characters embody certain ideas, and at this point in the novel, we can start to make such identifications. While it is very interesting to see how these different “character-ideologies” will cope with the situations presented to them, it is even more interesting to see how characters who might seem two-dimensional and clearly pigeonholed will become more complexly human. The introduction to this novel makes every character’s future a fascinating one.