Dmitri’s trial is a public spectacle. People have heard the news of the case, and the courtroom is crowded with spectators, mostly women, Interestingly, many of them are hoping for Dmitri’s acquittal. Most of the men at the trial are not as sympathetic to this ladies’ man, hoping for a conviction. Many people also have come to witness what they think will be a dramatic confrontation between Katerina and Grushenka. Rumors about both women are flying, and the public is hungry for a showdown. When the news is read that Smerdyakov will not appear as a witness because he has committed suicide, Dmitri exclaims, “A dog’s death for a dog!” When asked how he will plead, Dmitri goes on a tirade about how he is guilty of many things. He says that he is guilty of “drunkenness and disorderly behavior … laziness and debauchery.” But he says he “had resolved to become a decent man” for the rest of his life when he was arrested for this crime, which he did not commit. He pleads “not guilty” to the charges against him, but everyone, including his supporters, know that the prosecution has quite a case against him.
Dmitri’s lawyer deftly discredits witnesses who testify against Dmitri, such as Captain Snegiryov, Rakitin, and Grigory, citing possible ulterior motives that each witness might have. His lawyer is very skilled, and he argues expertly for Dmitri. Alyosha is not discredited because he is known for his unquestionable honesty, and he makes a case for Dmitri’s innocence. Alyosha cites a conversation he had with his brother proving that Dmitri indeed was in possession of a large sum of money before the murder took place. Alyosha contends that needing Fyodor’s 3,000 rubles could not have been Dmitri’s motive for the murder. This testimony proves that Dmitri has not stolen the money that the police found on his person; he had it before the murder.
Katerina further strengthens Dmitri’s case by recounting stories about Dmitri that show he is an honorable man at his core. She says that Dmitri did not blackmail or seduce her even though he had the chance. Katerina’s testimony upsets Dmitri, for he believes this will besmirch her name, but she tells the story anyway to help the man she has sworn to support and cherish.
Ivan suddenly appears in the courtroom, and when cross-examined, he proves to be of little help to anyone. He is clearly not well, and he does not make sense. He gives no evidence against Smerdyakov; he barely gives any evidence at all. But as he is leaving the courtroom, he shows the court the 3,000 rubles that Smerdyakov gave him. He asserts that Smerdyakov murdered and robbed Fyodor and that the 3,000 rubles are his blood money. He adds that he has been visited by a devil—and people begin to murmur. Because of his apparent insanity, his knowledge of Smerdyakov’s confession is discredited, and he is removed from the courtroom.
Katerina takes the stand again, inexplicably changing her position on Dmitri, showing the courtroom Dmitri’s letter stating that he would kill Fyodor for money. The court asks her why she hid this evidence, and she answers that she had been trying to save her love at all costs, but his infidelity and lack of appreciation had finally gotten to her—she could take it no longer and felt she must tell the truth. Grushenka flies into a rage and insults Katerina for her duplicity, and the courtroom erupts into bedlam.
The prosecutor closes. He earnestly believes that Dmitri is guilty and that the crime is despicable. He talks about the declining morals of the Russian people, among many of whom honor has been replaced with sordid intellectualization. He attacks Fyodor for his rampant sensualism and selfish greed. He says that the old man’s actions must have made a son bitter and angry. Nevertheless, he says, this awfulness does not excuse the horrible murder that he believes Dmitri committed. The prosecutor analyzes each Karamazov brother, concluding with the accused. He says that Dmitri has been both passionate and desperate, which are two telltale qualities of a murderer. He adds that Smerdyakov had neither of these qualities, putting to rest the theory of his guilt. Also, he points out that Smerdyakov had a seizure the night of the murder. The most damning piece of evidence against Dmitri is the letter that Katerina showed the court. He asks the jury to convict Dmitri of parricide.
Dmitri’s lawyer is somewhat of a celebrity, and the courtroom is excited to hear his oration. He speaks precisely and warmly, charging the prosecution with “malice” and speaking with sensitive plaintiveness. He begins by setting out to prove why all the evidence against Dmitri is questionable. He makes subtle jibes at the prosecutor for his psychological inferences, pointing out how psychology is “a knife that cuts both ways.” He explains how psychology could as easily prove that Dmitri is a sympathetic, impulsive man or a cold, calculating fiend. Hence, psychological evidence is questionable and undependable.
Besides, he adds, other pieces of evidence do not make sense. For instance, there is no proof that Fyodor had 3,000 rubles for Dmitri to steal. Dmitri’s explanation of where the money came from is as good as the theory that he obtained it by robbing Fyodor. The defense sees great leaps of imagination, as if the events that have taken place are part of a great “novel.”
The defense lawyer next explains how Fyodor was a horrible father, neglecting, abandoning, and generally abusing the boy. Dmitri was a misguided youth who essentially grew up without a father. In addition, Smerdyakov’s guilt is called into question again. Finally, the lawyer argues that prisons are for reform, not punishment, but convicting Dmitri will actually ruin his chances for reform. When he finishes, the courtroom erupts into applause.
After a brief respite, the jurors return and pronounce that Dmitri has been found guilty. Over the din of the courtroom, Dmitri yells that he is innocent, that he forgives Katerina, and that he wishes his family will take care of Grushenka. He is led out of the courtroom.
The final chapters of this novel take place in a courtroom, which is a fitting end to a novel centered around a murder. This is a novel about guilt, and though Dmitri is the one on trial, he is not the only one whose life is scrutinized during the legal proceedings. These final chapters are an allegory for the intense judgment every character faces, either internally or externally. Since religion is such a large part of the novel, this judgment calls to mind a spiritual reckoning. Whether it is with a court, with God, or with oneself, every character faces a trial. Father Zossima says that one’s own conscience is the only meaningful means of punishment. Ivan’s own struggle, for instance, is all in his own head (say, between him and his personal demons). Smerdyakov has carried out his own sentence on himself.
Though Dmitri’s trial is public, suggesting that it is socially more important than the inner trials of the other characters, this is the least meaningful arena in which to assess moral guilt. In addition to the fact that public trial and punishment run counter to the ideas of Father Zossima (and perhaps of Dostoevsky, who experienced some of that himself), the reader knows from the beginning that Dmitri is innocent of the crime of which he is being accused. This trial is not about conscience, inner motives, or wickedness, which are all complicated and subject to interpretation. Despite the talk of psychology, this trial is about facts, and the state uses these facts to come to the false conclusion that Dmitri murdered his father. It is both sad and funny that the most explicit trial, with the most people analyzing it, is a failure of justice. This supports Father Zossima’s posture that punishment by the state is a sham. One can only hope that self-analysis is more successful.
The trial is also a public spectacle because people are interested in the scandal and intrigue. The lawyer for the defense is known for his brilliant orations and his entertaining pleas, not for his strict attention to detail. In this trial, emotion has a starring role, and truth has just a supporting role. The fact that Dmitri may be innocent or guilty takes a back seat to what he represents for each member of the crowd and jury. Some spectators are sympathetic to Dmitri’s good heart. They hope to see such a forthright soul acquitted. Others have moral problems with his seduction of Katerina and subsequent abandonment, not to mention his unpaid debt.
Indebtedness is an important concept in the novel. Partly because Russia has fallen under such difficult times, the presence or absence of money is tied into larger ideas of pride and honor. It is a very shameful thing not to pay one’s debts, and characters such as Captain Snegiryov and Ivan go to great lengths to stay free from the burden of owing money. Their sense of integrity is based on their financial independence. It is a very disgraceful thing in the eyes of many townspeople that Dmitri has not paid back the generous loan from Katerina.
The facts of the case aside, the trial is a public performance centered around a licentious family drama. It is a battleground of morality and intrigue based on the deeply held beliefs and feelings of those watching the trial, not on details. Dmitri has become a celebrity. Others define themselves by their stance about the trial. A townsperson can know what kind of person someone else is by his or her opinion about Dmitri Karamazov. In this way the trial is more about the people watching than about Dmitri. The myriad spectators are reflecting aspects of their own identities.
The essence of each character becomes more clear as each one takes the stand. For instance, the testimonies of Grigory and Marfa are straightforward and condemning. These two are dedicated to their plain view of honesty, and if the truth puts a boy they helped to raise in prison, then so be it. This outcome is inevitable, for there is no other option for them. Alyosha is respectful, honest, warm, and insightful, and his testimony is not only beyond reproach but also, fortunately, helpful to Dmitri. Grushenka proves herself to be a good match for Dmitri, for her testimony is emotional and uncouth, but her devotion to Dmitri is clear.
Katerina, for her part, shows herself to be very deceptive. She gives a personally embarrassing testimonial about Dmitri’s character, again humbling herself to help the man she ostensibly loves, yet before the trial is through, she gives evidence that seals Dmitri’s fate, saying she is fed up with his mockery of her. It is unclear why she does this, but it is certain that she has a personal agenda and that her actions are not coming from her heart but from some plan of hers. Perhaps she wants to become a martyr or to win some kind of salvation or vindication with a devotion she does not feel. In any case, she is shady; her calm and loving exterior is covering up something more calculating and shadowy.
Ivan’s “testimony” shows how deep his feelings of shame and guilt run. In this novel, as in Crime and Punishment, sickness has a direct correlation with conscience. The seriousness of Ivan’s condition indicates his inner turmoil. Ivan, who seems so controlled and psychologically stable the rest of the time, has fallen apart. What at first seemed to be a cold and dispassionate manner is clearly a veneer. Under the light of a public inquisition, people like Ivan might reveal some hidden but true colors.
Dmitri’s conviction for his father’s murder has ramifications that range beyond family to the political and religious. Why would Dostoevsky end his novel with the wrong character being convicted of a crime? The wrongful conviction points out the injustice of the world—unless it is the justice of conscience after all, succeeding even though the state has been incorrect in this particular determination of right and wrong. Does Dmitri need to suffer for his life? Does Dmitri deserve to go to jail, even if he did not kill anyone? Insofar as Zossima’s idea of punishment involves one’s own conscience, true justice is personal or spiritual, not political.
Why, then, make a public trial so significant in the novel? Even though going to prison may not make a man change, it provides character-building hardships. As many characters in the novel explain, they long for suffering in order to purge their feelings of guilt and shame. Dmitri has been on the border between salvation and damnation the entire novel. This is Dmitri’s chance to purge his guilt by enduring hardship, even if it is for the wrong crime. The conviction is thus a sort of blessing. Smerdyakov, who escapes conviction, has fared much worse than Dmitri, according to Zossima’s sense of justice. (Compare the view of Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias: it is better for the guilty person to confess and pay a just penalty, rather than to go free and never be reformed.) The weight on Smerdyakov’s conscience was apparently so great that he took his own life, alone and without the support of his society to help him. Ivan, who also feels guilt for the murder, is not put on trial either, but his feelings of guilt get the best of him, driving him insane.
The trial does not show, at least not to us, that Dmitri is guilty of any crime beyond what he already has determined about himself. Likewise, the other characters, more or less, show that they have met a kind of justice that does not depend at all on the jury. Rather, the press of public attention does help people come clean. The trial is thus not really about the penal system and its imperfections. Instead, it is a platform giving Dmitri, and to some degree others, a chance for absolution in a social and political context, with personal and spiritual ramifications. The trial is a public platform that tests the true character of all those involved.