The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov Themes

Duality and the Clash of Ideas

Dostoevsky is fascinated by the idea of opposites. He sets characters in opposing, contrasting roles, and he pits ideas and philosophies against each other. In The Brothers Karamazov, he illustrates many foil relationships between characters, which places each character in a complex position on a multidimensional grid of ideology and philosophy. For instance, Father Zossima and Father Ferapont are rivals because of their stances on Christianity. Father Zossima’s loving attitude toward all things contrasts sharply with Ferapont’s acerbic cynicism. At the same time, Zossima is a foil to old Fyodor, for Fyodor has no faith in God and has no sense of responsibility. Each of the Karamazov brothers is also a foil to Fyodor in his own way; for instance, Ivan’s thoughtfulness contrasts with Fyodor’s impulsive nature, and Alyosha’s loving manner contrasts with Fyodor’s meanness. By highlighting the opposing natures of his characters, Dostoevsky creates a forum for debate, sometimes expressed explicitly among the characters, sometimes in a presentation of the characters that seems designed to get the reader to debate the issues in his or her own mind. In this way, the novel addresses such sweeping issues as morality, responsibility, nihilism, murder, and love through the characters, what they frankly discuss, and what their words and actions represent.

The difficulty is that Dostoevsky’s characters are not flat characters who represent simple opinions, being two-dimensional embodiments of arguments expressed in the grand scheme of the novel. The characters themselves embody conflicts and arguments; their position on any particular issue can develop and change. Dmitri is the best example of this inner conflict. Instead of being a pristine religious fanatic or a depraved profligate with no conscience, he is a guilty pleasure-seeker, a sinner who yearns for God’s grace. He spends very much of his time and energy trying to pay Katerina money he owes her, a rather honorable pursuit. He initially spent this money, however, on an affair with another woman. He feels that he is destined to “plunge into the abyss” of “degradation” headfirst, but he feels that even if he is “following in the devil’s footsteps, [he is] still [God’s] son.” Dmitri embodies an important conflict in the novel: the desire for earthly pleasures and the struggle to control such desire. Dostoevsky shows that there is good and evil in every person—a person has moral choices to make. Even though Dostoevsky deals with such grand issues as good and evil, he very astutely creates characters who display human virtues, vices, and fallibility.

Christianity's Place in Society

Dostoevsky believed that having faith in God and embracing “Mother Earth” constituted the only path to personal salvation and peace. He also believed that Christianity in a society makes it strong and capable. Hence, much of the novel centers around the struggle for faith and the anti-religious ideas that threaten Christian society. The desire for sexual and sensual pleasure that both Dmitri and Fyodor feel runs counter to traditional Christian attitudes.

Ivan’s life runs on his intellectuality and sympathy rather than religion, which poses a threat to a view of faith as the only path to peace. Ivan has integrity. He writes so that he can support himself. In a novel where debt and money hold such great import, Ivan’s financial responsibility is noble. He also has great empathy, feeling repulsed (as almost everyone does) by the suffering of innocent children. His sense of justice is strong, and he cannot tolerate affronts to it. This intolerance actually creates a rift between his ideas and the religious ones held by characters such as Alyosha and Father Zossima. He cannot “accept this God-made world,” and therefore Ivan does not fit with Dostoevsky’s ideal of someone who accepts God and all his creation. Ivan ends up choosing not to do what he can to protect his father from a potential murder, however, and the guilt he feels from his inaction drives him insane. This major mistake reveals human fallibility despite the intellectual’s best intentions, undermining the notion that the intellectual life is enough for peace. If Dostoevsky’s novel shares the didactic tendencies of a fable, Ivan’s insanity can be considered his punishment or a consequence of his rejection of the God-made world. Alyosha, in contrast, leaves the monastery to live in the world and do good in it. The novel ends with him being applauded for his Christian teachings of love and acceptance, his reward for his religious fervor. The fates of the two brothers end up reinforcing the importance of Christianity in the world, despite or in spite of the world’s frequent lack of peace.

Voluntary Suffering

The novel suggests, as Christians sometimes do, that suffering can purify people and bring them closer to salvation. Suffering is thus primarily a personal experience, defined not by outside forces but by its role in self-development. Father Zossima believes that punishment by the state or by an authority figure has no effect on the soul. The only type of productive punishment is when one’s conscience admits a sin and copes with it. In the novel, the desire of characters to find salvation is expressed sometimes as an illness, sometimes as a self-imposed punishment, and sometimes as a simple desire for humiliation. When Ivan believes he is guilty of letting old Fyodor be murdered, he has a mental breakdown and falls ill, having to be confined to bed for long periods of time. Ivan’s behavior is reminiscent of Raskolnikov’s behavior in Crime and Punishment—Raskolnikov periodically falls ill, wracked by guilt over his murder.

Dmitri, though technically innocent of the murder of his father, wants to accept the suffering that prison will afford him because he believes it will enable him to change and begin a new life. While this may offend the reader’s sense of justice, it should be made clear that, according to the novel’s outlook, suffering for any reason, not simply when it is just in the particular instance, can help a person find salvation. Other characters yearn for humiliation. Dmitri says that he might “find a certain pleasure in falling in such a humiliating way.” Similarly, Katerina wants to be with Dmitri, who shuns her in return. He is very openly trying to be with Grushenka, and Katerina’s fidelity contrasts sharply with Dmitri’s infidelity. Perhaps Katerina is simply loving unconditionally, but it is also possible that she longs for the disgrace that Dmitri will bring her. Dostoevsky’s fascination with suffering very likely was enriched during his long imprisonment and faux execution. Perhaps he found redemption in his suffering, but many of his characters seem simply masochistic, having lost the connection between suffering and the purification of character that it can effect.

Shared Responsibility

Father Zossima states that every man is partially responsible for the sins of his fellow man. Fyodor’s murder is a pivotal plot point, so determining who is to blame for his murder is very pertinent to the novel. Is Smerdyakov alone guilty, or did all the characters in the novel contribute in some way to the murder? Ivan is an obvious candidate for partial guilt, since he feels so strongly that he is partially guilty of Fyodor’s murder that he has a mental breakdown. Dmitri is also an interesting case; even though he is wrongly convicted of the crime, he wants to suffer so that he may find peace and a new life. Both brothers encounter self-motivated suffering as if they are actually guilty of the murder. We thus see that responsibility can be a matter of character; it can be internal, not merely a result of external actions. Since humans are fallible, we might be able to connect a wide complex of individual character flaws to a crime such as a murder, even blaming “society” at least in part.

In the novel, the feeling of responsibility for the sins of others also expresses a Christ-like perspective—responsibility even if one sees no actual culpability in oneself. Alyosha does not simply feel guilty for the sins of others; he actively involves himself in their affairs because he believes that the affairs of the world are his, too. Father Zossima helps him come to the conclusion that his place is not in a secluded monastery but in the world, for he has work to do there. This underscores Alyosha’s strongly-held sense of responsibility for others. Many of Dostoevsky’s characters feel the weight of responsibility for their fellow man, which supports Dostoevsky’s view that man should be “married” to the world around him, inextricably connected to all of God’s creation.

The Importance of Money

Many of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov are fixated on money. They attach great importance to the exchange of rubles, and owing a debt is extremely stressful and shameful. Dostoevsky spent a great deal of time in debt because of his propensity for gambling, and he knew well how poverty could wreak havoc on a man. In Russia at this time, serfdom was a very recent memory (it was only abolished in 1861). Even when the serfs were emancipated, the disparity in wealth was very great, and many former serfs still lived in primitive, impoverished situations. When a character like Fyodor or Dmitri spends money recklessly, it is not portrayed as charming or silly but as selfish and indicative of weak character. Dostoevsky’s characters are not all greedy thieves and profligates, however. The fact that money is imbued with great importance makes it a weighty currency of respect and of honor.

Dmitri, for instance, is obsessed with paying Katerina back a sum he owes her. He feels that he cannot go ahead with his plans to marry Grushenka before his debt is paid. Though he is essentially breaking an engagement and running off with another woman, his sense of honor and duty compel him to return the 3,000 rubles she has loaned him, and the desire to do so consumes him.

Ilusha’s father is a complicating example. He is a poor man who was badly beaten by Dmitri, humiliating his son Ilusha. Because she pities him, Katerina offers to give him 200 rubles, a sum that will dramatically improve his family’s situation. But since Alyosha is the messenger who offers it to him, he decides he cannot take it from a Karamazov. He wants to earn his son’s respect, and refusing money from the family that shamed him is more important to him than helping his family out of poverty. When Rakitin accepts money to trick Alyosha into seeing Grushenka, he becomes very upset and guilty. This Judas-like act of accepting money to betray a friendship weighs on his conscience. Although money carries such gravity in the novel, characters with integrity still prefer principles such as friendship; honor goes beyond its financial characteristics.

Generational Divide

There is a strong sense of generational influence in The Brothers Karamazov. Even if Fyodor does not exert direct control over his sons, his presence is definitely a large influence in all their lives. Father Zossima is even more clearly a paternal figure, for he teaches Alyosha how to think and act from his position at the top of the hierarchy in the monastery. And as Father Zossima was a teacher to Alyosha, so is Alyosha a teacher to the young boys of the town. Since Sofia, Adelaida, and Lizaveta are all dead, the older generation has a distinctly paternal character.

This is not simply a story of “passing the torch” and coming of age, however. The younger generations are not simply growing to fulfill the roles left vacant by the passing older generation; they are trying to extricate themselves from the sins and burdens left by their elders. (Recall that the Russian nation was, in some ways, under revolutionary ferment.) Dmitri feels that “since he is a Karamazov,” he is doomed to fall into “degradation” and “humiliation” as his father has. Ivan, trying to set himself apart from the father he disdains, becomes his father’s opposite–a rational, thoughtful man who pays all his debts. The idea of repaying old debts and finding justice for sins long since committed is another way the generations are connected. When Dmitri loans Katerina’s father money, she takes it on herself to repay him and offer him her hand in marriage to repay her father’s debt. Smerdyakov, the son of Fyodor’s rape of “Stinking Lizaveta,” is bitter and mean. Despite his rationalizations for murder based on Ivan’s cold logic, his murder of the old man is in part retribution for the sins committed against his mother. Similarly, Ilusha bites Alyosha’s hand when he meets him because he is defending his father’s honor; his father was severely beaten by Dmitri, and Ilusha deems it fair to treat all Karamazovs with hostility.

The generations in The Brothers Karamazov thus are distinct from each other yet inextricably linked. Most importantly, the younger generations represent hope. When Alyosha goes into the world to do good, he cannot stop his father’s murder, Ivan’s insanity, Dmitri’s indictment, or Smerdyakov’s suicide. He is not a failure, however, because he focuses on teaching the younger generation the ways of love and acceptance so that they will create a better world. The younger generations can redeem the sins of past ones.

Passion for Life

At one point in the novel, Ivan proclaims that if nothing else, the Karamazovs all share a “passion for living.” In Fyodor’s case, this passion consists of a constant appetite for sensual gratification. Alyosha, however, simply desires to be connected to the world and its creatures, spreading love and understanding. Such disparate attitudes all spring from this “passion for living,” so it seems to be a neutral energy that can be used for good or ill. Dostoevsky places great importance on religion, and his religious attitude is that a person should be “married” to the world. This idea of spirituality is very tangible and corporeal. This leads the reader to believe that Dostoevsky considers “passion for living” a good thing when informed by religion.

At the same time, it leads to hedonistic behavior by characters including Fyodor and Dmitri. Consider Dmitri’s brief consideration of suicide. When Grushenka’s ex-lover returns and Dmitri’s affair with her seems thwarted, he decides to kill himself. This implies that his desire or passion for life is waning, a feeling based on the outcome of events and relationships. His ardor is conditional. This conditional passion is inconsistent with Father Zossima’s view that one should love everyone and everything in the world. Dmitri’s passion expresses a selfishness that can be confused with a desire for life. When Dmitri goes to prison, however, he realizes he wants to begin anew. He gains perspective and realizes his mistake. He decides he wants to be with the woman he loves, “till the soil,” and die in his own country. Desire for life should be unconditional, it seems; his former course was misguided. “Passion for living” is necessary for a good life, though it easily can be redirected through selfishness.