Book One: A Nice Little Family
The opening of the novel introduces the Karamazov family and relates the story of their distant and recent past. The details of Fyodor's two marriages as well as his indifference to the upbringing of his three children is chronicled. The narrator also establishes the widely varying personalities of the three brothers and the circumstances that have led to their return to Fyodor's town. The first book concludes by describing the mysterious religious order of Elders to which Alyosha has become devoted.
Book Two: An Inappropriate Gathering
Book Two begins as the Karamazov family arrives at the local monastery so that the Elder Zosima can act as a mediator between Dmitri and his father Fyodor in their dispute over Dmitri's inheritance. It was the father's idea, apparently as a joke, to have the meeting take place in such a holy place in the presence of the famous Elder. Dmitri arrives late and the gathering soon degenerates and only exacerbates the feud between Dmitri and Fyodor. This book also contains a scene in which the Elder Zosima consoles a woman mourning the death of her three-year-old son. The poor woman's grief parallels Dostoyevsky's own tragedy at the loss of his young son Alyosha.
Book Three: Sensualists
The third book provides more details of the love triangle that has erupted between Fyodor, his son Dmitri, and Grushenka. Dmitri's personality is explored in the conversation between him and Alyosha as Dmitri hides near his father's home to see if Grushenka will arrive. Later that evening, Dmitri bursts into his father's house and assaults him while threatening to come back and kill him in the future. This book also introduces Smerdyakov and his origins, as well as the story of his mother, Reeking Lizaveta. At the conclusion of this book, Alyosha is witness to Grushenka's bitter humiliation of Dmitri's betrothed Katerina, resulting in terrible embarrassment and scandal for this proud woman.
Book Four: Lacerations/Strains
This section introduces a side story which resurfaces in more detail later in the novel. It begins with Alyosha observing a group of schoolboys throwing rocks at one of their sickly peers named Ilyusha. When Alyosha admonishes the boys and tries to help, Ilyusha bites Alyosha's finger. It is later learned that Ilyusha's father, a former staff-captain named Snegiryov, was assaulted by Dmitri, who dragged him by the beard out of a bar. Alyosha soon learns of the further hardships present in the Snegiryov household and offers the former staff captain money as an apology for his brother and to help Snegiryov's ailing wife and children. After initially accepting the money with joy, Snegiryov throws the money back at Alyosha out of pride and runs back into his home.
Book Five: Pro and Contra
Here, the rationalist and nihilistic ideology that permeated Russia at this time is defended and espoused passionately by Ivan Karamazov while meeting his brother Alyosha at a restaurant. In the chapter titled "Rebellion", Ivan proclaims that he rejects the world that God has created because it is built on a foundation of suffering. In perhaps the most famous chapter in the novel, "The Grand Inquisitor", Ivan narrates to Alyosha his imagined poem that describes a leader from the Spanish Inquisition and his encounter with Jesus, Who has made His return to earth. The opposition between reason and faith is dramatised and symbolised in forceful monologue of the Grand Inquisitor who, having ordered Jesus arrested, visits Him in prison at night.
Why hast Thou come now to hinder us? For Thou hast come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that... We are working not with Thee but with him [Satan]... We took from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth... We shall triumph and shall be Caesars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man.
The Grand Inquisitor accuses Jesus of having inflicted on humankind the "burden" of free will. At the end of all these arguments, Jesus silently steps forward and kisses the old man on his lips. The Grand Inquisitor, stunned and moved, tells Him he must never come there again, and lets Him out. Alyosha, after hearing this story, goes to Ivan and kisses him softly, with an unexplainable emotion, on the lips. Ivan shouts with delight, because Alyosha's gesture is taken directly from his poem. The brothers then part.
Book Six: The Russian Monk
The sixth book relates the life and history of the Elder Zosima as he lies near death in his cell. Zosima explains he found his faith in his rebellious youth, in the middle of a duel, consequently deciding to become a monk. Zosima preaches people must forgive others by acknowledging their own sins and guilt before others. He explains that no sin is isolated, making everyone responsible for their neighbor's sins. Zosima represents a philosophy that responds to Ivan's, which had challenged God's creation in the previous book.
Book Seven: Alyosha
The book begins immediately following the death of Zosima. It is a commonly held perception in the town, and the monastery as well, that true holy men's bodies are incorrupt, i.e., they do not succumb to putrefaction. Thus, the expectation concerning the Elder Zosima is that his deceased body will not decompose. It comes as a great shock to the entire town that Zosima's body not only decays, but begins the process almost immediately following his death. Within the first day, the smell of Zosima's body is already unbearable. For many this calls into question their previous respect and admiration for Zosima. Alyosha is particularly devastated by the sullying of Zosima's name due to nothing more than the corruption of his dead body. One of Alyosha's companions in the monastery named Rakitin uses Alyosha's vulnerability to set up a meeting between him and Grushenka. However, instead of Alyosha becoming corrupted, he is able to earn fresh faith and hope from Grushenka, while Grushenka's troubled mind begins the path of spiritual redemption through his influence: they become close friends. The book ends with the spiritual regeneration of Alyosha as he embraces, kisses the earth outside the monastery (echoing, perhaps, Zosima's last earthly act before his death) and cries convulsively until finally going back out into the world, as Zosima instructed, renewed.
Book Eight: Mitya
This section deals primarily with Dmitri's wild and distraught pursuit of money so he can run away with Grushenka. Dmitri owes money to his fiancée Katerina and will believe himself to be a thief if he does not find the money to pay her back before embarking on his quest for Grushenka. This mad dash for money takes Dmitri from Grushenka's benefactor to a neighboring town on a fabricated promise of a business deal. All the while Dmitri is petrified that Grushenka may go to his father Fyodor and marry him because he already has the monetary means to satisfy her. When Dmitri returns from his failed dealing in the neighboring town, he escorts Grushenka to her benefactor's home, but quickly discovers she deceived him and left early. Furious, he runs to his father's home with a brass pestle in his hand, and spies on him from the window. He takes the pestle from his pocket. Then, there is a discontinuity in the action, and Dmitri is suddenly running away off his father's property, knocking the servant Gregory in the head with the pestle with seemingly fatal results.
Dmitri is next seen in a daze on the street, covered in blood, with a pile of money in his hand. He soon learns that Grushenka's former betrothed has returned and taken her to a lodge near where Dmitri just was. Upon learning this, Dmitri loads a cart full of food and wine and pays for a huge orgy to finally confront Grushenka in the presence of her old flame, intending all the while to kill himself at dawn. The "first and rightful lover", however, is a boorish Pole who cheats the party at a game of cards. When his deception is revealed, he flees, and Grushenka soon reveals to Dmitri that she really is in love with him. The party rages on, and just as Dmitri and Grushenka are making plans to marry, the police enter the lodge and inform Dmitri that he is under arrest for the murder of his father.
Book Nine: The Preliminary Investigation
Book Nine introduces the details of Fyodor's murder and describes the interrogation of Dmitri as he is questioned for the crime he maintains he did not commit. The alleged motive for the crime is robbery. Dmitri was known to have been completely destitute earlier that evening, but is suddenly seen on the street with thousands of rubles shortly after his father's murder. Meanwhile, the three thousand rubles that Fyodor Karamazov had set aside for Grushenka has disappeared. Dmitri explains that the money he spent that evening came from three thousand rubles Katerina gave him to send to her sister. He spent half that at his first meeting with Grushenka—another drunken orgy—and sewed up the rest in a cloth, intending to give it back to Katerina in the name of honor, he says. The lawyers are not convinced by this. All of the evidence points against Dmitri; the only other person in the house at the time of the murder was Smerdyakov, who was incapacitated due to an epileptic seizure he apparently suffered the day before. As a result of the overwhelming evidence against him, Dmitri is formally charged with the patricide and taken away to prison to await trial.
Book Ten: Boys
Boys continues the story of the schoolboys and Ilyusha last referred to in Book Four. The book begins with the introduction of the young boy Kolya Krasotkin. Kolya is a brilliant boy who proclaims his atheism, socialism, and beliefs in the ideas of Europe. He seems destined to follow in the spiritual footsteps of Ivan Karamazov; Dostoyevsky uses Kolya's beliefs especially in a conversation with Alyosha to poke fun at his Westernizer critics by putting their beliefs in what appears to be a young boy who doesn't exactly know what he is talking about. Kolya is bored with life and constantly torments his mother by putting himself in danger. As part of a prank Kolya lies between railroad tracks as a train passes over and becomes something of a legend for the feat. All the other boys look up to Kolya, especially Ilyusha. Since the narrative left Ilyusha in Book Four, his illness has progressively worsened and the doctor states that he will not recover. Kolya and Ilyusha had a falling out over Ilyusha's maltreatment of a dog: Ilyusha had fed it bread in which there was a pin on Smerdyakov's suggestion. But thanks to Alyosha's intervention the other schoolboys have gradually reconciled with Ilyusha, and Kolya soon joins them at his bedside. It is here that Kolya first meets Alyosha and begins to reassess his nihilist beliefs.
Book Eleven: Brother Ivan Fyodorovich
Book Eleven chronicles Ivan Karamazov's destructive influence on those around him and his descent into madness. It is in this book that Ivan meets three times with Smerdyakov, the final meeting culminating in Smerdyakov's dramatic confession that he had faked the fit, murdered Fyodor Karamazov, and stolen the money, which he presents to Ivan. Smerdyakov expresses disbelief at Ivan's professed ignorance and surprise. Smerdyakov claims that Ivan was complicit in the murder by telling Smerdyakov when he would be leaving Fyodor's house, and more importantly by instilling in Smerdyakov the belief that in a world without God "everything is permitted." The book ends with Ivan having a hallucination in which he is visited by the devil, who torments Ivan by mocking his beliefs. Alyosha finds Ivan raving and informs him that Smerdyakov killed himself shortly after their final meeting.
Book Twelve: A Judicial Error
This book details the trial of Dmitri Karamazov for the murder of his father Fyodor. The courtroom drama is sharply satirized by Dostoyevsky. The men in the crowd are presented as resentful and spiteful, and the women are irrationally drawn to the romanticism of Dmitri's love triangle with Katerina and Grushenka. Ivan's madness takes its final hold over him and he is carried away from the courtroom after recounting his final meeting with Smerdyakov and the aforementioned confession. The turning point in the trial is Katerina's damning testimony against Dmitri. Impassioned by Ivan's illness which she believes is a result of her assumed love for Dmitri, she produces a letter drunkenly written by Dmitri saying that he would kill Fyodor. The section concludes with the impassioned closing remarks of the prosecutor and the defense, and the verdict that Dmitri is guilty.
Book Thirteen: The Brothers Karamazov
The final section opens with discussion of a plan developed for Dmitri's escape from his sentence of twenty years of hard labor in Siberia. The plan is never fully described, but it seems to involve Ivan and Katerina bribing some guards. Alyosha approves, first, because Dmitri is not emotionally ready to submit to such a harsh sentence, secondly, because he is innocent, and, third, because no guards or officers would suffer for aiding the escape. Dmitri and Grushenka plan to escape to America and work the land there for several years, and then to return to Russia under assumed American names, because they both cannot imagine living without Russia. Dmitri begs for Katerina to visit him in the hospital, where he is recovering from an illness before he is due to be taken away. When she does, Dmitri apologizes for having hurt her; she in turn apologizes for bringing up the implicating letter during the trial. They agree to love each other for that one moment, and say they will love each other forever, even though both now love other people. The novel concludes at Ilyusha's funeral, where Ilyusha's schoolboy friends listen to Alyosha's "Speech by the Stone". Alyosha promises to remember Kolya, Ilyusha, and all the boys and keep them close in his heart, even though he will have to leave them and may not see them again until many years have passed. He implores them to love each other and to always remember Ilyusha, and to keep his memory alive in their hearts, and to remember this moment at the stone when they were all together and they all loved each other. Alyosha then recounts the Christian promise that they will all be united one day after the Resurrection. In tears, the twelve boys promise Alyosha that they will keep each other in their memories forever, join hands, and return to the Snegiryov household for the funeral dinner, chanting, "Hurrah for Karamazov!"