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 Pavlovich'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 their father's town. The first book concludes by describing the mysterious Eastern Orthodox tradition of the Elders. Alyosha has become devoted to the Elder at the local monastery.
Book Two: An Inappropriate Gathering
Book Two begins as the Karamazov family arrives at the monastery so that the Elder Zosima can act as a mediator between Dmitri and his father in their dispute over the 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. Fyodor Pavlovich's deliberately insulting and provocative behaviour destroys any chance of conciliation, and the meeting only results in intensified hatred and a scandal. 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 Dostoevsky's own tragedy at the loss of his young son Alyosha.
Book Three: Sensualists
The third book provides more details of the love triangle among Fyodor Pavlovich, his son Dmitri, and Grushenka. Dmitri hides near his father's home to see if Grushenka will arrive. His personality is explored in a long conversation with Alyosha. Later that evening, Dmitri bursts into his father's house and assaults him. As he leaves, he threatens to come back and kill him. This book also introduces Smerdyakov and his origins, as well as the story of his mother, Lizaveta Smerdyashchaya. At the conclusion of this book, Alyosha is witness to Grushenka's humiliation of Dmitri's betrothed Katerina Ivanovna.
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 it to the ground and stomps it into the mud, before running 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 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 an encounter between a leader from the Spanish Inquisition and Jesus, who has made his return to Earth. The opposition between reason and faith is dramatised and symbolised in a forceful monologue of the Grand Inquisitor who, having ordered the arrest of Jesus, 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 the Grand Inquisitor's lengthy arguments, Jesus silently steps forward and kisses the old man on the lips. The Inquisitor, stunned and moved, tells him he must never come there again, and lets him out. Alyosha, after hearing the story, goes to Ivan and kisses him softly on the lips. Ivan shouts with delight. The brothers part with mutual affection and respect.
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 that he found his faith in his rebellious youth, after an unforgivable action toward his trusted servant, 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 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 therefore comes as a great shock that Zosima's body not only decays, but begins the process almost immediately following his death. Within the first day, the smell 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—Rakitin—uses Alyosha's vulnerability to set up a meeting between him and Grushenka. However, instead of Alyosha becoming corrupted, he acquires new 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 and kisses the earth outside the monastery (echoing, perhaps, Zosima's last earthly act before his death) and cries convulsively. Renewed, he goes back out into the world, as his Elder instructed.
Book Eight: Mitya
This section deals primarily with Dmitri's wild and distraught pursuit of money for the purpose of running away with Grushenka. Dmitri owes money to his fiancée Katerina Ivanovna, 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. Dmitri approaches Grushenka's benefactor, Samsonov, who sends him 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 and marry him because of his wealth and lavish promises. When Dmitri returns from his failed dealing in the neighboring town, he escorts Grushenka to her benefactor's home, but later discovers that she has 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. There is a discontinuity in the action, and Dmitri is suddenly running from his father's property. The servant Gregory tries to stop him, yelling "Parricide!", but Dmitri hits him in the head with the pestle. Dmitri, thinking that he has killed the old man, tries to attend to the wound with his handkerchief, but gives up and runs away.
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 nearby lodge. Upon learning this, Dmitri loads a cart with 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" 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 Pavlovich's murder and describes the interrogation of Dmitri, who vigorously maintains his innocence. The alleged motive for the crime is robbery. Dmitri was known to have been completely destitute earlier that evening, but is suddenly seen with thousands of rubles shortly after his father's murder. Meanwhile, the three thousand rubles that Fyodor Pavlovich had set aside for Grushenka has disappeared. Dmitri explains that the money he spent that evening came from three thousand rubles that Katerina Ivanovna 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 Ivanovna. The investigators are not convinced by this. All of the evidence points toward Dmitri; the only other person in the house at the time of the murder, apart from Gregory and his wife, was Smerdyakov, who was incapacitated due to an epileptic seizure he suffered the day before. As a result of the overwhelming evidence against him, Dmitri is formally charged with the murder 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. Dostoevsky uses Kolya's beliefs, especially in a conversation with Alyosha, to satirize his Westernizer critics by putting their words and beliefs in the mouth of a young boy who doesn't really understand 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 local dog: Ilyusha had fed it a piece of bread in which he had placed a pin, at the bidding of Smerdyakov. 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 Fyodorovich's influence on those around him and his descent into madness. It is in this book that Ivan meets three times with Smerdyakov, desperately seeking to solve the riddle of the murder and whether Smerdyakov, and consequently he himself, had anything to do with it. In the final meeting Smerdyakov confesses that he had faked the fit, murdered Fyodor Pavlovich, 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 Pavlovich’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 him by personifying and caricaturing his thoughts and ideas. Alyosha finds Ivan raving and informs him that Smerdyakov hanged himself shortly after their final meeting, apparently dejected at failing to win Ivan's admiration for his nihilistic act. The timing of Smerdyakov's suicide means that he cannot be interrogated about the murder, cementing Dmitri's guilty verdict.
Book Twelve: A Judicial Error
This book details the trial of Dmitri Karamazov for the murder of his father. The courtroom drama is sharply satirized by Dostoevsky. The men in the crowd are presented as resentful and spiteful, and the women as 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 his father. The section concludes with lengthy and impassioned closing remarks from the prosecutor and the defence counsel 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 cautiously approves, because he feels that Dmitri is not emotionally ready to submit to such a harsh sentence, that he is innocent, and that 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 return to Russia under assumed American names, because they 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. They join hands, and return to the Snegiryov household for the funeral dinner, chanting "Hurrah for Karamazov!"