A Way to Read The Brothers Karamazov
Where I question my way through one of the greatest novels ever written
Note: All page numbers are from the award-winning translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
A Note About My Approach
I thought about doing a summary or recap of each part, but I think, for this book, the summary found at the Middlbury site is fine. I do think, though, it’s worth saying a few things about Dostoevsky before going any further.
It’s generally agreed that Joseph Frank wrote the best biography on Dostoevsky and I don’t intend to delve too much into the biographical side except to the extent it makes sense to point something out to context to your reading. I do think it’s important to know that The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky’s last published work. He passed away before completing all of Alyosha’s story. I also think it’s important to understand how important this book would have been to the Russian people. Literary arts were traditionally taken very seriously in Russia because it was sometimes the only way writers and thinkers could get away with taking on politics and religion without being sentenced to death or prison. That’s not to say that Dostoevsky would have narrowed his focus and reduced his writing to mere fable, instead he took on Russian life itself and people anxiously waited to hear what he had to say about their lives.
What are the book’s major themes?
This book is not light, neither in the subjects it takes on nor in the questions it forces the reader to ask themselves as they read. I do think you’ll be amazed that the way this book takes on these questions is not like a philosophical text. Dostoevsky, although he studied philosophy and religion in non-fiction form, eventually decided that it was through his magical fictional world that he could best take on these questions. It’s worth your time to reflect on why that is.
In terms of the big questions this book asks: (a) Why do children suffer if there is a good God that has not forsaken us? (b) Can children kill their parents if their killing is a force for good? (c) How do we judge criminals and are our standards for judging them fair? (d) Is there any way for a parent to recover from the loss of a child? More on these throughout our reading. For now, it’s enough to know they’re coming.
Why should I read this book?
Freud called The Brothers Karamazov “the most magnificent novel ever written.”
Virginia Woolf said that Dostoevsky, “alone among writers has the power of reconstructing those most swift and complicated states of mind.”
I think the reason to read it is for the challenge of confronting some of life’s most difficult questions. Dostoevsky was attempting to have his son live on, despite the fact he died from an epileptic seizure at age 3. Dostoevsky poured his entire heart and soul into this novel and used his writing to confront his terrible loss. I think Dostoevsky shows us, through this novel, that we too can overcome terrible tragedy and even have some good come out of it if we set our mind to pursue art. The Brothers Karamazov started as an idea before his son died, but the emotion of the novel is born out of his loss. I think the book’s most fascinating quality is how it takes the ideas and weaves them with that emotion to get at the real marrow of life.
Here’s my attempt at discussing Part One of The Brothers Karamazov.
1. It isn’t a spoiler if the author does it, right?
I’m going to be spoiling the book. My take on spoilers is pretty similar to Andrew Blackman’s. In Part One, Dostoevsky shows us how much he cares about ruining the plot. On the very first page of the book Dostoevsky tells us that Fyodor is going to die. We are yet to find out who killed him, but I don’t think it would appreciably take away from our reading of the book even if Dostoevsky had told us who had done it because we’d still be in suspense on who would eventually be convicted of the crime.
What do you think–could Dostoevsky have kept our attention even if he had told us who murdered Fyodor?
2. Oh God, the names.
Reading Russian books is hard if for no other reason than the names. What I end up doing is something like a translation as I read. I reduce all the names to one form and use that one in my head consistently throughout the book. You can find a great guide about the variations on the names at the Dartmouth site. For me, Dmitri is always Dmitri. Ivan is always Ivan. Alexei is always Alyosha. If you’re mentally consistent and take the time to read the name variation guide at the Dartmouth site by the end of Part One you should be settling in to your own shorthand for the main characters. If a name pops up and you can’t remember who we’re talking about then you can always refer to the Middlebury character analysis as a point of reference. Between the two resources and the novel’s context you should be fine.
3. The Karamazov family tree is unique but aren’t they all?
There’s some characterization in the family tree. Fyodor is characterized by his two marriages, one to a 16 year old, by the way. The first marriage produces Dmitri and the second produces Ivan and then Alyosha. The three children (we haven’t been introduced to Smerkyadov yet) are very different, but they all share certain characteristics of Dostoevsky himself.
Dmitri is sincere, generous, courageous.
Ivan is intellectual and prideful.
Alyosha is something a bit different though, he is the Christ-figure of the story and the one that Dostoevsky calls the hero from the first page. More on this later, but I think it’s important to try to read The Brothers Karamazov as Alyosha’s story, at least sometimes. At the very least, try to imagine how he sees certain events that transpire, try to see them through his eyes as an exercise in reading perspective.
4. If it came after Shakespeare, it was influenced by Shakespeare, even if it’s Russian.
We know Dostoevsky read Shakespeare in prison. He makes an early allusion to Ophelia on p. 7. The Brothers Karamazov is a story about parricide, eventually, which puts it in the tradition of “Hamlet” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex.” You can play the game of trying to identify the Shakespearean influences and you’ll probably do a much better job of it than I will if you’ve read much Shakespeare, but I will try to point out the ones I catch. If you spot any that I miss, feel free to point them out.
5. Fyodor, the “great sensualist.”
What does it mean to be a sensualist? And is it always a bad thing to be a sensualist? Fyodor is written to be a despicable character. We know he is going to die from page one and there are probably times when we read about his behavior and start to hope that his death will come soon. He is just that evil.
There’s one word that Dostoevsky uses more than any other to describe Fyodor and that is “buffoon.” There seems to me to be something in Fyodor that is set out to contrast with Alyosha, in particular, but really with all of the Karamazov children. Fyodor is almost unbelievably despicable and there is not a mention of any redeeming quality in the book that I can remember. I think there’s something like an evolutionary principle at work with Fyodor.
Here’s something to consider: Do you think for Dostoevsky to show we need a new hero–a new conscience–he has to show why the old one is so bad and Fyodor is the way he does that?
What would be some other reasons Dostoevsky would not want us sympathizing with Fyodor?
6. Dmitri, a sensualist, but with some redeeming qualities.
Dmitri’s upbringing was not exactly stable. His mother leaves him, his father forgets he even exists, his mother’s cousin takes a stab at raising him, some different relatives of his mother try to raise him, and he turns out, well, we’ll see how he turns out. When we encounter him in this section he is trying to settle a dispute with his father over the portion of the estate he is entitled to.
The running theme of inheritance is interesting. Reflect on whether Dostoevsky meant a lot more by inheritance than just the dealings of an estate. We know that Dmitri takes certain qualities from his father, so maybe the idea of inheritance is a running theme because Dostoevsky wants us to remember that we take certain things from our parents, and maybe even from the generation that preceded ours. The generational divide has always been one that shows up in Russian literature. It could be that Dostoevsky is really working on us–making us consider–what we’re getting from the prior generation and whether at the end of the day what we’re getting is really worth the trouble or if there is a new way to go about conducting our political and religious affairs.
Do you get the impression there’s a hint of disgust at some of Darwin’s ideas of evolution? How do you think Dostoevsky would feel about Darwin’s theory based on your reading of The Brothers Karamazov? You could probably write a small critical book about this if you were so inclined.
7. Fyodor forgets his child?
After Adeleida’s death Fyodor behaves very strangely, of course, but one of the things he does is he forgets he has a child. Dostoevsky comments that this is “precisely what was expected of him.” Is this an example of Dostoevsky’s attempt to criticize Russian fathers, the generation that preceded him, or is it merely to be taken at face value as a criticism of Fyodor?
8. Can you make an argument that Ivan or Dmitri is the most interesting character in Part One?
If you were looking to make an argument that Ivan was the hero of the book, then from Part One, you’d mention his involvement in intellectual matters, his debate on the ecclesiastical courts, and the mere description by our narrator that he is a genius. At every turn, though, Dostoevsky seems to understand we might start to buy into Ivan’s hero-ness and so he constantly reminds us that Alyosha is our hero. p. 18. What do you make of that? Is it poor writing or signs of this being an unfinished work?
Should we criticize Dostoevsky for having to constantly tell us that Alyosha is our hero instead of showing us that he is?
Can you even make an argument Dmitri is developed more than Alyosha in Part One?
9. Alyosha, the Christ-like.
Alyosha is described by phrases like “lover of mankind” and he is said to have been loved by everyone. Dostoevsky defends Alyosha saying he has complete faith in people, but that is not as naive as people suspect. Why might it be a problem for Dostoevsky if the reader started to see Alyosha as naive? Think about what grand plans Dostoevsky may have for Alyosha.
Biographically, Dostoevsky intended to write another book that would focus on Alyosha’s life with the people of Russia. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could complete the follow-up. Can you see any signs of his intent in Part One?
10. Is The Brothers Karamazov a work of autobiographical fiction?
Dostoevsky had a child named Alyosha who died at 3, of epilepsy, a disease he inherited from his father. After his child’s death Dostoevsky writes The Brothers Karamazov, although he’d started it before Alyosha’s death. There’s something like Shakespeare’s loss of his son, Hamnet at play here isn’t there? Critics have also pointed out that Dostoevsky put part of himself into each of the four children involved in this story. Some have argued that Alyosha represents his spirit, Ivan his mind, and Dmitri his body or heart. Look for signs of that as you read, but also be prepared to see examples that don’t exemplify this characterization. I’m not so convinced Dostoevsky intended to make the characters that flat or the interpretation that easy on us, because, as we all know, life is not that simple.
For one specific piece of evidence along these lines, read and re-read the story of Natasia p. 48 where she explains she has lost her three year old son. This is autobiographical fiction at its finest. Are you moved by the story? Do you think Dostoevsky is being an honest author when he writes of the experience of losing a child?
11. Is Elder Zosima serving the greater good by withdrawing from society and accepting these “women of faith” on pilgrimages?
Look at this question from several points of view. Does he think he is? Does Alyosha think he is? Do you think he is? Does Ivan think he is? I think that you can understand the characters in this story quite a bit better if you look at this question through their eyes.
You could write an entire critical paper about Dostoevsky’s views on confession. Think about some of the confessions Elder Zosima hears during this section. Alyosha is also the hearer of many informal confessions.
Do you get the impression Dostoevsky sees confession as a positive or a negative in Russian society?
Are there parallels between Elder Zosima’s hearing confessions and Alyosha’s hearing of informal confessions?
A constant theme throughout the work is how the characters approach Christianity. Every time a character takes a position on the subject it’s worth making a note, but it’s also interesting to note how they take that position. Do they argue their point brazenly or do they show their belief through “active love?” We get introduced to the concept of active love on p.55. Elder Zosima seems to want something different for Alyosha. What kind of life do you think Elder Zosima wants for Alyosha?
To read The Brothers Karamazov is to engage in an analysis of one’s own beliefs about religion–both as an institution and as a spiritual force for creating a happy, loving life. No matter the perspective you have when you open the book, an active reading requires you to question your beliefs and come out on the other side with a more battle-tested set of beliefs. Dostoevsky did this throughout his life. He would entertain atheism and then eventually we believe he died with a firmly held belief in Christianity.
Do you see The Brothers Karamazov as Dostoevsky’s attempt to use his son’s death as a catalyst to bring a new kind of Christianity to the world?
Be on the lookout for criticisms of the Church as an institution. If criticisms are offered, who offers them?
13. Dostoevsky and the criminal justice system.
Dostoevsky had certainly earned the right to question the Russian criminal justice system. At one point,he was sentenced to death and that sentence was later commuted to a sentence in Siberian work camps. We see some taste of his discontent on p. 64 as he speaks through his characters. Look for other mentions of the inner workings of the criminal justice system. Do they come across as true experiences as opposed to just hearsay? Does Dostoevsky take any opportunities in the story to criticize the justice system? Dmitri will eventually be put on trial, but it’s worth noting the mentions of justice and the theme of justice now. Can you pick up signals that there’s a justice-defining moment coming?
14. Why must Alyosha leave the monastery for good?
Elder Zosima tells Alyosha that as soon as he passes away he must leave the monastery for good. p. 76. He is told to be near his brothers. Does Elder Zosima know something no one else knows? Elder Zosima bows at Dmitri’s feet before he gives this command to Alyosha. Is one connected to the other?
Does Elder Zosima feel Alyosha can do more good outside the monastery? Why might he feel that way?
15. Are there any noble women in Russia?
The female characters in The Brothers Karamazov seem to be no more noble than the worst Karamazovs. Maybe that’s because those are the only women that would associate with this “nice little family.” Or do you think that Dostoevsky had a particularly poor view of women? Or is Dostoevsky just writing consistent with the times he lived in?
There’s also some criticism that depicts Dostoevsky as being an anti-Semite. Do you find any evidence of this in your reading?
16. If you didn’t already dislike Fyodor….
“It always seems to me, when I go somewhere, that I am lower than everyone else and that they all take me for a buffoon–so let me indeed play the buffoon, because all of you, to a man, are lower and stupider than I am.” Fyodor speaking on p. 86.
If you didn’t already dislike Fyodor, then consider that line and consider–even when it is his behavior that is deplorable–that he refuses to accept responsibility. Instead, he’s just playing the role he was meant to play. I wonder if this is some criticism of determinism and maybe one of the reasons this novel holds up in modern times is its unwillingness to buy into determinism completely.
What do you make of this idea that Fyodor is just playing a “role?” Has he been stripped of free will? If he has been stripped, then who stripped it from him?
17. Are monks “cheating” and taking the easy path to heaven by shutting themselves off from the world?
Fyodor raises the question on p. 89 that monks might be taking the easy way by shutting themselves up in a “monastery on other people’s bread.” He seems to be implying it’s easy to live a holy life if you’re shut off from the world. Do you agree there’s any truth to Fyodor’s allegation? Could this have anything to do with why Alyosha is being sent out into the world by Elder Zosima?
18. Smerdyakov is introduced.
You don’t want to miss the introduction of young Smerdyakov on p. 100 who is described as being “born of the devil’s son and a righteous woman.” Smerkyadov becomes Fyodor’s second servant, but the rumors are that he is also his fourth son. Is it ever unequivocally confirmed in the story that Fyodor is Smerdyakov’s father?
19. Is Alyosha the same as the other Karamazovs?
On p. 108 Dmitri tells Alyosha that he’s the same as the rest of the Karamazovs. Do you think that’s true at this stage in your reading? If he is a sensualist, like Dmitri and Fyodor, then how is he able to handle himself such that it does not cause problems for himself and/or others? Is Alyosha destined to make the same mistakes his brothers and father have made? Or, is Alyosha “different” and if he is different in what way does he set himself apart from the other Karamazovs?
20. Legal obligations v. Moral obligations.
Dostoevsky asks us to consider varying degrees of moral authority. One source, of course, is legal authority, but as Dmitri points out on p. 120, sometimes legal authority is not the same as the moral obligation we owe one another as human beings. Consider this as you read. What is the source of our moral obligations? Are there times in the story where legal authority fails to be a good gauge of moral authority?
Are there times when the innocent have no hope for justice at all? Are there times when innocent children, in particular, have no hope for justice?
21. Smerkyadov’s “falling sickness.”
As I’ve mentioned, Dostoevsky gives all of the Karamazovs something of himself. In the case of Smerkyadov it is his “falling sickness.” Dostoevsky was reportedly an epileptic, which he commonly referred to as having “falling sickness.” Remember, too, Dostoevsky is believed to have passed his epilepsy on to his son, Alyosha.
22. Dostoevsky loved books.
Dostoevsky loved books so it’s interesting to see how he passes the love of books to Alyosha when he describes him, but when he describes Fyodor he mentions a man that owns “more than a hundred volumes” but that “no one had ever seen Fyodor Pavlovich with a book in his hands.” An easy way for a writer to have his characters gain favor with a reader is to have them read. Dostoevsky was not above the ordinary tricks of the trade, I suppose.
23. Is Alyosha impervious to the women in this story?
Dmitri asks it himself, “how did you manage to save yourself from them, from those women?” speaking of Grushenka and Katya. And, so, if Dmitri asks it then we should ask it as well. Do you think Alyosha will remain impervious to the women of this story or is there one he should let down his guard with? Alyosha seems to take Elder Zosima at his word when he tells him he will marry. Has Alyosha’s behavior been changed by being told what the future has in store for him?
24. The central question of Part One is expressed on p. 143, “how would it end between his father and his brother Dmitri with this terrible woman?”
We end this part with the question unanswered. The stage is now set for what must happen in Part Two. There must be some resolution to the tension Dostoevsky has created. Imagine the Russians hanging on the edge of their seats for the next installment of this epic work which was released in serial.
25. The world Dostoevsky creates repeats itself.
At times Alyosha will hear something and repeat it. Certain ideas come to us multiple times. Look for instances of recurring phrases or descriptions as you read. What might be the intended effect of the repetition?
26. Dostoevsky’s use of children.
Pay particular attention to any mention of children in the novel. Dostoevsky may be working through their innocence to make a point.
We left Part One with a central question, as expressed by Alyosha: “how would it end between his father and his brother Dmitri with this terrible woman?” We’re still waiting for our answer at the end of Part Two, but we have a couple of chapters in this Part which show Dostoevsky’s mastery: (a) The Grand Inquisitor poem Ivan recites to Alyosha (see 42 below) and (b) Elder Zosima’s biography as written by Alyosha (see 45 below). Those two pieces are worth reading and re-reading repeatedly. They are what Dostoevsky intended to be the heart of the novel. You should read the two together to understand what Dostoevsky was trying to do.
27. Elder Zosima’s final instructions.
Elder Zosima starts to leave his final instructions on p. 163: (a) “love one another;” (b) we are all guilty because of the common guilt of the world; (c) make confessions to each other; (d) do not hate atheists; (e) teach the gospel; and others.
Do Elder Zosima’s final instructions cross doctrines and reach the level of universally “good” advice?
Later we’ll get Elder Zosima’s complete story as seen through Alyosha’s eyes. So, we begin and end in this Part with Elder Zosima’s instructions. Compare these final instructions with the way we’re given Elder Zosima’s story.
28. Science v. Religion
Arguments against religion are usually couched as science being in opposition to religion. Father Paissy addresses this on p. 170. This kind of artificial battle has been going on for centuries. I think it’s worth reflecting on whether the two have any aim in common and whether it is a good thing to have the two in opposition.
29. Wicked men.
Is there any honor in a wicked man who lives openly wicked as compared to a wicked man who does so on the sly? p. 173.
30. Alyosha’s encounter with children.
What do you make of Alyosha’s odd encounter with the children and his being stoned and bitten by one? p. 179. Remember, I suggested focusing on Dostoevsky’s use of children and how Dostoevsky might be working through them in his story. Do we gain any insight into how Dostoevsky views children in this scene? How does Alyosha view these children?
31. Alyosha and Liza.
Alyosha tells Liza that he intends to marry her. p. 184. Does that come as a shock to you? Do you get the impression Alyosha was influenced by Elder Zosima’s instructions?
32. Alyosha’s forays into the emotional lives of others.
Is Alyosha right when he tells Katerina Ivanovna she loves Ivan but does not truly love Dmitri? p. 192
He was practically forced to tell her his thoughts and when he does she gets angry with Alyosha. Ivan also goes on to disagree with Alyosha.
Alyosha eventually regrets putting his opinion in on an “affair of the heart.” p. 196. Has he done anything wrong? If it’s wrong under what authority is it wrong? Has he done anything that would disappoint Elder Zosima?
33. Why Alyosha was bitten by the boy.
We learn why Alyosha was bitten on the finger. p. 200. It involves a dispute Dmitri had with the boy’s father. The boy knew Alyosha to be Dmitri’s brother and attacked him. The boy had witnessed Dmitri beat his father. A bit later we see this come up again and Dostoevsky goes into great detail about how much Dmitri’s actions affected this child. p. 208. Why is this such an important thing for Dostoevsky to have us understand?
What kind of emotion did you feel when you read about the boy and his defense of his father?
34. “Schoolchildren are merciless people”
“Schoolchildren are merciless people: separately they’re God’s angels, but together, especially, in school, they’re quite often merciless.” p. 205. This sounds like something we’ve heard in Part One, right? Remember when we were told on p. 57 that the country doctor has a similar opinion: “I love mankind, he said, but I am amazed at myself: The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons.” Why might Dostoevsky repeat this idea?
This idea reappears later in the context of Jesus. The question comes up, is it possible for humans to love mankind as Jesus loved mankind? Here we’re talking about real up close love, not abstract love. p. 237. This is a repetition of our theme of individual love v. love of all mankind isn’t it?
35. The man refuses Alyosha’s offering.
What are the real reasons Alyosha is refused when he tries to make amends with the man Dmitri beat? Can you attribute any of it to Alyosha’s innocence or eagerness to make the situation right? p. 215. Does Alyosha eventually recognize he is in any way to blame for the way he handled the situation?
Do you get the impression Alyosha is as in tune with the human soul as those around him do?
Do think Alyosha makes an effort to learn from his experiences, though, perhaps setting him apart from those around him?
36. Alyosha lies.
Alyosha is not perfect, he lies to Lisa. p. 219. We start to see Alyosha becoming a full-person in this Part as opposed to a limited monk. He’s learning from real entanglements of love and life and from some of others’ entanglements that he’s drug into.
Are there times when lies can be for the greater good? Does Alyosha give an example of that for us to consider? Are lies always bad?
37. Alyosha admits he may not even believe in God.
Were you shocked to hear him say this? p. 220. I think it’s worth noting that Alyosha expresses this belief before Ivan recites his poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.”
38. Dostoevsky reminds us of our central conflict.
“What about Dmitri and father? How will it end between them” Alyosha asks on p. 231. Dostoevsky never lets us get too far from our story, does he?
39. “Euclidian geometry.”
This is another area where you could delve into some deep study and write a critical paper. Euclidean geometry is based on assuming the existence of certain axioms and then constructing logical arguments or proofs from those axioms. One of the problems with religion is that it asks us to consider a reality or a set of truths (the belief in God) based not on logic, but on something folks generally call faith. Ivan’s take on this is interesting to me. It boils down to this: If Euclidean geometry exists then there must not be a God. Ivan seems to be suggesting that if God exists and if he made the world so that he does not follow a firm set of rules then he shouldn’t have and that any proof that the universe does not follow a set of stated rules is actually proof that God does not exist. p. 235.
In the 1800s a new form of geometry, non-Euclidean geometry, was beginning to emerge. With its emergence intellectuals like Dostoevsky would have been interested in what a world without a firm set of rules might look like. Thinkers would have started to wrestle with what it might mean if the world was not as orderly as Euclid and Newton had made it seem. Do you see any signs of Dostoevsky wrestling with this in the novel?
40. Hamlet reference–Polonius.
Dostoevsky specifically refers to Hamlet on p. 238. He does not want us to forget his book is in the Shakespearean tradition.
41. I always make a note of lawyer jokes in literature.
There’s a long tradition of lawyer jokes in literature. Shakespeare made many as well. Here Ivan says: “Among the Russian people lawyers have long been called ‘hired consciences.’” p. 241. Is this a criticism of the justice system or just a cheap shot at lawyers?
42. The Grand Inquisitor.
This section should be read multiple times. It is oft criticized and interpreted. It is classic Dostoevsky.
Before reciting his poem, though, Ivan asks Alyosha if he would be the man to create a world where all men would be happy if it meant that one innocent child would have to be tortured. What a weighty hypothetical. Is it a fair question to ask Alyosha?
We need to spend some time analyzing this section before moving on. What is Dostoevsky trying to accomplish through Ivan’s poem? One way to ask that is to ask what Ivan is trying to accomplish? What do you think?
Ivan seems highly critical of Roman Catholicism. p. 250. He says the central feature of Catholicism is that “Everything…has been handed over by you to the pope, therefore, everything now belongs to the pope.”
The setting of the poem is of course one of the lowest points in the history of the Catholic Church, the Spanish Inquisition. p. 248. It’s worth reading some on the Inquisition to understand why Ivan would have set his poem there. In sum, the stated purpose behind the Inquisition was to suppress heresy. It is alleged that the Church used the Inquisition to keep the Church in power by killing its detractors.
The Church defined heresy as publicly declaring your beliefs, having beliefs against the teachings of the Church, and then refusing to denounce those beliefs when confronted with the accusations. There are some additional elements such as trying to persuade others to follow your beliefs and doing so on your own free will, without being possessed by the devil. What makes the Spanish Inquisition unique is that it was used as a tool of secular leaders in Spain, although it was administered by the Catholic Church.
The Inquisitions were not trials to a jury, but instead, to a tribunal, and you were not allowed to have an attorney defend you. Further, the accused was required to testify and if he did not testify then guilt was assumed. Usually, there were no witnesses on behalf of the accused because any that came forward would likely be prosecuted for heresy as well. In many cases, the accused was not informed of the charges being brought against them.
Inquisitors were trained by the Church to know the Bible and to ask questions in such a way that they obtained a confession or an admission of guilt. Torture was allowed as a tool to obtain a confession, but if you confessed while being tortured then you had to confess again. The torture was horrific and I won’t go into it here, but you should research terms like “Strappado” and “rack” if you’re interested in learning more.
The last Inquisitorial act in Spain was in 1834, not too long before Dostoevsky would have written The Brothers Karamazov. The Catholic Church, today, generally takes a position that the Inquisition was bad, but that it was exaggerated and that you can not believe all accounts of torture and death that came out during this time period and years later. Many of the records necessary to determine how frequently torture and capital punishment were used are not available, but we know of several confirmed cases.
Ivan’s Inquisitor would have been part of the process described above, officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church to find heretics and obtain confessions.
Ivan has Jesus return to earth for the purpose of his illustration. He then has Jesus faced with an inquisition like the ones I’ve described above. In Ivan’s poem, The Grand Inquisitor knows he is facing Jesus. p. 249. He shuts himself up with Jesus in a room, alone. Immediately he begins to ask Jesus why he has come back to “interfere.” The Inquisitor tells Jesus that tomorrow he will burn at the stake. p. 250. Jesus offers no response.
Then the Inquisitor explains to Jesus where the Church has gone with Jesus’ teachings and admits that they have done things that Jesus did not accept when he was tempted by the devil. The Inquisitor is convinced that people will give up their freedom to the Church if it satisfies their needs. p. 253. He is also convinced that the Church can use the powers of “miracle, mystery, and authority” to rule where Jesus had refused to use those powers. p. 254. The Inquisitor admits the Church has worked in concert with the Devil and that men have been willing to give away their freedom like sheep. p. 257.
The Church has, in effect, accepted the Devil’s last temptation, “all the kingdoms of the earth.” p. 257. While the Church has not used these powers to complete effect, the Inquisitor believes the time will come when men will give up all their freedoms. p. 257.
The Inquisitor sees Jesus as having come back to interfere with the Church’s “obedient flock” and tells him he will burn him at the stake. p. 259. The Inquisitor eventually does not burn Jesus, but tells him to never return.
After Ivan has set out the story in full, Alyosha offers his reaction. p. 260. As they part, Alyosha mirrors the way Ivan ended the poem by kissing Ivan on the lips just as Jesus had kissed the Inquisitor. p. 262. Alyosha will make other similar gestures, in effect giving back to the people he interacts with what they have given to him.
The easy answer is that Dostoevsky has a vendetta against the Catholic Church and that he used his literary prowess and Ivan to tear down the Roman Catholic religion. But, that seems to be only a partial explanation of Dostoevsky’s intent.
Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Roman Catholicism?
Can you read ”The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of fascism?
Can you read ”The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Christianity?
Can you read ”The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Alyosha’s beliefs?
Can you read ”The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Elder Zosima?
Can you read ”The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of the Spanish justice system?
Can you read ”The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Fyodor?
Can you read ”The Grand Inquisitor” as a criticism of Russian fathers?
Dostoevsky very much wanted to include the next book, about Elder Zosima, together with The Grand Inquisitor. Why do you think that might have made sense to him?
Can you read “The Grand Inquisitor” as a sort of existential ground clearing that will make way for what Dostoevsky intends to construct through Alyosha?
43. “The Karamazov force.”
Ivan talks about a force that “will endure everything.” p. 263. He describes this as “The Karamazov force…the force of the Karamazov baseness.” Dostoevsky has already made a point of saying that Alyosha contains that force as well, hasn’t he? Is there any good that you can, at this point, imagine coming from the Karamazov force?
44. Alyosha returns to Elder Zosima.
Once he returns, Alyosha is questioned by Elder Zosima about whether he’s seen to Dmitri. p. 284. When Alyosha says he hasn’t seen him, Elder Zosima orders him to go to Dmitri immediately. Elder Zosima tells Alyosha he must go out into the world and be loved by even his enemies. p. 285. What makes Zosima so sure that Alyosha has that kind of strength? Is it faith or has he seen something in Alyosha that others have not yet seen?
45. Alyosha’s biography of Elder Zosima.
Alyosha writes a brief biography of Elder Zosima. p. 287-322. Could you make an argument this section was supposed to be paired with “The Grand Inquisitor?” If you’re going to study another section of this book I’d recommend spending equal time with this biography. You could study it next to “The Book of Job.” You could study in terms of the emotion you fill in your heart after it’s been drained by “The Grand Inquisitor.” You could consider it an attempt to build a foundation after the ground clearing that occurred in “The Grand Inquisitor.”
Here’s what you’ll find in a nut shell:
Zosima’s brother has a crisis of faith p. 288. Zosima’s brother is filled with guilt, he is dying p. 289. Zosima’s brother tells Zosima to “live for me!” and then dies. p. 290. Zosima’s mother sends him to Petersburg cadet school. p. 290. Zosima recounts the 1st time he “received the first seed of the word of God in my soul.” p. 291. Zosima discusses the story of Job. p. 291. Zosima is very much taken by the story of Job’s trials. p. 291. Zosima begins to suggest a new “church” where priests open their cottage doors and read Job to those who will come. Not in a church, but in the simplest of ways. p. 293. Then he suggests other scriptures that could be read in the same way. Zosima says no teaching will be needed, just to read the scripture. p. 293 Zosima explains after the cadet school he got some wealth and forgot these teachings from scripture. p. 296. He met a girl, the girl marries another, and Zosima explains how this embarrasses him and he becomes angry. Zosima challenges this man to a duel. p. 297. Zosima beats his servant, Afanasy. p. 297. Zosima remembers his dead brother’s words about serving the servants. p. 298. Zosima asks Afanasy for forgiveness and goes to the duel. p. 299. Zosima allows the man to shoot his cheek and ear and then throws his gun into the trees, refusing to shoot. Zosima’s regiment feels dishonored. Zosima resigns his commission and announces he’s going into the monastery. p. 300. A mysterious man starts talking regularly with Zosima and explains his belief that “no science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights…” and that people must “physically” “become the brother of all.” But that this will not happen until “the period of humanisolation” concludes. [emphasis added] p. 303. The mysterious man confesses to having killed someone p. 304. He had the murder blamed on a servant. The servant died of illness. p. 305. The man is considering confessing to the crime to legal authorities. p. 308. Zosima tells him to confess but he refuses for some time, delays. p. 309. The man confesses in front of authorities at his birthday party. p. 310. No one believes the confession, his family blames Zosima, and the man falls ill. p. 311. The man confesses he considered killing Zosima to rid the world of the only one he had confessed to. The man dies. p. 312.
Zosima speaks of the monk’s role in a world of ever-increasing “needs.” p. 314. Zosima explains both the rich and the monks are isolated, but in different ways. Zosima believes without Christ there is no crime, no sin. p.315. In other words, Jesus is the source of moral authority. Zosima tells those gathered to make themselves responsible for the sins of all mankind. p. 320. Zosima says “you cannot be the judge of anyone.” p. 320. Zosima defines hell: “the suffering of being no longer able to love.” p. 322.
Dostoevsky makes a point to say that Alyosha wrote the biography of Elder Zosima after some time had passed. Is Alyosha’s biography of Zosima like Plato’s use of Socrates? p. 323. In other words, in this biography do we have some editorial decisions being made by Alyosha in the way the story is told? I think you have to at least admit that we’re seeing Elder Zosima’s life through Alyosha’s eyes, right?
We end Part Two with Zosima’s death but still in suspense over Fyodor’s. p. 324.
If the past sections were about philosophy/ideas/religion then Part Three is where plot takes over. You can see Dostoevsky’s mastery of the murder-mystery genre.
Your reading of Parts Three and Four will be informed by the groundwork laid in the earlier parts. All the work you put in the previous parts comes to fruition as we see Dmitri put on trial. Part Three, in particular, is filled with death and debauchery.
Here are some areas for special consideration:
46. Why do those as devout as Alyosha still weep at the loss of men like Elder Zosima?
Alyosha weeps at the loss of Elder Zosima. p. 329. Has Alyosha’s faith been shaken? Does the odor change his perception of Elder Zosima? p. 329.
47. Alyosha leaves the monastery without permission, without caring what the monks thought.
Alyosha leaves because he had a sudden awakening to a “higher justice” which he believed “had been violated.” p. 339. What higher justice has Alyosha woken up to?
48. Alyosha’s rebellion
How does a Russian monk rebel? By eating vodka and sausage, of course. Bad joke, I know. I apologize.
49. The scene involving Grushenka and the onion fable.
Grushenka tells a fable about an onion. p. 352. What does the fable mean with regard to Grushenka? Alyosha? Mankind? Why might this fable have been so important for Dostoevsky?
Take this is a step further and you could try to analyze how the entire novel is like an onion. What evidence could you point to from this part that shows this is a novel of layers? Are the layers all connected in some way to the whole?
50. Dmitri’s comedy of errors.
We see the case made against Dmitri in two ways in this part. First, we see the debauchery unfold in real-time. Next, we see the same acts through the eyes of the investigators. When Dmitri is finally charged with killing his father it’s no surprise to the reader that they’d make that deductive leap. p. 444. It must have been important for Dostoevsky to lay out the case and have us understand it. Why was it so important for us to see how a deductive exercise like an investigation can fall short of finding the truth?
51. The image of the suffering peasant child.
Dmitri has a dream about a peasant child. p. 507. After this he gives a speech about how we’re all guilty, but maintains his innocence related to his father’s death. During this dream, Dmitri seems to be like Job. Bad things are happening in the world and it seems that he’s just now woken up to suffering other than his own. We see it when Dmitri asks, “why are the people poor…why is the steppe bare…why are they blackened with such black misery..why don’t they feed the wee one?” p. 507. After this dream, Dmitri’s face is “lit up with joy.” Why do you think he has this reaction to his dream?
Part IV and epilogue:
The major plot event of Part IV is Dmitri’s trial, but in Part IV and the Epilogue we see Dostoevsky give his novel’s closing argument, too. Here are a few areas where you could focus your attention:
52. Alyosha and the children.
At the start of Part IV we see Alyosha interacting with children again. Can you see any evidence that the themes of the novel repeat themselves during the opening of Part IV? Is Kolya like Ivan in some ways? In Kolya like Dmitri in some ways?
53. Has Alyosha changed since we’ve seen him last?
We see some of the ways he’s changed explicitly mentioned on p. 533. Can you find other ways that Alyosha has changed?
54. Similarities to the Book of Job.
I see the similarities to the Book of Job most clearly on p. 562 when we see the captain scream about “not wanting another boy.” If you’re familiar with the Book of Job, can you see parallels between this section and that book of the Bible?
55. Does a devil visit Ivan?
In Book IX, Ivan hallucinates and becomes ill. Do you see evidence that Dostoevsky is striving for medical accuracy? Do you see evidence that Ivan has been visited by a devil? Is Smerkyadov a devil or someone upon whom the devil has acted?
What would be the purpose of the devil’s visit?
56. Do the closing arguments of the trial work to sum-up the major themes of the novel?
What parts of the closing arguments of the novel are fact? p. 692. What parts are inference? Are there any parts that are sheer fantasy?
Do you get the impression that Dostoevsky is making a point by having the evidence stacked against Dmitri?
57. What is the significance of having Alyosha surrounded by children in the Epilogue?
Alyosha gives a spontaneous speech to the children. p. 775. Many of the themes of the novel are again summed-up. What do you think Dostoevsky intended to leave as our last impression of the novel? Is the final message overtly Christian? Is the final message universally true? Is the final message based in life or in theory?
My closing thoughts on the book:
This is my third time reading The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never studied it as formally as I have over the past month, and even then, not so formally. In the past I’ve spent more time analyzing “The Grand Inquisitor” than on any other part of the novel. To read “The Grand Inquisitor” as the major message of the novel is a mistake, though. It was a mistake I made the first time I read the novel.
Dostoevsky, above everything, was trying to take us back to the core message of Christianity. Whether you’re a Christian or not (I’m not going to get into my personal beliefs) there seems to be something universal at the heart of this novel which is similar to the message Jesus espoused, or that the authors of the various books of the Bible espoused using Jesus as their hero. If Dostoevsky had not gone out of his way to remind us that Alyosha was the novel’s hero we might have found our hero in Ivan, but Dostoevsky announces his intention on numerous occasions. The intent, therefore, was not to tear things down by revealing the negative aspects of the Church, alone. Dostoevsky tried to work, through Alyosha, to build a new way to live.
Do you think Dostoevsky ultimately succeeded or does the novel read as only the beginning of Alyosha’s journey?