The narrator describes Alyosha as the “hero” of The Brothers Karamazov and claims that the book is Alyosha’s “biography.” A young, handsome man of about twenty, Alyosha is remarkable for his extraordinarily mature religious faith, his selflessness, and his innate love of humankind. Alyosha is naturally good: his love of his fellow human beings is simply a part of his personality, and he rarely has to struggle against temptation or doubt. He spends his energy doing good deeds for his fellow men and trying as honestly as he can to help them become happier and more fulfilled. Alyosha is not judgmental and has an uncanny ability to understand the psychology of others. Despite his infallible goodness and his natural advantages, Alyosha has a gentle, easygoing personality that causes almost everyone who knows him to love him.
At the same time, Alyosha is not naïve or innocent. He understands human evil and the burden of sin, but he practices universal forgiveness. Alyosha’s religious faith is the cornerstone of his character. His faith in a loving God, strengthened by his close relationship with the monastic elder Zosima, reinforces his love of mankind and his immense capability to do good. Even when Alyosha experiences doubt, his doubt is always resolved by his commitment to do good. At the end of the novel, Alyosha has become the mature embodiment of Zosima’s teachings, and he even helps to guarantee Zosima’s legacy by spreading his teachings among the young schoolboys of the town, who adore him.
Alyosha is an unusual main character because he does not initiate much of the main action of the novel. Instead, he tends to react calmly to whatever the other characters are driven by passion. But The Brothers Karamazov is a novel that analyzes various ways of life—the coarse sensualism of Fyodor Pavlovich and the cold skepticism of Ivan both come under scrutiny—and questions each of them sharply. Alyosha’s way of life seems superior to that of the other characters. He is the moral center of the novel because he represents the model of attitude and behavior that Dostoevsky considers the right one, the one most conducive to human happiness and peace instead of the trauma and conflict that afflict most of the novel’s other major characters.
No character in The Brothers Karamazov is afflicted with more trauma or inner conflict than Ivan. Ivan is a brilliant student with an incisively analytical mind, and his intelligence is directly to blame for his descent into despair. Unable to reconcile the horror of unjust human suffering—particularly the suffering of children—with the idea of a loving God, Ivan is consumed with doubt and argues that even if God does exist, he is malicious and hostile, and loves to torture mankind. Ivan believes that human concepts of morality are dependent on the idea that the soul is immortal, meaning that people only worry about “right” and “wrong” behavior because they want to experience pleasure rather than pain in the afterlife. Because of his feelings about God, Ivan himself is unable to believe in the immortality of the soul, and thus he argues that good and evil are fraudulent categories, and that people may do whatever they wish without regard for morality. But Ivan only starts thinking about these concepts in the first place because he loves humanity—it is his concern for human suffering that initially leads him to reject God. His logical disbelief in morality is terribly painful for him because it would make a way of life such as Fyodor Pavlovich’s, which Ivan detests, an acceptable mode of human behavior. Dignified and coldly moral, Ivan wants to be able to accept an idea of goodness that would exalt mankind and reject Fyodor Pavlovich’s brutishness, but, trapped in his own logic, he is unable to do so. He is so beset with doubt, and so defensively determined to keep the rest of humanity at a distance, that he is unable to act on his love for Katerina, and seems to scorn the very thought of pursuing happiness for himself.
After Smerdyakov murders Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan’s crisis of faith becomes more traumatic still. Convinced by Smerdyakov that Ivan’s philosophy made it possible for Smerdyakov to kill Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan is forced to confront two very difficult notions: first, that he is responsible for another human being, and second, that his beliefs have paved the way for murder. Ivan’s subsequent collapse into hallucination and madness represents the novel’s final rejection of his skeptical way of life. When the novel ends, Ivan is feverish and unconscious, having been taken home by Katerina to recuperate, and his future is uncertain. It may be that, with Katerina’s love, he will find a way to accept Alyosha’s faith or come to terms intellectually with morality and his own responsibility for others. Or it may be that he will never resolve his crisis—he may become permanently insane. But the extremely optimistic note on which the novel ends suggests that he will find some form of redemption.
Dmitri is the most turbulent of the three brothers. Passionate, headstrong, and reckless, he combines Alyosha’s good heart with Fyodor Pavlovich’s heedless sensuality. Dmitri has lived a life torn between sin and redemption. Unlike Alyosha, Dmitri is dominated by his passions, but unlike Fyodor Pavlovich, he feels genuine remorse for the sins he has committed and gradually comes to hope that his soul can be redeemed through suffering. Because Dmitri is the character most poised between animalism and spiritual redemption, he often represents the plight of humanity itself in the novel. When he is arrested for the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich, the question of his guilt or innocence becomes a crucial question about human nature—whether it is founded on good or evil. Dmitri is not only innocent of the crime, he undergoes an ardent spiritual conversion in prison and emerges from his trial a stronger, better person, prepared to live a life of goodness and to do penance for his sins. Through Dmitri’s redemption and Ivan’s breakdown, Dostoevsky thus concludes the novel by rejecting doubt and skepticism in favor of faith and love. Dmitri’s redemption represents the novel’s optimistic conclusion about the nature of mankind.