The Brothers Karamazov

by: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Crime and Justice

In the context of the novel’s larger exploration of sin, redemption, and justice, a major motif in the novel is the idea of crime and criminal justice. The crimes portrayed in the novel are also sins, or crimes against God, and the novel presents them in such a way as to suggest that human beings are not capable of passing judgment on one another. The only true judge, as we see in the aftermath of Dmitri’s wrongful conviction, is the conscience. Images of criminal justice in the novel occur most prominently in the debate between Ivan and the monks about ecclesiastical courts, in the story of the Grand Inquisitor, and in Dmitri’s arrest, imprisonment, and trial.

Redemption Through Suffering

A central part of Dostoevsky’s exploration of spiritual redemption is the idea that self-knowledge is necessary for a person to be redeemed. As Zosima explains in Book I, only when a man knows himself and faces himself honestly can he come to love others and love God. The principal way to arrive at that self-knowledge is through suffering. Suffering can occur either through the grief and guilt of sin, or, as in the case of Grushenka and Ivan, through the agony of illnesses that are metaphors for spiritual conditions. Apart from the sufferings of Grushenka and Ivan, the other major embodiment of this motif in the novel is Dmitri, who suffers through the misery of realizing his own evil before he can embrace his goodness. When Lise willfully slams her fingers in the door, she provides another, bitterly ironic instance of the motif. Lise wants to punish herself for being wicked, but her idea of suffering is so shallow, vain, and ridiculous that it is not really a serious attempt at redemption.

The Profound Gesture

Although The Brothers Karamazov is fundamentally an exploration of religious faith, the novel supports the idea that the choice to believe in God cannot be fully explained in rational terms. Profound, inexplicable gestures often take the place of argumentative dialogue. These gestures defy explanation, but convey a poetic sense of the qualities that make faith necessary and satisfying for the human soul. Examples of these profound, enigmatic gestures include Zosima kneeling before Dmitri in Book I, Christ kissing the Grand Inquisitor in Book V, Alyosha kissing Ivan in the same book, Zosima embracing the Earth just before he dies in Book VI, and Alyosha kissing the ground after his dream in Book VII. Each of these gestures can only be partially explained. Zosima, for example, kneels before Dmitri to acknowledge the suffering Dmitri will face. But none of these gestures can be fully explained, and their ambiguity is a way of challenging the rational paradigm that Ivan embraces.