Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him. . . .
In a short introduction, the author—writing in the somewhat comical and haphazard style employed by the narrator throughout the novel—poses the question of why anyone should read his story, which he describes as the “biography” of Alyosha. He concludes that the story describes an odd man who nevertheless captures something essential about his time. The author apologizes for the fragmentary nature of his story, but says that he hopes readers will read it to the end. He also apologizes for wasting his readers’ time with a superfluous author’s note.
Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, usually called Alyosha, is the third son of a brutish landowner named Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who is still famous for his dark and violent death. The narrator tells the story of Fyodor Pavlovich’s life. As a young man, he is known as a loutish buffoon. He owns a very small amount of land and earns a reputation for sponging off other people. Nevertheless, he somehow manages to marry a rich, beautiful, intelligent girl named Adelaida Ivanovna Miusova, who convinces herself that eloping with a bold and sarcastic man like Fyodor Pavlovich is a romantic thing to do. After they are married, Adelaida Ivanovna realizes that she feels nothing but contempt for Fyodor Pavlovich, and when their son, Dmitri, is three, she runs away with a poor seminary student, leaving Fyodor Pavlovich with the boy. Fyodor Pavlovich begins traveling around the province, tearfully complaining about his wife’s desertion. In Adelaida Ivanovna’s absence, however, Fyodor Pavlovich turns his house into a harem and spends much of his time indulging in drunken orgies financed by the fortune he has filched from Adelaida Ivanovna. When Fyodor Pavlovich hears that Adelaida Ivanovna has died from starvation or disease in a Petersburg garret, he runs down the street drunkenly celebrating his freedom. There is another version of this story, however, which says that Fyodor Pavlovich instead weeps like a child. The narrator says both versions of the story may be true: Fyodor Pavlovich may have simultaneously rejoiced and mourned his wife’s death, for even wicked people like Fyodor Pavlovich are generally more naïve and simple than one is inclined to suspect.
As soon as Adelaida Ivanovna flees from her marriage to Fyodor Pavlovich, Fyodor Pavlovich forgets all about his three-year-old son. For a year, a servant raises the neglected Dmitri. Dmitri is then passed around among a number of his mother’s relatives, including her cousin Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov. These relatives lead Dmitri to believe that he has inherited some his mother’s money and property, which is now in the care of his father. After a wild young adulthood and a stint in the army, Dmitri visits his father to learn the details of his inheritance. Fyodor Pavlovich evades Dmitri’s questions and gives him a small sum of money to quiet him. After Dmitri leaves, his father successfully manipulates him by sending him other small payments, which lead Dmitri to believe that he has a sizable inheritance. But when Dmitri next visits his father, Fyodor Pavlovich tells him that he has paid out all the money from his mother’s inheritance, and that Dmitri might even owe a small sum to his father. Dmitri, stunned, quickly concludes that his father is attempting to cheat him, and he remains in the town to fight what he believes is his father’s unwillingness to hand over the fortune that is rightfully Dmitri’s.
Fyodor Pavlovich remarries soon after getting rid of four-year-old Dmitri. He stays married for about eight years. His wife, Sofia Ivanovna, is a sixteen-year-old orphan from another province, where Fyodor Pavlovich has traveled on a business trip. Despite his drunken and debauched lifestyle, Fyodor Pavlovich has handled his investments shrewdly, and his fortune continues to grow. Fyodor Pavlovich convinces Sofia to elope with him against the wishes of her guardian, and Fyodor Pavlovich treats her deplorably, openly holding orgies with other women in the house, right under her nose. As a result of Fyodor Pavlovich’s ill treatment, Sofia becomes nervous and hysterical, until her husband begins calling her “the shrieker.” Despite her instability, Sofia gives birth to two sons, Ivan and Alexei, who is nicknamed Alyosha. When Alyosha is four, Sofia dies, and the two boys fall into the care of the same servant who briefly had charge of Dmitri. Their mother’s former guardian, a general’s widow, then takes them in. The widow soon dies, but leaves funds for the education of Alyosha and Ivan. As the boys grow older, in the care of their benefactress’s heir, Ivan becomes a brilliant student, gaining notoriety in literary circles for an article he writes about ecclesiastical courts. Eventually Ivan moves back to his father’s town to live with his father, despite having been ashamed of him all his life. This bizarre circumstance is partially arranged by Dmitri, who, after being told about his ruined inheritance, has requested that his brother join him and their father, hoping that Ivan might help to mediate their dispute.
Alyosha is twenty years old when Dmitri moves to their father’s home. Alyosha has lived in the monastery in his father’s town for about a year before his brothers’ arrival. He is religious—not in a mystical or superstitious way, but simply out of a generous and innate love of humankind. Alyosha even seems to love his father and is never critical of him or unkind to him. Everyone loves Alyosha, for despite his tendency to remain detached from others, he exudes a kind of blissful serenity. He has been extremely popular as a student despite his passive nature and his innocence—the only thing the other students ever tease him about is the acute embarrassment he feels whenever the topics of women or sex arise. After Alyosha moves back to his father’s town, he quickly grows close to Fyodor Pavlovich, who uncharacteristically donates a great deal of money to the monastery after Alyosha visits his mother’s grave. Fyodor Pavlovich becomes very sentimental when Alyosha tells him that he intends to enter the monastery and study under the elder Zosima.
Alyosha is greatly moved by the arrival of his brothers. He quickly becomes close to Dmitri, but he feels that Ivan’s cold intellectualism keeps him distant from others. Alyosha senses that Ivan is struggling toward an inner goal that makes him indifferent to the outside world. Dmitri and Ivan are as unlike as two people can be, but Alyosha notices that Dmitri speaks of Ivan with warmth and admiration.
Dmitri has become embroiled with their father in a conflict over the inheritance, and it is finally arranged that the two parties will have a discussion in Zosima’s cell, where the presence of the influential monk might help them resolve their differences. The prospect of this meeting makes Alyosha nervous—he knows that his father would only agree to such a thing sarcastically, and that Ivan himself is an atheist. He worries that his family’s behavior will offend Zosima, whom he esteems very highly and who acts as his spiritual leader within the monastery.
Book I provides a history of the major characters and their relationships, so the narrator can jump right into the main story in Book II without stopping to explain things as he goes. The narrator presents all of the incidents described in these chapters as though they take place before the real beginning of his story, describing the events as information that is generally well-known, repeated only for the convenience of a reader who somehow may not have heard it before. The narrator, as a result, is a strong presence in these chapters. The narrator signals that the story he tells is widely known by interjecting phrases such as “only later did we learn” and “well known in his own day.”
The Brothers Karamazov is a cross between a realistic novel and a philosophical novel. The characters have extremely complicated and intricate psychologies, and yet they also each represent certain ideas and concepts. This combination of realism and philosophical symbolism is evident in these chapters, as each meticulously drawn character comes to embody a more abstract set of concepts and beliefs. Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father, with his orgies and his abhorrent treatment of his wives and children, embodies amoral, obnoxious Epicureanism—that is, a commitment to seeking pleasure rather than living responsibly or virtuously. Ivan Karamazov’s brilliant mind and burgeoning literary reputation embody the struggle to reconcile intellect with religious belief. Dmitri Karamazov’s violent hatred of his father and uncritical love of his brothers stand in opposition to Ivan’s critical faculties. Dmitri’s character illustrates the effects of action based on emotion rather than on intellect. Finally, Alyosha, whom Dostoevsky describes as the hero of the novel, is nearly the opposite of Fyodor Pavlovich. His love of mankind shows that he is innocent, pious, and virtuous without being mystical or fanatical.
Each character in Dostoevsky’s quartet of personalities works as a foil, or contrast, for each of the others. Because the novel’s philosophical themes are immediately connected to the personalities of its characters, the conflicts and contrasts between the main characters come to symbolize some of the most fundamental problems of human existence. The difference between Ivan and Alyosha, for instance, represents the conflict between faith and doubt. Though none of these philosophical issues are given extensive treatment in this section, each of them, along with many others, is expanded and developed as the novel progresses. In the end, the story of the Karamazov brothers enacts a part of the drama of ideas on which civilization itself is based.
There are several religious concepts in these chapters that may be unfamiliar to modern readers who are not members of the Russian Orthodox church, to which the Karamazovs belong. First, the article for which Ivan has gained notoriety before the story begins deals with the question of ecclesiastical courts. These are simply courts of law, which decide cases based not on the political laws that govern nations, but on religious law and the strictures of the church. Ecclesiastical courts in Russia at the time of the novel do not have the power to try or punish criminals. Ivan’s article argues that ecclesiastical courts should be given authority over criminal prosecution and punishment because if criminals knew they were defying God when they committed their crimes, many of them would choose to obey the law. Given Ivan’s reputation for religious doubt, many of the people who know him suspect that he does not entirely believe his own argument. Ivan’s argument is motivated not by a desire to punish, but, paradoxically, by compassion for mankind. He believes that without religious authority, people will descend into lawlessness and chaos. At the same time, because he does not believe in the church, Ivan rejects the notion of a binding morality. His article is sincere in that he believes his recommendations would improve the human condition, but insincere in that he does not believe in the ideas and institutions under which his recommendations would be carried out. The article, and the larger debate about ecclesiastical courts, thus serves to offer a preliminary insight into the nature of Ivan’s anguished mind: he is so committed to intellectual logic that he is led to advocate ideas he does not believe in his heart.