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.