The Brothers Karamazov
Book XII: A Judicial Error, Chapters 1–14
Summary—Chapter 1: The Fatal Day
Dmitri’s trial opens at ten o’clock the next morning, amid an atmosphere of widespread curiosity. All Russia seems to be interested in the outcome, and the legendary defense attorney Fetyukovich has traveled all the way from Moscow to defend Dmitri. The judge is known to be an educated man, but the jury is made up of peasants, leading to some concern that Fetyukovich’s defense will be above the heads of the jury members.
The judge asks Dmitri for his plea, and he again asserts his innocence. The general consensus in the courtroom, given what most people consider to be overwhelming evidence, is that he is guilty.
Summary—Chapter 2: Dangerous Witnesses
A sequence of witnesses is called, and one by one, through masterful cross-examinations, Fetyukovich casts suspicion on their words, discrediting their claims that Dmitri is guilty. Grigory, Fetyukovich notes, had taken a strong medicine on the night of the murder, and his senses may have been unreliable.
Summary—Chapter 3: Medical Expertise
Three doctors offer contradicting theories about what might have led Dmitri to commit the murder, and about the condition of his mind. One doctor, a German who has lived in the town for many years, tells a story about buying Dmitri a bag of nuts when he was a little boy. Dmitri weeps, evoking a new sympathy in the minds of his listeners.
Summary—Chapter 4: Fortune Smiles on Mitya
Alyosha next offers some useful evidence: he remembers that Dmitri used to hit the locket on his chest in moments of self-loathing, implying that perhaps he really was wearing the money around his neck, and did not steal it from Fyodor Pavlovich. Alyosha also admits that he believes Smerdyakov may be the real murderer.
Katerina tells the story of Dmitri saving her father from prison. The crowd, which was impressed with Alyosha’s testimony, is slightly disgusted with Katerina because she has so thoroughly debased herself before Dmitri, who does not love her. Grushenka is questioned and vehemently insists on Dmitri’s innocence.
Summary—Chapter 5: A Sudden Catastrophe
The next witness called is Ivan, who has been suffering from an illness that has made him nearly insane. Ivan rages and rambles, asserting that Smerdyakov killed their father. He shows the courtroom a wad of cash, which he says Smerdyakov stole from Fyodor Pavlovich. He says that he himself is also to blame, because he knew that Smerdyakov would kill Fyodor Pavlovich, and did not stop him. He says that the man who knows the truth of what he says is the devil, who visits him at night. As he becomes more and more intense and animated, he is finally removed from the courtroom.
Katerina, to defend Ivan’s honor, reverses her earlier testimony, showing the court the letter Dmitri sent her in which he said that he might kill his father. She says that Ivan has lost his sanity out of grief for his brother’s guilt, and that he only claims responsibility for the murder to take the blame from Dmitri. Grushenka furiously flings insults at Katerina, and the courtroom dissolves into chaos.
Summary—Chapter 6: The Prosecutor’s Speech. Characterizations
When order is restored, the lawyers give their closing speeches. The prosecutor, Kirrillovich, runs down the facts of the case.
Summary—Chapter 7: A Historical Survey
Kirrillovich says that Dmitri has the temperament of a man who would be capable of such a violent act, and that he is not insane.
Summary—Chapter 8: A Treatise on Smerdyakov
Kirrillovich says that unlike Smerdyakov, Dmitri had a motive to kill Fyodor Pavlovich because he hated the old man and craved his money. Given the violent sentiment of the letter Dmitri wrote to Katerina, Kirrillovich says, his guilt seems clear.
Summary—Chapter 9: Psychology at Full Steam. The Galloping Troika. The Finale of the Prosecutor’s Speech
Kirrillovich exhorts the jury to punish Dmitri to defend the cause of justice in Russia, and to annihilate the perpetrator of the most hateful crime imaginable—the murder of a father by a son.
Summary—Chapter 10: The Defense Attorney’s Speech. A Stick with Two Ends
Fetyukovich counters by pointing out the flimsiness of all the evidence against Dmitri. Apart from circumstance and the conjecture of unreliable witnesses, there is no proof that Dmitri is guilty.
Summary—Chapter 11: There Was No Money. There Was No Robbery
Fetyukovich continues his summation. He points out that there is not even any proof that Fyodor Pavlovich kept an envelope full of 3,000 rubles; it is only a rumor. The letter that Dmitri wrote to Katerina was written drunkenly and under extreme emotional torment, and cannot be taken as a statement of Dmitri’s real intention.
Summary—Chapter 12: No Murder Either
Finally, Fetyukovich says, even if Dmitri had killed Fyodor Pavlovich, he would not have been murdering his father, because the repugnant old man never acted as his father and forgot about the boy the moment he was born.
Summary—Chapter 13: An Adulterer of Thought
Fetyukovich insists that Dmitri’s only chance to find redemption amid the tattered shreds of his life is to be set free.
Summary—Chapter 14: Our Peasants Stood Up for Themselves
Most of the crowd has been completely won over to Dmitri’s side. Everyone expects that he will be set free. But the jury returns in a short time and declares that Dmitri is guilty. The crowd is outraged. Dmitri cries out that he is innocent and that he forgives Katerina. Grushenka cries out from the balcony, and Dmitri is led away.
Analysis—Book XII: A Judicial Error, Chapters 1–14
Dmitri’s trial in Book XII is in many ways an anticlimax. Book XI contains a more shocking sequence of events, including Smerdyakov’s confession, Dmitri’s spiritual redemption, Ivan’s mental collapse, and Smerdyakov’s suicide. These revelations resolve the novel’s pressing moral questions, establish Dmitri’s innocence, and make whatever happens in the courtroom less consequential to the novel’s larger themes. In Book XII, Dostoevsky satirizes the Russian legal system through the incredibly long, pompous closing speeches of the lawyers. Part of the novel’s premise, however, is that the real judgment of Dmitri’s soul could not possibly take place in a courtroom. The idea that no human judgment can supplant the judgment of one’s own conscience first appears in Book I, when Zosima argues against Ivan’s proposals for the ecclesiastical courts by pointing out that no court could hope to judge a man as he must judge himself.
Crime and justice are important motifs in The Brothers Karamazov, and the trial is the most sustained look at criminal justice in the novel. Dostoevsky refrains from pushing analytical conclusions about the nature or quality of Russian jurisprudence, and instead chooses simply to offer a thorough depiction of how a Russian criminal trial might actually look: he emphasizes the styles of legal argumentation, ranging from Fetyukovich’s precise dissections of witness’s statements to the rougher and more direct style of Kirrillovich; the emotions of the witnesses; and, above all, the reaction of the crowd to the drama at hand.
Dostoevsky’s decision to write much of Book XII from the perspective of the crowd as a whole is both philosophically and aesthetically significant. This perspective gives the novel a sense of completion by providing dramatic resolution in both its individualistic and its abstract modes. The conflict has been played out between the two perspectives on humanity represented by Zosima and Ivan, the one looking at people as individuals, the other looking at humanity as an abstract whole. In Book XI, with the total collapse of Ivan’s philosophy, Dostoevsky gives us the private, individual resolution of the novel’s great questions, the most important resolution and the one matching Zosima’s worldview. In Book XII, he provides the large-scale, abstract resolution of the same questions from the perspective of the mob. The crowd comes to believe in Dmitri because they are moved by his story, suggesting that human nature is more good than it is evil. The crowd’s final reversal of their original impression that Dmitri is guilty—so that everyone in the room thinks he is innocent except the jurors—is Dostoevsky’s encouraging testament to mankind’s ability to discover truth. The crowd challenges the cynical assessment of mankind offered by Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor, even if it does so by allowing itself to be moved by the emotional drama of Dmitri’s story.