The Brothers Karamazov
Study Questions & Essay Topics
1. Compare and contrast Ivan’s and Zosima’s belief systems. How do they differ regarding the novel’s major philosophical questions?
2. Dostoevsky goes to great lengths to make us suspect that Dmitri is guilty of the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich. Why does it matter whether Dmitri is innocent or guilty? Why might Dostoevsky have wanted to surprise us with his innocence?
3. How can Fyodor Pavlovich’s coarse, pleasure-seeking behavior be understood as a logical expression of the philosophy advocated by Ivan? What does Ivan’s reaction to Fyodor Pavlovich’s lifestyle say about the sincerity of Ivan’s beliefs?
Suggested Essay Topics
1. The Brothers Karamazov places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of free will—the idea that faith has meaning because each person is free to choose between faith and doubt. But though many of the novel’s major characters struggle with doubt, Alyosha, the protagonist, often seems to have such an instinctive faith that he could never choose to be faithful because he simply is. Does the concept of free will apply to a character such as Alyosha? Why or why not?
2. Think about the many mysterious symbolic gestures made by religious figures throughout the novel—Christ kissing the Grand Inquisitor, for instance, or Zosima bowing before Dmitri. Do these profound gestures, meant to articulate ineffable aspects of religious belief, represent a logical argument against the philosophy of doubt, or do they constitute a different order of expression entirely?
3. Compare and contrast the novel’s principal female characters, Grushenka and Katerina. In what way does the concept of redemption apply to each of them, and how do they each go about finding the redemption that they seek? How different are their situations—morally, socially, psychologically—from those of the other main characters, simply by virtue of their being women?
4. Explain the idea of moral legacies within the novel—the notion that a system of moral teachings can be passed down from one person to the next, as Zosima passes his beliefs to Alyosha. Within this context, what is the significance of Alyosha’s relationship with the schoolboys in Book X and the Epilogue?
5. What are Smerdyakov’s traits as a character? What are his apparent philosophical beliefs? Does he really believe the lessons he claims to have learned from Ivan, or does he merely use Ivan’s philosophy to justify his own murderous desires?