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The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

Compare and contrast Ivan’s and Zosima’s belief systems. How do they differ regarding the novel’s major philosophical questions?

Zosima emphasizes belief in God, love, forgiveness, and goodness, while Ivan’s beliefs emphasize doubt, skepticism, and a rejection of conventional moral and religious categories. Zosima thus advocates faith as a method for finding happiness, and Ivan advocates doubt as a method for realistically interpreting the world. Their stories dramatize the emotional, psychological, and spiritual consequences of adopting the positions that they represent. Zosima lives happily and does good in the world, while Ivan lives unhappily and, through his influence on Smerdyakov, enables evil. Through the contrast between these two characters, as through many similar contrasts in the novel, Dostoevsky illustrates the superiority of faith and love over doubt and suspicion.

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?

Because it is frequently difficult to decide whether Dmitri is on the side of goodness or of sin, Dmitri’s situation in the novel is representative of the human situation as a whole. The novel questions the moral orientation of human nature by asking whether mankind is fundamentally good and innocent, or evil and guilty. Because Dmitri represents the human situation as a whole, the question of his guilt or innocence assumes titanic importance in the novel. If Dmitri is guilty, then, in a sense, mankind is guilty, and the novel will end in despair. But if Dmitri is innocent, there is still hope, and the novel can end optimistically. There are many reasons why Dostoevsky may have wanted us to suspect Dmitri’s guilt, including the simple dramatic power of a surprise twist in the plot. But the primary reason may be that by making us first perceive Dmitri to be guilty and then realize that he is innocent, Dostoevsky wants to make us undergo a conversion in our conception of Dmitri at the same time that Dmitri himself is undergoing a spiritual conversion. This process creates a powerful visceral sense that Dmitri has been washed clean of his sin. The revelation of Dmitri’s innocence reinforces the emotional power of his conversion.

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?

Ivan believes that human morality depends on the idea that the soul is immortal. Therefore, the only reason people have to be good is to ensure their future happiness in the afterlife. Because Ivan rejects the notion that the soul is immortal, he also rejects the categories of good and evil, and claims that all is permitted—that is, that people may do anything they choose without reference to moral restrictions on their behavior. Of all the characters in the novel, Fyodor Pavlovich most fully embodies this idea. He seeks only to satisfy his own appetites, without regard for good or evil, without regard for religion, and without regard for what other people might think of him. In this way, Fyodor Pavlovich’s lifestyle represents a logical extension of Ivan’s philosophy. But rather than embracing Fyodor Pavlovich’s amoral approach to life, Ivan recoils in disgust. Because of his beliefs, he is not able to reject Fyodor Pavlovich outright, but though he pretends to accept the old man, he really loathes him and is consumed with self-disgust at the thought that his philosophy renders him unable to reject Fyodor Pavlovich’s way of life. In this way, we see that Ivan’s beliefs, though compelling, are not entirely sincere. He believes in them because they appear to be rational, but as his confrontation with the devil after Fyodor Pavlovich’s murder proves, he does not accept them with his whole heart.

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?

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