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The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky


Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Conflict Between Faith and Doubt

The central philosophical conflict of The Brothers Karamazov is the conflict between religious faith and doubt. The main characters illustrate the different kinds of behavior that these two positions generate. Faith in the novel refers to the positive, assenting belief in God practiced by Zosima and Alyosha, which lends itself to an active love of mankind, kindness, forgiveness, and a devotion to goodness. Doubt refers to the kind of logical skepticism that Ivan Karamazov practices, which, in pursuing the truth through the logical examination of evidence, lends itself to the rejection of God, the rejection of conventional notions of morality, a coldness toward mankind, and a crippling inner despair. Dostoevsky does not present these positions neutrally. He actively takes the side of faith, and illustrates through innumerable examples how a life of faith is happier than a life of doubt. Doubt, as we see in Smerdyakov’s murder of Fyodor Pavlovich and in Ivan’s breakdown, leads only to chaos and unhappiness. But the novel nevertheless examines the psychology of doubt with great objectivity and rigor. Through the character of Ivan, in chapters such as “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky presents an incisive case against religion, the Church, and God, suggesting that the choice to embrace religious faith can only be made at great philosophical risk, and for reasons that defy a fully logical explanation.

The Burden of Free Will

The novel argues forcefully that people have free will, whether they wish to or not. That is, every individual is free to choose whether to believe or disbelieve in God, whether to accept or reject morality, and whether to pursue good or evil. The condition of free will may seem to be a blessing, guaranteeing the spiritual independence of each individual and ensuring that no outside force can control the individual’s choices with regard to faith. But throughout The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky portrays free will as a curse, one that particularly plagues those characters who have chosen to doubt God’s existence. Free will can be seen as a curse because it places a crippling burden on humanity to voluntarily reject the securities, comforts, and protections of the world in favor of the uncertainties and hardships of religious belief. Most people are too weak to make this choice, Ivan argues, and most people are doomed to unhappy lives that end in eternal damnation. The Grand Inquisitor story in Book V explores Christ’s biblical rejection of the temptations offered to him by Satan and concludes that Christ was wrong to have rejected them, since his rejection won free will for humanity, but took away security. Nevertheless, the condition of free will is finally shown to be a necessary component of the simple and satisfying faith practiced by Alyosha and Zosima, and the novel’s optimistic conclusion suggests that perhaps people are not as weak as Ivan believes them to be.

The Pervasiveness of Moral Responsibility

One of the central lessons of the novel is that people should not judge one another, should forgive one another’s sins, and should pray for the redemption of criminals rather than their punishment. Zosima explains that this loving forgiveness is necessary because the chain of human causation is so interwoven that everyone bears some responsibility for the sins of everyone else. That is, one person’s actions have so many complicated effects on the actions of so many other people that it is impossible to trace all the consequences of any single action. Everything we do is influenced by innumerable actions of those around us, and as a result, no one can be held singly responsible for a crime or for a sin. This idea of shared responsibility is abhorrent to characters in the novel who doubt God and Christianity, especially Ivan, who repeatedly insists that he is not responsible for the actions of anyone but himself. Ivan’s arguments counter a belief in mutual responsibility, since he believes that without God or an afterlife, there is no moral law. In a world in which the absence of God makes moral distinctions meaningless, people are logically justified in simply acting out their desires. Additionally, Ivan’s deep distrust of human nature makes him inclined to keep the rest of humanity at a chilly distance, and the idea that the things he does affect other people makes him emotionally uncomfortable. When Smerdyakov explains to Ivan how Ivan’s amoral philosophical beliefs have made it possible for Smerdyakov to kill Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan is suddenly forced to accept the harshest consequences of his relentless skepticism: not only has his doubt paved the way for murder, but he has no choice but to admit his own complicity in the execution of that murder. Ivan suddenly understands the nature of moral responsibility as it has been explained by Zosima, and the sudden comprehension is so overwhelming that it leads to a nervous breakdown—Dostoevsky’s final depiction of the consequences of doubt.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Crime and Justice

In the context of the novel’s larger exploration of sin, redemption, and justice, a major motif in the novel is the idea of crime and criminal justice. The crimes portrayed in the novel are also sins, or crimes against God, and the novel presents them in such a way as to suggest that human beings are not capable of passing judgment on one another. The only true judge, as we see in the aftermath of Dmitri’s wrongful conviction, is the conscience. Images of criminal justice in the novel occur most prominently in the debate between Ivan and the monks about ecclesiastical courts, in the story of the Grand Inquisitor, and in Dmitri’s arrest, imprisonment, and trial.

Redemption Through Suffering

A central part of Dostoevsky’s exploration of spiritual redemption is the idea that self-knowledge is necessary for a person to be redeemed. As Zosima explains in Book I, only when a man knows himself and faces himself honestly can he come to love others and love God. The principal way to arrive at that self-knowledge is through suffering. Suffering can occur either through the grief and guilt of sin, or, as in the case of Grushenka and Ivan, through the agony of illnesses that are metaphors for spiritual conditions. Apart from the sufferings of Grushenka and Ivan, the other major embodiment of this motif in the novel is Dmitri, who suffers through the misery of realizing his own evil before he can embrace his goodness. When Lise willfully slams her fingers in the door, she provides another, bitterly ironic instance of the motif. Lise wants to punish herself for being wicked, but her idea of suffering is so shallow, vain, and ridiculous that it is not really a serious attempt at redemption.

The Profound Gesture

Although The Brothers Karamazov is fundamentally an exploration of religious faith, the novel supports the idea that the choice to believe in God cannot be fully explained in rational terms. Profound, inexplicable gestures often take the place of argumentative dialogue. These gestures defy explanation, but convey a poetic sense of the qualities that make faith necessary and satisfying for the human soul. Examples of these profound, enigmatic gestures include Zosima kneeling before Dmitri in Book I, Christ kissing the Grand Inquisitor in Book V, Alyosha kissing Ivan in the same book, Zosima embracing the Earth just before he dies in Book VI, and Alyosha kissing the ground after his dream in Book VII. Each of these gestures can only be partially explained. Zosima, for example, kneels before Dmitri to acknowledge the suffering Dmitri will face. But none of these gestures can be fully explained, and their ambiguity is a way of challenging the rational paradigm that Ivan embraces.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Characters as Symbols

Because The Brothers Karamazov is both a realistic novel and a philosophical novel, Dostoevsky’s characterizations tend to yield fully drawn, believable individuals who also represent certain qualities and ideas bearing on the larger philosophical argument. The drama acted out between the characters becomes the drama of the larger ideas in conflict with one another. Most of the important symbols in the novel, then, are characters. Almost every major character in the novel embodies a concept: Alyosha represents faith, Ivan represents doubt, and Fyodor Pavlovich represents selfishness and physical appetite. Some characters have more specific designations. Smerdyakov, for instance, works primarily as a living symbol of Fyodor Pavlovich’s wickedness.

Zosima’s Corpse

The monks, including Alyosha, all expect Zosima’s death to be followed by a great miracle that will commemorate his extraordinary wisdom and virtue in life. They even expect that he will prove to be a saint. In monastic lore, one of the ways in which a saint can be detected after death is that his corpse, rather than emitting the stench of decay, is instead suffused with a pleasant smell. After Zosima’s death, however, no miracle occurs. Moreover, Zosima’s corpse begins to stink very quickly, exuding a particularly strong and putrid odor, which is taken by his enemies in the monastery as proof of his inner corruption. For Alyosha, who craves a miracle, the indignity visited upon Zosima’s corpse exemplifies the lack of validation with which the world often rewards religious faith. The fate of Zosima’s corpse suggests that faith is not justified by miracles. Rather, the person who chooses faith must do so in defiance of the many reasons to doubt.

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