Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 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.
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.