Dmitri has become embroiled with their father in a conflict over the inheritance, and it is finally arranged that the two parties will have a discussion in Zosima’s cell, where the presence of the influential monk might help them resolve their differences. The prospect of this meeting makes Alyosha nervous—he knows that his father would only agree to such a thing sarcastically, and that Ivan himself is an atheist. He worries that his family’s behavior will offend Zosima, whom he esteems very highly and who acts as his spiritual leader within the monastery.
Book I provides a history of the major characters and their relationships, so the narrator can jump right into the main story in Book II without stopping to explain things as he goes. The narrator presents all of the incidents described in these chapters as though they take place before the real beginning of his story, describing the events as information that is generally well-known, repeated only for the convenience of a reader who somehow may not have heard it before. The narrator, as a result, is a strong presence in these chapters. The narrator signals that the story he tells is widely known by interjecting phrases such as “only later did we learn” and “well known in his own day.”
The Brothers Karamazov is a cross between a realistic novel and a philosophical novel. The characters have extremely complicated and intricate psychologies, and yet they also each represent certain ideas and concepts. This combination of realism and philosophical symbolism is evident in these chapters, as each meticulously drawn character comes to embody a more abstract set of concepts and beliefs. Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father, with his orgies and his abhorrent treatment of his wives and children, embodies amoral, obnoxious Epicureanism—that is, a commitment to seeking pleasure rather than living responsibly or virtuously. Ivan Karamazov’s brilliant mind and burgeoning literary reputation embody the struggle to reconcile intellect with religious belief. Dmitri Karamazov’s violent hatred of his father and uncritical love of his brothers stand in opposition to Ivan’s critical faculties. Dmitri’s character illustrates the effects of action based on emotion rather than on intellect. Finally, Alyosha, whom Dostoevsky describes as the hero of the novel, is nearly the opposite of Fyodor Pavlovich. His love of mankind shows that he is innocent, pious, and virtuous without being mystical or fanatical.
Each character in Dostoevsky’s quartet of personalities works as a foil, or contrast, for each of the others. Because the novel’s philosophical themes are immediately connected to the personalities of its characters, the conflicts and contrasts between the main characters come to symbolize some of the most fundamental problems of human existence. The difference between Ivan and Alyosha, for instance, represents the conflict between faith and doubt. Though none of these philosophical issues are given extensive treatment in this section, each of them, along with many others, is expanded and developed as the novel progresses. In the end, the story of the Karamazov brothers enacts a part of the drama of ideas on which civilization itself is based.
There are several religious concepts in these chapters that may be unfamiliar to modern readers who are not members of the Russian Orthodox church, to which the Karamazovs belong. First, the article for which Ivan has gained notoriety before the story begins deals with the question of ecclesiastical courts. These are simply courts of law, which decide cases based not on the political laws that govern nations, but on religious law and the strictures of the church. Ecclesiastical courts in Russia at the time of the novel do not have the power to try or punish criminals. Ivan’s article argues that ecclesiastical courts should be given authority over criminal prosecution and punishment because if criminals knew they were defying God when they committed their crimes, many of them would choose to obey the law. Given Ivan’s reputation for religious doubt, many of the people who know him suspect that he does not entirely believe his own argument. Ivan’s argument is motivated not by a desire to punish, but, paradoxically, by compassion for mankind. He believes that without religious authority, people will descend into lawlessness and chaos. At the same time, because he does not believe in the church, Ivan rejects the notion of a binding morality. His article is sincere in that he believes his recommendations would improve the human condition, but insincere in that he does not believe in the ideas and institutions under which his recommendations would be carried out. The article, and the larger debate about ecclesiastical courts, thus serves to offer a preliminary insight into the nature of Ivan’s anguished mind: he is so committed to intellectual logic that he is led to advocate ideas he does not believe in his heart.