The narrative throughout this book lays the groundwork for a surprise plot twist: the revelation in Book XI that Smerdyakov, and not Dmitri, is the murderer. Dostoevsky goes to such lengths to imply that an innocent man is guilty of such a crime for several reasons. First, making Dmitri guilty and then innocent in our mind is a way of enacting the spiritual rebirth that Dmitri experiences after his arrest. Second, making us learn that our judgment about Dmitri is wrong is a way of emphasizing Zosima’s advice never to judge anyone because all people are responsible for one another’s sins. Third, making Dmitri appear guilty is a way of emphasizing the extraordinary scope of his passion. Dmitri may not have committed murder, but he is clearly capable of such a crime, and possesses a tormented and sinful soul. The redemption of such a passionate person is all the more dramatic. Fourth, making Dmitri appear guilty is a way of making us feel the way most of the other characters do when they learn about the arrest. The whole town believes him to be guilty.
Making Dmitri appear guilty is also a way for Dostoevsky to put human nature itself on trial. Throughout the novel we have seen various conceptions of human nature, ranging from Alyosha’s faith that people are essentially good, like Zosima, to Ivan’s belief that people are essentially bad, like Fyodor Pavlovich. But Dmitri combines the qualities of Fyodor Pavlovich and Zosima: he is a lustful and sinful man who nevertheless powerfully loves God. He commits bad deeds and longs to redeem them. He believes that he is bound for hell but pledges to love God even from the depths of hell. After spending a large amount of his fiancée’s money on a lavish vacation with another woman, he is now greedily desperate for even more money, but only so that he can salvage his honor with Katerina, and thus make up for his sin. By putting Dmitri on trial through circumstantial evidence, Dostoevsky essentially poses the question of whether Dmitri’s sinfulness or his goodness is the more fundamental aspect of his nature. This query in turn should make us question which of the two aspects is more fundamentally a characteristic of humanity. Dostoevsky wants us to consider whether humanity, burdened as it is with free will, is capable of overcoming its sinful nature and choosing to live within its good nature. When Dmitri is proved to be innocent shortly after he undergoes his powerful spiritual conversion, the question is answered in favor of human goodness—though not without a thorough understanding of the reality of evil in human life.
Although a great deal of the novel’s thematic development relies on the events in these chapters, the chapters are so devoted to narrative action that there is comparatively little thematic development within Book VIII itself. Apart from the insight it offers into Dmitri’s tormented inner conflict, the most interesting psychological aspect of this section is its look at Grushenka’s growth since her encounter with Alyosha. Before, Grushenka is too proud and suspicious to acknowledge her love for Dmitri, but through Alyosha she discovers real goodness. As a result, she is at last capable of admitting to herself that the Polish officer is just a vulgar man who betrayed her in her youth, and that Dmitri is the man she really loves. Alyosha does not appear at all in the action of this book, but his presence is strongly felt in Grushenka’s positive acquiescence to her love for Dmitri—a lovely moment of goodness that is interrupted sharply by evil, with the arrival of the police and the announcement of the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich.