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The narrator tells the story of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov’s servant Grigory, who briefly cares for each of the three Karamazov brothers when they are young. Grigory’s wife gives birth to a child with six fingers. The child dies two weeks after it is born. The night Grigory buries it, his wife hears a baby crying in the distance. When Grigory goes to investigate, he discovers a newborn child lying next to a young girl, who has just given birth and is dying.
The girl whom Grigory sees giving birth is Lizaveta, often called “stinking Lizaveta.” Lizaveta is extremely slow-witted and cannot talk. The people of the town are appalled that someone has seduced this helpless young girl, and they agree that the only man vile enough to do so is Fyodor Pavlovich. Grigory and his wife adopt the baby, and Fyodor Pavlovich names him Smerdyakov.
Alyosha leaves the monastery, as he has been ordered to do by both Zosima and his father. A wealthy gentlewoman friend of the Karamazovs, Madame Khokhlakov, has given Alyosha a note from Katerina, Dmitri’s abandoned fiancée, asking him to visit her. Somewhat nervous about the prospect, Alyosha sets off for Katerina’s house before returning to his father’s. Alyosha assumes that he will not see Ivan or Dmitri at Katerina’s house, though he thinks he would like to talk to Dmitri before he sees Katerina. Taking a shortcut to Katerina’s house, he is surprised by Dmitri, who intercepts him on the path.
Dmitri relates his history with Katerina to Alyosha. Dmitri first met Katerina when she was the daughter of the commanding officer of a camp where Dmitri was stationed as a soldier. Katerina ignored Dmitri until he attempted to trick her into sleeping with him by offering 4,500 rubles to pay off an obligation of her father’s. As he began to put his plan into motion, he was suddenly overcome with self--disgust, and, looking at the beautiful, innocent Katerina, decided to give her the money without even trying to seduce her. When she inherited a large amount of money from a relative, she offered to marry Dmitri. But when they returned to Fyodor Pavlovich’s town, Dmitri fell swiftly for Grushenka. He even stole 3,000 rubles from Katerina in order to finance his debauchery with Grushenka.
Dmitri asks Alyosha to tell Katerina that the engagement is officially off. He also asks Alyosha to procure 3,000 rubles from their father so that he can pay Katerina back and ease his conscience. Dmitri knows that Fyodor Pavlovich has 3,000 rubles readily available because Fyodor Pavlovich has assembled that very sum of money in the hopes of buying Grushenka’s affections.
Alyosha goes to his father’s house, where he finds his father drinking. Ivan sits by Fyodor Pavlovich disapprovingly. Smerdyakov and Grigory are arguing, and Ivan and Fyodor Pavlovich are listening in on their argument. Smerdyakov is a sullen and gloomy young man who despises everyone in the house, including his adoptive parents. He works as a cook for Fyodor Pavlovich. Most of the household considers him a responsible person despite his churlish attitude, because once, when Fyodor Pavlovich lost 300 rubles in a drunken stupor, Smerdyakov found and returned the money to him.
Grigory and Smerdyakov are arguing over whether it is morally acceptable to renounce one’s faith in God if doing so would save one’s life. Smerdyakov says that it is, because no one has perfect faith. He says that no one has faith enough to believe that, if he asked a mountain to move, God would move the mountain. Therefore, Smerdyakov says, no one should die for the faith that he does have. He says that a person who renounces his faith to save his life can repent for his sin later. Though he is arguing with Grigory, he seems to be directing most of his attention to Ivan, and he seems to hope that Ivan will approve of his reasoning.
Fyodor Pavlovich is soon bored with his servants’ quarrel, and he dismisses them. He asks Ivan about his religious belief, and Ivan says that he does not believe in God or in the immortality of the soul. Alyosha defends religion, claiming that God does exist and that the soul is immortal. Fyodor Pavlovich is quickly bored of this debate and instead of furthering it, he begins to taunt Alyosha about his mother. He attacks her religious faith and describes her seizures, and Alyosha grows so upset with this attack that he has a seizure himself. Ivan angrily reminds Fyodor Pavlovich that he and Alyosha have the same mother—Fyodor Pavlovich has forgotten that they are both the children of his second marriage. Suddenly, Dmitri comes into the room, screaming at his father and insisting that Grushenka is hidden in Fyodor Pavlovich’s house.
Dmitri runs through the rooms trying to find Grushenka, and when Fyodor Pavlovich accuses him of stealing money, Dmitri throws his father to the ground, threatens to kill him, and runs out of the house. Alyosha and Ivan tend to Fyodor Pavlovich’s wounds and put him to bed.
Alyosha visits Katerina at Madame Khokhlakov’s house and is surprised to find that Grushenka is also there. Grushenka has just promised Katerina that she is going to leave Dmitri for a former lover, and Katerina will have him back soon. Katerina is grateful and overjoyed, but when she tells Alyosha what has happened, Grushenka insults her and says that she may decide to stay with Dmitri after all. On his way out of the house, Alyosha is stopped by a maid, who gives him a letter from Lise.
As he returns to the monastery, Alyosha is again stopped by Dmitri, who laughs at the report of Grushenka’s behavior. Suddenly remorseful, Dmitri then tells Alyosha that he is consumed by self-disgust. At the monastery that night, Alyosha learns that Zosima’s health is rapidly deteriorating, and Zosima is near death. Alyosha decides to remain with Zosima, whom he loves like a father, instead of returning to help with his family’s conflict. He reads Lise’s letter, which contains a confession of her love for him. She writes that she hopes to marry Alyosha one day. Alyosha laughs happily, says a prayer for all his troubled loved ones, and, after such an eventful day, falls into a deep sleep.
The Brothers Karamazov is a systematically ordered novel. Each of the story’s twelve books chronicles a specific phase of its development and approaches its narrative from a specific angle. Book I gives the novel’s background, detailing Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov’s past and the three brothers’ childhoods. Book II deals with the meeting at the monastery, outlines some of the novel’s major philosophical conflicts, and introduces us to the source of conflict between Fyodor Pavlovich and Dmitri—their rivalry for Grushenka. Book III finally introduces the town in which the main portion of the novel’s action takes place and presents a firsthand view of the situation between the main characters, as opposed to the secondhand views presented by Fyodor Pavlovich, Rakitin, and Dmitri in Book II. Significantly, Book III presents the narration from Alyosha’s perspective for an extended period of time. Although the narrator describes Alyosha as the “hero” of the novel, he has been only a minor participant in the story so far.
One of The Brothers Karamazov’s major arguments is that Alyosha’s nonjudgmental love of humanity improves the lives of the people with whom he interacts. Specifically, he bridges the communication gap between Dmitri and Katerina, provides hope and love to Lise, and tends to Fyodor Pavlovich after Dmitri attacks him. Dostoevsky repeatedly shows how Alyosha is impervious to the conflicts and built-up hatreds of the other characters, and how his soothing, relieving presence encourages peace and resolution between them. Zosima’s understanding of Alyosha’s capability to do good is presumably what leads him to send Alyosha out of the monastery and back into the world. Although that decision is a mystery in Book II, in Book III it becomes clear that Zosima’s motivation is to allow Alyosha to do good in the world. Alyosha works to bring Zosima’s ideas to fruition in the real world and exemplifies the novel’s moral standpoint. Alyosha represents not only the simple, loving religious faith described by Zosima, but also the power of that faith to do actual good in the world.
Dmitri represents a combination of the ideas that drive Alyosha and Fyodor Pavlovich. He has Fyodor Pavlovich’s inclination toward Epicurean sensuality and Alyosha’s inclination toward morality and faith. When Rakitin accuses Dmitri of having the same sensualist greed and lust as Fyodor Pavlovich, Dmitri reveals his deep-seated disgust with his own behavior. The fact that he hates himself for treating Katerina poorly makes him morally superior to Fyodor Pavlovich. It is difficult for us to imagine Fyodor Pavlovich feeling similar remorse. Additionally, the story about Dmitri’s abandoned attempt to blackmail Katerina into sleeping with him reveals a level of moral concern that is also lacking in Fyodor Pavlovich. Dmitri begins to emerge as the person Zosima recognizes him to be from the beginning: a troubled, confused young man, driven to sin by the power of his passions, but struggling to live by his conscience.
The story of the birth of Smerdyakov, chronicled in the early chapters of Book III, reveals the extent of Fyodor Pavlovich’s disregard for moral laws. His seduction and possible rape of a helpless idiot girl, combined with his reprehensible treatment of the resulting child, reveal the worst consequences of a life lived with no conception of good and evil. This depraved existence is the sort of life Ivan unhappily sees as the logical course of action for a man who does not believe in God. The twisted, unpleasant Smerdyakov, cursed with epilepsy, becomes a symbol of Fyodor Pavlovich’s deformed life, the illegitimate son’s mean temperament and unhealthy body resulting directly from his father’s wicked behavior. The contrast between Alyosha and Fyodor Pavlovich illustrates the superiority of a life of faith and love over a life of doubt and selfishness.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Brothers Karamazov!