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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Brothers Karamazov!