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The Brothers Karamazov – Review

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov follows three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexey (Alyosha). Each represents a different level of religious and philosophical belief. Their father, Fyodor Pavlovich is a sensualist and all around “dirty old man” who continuously failed his sons from their upbringing to adulthood.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky book cover

Dmitri, the oldest and from a previous marriage, is on and off in love with two women, one of which his father is trying to steal away from him. Ivan and Alyosha are full brothers from a different marriage but are opposites. Ivan is a thinker that believes that God is an invention of man. Alyosha joins a monastery and is a believer.

As the story evolves, new characters come into view including a mysterious “idiot”, Smerdyakov. He is often referred to as the “lackey” and is trusted by the father. It is hinted at that he is actually the fourth son of Fyodor.

For a Russian classic, The Brothers Karamazov is a fairly easy read. A lot of this is because it switches between the brothers and is told in a rather casual way. The narrator who acts as a first-hand historian, knows all, refers to “his town” and other insider information throughout.


Christianity is a major theme. Alyosha, the angelic brother spends a lot of time with the Elder Zosima in the monastery. As the elder nears death and eventually dies, Alyosha struggles with the fact that Zosima’s dead body begins to stink almost immediately, a presumed sign that he was not pure as people thought while he was alive.

Ivan doubts God’s existence and believes that man invented Him. He is later visited by what he views as the devil or at least a demon sent from the devil. Ivan wants to believe in God but can’t accept that evil exists and bad things happen to good people, especially children who are innocent.

Dmitri, who seems most like his father, carouses around town, spending money and wanting more. His father had withheld his rightful inheritance and it is a “sum of three thousand” that he talks about and desires. This amount centers around the investigation of who killed Fyodor.

Is the father a representation of the devil? He is intentionally cruel to the ones he should be looking out for, his sons. He loves all women, loves the essence of woman, but purposely courts a woman his own son desires. And he fathered 3 (or 4) sons yet was never really their father.

Love Interests and Brotherhoods

Each brother, including Smerdyakov who I believe is the fourth brother, has a love interest. Each of these remain out of reach of the brothers. Dmitri loves Grushenka, a woman who pairs nicely with Dmitri’s more sensualist ways. Ivan loves Katerina, the once fiance of Dmitri and somewhere in between when it comes to right or wrong. Alyosha loves Lise, a young woman who is more childlike and innocent like Alyosha.

These love interests never really amount to anything. But what remains is a love amongst the brothers. Their blood is binding.

The Brothers Karamazov is also largely about brotherhood itself. Three brotherhoods exist in the novel: brothers by blood, the brotherhood of monks, and the brotherhood of children, specifically young boys. It is interesting that Alyosha is a part of all three.

Big spoilers below

Smerdyakov is the outlier. He is probably another of Fyodor’s sons. And all signs point to him being the one who killed him. Ivan largely encouraged this but left, washing his hands of any responsibility. But he took advantage of someone who was mentally ill. This makes Ivan culpable of the murder even if he didn’t actually do it. What is even worse is that Dmitri is easily the most likely suspect and thus the one who is found guilty. Ivan fails to confess and allows his brother to take the fall.

Ivan fails greatly to choose the right path. He remains what feels like the middle, neither good nor evil. However, he is worse than Dmitri or Fyodor.

Good vs. Evil

Bad things happen to good people. Great things happen to horrible people. But because God exists, good and evil must exist too. Free will allows us to make choices. We encounter good and evil but it is what lies beyond that matters more: eternal life. Maybe the brotherhoods (not exclusive to boys) is what is necessary for us to keep from falling into evil, falling into hell.

For a book published in 1880 and set in Russia, The Brothers Karamazov feels timeless and global. Religion versus sensualism remains a common issue today. Society needs religion and with it morality. Without we fall into self-morality which is not true. If we don’t answer to something bigger than ourselves, if all that matters is living our lives by only seeking pleasure, we risk falling deeper and deeper into anarchy, chaos, and evil.

The Brothers Karamazov is a book that warrants multiple reads and has numerous critical essays about it. I plan on studying this and other works of Dostoevsky. He was truly a genius.