The Brothers Karamazov: Essay Q&A
1. Free will - the idea that everyone has the choice to believe in God or not, and to do good or evil - is a central theme of the novel. Many characters struggle with the choices that spring from free will. Alyosha, however, appears not to struggle with these choices in the same way; he simply has faith, and always does good. Does the concept of free will still apply to Alyosha?
Early in the novel (Book I, Chapter 5), Alyosha makes a decision to enter the monastery, as "I want to live for immortality, and I reject any halfway compromise." His decision is inspired by his close connection to his mother, whom he remembers holding him up to an icon, and his devotion to the elder Zosima. Both factors involve his love for another person who has inspired him with love for God. His love is strong, and so it is hard to resist, in the same way that other characters find sensuality hard to resist (Fyodor Pavlovich, Dmitri). All these characters are making choices based on free will, and go towards the path that holds most charm for them. Alyosha is no exception: he too is making a choice in the direction of most charm.
In a world governed by free will, choices are not one-offs; people make them constantly. We are, perhaps, more aware of the choices of other characters than Alyosha. This is because they are more under the sway of their emotions and passions than is Alyosha, and emotions and passions are by their very nature unstable since they depend upon changing situations and feelings. The driving forces in Alyosha's life, in contrast, are his love for God, mankind, and his elder, and these are fairly settled states based on eternal realities rather than on the changing world. Alyosha's intellect and passions are not so powerful that they constantly pull him off his decided course with doubts and bodily lusts.
Alyosha is, however, challenged by the episode in which Zosima's body starts to smell quickly after his death, leading to conflict among the monks and lay people. Alyosha is plunged into grief and despair, as is evidenced by the fact that he is easily influenced by the cynical Rakitin to eat forbidden foods and visit the supposedly promiscuous Grushenka. Alyosha is placing himself in the way of temptation away from his chosen path of purity. At this point in the novel, he is very vulnerable to making a choice other than religious faith. However, far from being corrupted by Grushenka, so clear is his vision that he sees into her soul - and what he sees is that "She is higher in love than we are." He finds himself so inspired by the wave of love that passes between himself and her that he returns to the monastery not caring about Zosima's bodily corruption, and feels that all weakness has passed from him. He leaves the monastery ready to do good in the world.
There could easily have been a different outcome from Alyosha's meeting with Grushenka. He, like Rakitin, could have focused on her "loose" reputation and sensuous charms. He could have been corrupted or he could have corrupted Grushenka further. But his elevated consciousness means that he generally chooses to focus on the deeper elements of people's natures. Because of his refined perception, he brings out the more spiritual qualities in others and raises them to his own natural element, which is love and forgiveness. This is not just a one-way process of giving: the love that Alyosha sees in Grushenka reawakens his love for God and humanity.
This episode, and Alyosha's later decision to get involved with the schoolboys, illustrates that Alyosha, like the other characters, does make choices. But, driven by a powerful faith in God and love for humanity, these choices are consistently for the good of his fellow creatures. This practice of active love, in a kind of virtuous circle, feeds his faith in God and man. In other words, he loves to love - in contrast with the other characters, whose choices often do not bring them joy and so find themselves pulled in different directions in an attempt to find fulfillment.
2. In Book VI, Chapter 3, Zosima defines hell as "The suffering of being no longer able to love." How is this idea illustrated in the novel?
Fyodor Pavlovich is the character who most closely illustrates this idea. Zosima gives an accurate diagnosis of his degeneracy. Zosima says he should not give himself up to drunkenness, sensuality and greed, and should not lie to himself. A man who lies to himself does not see any truth in himself or in others, and ceases to respect everyone. Because he does not respect anyone, he cannot love anyone. Thus he lives his life in fear, isolation and mistrust, with Alyosha the only person he feels any love for at all. This is an extraordinary situation for a man with four sons to find himself in, but Fyodor Pavlovich began the process of alienating himself from his family very early: as soon as his sons were born, he ignored them, preferring to spend time on drunken orgies and accumulating money. That Fyodor Pavlovich is murdered by his (unloved) illegitimate son and unmourned by his other sons is the logical conclusion of his inability to love.
Other characters also suffer by means of their inability to love or to express their love. Lise, Katerina, and Ivan are examples. Though Lise loves Alyosha, she chooses to create suffering for herself, first by denying her love and then by deciding that she wants to marry someone who will torture her. Katerina and Ivan love each other but do not act on their love until the novel's end. Katerina is held back by a notion that she loves Dmitri, though it would be more accurate to say that she chooses to bind herself to Dmitri and abase herself before him in order to draw attention to his shortcomings and show herself as a martyr. This is, as Alyosha notes, a process driven by her pride, which she chooses over love. When her pride finally shatters in the courtroom scene, she is able to give in to her love for Ivan. Ivan's inability to give in to his love for Katerina seems to spring from his adopted stance of logical detachment and doubt. To the frustration of other less logical but more intuitive characters like Alyosha and Madame Khokhlakov, Ivan believes that Katerina still loves Dmitri, and so gives up on her, which can be seen as a failure in love. A bleak future faces both Ivan and Katerina until his mental breakdown and her courtroom crisis shatter their self-created obstacles to love and open their hearts to one another.
3. How is Grushenka's development presented, and what significance does this have in terms of the novel as a whole?
The reader does not meet Grushenka until Book III, Chapter 10, when we see her through the eyes of Alyosha, for whom this is also a first meeting. Before this point, however, she is constantly talked about by other characters, always in negative terms - she is a "loose woman," "one of the local seductresses," a "low woman." Even Alyosha believes her to be a "terrible woman." When Alyosha meets her at Katerina's, his initial impression is of a kind woman, though Grushenka goes on to insult Katerina by refusing to kiss her hand, and to warn her that she may not leave Dmitri, as Katerina has asked. The episode does not explain Grushenka's motives clearly, but continues the impression that we have received from gossip, that she plays with people and is not straightforward.
It is not until Alyosha's second meeting with Grushenka that the narrator tells her story, and reveals that contrary to her promiscuous reputation, she is "hard to get." When she meets Alyosha for the second time, in the presence of Rakitin, he inspires a change in her. She had bribed Rakitin to bring Alyosha to her, as she wanted to corrupt him, to "pull his little cassock off." Alyosha, full of grief after Zosima's death and the humiliation of the stinking corpse, is ready to be corrupted. But what actually happens is quite different. Alyosha is again struck by her kindness, and realizes he is no longer afraid of her. Then she tells him that she is waiting for a message from the lover who abandoned her five years previously, and that as soon as she hears from him, she will go to join him. Alyosha is moved by her ability to love and forgive, and rebukes Rakitin for his cynical comments, saying, "She is higher in love than we are." On hearing that Alyosha's elder has died, Grushenka is overcome with remorse and sympathy, and leaps from her perch on Alyosha's lap out of respect for his grief. She says that though she had planned to corrupt Alyosha, she has come to love him from her soul and to view him as her conscience. Alyosha says that he came expecting a wicked soul, but "found a true sister."
Because the reader initially views Grushenka first through the gossip of other characters, he is likely to view her at this point as a frivolous and loose woman. He will then share Alyosha's surprise in finding a kind woman who has remained emotionally faithful to her first lover and is prepared to forgive him at his first kind word. This element of pleasant surprise parallels the reader's delayed discovery of Dmitri's innocence, and has the same effect of enabling the reader to share in a sense of the character's redemption. It also reinforces one of the themes of the novel, that it is not possible for one person rightly to judge another, and that therefore people should focus on loving and forgiving others.
Grushenka's redemption continues when she realizes that she loves Dmitri and confesses that her flirtatious behavior contributed to the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich. After Dmitri's trial, she falls ill - a common metaphor in this novel for spiritual purification - and loses all traces of her former frivolity. She only wishes to accompany Dmitri into exile after his escape and till the soil by his side. This is reminiscent of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve after the fall, when they must till the soil to glean a living, and shows that Grushenka, like Dmitri, embraces redemption through hard work and suffering. The fact that, at the novel's end, she refuses to forgive Katerina shows that she still has some distance to go in her redemption, but it is clear that she is on the right path.
4. Compare and contrast Zosima's and Ivan's philosophies.
Zosima loves both God and man. He believes that all of mankind shares an intimate connection, and that each person is responsible for everyone else's sins. Thus no one should judge anyone else; everyone should love and forgive everyone else. This applies even to criminals, as a criminal who is judged and punished harshly is likely to alienate himself further from humanity, whereas a criminal who is loved and shown mercy is likely to feel remorse as a result of this kind treatment and face his own conscience. Zosima believes that one's own conscience is the only effective judge and redemptive force.
Where Zosima emphasizes love and forgiveness, Ivan emphasizes doubt. He rejects God, religion and the immortality of the soul. He believes that moral categories of good and evil are products of people's concern with the afterlife, and as he does not accept the afterlife, he advocates an amoral philosophy whereby "everything is permitted." Whereas Zosima tries to help people and alleviate suffering whenever he can (a habit also embraced by Alyosha), Ivan remains at a distance from his fellow man, on the grounds that he is not his brother's keeper. In fact, though Ivan feels love and compassion for humanity in the abstract, he finds that he cannot love individuals. Unlike Zosima, who relies predominantly on the 'heart' values that connect him with others, Ivan relies upon the intellectual values that divide him from others. Zosima lives happily, helps people and inspires others to do likewise, whereas Ivan succumbs to despair and, by passing his philosophy to Smerdyakov, helps facilitate a murder.
Dostoevsky is not an impartial observer of these two philosophies. By showing the difference in the two men's lives and in their effects on others, he is a strong advocate for the life of faith and love over doubt.
5. Discuss the significance of the schoolboys in the novel.
The schoolboys represent the future of Russia and show symbolically that the country has a choice: to progress towards strife and destruction, or towards harmony and love. When Alyosha first comes across the schoolboys, they are throwing stones at a smaller, weaker boy, Ilyusha. The boys tell Alyosha that Ilyusha started the quarrel by attacking another boy with a penknife. Consistent with his tendency not to judge others, Alyosha determines to find out more about Ilyusha. He discovers that Ilyusha witnessed his father being beaten up by Dmitri - making plain that neither the stone-throwing boys, nor Ilyusha are solely responsible for the discord, and that Alyosha's own brother is partly responsible. It is later revealed that Ilyusha's friend and protector, Kolya, had acted coolly towards the affectionate Ilyusha, and that Ilyusha had then befriended Smerdyakov, who had taught him a cruel trick, to feed a pin hidden in bread to a dog. When Ilyusha had carried out the trick, Kolya had punished him further by withdrawing his friendship. Around this time, Ilyusha had fallen very sick.
It is clear that many people are involved in, and partly responsible for, the discord between the boys. This is proof of Zosima's maxim that everyone is responsible for everyone else's sins. Alyosha takes on the responsibility of bringing the boys back into harmony. Soon, they are visiting the sick Ilyusha every day, making him feel loved once more. Alyosha reconciles Ilyusha with Kolya, and Kolya brings the dog, which Ilyusha believed he had killed, to see him. To Ilyusha, the reappearance of the dog is tantamount to Christ's miracle of resurrecting the dead, and it restores peace to his soul.
At Ilyusha's funeral, Alyosha makes a speech in which he asks the boys always to hold fast to the love and kindness of this time. The boys have come to love Alyosha. They promise to do as he asks, and then cheer him, using his family name, Karamazov. This is significant because for much of the novel, the Karamazov name has been a byword for unregenerate sensualism; the suggestion has been that the family is doomed always to repeat its selfish and destructive behavior. Alyosha's intervention and tireless practice of active love has brought love and harmony to a group of boys who had been divided in hatred. Just as Zosima was taught active love by his brother, and in turn taught Alyosha, Alyosha has now passed on the positive message to the boys. He has also redeemed his family, transforming the dark Karamazov legacy into a cause for optimism. The symbolic implication is that Russia itself can be transformed by the practice of active love.
The Brothers Karamazov Study GuideChoose to Continue
- The Brothers Karamazov
- Novel Summary
- Author Note and Part I Book I - A Nice Little Family (Chapters 1-5)
- Part I Book II - An Inappropriate Gathering (Chapters 1-4)
- Part I Book II - An Inappropriate Gathering (Chapters 5-8)
- Part I Book III - The Sensualists (Chapters 1-11)
- Part II Book IV - Strains (Chapters 1-7)
- Part II Book V - Pro and Contra (Chapters 1-4)
- Part II Book V - Pro and Contra (Chapter 5)
- Part II Book V - Pro and Contra (Chapters 6-7)
- Part II Book VI - The Russian Monk (Chapters 1-3)
- Part III Book VII - Alyosha (Chapters 1-4)
- Part III Book VIII - Mitya (Chapters 1-8)
- Part III Book IX - The Preliminary Investigation (Chapters 1-9)
- Part IV Book X - Boys (Chapters 1-7)
- Part IV Book XI - Brother Ivan Fyodorovich (Chapters 1-10)
- Part IV Book XII - A Judicial Error (Chapters 1-14)
- Epilogue (Chapters 1-3)
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Theme Analysis
- Top Ten Quotes
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Essay Q&A