The Brothers Karamazov: Novel Summary

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Author Note and Part I Book I - A Nice Little Family (Chapters 1-5)

Summary
From the Author
The author introduces the novel as a biography of his "hero," Alyosha. He anticipates that the reader may not agree with him that Alyosha is a noteworthy enough character for a hero. He concedes that Alyosha is an odd character, but defends his significance on the grounds that he is one of those people "who bears within himself the heart of the whole, while the other people of his epoch have all for some reason been torn away from it for a time by some kind of flooding wind."
Chapter 1: Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov
Alyosha is the third son of a landowner, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who died thirteen years ago in tragic circumstances. For the rest of the novel, the narrator goes back in time to tell the events of thirteen years ago. He begins with the story of Fyodor Pavlovich's life. He is a worthless and depraved man who became known as a sponger in his youth but has some skill in business. He marries twice and had three sons, the eldest, Dmitri, by his first wife, and the other two, Ivan and Alyosha, by his second. The first wife, Adelaida Ivanovna Miusov, is beautiful and intelligent, and comes from a wealthy aristocratic family. The narrator finds it hard to believe that she would marry a man like Fyodor Pavlovich, but ascribes it to a romantic rebellion against convention and family. While at first she thinks that Fyodor Pavlovich is bold and sarcastic, after she elopes with him and gets to know him, she only feels contempt for him. When their son, Dmitri, is three, she runs away with a penniless seminarian, leaving Dmitri with his father. Fyodor Pavlovich sets up a harem in his house and gives himself over to drink, financing his debaucheries with the fortune he has filched from his wife.
News reaches Fyodor Pavlovich that Adelaida Ivanovna has died, either of typhus or starvation, in a garret in St Petersburg. Some local reports say that he publicly rejoiced at his wife's death; others say that he wept like a child. The narrator believes both versions may be true, since even wicked people like Fyodor Pavlovich can be simple-hearted.
Chapter 2: The First Son Sent Packing
Fyodor Pavlovich totally forgets about Dmitri, who is brought up for a year by one of the family servants, Grigory. Then, the wealthy cousin of Dmitri's dead mother, Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov, returns from Paris and decides to take Dmitri into his care. Miusov soon departs again for Paris. He leaves Dmitri with one of Adelaida Ivanovna's cousins in Moscow and immediately forgets about the boy. When the Moscow lady dies, Dmitri is passed to one of her daughters and later to someone else.
Dmitri grows up with the conviction that he will inherit property when he comes of age. He has a "disorderly" youth, fails to finish school and ends up in the military. He fights a duel and is reduced to the ranks before being promoted again, leads a wild life, and spends a great deal of money. Because he receives no money from Fyodor Pavlovich, he runs up debts. When he comes of age, he returns to his father's house to claim his inheritance. He is unable to learn from his father the value of his estate. He does not like his father, and leaves after having extracted some money from him. Fyodor Pavlovich exploits Dmitri's carelessness with money by sending him small sums. Four years later, Dmitri returns to settle his inheritance once and for all, and is stunned when his father tells him that he has already received all his inheritance and might even owe him some money.
Chapter 3: Second Marriage, Second Children
When Dmitri is four, Fyodor Pavlovich, now a successful businessman, marries a second wife, a meek yet beautiful sixteen-year-old girl called Sofia Ivanovna. Against the wishes of her guardian, a general's widow, she accepts Fyodor Pavlovich's request to elope with him - mainly because she is desperate to escape the cranky guardian.
Fyodor Pavlovich treats his new wife with utter disrespect, holding orgies in front of her. Sofia Ivanovna develops a hysterical disorder, becoming known as a "shrieker." She bears Fyodor Pavlovich two sons, the first called Ivan and the second, Alexei, nicknamed Alyosha. She dies when Alyosha is four, though he remembers her all his life. After her death, Fyodor Pavlovich forgets about his sons just as he forgot about Dmitri, and they are brought up by Grigory.
Three months after Sofia Ivanovna's death, her former guardian, the widow, turns up at Fyodor Pavlovich's house. Horrified by the unwashed state of the boys, she takes them away with her to her town. Soon afterwards, the widow dies, leaving funds for the boys' education. They pass into the care of the widow's heir, a kindly man who keeps their legacy from the widow intact and pays for their education himself. As the boys grow up, Ivan shows himself to be a brilliant student and earns fame by writing articles for newspapers. He creates a particular stir with an article about the ecclesiastical courts.
At the request of Dmitri, Ivan goes to live at his father's house, despite having always been ashamed of him. Dmitri hopes that Ivan will mediate between him and Fyodor Pavlovich in a quarrel about his vanished inheritance.
Chapter 4: The Third Son, Alyosha
By the time Alyosha, Fyodor Pavlovich's third son, is twenty years old, he is living in the town monastery and planning to enter it for life.
The narrator tells the story of how this came about. Alyosha is deeply religious. He has become devoted to an elder in the monastery called Zosima. He has an indelible memory of his mother, kneeling before an icon, sobbing and shrieking, and holding out the infant Alyosha towards the icon, as if committing him to the protection of the Virgin Mary. Alyosha is a "lover of mankind," living his life with a complete faith in people and refraining from judging or condemning anyone. He radiates a blissful serenity and is loved by everyone. At school, Alyosha is teased for only one quality: a modesty that makes him unable to tolerate hearing impure conversations about women.
Alyosha does not even judge or condemn his father for his drunken orgies. Fyodor Pavlovich is suspicious of him at first but he soon comes to love him sincerely.
Alyosha leaves school before completing his studies, returning home to his father's town in order to look for his mother's grave. But Fyodor Pavlovich has forgotten where his second wife was buried, and refers to her only as the "shrieker." It is left to Grigory, who set up a marker on Sofia Ivanovna's grave at his own expense, to show Alyosha where she lies buried.
After Alyosha visits his mother's grave, Fyodor Pavlovich, in a fit of piety, gives a large sum of money to the monastery to have memorial services said for his first wife, Adelaida Ivanovna, who used to beat him.
Alyosha announces his intention to enter the monastery. His father becomes sentimental and agrees, believing that Alyosha will be able to pray for "us sinners." Perhaps in that case, Fyodor Pavlovich thinks, "the devils will forget to drag me down to their place with their hooks when I die." Alyosha assures his father that there are no hooks in hell.
Chapter 5: Elders
Alyosha's decision to enter the monastery appears to him the "ideal way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light." He tells himself, "I want to live for immortality, and I reject any halfway compromise."
In the monastery, Alyosha lives in the cell of his teacher, the elder Zosima. The two men love each other devotedly. Zosima has many extraordinary qualities, including the ability to intuit people's needs and worries. Though he is old and sick in body, he is always cheerful and even those visitors who arrive in fear and anxiety come out joyful. He has the reputation of being a healer of the sick. Like Alyosha, Zosima loves all mankind. The other monks say that he loves the most sinful people most of all.
Most of the monks love Zosima, and some believe him to be a saint capable of miracles, but a few secretly envy and hate him. Alyosha, along with the many visitors to Zosima's cell, reveres him as "the keeper of God's truth." He is convinced that after the elder will, after his death, bring glory to the monastery. He believes also that through the elder's spiritual power, all of mankind will be inspired to love one another, and Christ's kingdom will come on earth.
Alyosha is delighted when his two brothers come to live in town. Dmitri and Ivan form a close bond with one another. Alyosha quickly becomes close to Dmitri, but he is puzzled to find Ivan distant and even contemptuous of him. He suspects that this is because Ivan does not share his religious faith.
The dispute between Dmitri and his father over his inheritance reaches an impasse. Fyodor Pavlovich, apparently as a joke, suggests that the interested parties meet in Zosima's cell to try to resolve the problem, since the presence of the elder might have a conciliatory influence. Miusov, who is living in the town at the time, enthusiastically supports this idea, even though he is an atheist and is suing the monastery over a land dispute.
Alyosha is nervous about the meeting, believing that of all the parties, only Dmitri could take such an occasion seriously. He worries that they might be offensive to Zosima.
Analysis
The first Book introduces the main characters and explains the events leading up to the main action, which starts in Book II. The central characters are the three Karamazov brothers, Alyosha, Dmitri, and Ivan. As well as being a fully rounded person in his own right, each brother is driven by a different philosophy or world view, and all these different philosophies were vying for preeminence in the Russia of Dostoevsky's time.
Alyosha represents spiritual faith, leading to a love of all mankind. His faith is expressed through entering a monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church held great power in Russia until the socialist Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. After the Revolution, the new Soviet Union was declared an atheist state. Alyosha's ability to love unconditionally both endears him to others and gives him a positive influence over them - which is exercised in all innocence on Alyosha's part. Even his dissolute and brutish father finds his heart softened by Alyosha, as is evident from Fyodor Pavlovich's generous donation to the monastery after Alyosha visits his mother's grave. Indeed, Fyodor Pavlovich, who is a slave to his gross appetites, is the opposite of Alyosha.
Ivan represents the intellect. He is as immersed in doubt as Alyosha is in faith. New intellectual ideas were hotly debated in Russia at the time, with the new socialist movement denouncing religion and advocating social reform. Ivan has already created a stir with an article about the role of the ecclesiastical courts in society. Ecclesiastical courts were run by the church and tried cases according to its doctrines. They did not have the power to try or punish criminals. Ivan's article, it is revealed in later chapters, argues that these courts should be given this authority, because if people would not disobey the law if they knew they were also disobeying God. Ivan's concern is for social order: he believes that without religious conviction and supervision, society will descend into lawlessness. However, Ivan's prescription for mankind is somewhat detached, patronizing and cynical in that he demands religious faith from the masses while not believing in a benevolent God himself. Ivan's religious doubt and intellectualism seem to distance him from the unconditionally loving Alyosha. Later in the novel, it becomes clear that Ivan's philosophy also creates division within his own soul.
Dmitri represents passion. He does not think or reflect, as his brothers do, but instantly acts on his feelings without thinking of the consequences. He loves his brothers as much as he hates his father, but even his hatred for his father is not of the critical kind: instead, it is a visceral response. In his uncritical, unreflecting nature, Dmitri stands in contrast to the critical Ivan, who stands apart from everything and everyone.
As well as each embodying a philosophy, each brother also represents a part of a complete man. Alyosha is the soul or spiritual aspect, Ivan the intellect or discriminating aspect, and Dmitri the passions. The psychic incompleteness of each brother is his weakness. During the course of the novel, each will face a crisis that arises out of his over-identification with his defining faculty, and that is tailored to challenge his particular weakness.

 

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