The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, Book 5, and Part 3, Book 7 what evidence indicates that Alyosha Karamazov sympathizes with Ivan's point of view in his rebellion against God?

As readers discover in Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 4, and Part 3, Book 7, Chapter 2, both brothers love children: Ivan Karamazov remembers his brother as a child, for example, and that he liked cherry preserve. He says children are the only people it is possible to love "up close." Alyosha Karamazov also loves children, as evidenced in his friendship with Ilyusha Snegiryov and his schoolmates. Ivan describes scenes of tortured children, ending with a story of how a child was torn to pieces by a pack of dogs. He asks his brother whether the perpetrator should be shot, and Alyosha gets angry enough to agree that he should. Ivan responds that there is "a little devil ... sitting in your heart, Alyoshka Karamazov!" Later, when Alyosha is angry about the disgrace suffered by his elder because of his rotting corpse, Rakitin taunts him that he is rebelling against God. Alyosha smiles and says he does not accept God's world, mimicking the words of his brother. Clearly, Alyosha has the capacity for rebellion, although it is tempered with faith.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, Book 5 why does Ivan Karamazov use the suffering of children to argue that God is neither good nor merciful?

The foundation of the Christian view is that man is a sinful being who broke God's commandment in the Garden of Eden. Man chose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus bringing imperfection into the world. In Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 4, Ivan Karamazov is arguing that while it is possible to justify the suffering of man upon consideration of human sinfulness, it is not possible to justify the suffering of children in any way, because children are innocent. Ivan rebels against God's creation, which allows the torment of children at the hands of vicious and amoral adults. He does not believe that children should suffer the consequences of man's "original sin," and, therefore, a God who allows it is neither good nor merciful. Man's original sin can be seen as symbolic of the predicament of man: coming into the world as an embodied being with free will and the capability to do evil. In one sense, Ivan is arguing that a God who put man in that position—giving him free will, through which he mostly reaps suffering—is not a good God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, Book 5 why does Ivan Karamazov believe that without God or immortality, people will sink to the worst moral excesses?

In Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 5, readers find out that Ivan Karamazov is cynical about man's ability to act nobly or with conscience because he looks around him and sees amoral people behaving badly—beginning with his own father who relinquished responsibility for his sons and lives only on the level of the senses. He believes that religion keeps people in check: belief in God and an afterlife, in which one is either rewarded in heaven or punished for eternity in hell, is the only thing that makes most people behave decently. If there is no God and no immortality, all things are allowable. Suddenly, morality is not an absolute. Without a God, every man can be a god unto himself and decide what is best for him without resorting to a moral code based on religious ideas or sentiments.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, Book 5 what is Ivan Karamazov's solution for a world without God or immortality?

As related in Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 5, Ivan Karamazov believes that most people would not choose the freedom to follow the example of Jesus Christ, meaning they would not choose to be kind to fellow beings and avoid violence. Rather, they would choose to do whatever satisfied their own desires, regardless of the consequences for others. Thus, in a world with no God or immortality, it is necessary for the state to control people—either through religious fear, in the sense that Karl Marx called religion "the opiate of the people," or through fear of punishment by the state, as can be seen in extreme totalitarian regimes, such as the one in North Korea. A literary depiction of a state that controls people (body and soul) can be seen in George Orwell's 1984. For the sake of the children—so they do not suffer—Ivan would choose totalitarianism over freedom in the absence of God and immortality.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, Book 5 why does Ivan Karamazov use 16th-century Seville as the setting for a tale about the failure of free will?

In Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 5, readers discover that in the discussion in elder Zosima's cell, Ivan Karamazov ironically argues that the state must become the church, because he finds the presence of ecclesiastical (religious) courts alongside secular ones illogical. Miusov argues that his idea is "ultramontanism," or papal supremacy in which the Church of Rome rules over the state. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church did rule over Europe to a large degree until the 16th century. Gradually, the Scientific Revolution in Europe forced a separation of church and state. This schism occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the Inquisition was the last gasp of European theocracy. The Spanish Inquisition was an attempt to cleanse that country of all non-Christian influences and to ensure that everyone practiced the same Catholic orthodoxy. Thus, it is the perfect setting for a fable in which an external authority appropriates the authority of God and takes away people's free will.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, Book 5 why does the Grand Inquisitor release Jesus?

As related in Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 5, The Grand Inquisitor was once a follower of Jesus. He is one of the strong people who "ate roots in the desert ... overcoming his flesh ... to make himself free and perfect." Nonetheless, he loved mankind, according to Ivan Karamazov, and saw that the majority would "never be strong enough to manage their freedom." The Grand Inquisitor has taken on the burden of the people's freedom, so that they can have bread, be happy, and think that after they die they will have eternal life. While the Grand Inquisitor is in league with the devil, he is not an atheist in the sense that he still has a shred of belief in the teachings of Jesus. Thus, when Jesus kisses him, he feels it burning in his heart, but he still chooses man's temporal happiness over God's freedom. Because the man he once was is not entirely dead, the Inquisitor sets Jesus free, telling him never to come again.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, Book 5 why does Ivan Karamazov feel guilty about listening to the movement of his father downstairs on the night before his departure?

In Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 7, Ivan Karamazov recalled that night with "particular disgust," the narrator says, and his actions as "loathsome" and the worst in his life. He has just heard Pavel Smerdyakov's account of how Dmitri Karamazov will kill his father, with Smerdyakov claiming that such a scene would likely unfold after Ivan leaves. Ivan scoffs at this idea, yet he finds himself listening intently to his father's movements downstairs with a "sort of strange curiosity." His guilt is the product of his unconscious feelings and desires, rather than his conscious ones. Part of him is listening for Dmitri perhaps, who may put an end to his loathsome parent—or perhaps he is wishing that old Karamazov will die on his own The next day he leaves, consciously knowing that Dmitri will do his father no harm, but perhaps unconsciously realizing that his father will come to harm, and perhaps yearning for his extinction.

How does the character of Lizaveta in The Brothers Karamazov, Part 1, Book 3, Chapter 2 relate to the themes of compassion and mercy, as well as original sin?

Through Grigory Kutozov's eyes, the reader sees Lizaveta in very negative, almost demonic terms. She is "dwarfish" and "unpleasant" walking about in a "hempen sack," the same type of garb that a religious outcast would wear. Her hair is "coarse" and "black," and it curls tightly to her head like a lamb, combining images of devilry and innocence. Her hair further aligns her with the earth, and therefore with original sin, as it is "always crusted with mud, and had leaves, bits of stick, and shavings clinging to it." She arouses the readers', and the townspeople's, sympathy because her father was a drunk who beat her and because she is an idiot, a now-discarded term for people with below-average intelligence. As such, she is regarded as touched by the angels, and therefore carefully watched over by the townspeople. She, however, disregards the people and their treatment of her, either returning or refusing their gifts of clothing and food, seemingly not out of a sense of religious duty, but from an ignorance of their value. Her insistence on a state of natural existence aligns her with Eve, living innocently in the Garden. Like Eve, she wears hardly any clothing and spends her entire life outdoors. But unlike Eve, she lives in a state of original sin, and Grigory is therefore distrustful of her, although he welcomes her child into his home.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 3, Book 7 how does the stink of Elder Zosima's dead body challenge the faith of his followers?

In Part 3, Book 7, Chapters 1 and 2, Elder Zosima's followers, even his most beloved disciples, such as Fathers Paissy and Iosif, are expecting a miracle after his death. In both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, there are recorded instances of saints whose body did not fall into corruption after death. Thus, those who love Zosima are expecting this result for Zosima. Like the blind followers in Ivan's fable, they require a miracle to believe, and people begin reassessing Zosima's holiness once his body begins to stink. His closest followers do not doubt his saintliness but are only disappointed. Alyosha Karamazov's respect for his elder does not change, but be becomes angry at God for allowing Zosima to be disgraced in the eyes of others. For Alyosha, Zosima's body is a test of his willingness to accept God's world as he finds it.

In Part 3, Book 7 of The Brothers Karamazov, Part 3, Book 7 how does Grushenka change after Alyosha Karamazov calls her his "sister"?

Unlike Fyodor Karamazov, Grushenka feels genuine shame for her immoral behavior, and that is why she "acts up." When she was first seduced and abandoned by her Polish officer, she was a shy, skinny, timid girl. After she was rescued by the merchant Samsonov and became his mistress, her figure filled out and she also became bold, outspoken, and provocative. She has a streak of spite in her because of the bad treatment she has experienced at the hands of men. Although she has remained chaste since she stopped having sexual relations with the merchant, she has an idea of seducing Alyosha Karamazov for spite, because he is a monk with a stainless reputation. In Part 3, Book 7, Chapter 3, when Alyosha apologizes for thinking the worst of her, confesses to his own "wickedness," and calls Grushenka a sister because she spared him, she feels as if she has been called back into the community of decent people. She immediately drops her spiteful playacting and confesses her whole life to him. After her encounter with Alyosha, she begins to revert back to her true nature, which is kind and generous, although she remains emotional and volatile.

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