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The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In The Brothers Karamazov, why does Pavel Smerdyakov kill himself?

Pavel Smerdyakov kills himself in nihilistic despair, because his life no longer has any meaning. Murder has taken him so far beyond human community that his life becomes pointless. Smerdyakov has psychopathic tendencies and deep hatred and resentment against the Karamazovs, so it is not surprising that he uses the excuse of Ivan Karamazov's philosophy to kill his master Fyodor Karamazov. He has spent his life as an outsider and has not been close to anyone. When Ivan arrives, he begins to feel a kinship with him, although the feelings are all on his side. He thinks to use Ivan's philosophy to justify the murder of the old man for his own sake (so he can steal the money and start a life of his own) and Ivan's sake (so he can get his father's inheritance). When he realizes that Ivan did not consciously plot with him, he feels betrayed. He also feels betrayed by Ivan's willingness to confess everything in court. Although it would have been nearly impossible to lay the murder at Smerdyakov's door, he feels defeated and loses his will to live. In addition, killing himself is one last way he can spite the Karamazovs, as he takes his secrets to the grave.

In The Brothers Karamazov, why does Dmitri Karamazov so easily forgive Katerina after she seals his fate with the letter in which he says he will kill his father?

Dmitri Karamazov feels tremendous remorse for his bad behavior—not just his recent behavior, but for his whole life. He has lived a wild and violent existence and has hurt a lot of people. He realizes how humiliated Katerina still feels for bowing down to him to save her father and that she misjudges him in thinking he would make her pay for it the rest of his life. He also feels remorse for abandoning her, even though he knows she doesn't truly love him. In court he says to her, "We hated each other for many things, Katya, but I swear, I swear I loved you even as I hated you and you—didn't." Dmitri is also going through a transformative process in which he wishes to pay for his sins and offer forgiveness to others. After the guilty verdict is rendered, Dmitri says publicly that he forgives Katya and asks that people feel pity for Grushenka.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Part 4, Book 12 why does Ivan Karamazov call the people watching the trial hypocrites?

In Part 4, Book 12, Chapter 5, Ivan Karamazov looks at the crowd in the courtroom and sarcastically says, "A murdered father and they pretend to be frightened." Everyone wants to murder their father, he claims, and the crowd would be disappointed to go home without a "parricide." He references "bread and circuses," which refers to the mob's need for the necessities of life (food and shelter) and a spectacle to keep them entertained—this is the way a government can control the rabble. Ivan is saying that people are perverted voyeurs who enjoy watching the violent deeds and suffering of others. They themselves have murderous impulses inside themselves, even if they don't act on them. By projecting those impulses onto someone who has committed a murder—and pretending to be shocked by his crime—they are acting as hypocrites.

In The Brothers Karamazov, in what ways is Ivan Karamazov an atheist or a believer?

Ivan Karamazov is not an atheist. First, he tells Alyosha Karamazov that he accepts God, saying he told his father there was no God just to tease his brother. Ivan has doubt that God exists, but he is not firmly convinced on the subject. He rejects the suffering in the world that is the result of man's free will, and he rebels against God for allowing that suffering. He sometimes thinks that God is not good at all, but more like the devil. If people are created in the image and likeness of God and man is so corrupt, then God must be corrupt, too, he thinks. While Alyosha has a vision of heaven, Ivan has a vision of hell, in the sense that the devil appears to him. His conscience is very much alive, and he feels guilty for his father's death. Yet, by his own philosophy, an atheist can break any moral rule. But clearly, Ivan does not believe that in his own case. Finally, at the beginning of the novel, the elder Zosima says that the great grief of Ivan's life is that he has not settled the question of faith and doubt, and Ivan comes forward to receive the elder's blessing. This means that he has not entirely turned his back on God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, in what ways is Pavel Smerdyakov correct or incorrect in saying Ivan Karamazov is the son most like his father?

Ivan Karamazov is not like his father, and Pavel Smerdyakov says that partly out of spite and partly out of ignorance, because he has a superficial understanding of human psychology. Smerdyakov thinks Ivan is like his father because he claims to be an atheist who says all things are allowable without God or immortality. Fyodor Karamazov is a genuine atheist who believes that nothing exists beyond the current life, which is why he throws himself into pleasure and does not worry about paying the consequences of his bad actions in a life after death. Smerdyakov also accuses Ivan of being greedy for money, but there is no evidence for that assumption—he is simply projecting his own desires onto Ivan. Ivan is very different from his father. First, he feels genuine love for people—for example, Alyosha Karamazov and Katerina. Second, he suffers terribly with his doubt in the existence of God, and even though he claims not to believe in God, his conscience torments him about his father's death. Thus, he goes to court to try clearing Dmitri Karamazov of the charge of murder once he learns what Smerdyakov has done. In fact, Smerdyakov is the son most like old Karamazov.

In The Brothers Karamazov, in what ways does Elder Zosima act as Alyosha Karamazov's "double"?

Alyosha Karamazov's double in the novel is the elder Zosima, because he is the elder's disciple. Although he has not taken any formal vows, he is under the obedience of the elder, and for this reason he must go back into the world and gain experience, as Zosima commands, before returning to the monastery. Zosima also journeyed in the world before becoming a monk. Both Zosima and Alyosha must negotiate a murder, and while Zosima urges a murderer to confess, Alyosha tells one brother he is not the murderer and helps arrange the escape of the other brother. Zosima comes to Alyosha in a dream and sends him on his ministry. Alyosha has imbibed all of Zosima's teachings and is a practitioner of active love. Within the frame of the story, he is instrumental in the transformation of Kolya and the other boys. and also plays a role in Grushenka's transformation. He is the confidante and confessor for his family members as well as Lise. Alyosha has not yet reached Zosima's level of spiritual understanding , but he clearly has the potential to become another Zosima. Alyosha's greatest failing is his failure to acknowledge Pavel Smerdyakov as a brother in Christ.

In The Brothers Karamazov, how are all four Karamazov sons responsible for their father's murder?

In keeping with Elder Zosima's creed that all are guilty before all and responsible for all, all four brothers are guilty of their father's death. Pavel Smerdyakov is the actual killer. Dmitri Karamazov has a four-year feud with his father that erupts in terrible violence the day before his murder. It is Dmitri Karamazov's quarrel with Fyodor Karamazov, including the repeated threats he makes against him, that gives Smerdyakov the idea that he can "facilitate" Dmitri's murder of his father. Ivan Karamazov hates his father, perhaps more than Smerdyakov and Dmitri, and deliberately ignores warnings that his father could be in harm's way. Moreover, he may have unconsciously realized Smerdyakov meant to harm him, and certainly, he is responsible for providing the killer with the idea that a nonbeliever is free to create their own code of conduct. Finally, Alyosha Karamazov is responsible because, although he was warned by the elder to go to his brother more than once, he fails to see his brother at crucial moments. If Alyosha had been able to stop Dmitri's violence against his father and Grigory Kutuzov, he may have changed the dynamics of the situation so that Smerdyakov would not have had the opportunity to kill. Finally, all three legitimate brothers did not acknowledge the outcast born of Stinking Lizaveta and, thus, are to some degree complicit in his evil because they did not try to save him.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha Karamazov is the hero of the story, but why do most readers find Ivan Karamazov a more compelling character?

Ivan Karamazov is a more compelling character because he is tortured and conflicted. Fiction is interesting because it portrays conflict. Alyosha Karamazov is briefly conflicted when Ivan tells him stories of tortured children, and he also rebels against God briefly after the elder Zosima is disgraced in some people's eyes because of the corruption of his body. But Ivan is conflicted from the beginning to the end of the story, which makes him a more compelling character. In his doubt about God and God's goodness, he reflects the feelings and ideas that most people have at one time or another, so he is also is a character that readers can more easily identify with. Alyosha, on the other hand, is reliably good and wise, so he does not offer the reader too many surprises. Ivan has potential to do both good and bad, and he is even implicated in the murder. Alyosha's character is more static than Ivan's, which also makes him less interesting.

How does The Brothers Karamazov show love—brotherly or sisterly—as an exemplar of true Christian charity?

In this novel, Dostoevsky shows brotherly and sisterly love as the most unselfish kind of love and the one that is closest to the ideal of Christian love—love for others as brothers and sisters in Christ. Elder Zosima teaches active love and the importance of brotherly love. His doctrine says that all are responsible for all. Several references are made to the story of Cain and Abel in the novel. Ivan Karamazov claims not to be his brother's keeper, as does Pavel Smerdyakov. Both of these failures of brotherly love lead to bad consequences. Alyosha Karamazov attempts to take care of his brothers, and he also treats Ilyusha Snegiryov and his friends as brothers, and these actions have positive results. Alyosha takes Grushenka as his sister and triggers her transformation. Ivan and Alyosha save their brother from an unjust sentence as an act of Christian charity. Even Grushenka calls her enemy Katerina "sister," acknowledging their shared goal of saving Dmitri Karamazov. Finally, at the end of the novel, Alyosha urges Kolya and the other boys to remember one another always and how they were good and kind—united in their desire to help their friend at the end of his life.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Epilogue, Chapter 2 has Dmitri Karamazov changed enough to endure 20 years of hard labor?

Despite his efforts, Dmitri Karamazov has not changed enough to endure hard labor for a crime he has not committed. In the Epilogue, Chapter 2, he confesses to Alyosha Karamazov that he will not be able to bear separation from Grushenka, and they will not allow her to follow him to Siberia. Moreover, he is still very proud and says that if the guards talk down to him or abuse him, he is very likely to kill one, and then he will be shot in turn. Alyosha tells him he is not ready for such a martyr's cross, and the best thing he can do is to remember that he wanted to regenerate himself through suffering. If he continues to aspire to that regeneration, he has the possibility of a permanent transformation. "Heavy burdens are not for everyone," Alyosha says, "and for some they are impossible."

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