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The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Motifs


The Onion

The onion in the novel represents grace and second chances. The onion is first introduced by Grushenka, who tells the story of how a wicked woman was given an onion to hang onto to get out of hell, but she selfishly would not share it and thus missed her chance of getting into heaven. Grushenka says she gave Alyosha an onion when she jumped off his lap. Alyosha gives Grushenka an onion when he accepts her as a sister and ignites her process of transformation. When Alyosha dreams of Zosima at the Feast of Cana (i.e., in paradise), the elder tells him he is there because he gave an onion. An onion is a simple thing, just like the grace people can offer one another and which they can recognize when it comes into their lives. It is also a vegetable that grows of its own volition with little toil. "One little onion," in the words of Zosima, can make the difference between heaven and hell.

The Grand Inquisitor

The Grand Inquisitor in Ivan's poem is in league with the devil, but he more broadly represents the view that God and immortality are irrelevant, because people are not strong enough to freely choose to be good. If God does exist, he is wrong to expect most people to follow his teachings (as given by Jesus). Therefore, it is necessary to develop a totalitarian state in which people are kept on a leash and allowed their little vices, but at the same time are controlled by a puppet master who tells them what is right and wrong and how they should behave. Such a puppet master, whether or not disguised as a religious personage, lifts the terrible burden of existential freedom off the shoulders of sheep-like humanity. Thus, they can be pleasantly distracted for their brief life span and then quietly go into oblivion.


The children in the novel function as innocents who contrast with the sinful adults. They mirror the suffering of the world around them, suggesting that innate childhood innocence is always corrupted by worldly concerns.

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