Literature Study GuidesThe Brothers KaramazovPart 1 Book 1 Chapters 4 5 Summary

The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Part 1, Book 1, Chapters 4–5 : A Nice Little Family | Summary



In Chapter 4 Ivan is almost 24, Alyosha (Alexei) is 20, and Dmitri, 28. Alyosha dropped out of school and initially came to the narrator's town to see his mother's grave. He then decided to enter the nearby monastery as a novice, because he was particularly inspired by the elder Zosima. Alyosha is neither a mystic nor a fanatic, but rather "an early lover of mankind." He is not an innocent, but still has "complete faith in people" and does not judge anyone, although he feels sad when people act badly. Alyosha seems to have a "gift of awakening a special love for himself" in other people.

Alyosha wants to "live for immortality," unlike the atheists and socialists who want to build a paradise on earth as explained in Chapter 5; this is why he is drawn to the elder. While the institution of elders is an old tradition in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it is somewhat new to Russia in the narrator's time. Zosima, about 65, is the third elder in the local monastery. Elders are spiritually self-realized monks who take on disciples; these disciples are voluntarily pledged to obey the master with complete and unwavering obedience. This obedience is for the purpose of reaching perfect self-mastery—which means attaining freedom from self and finding oneself in oneself. It is also customary for elders to be visited by lay people for advice and solace. Because they have enormous power, they are not universally accepted in the monastery—and some monks are opposed to the tradition. Zosima has some celebrity as an elder, and he is not universally adored.

Alyosha, embraced by Zosima, is allowed to live in his cell. Although the young man wears the cassock of a monk, he has not taken vows. Since his brother Dmitri has come to town, he has made friends with him and wishes to get to know Ivan better, because they did not spend much time together as children. Dmitri and his father have come to an impasse about whether Fyodor Karamazov owes his son any more money (he has been giving him small sums from his inheritance over the past four years), so the old man suggests they go to the elder to settle the dispute. Ivan will also be in attendance at the meeting, along with Dmitri's relative Pyotr Miusov, a self-styled socialist and freethinker. He wants to attend out of idle curiosity about the elder. Alyosha is nervous about this meeting and is afraid that his relatives will offend the elder.


Alyosha is naturally kind, compassionate, and open to life. He is quite intelligent and chooses to believe that people have good intentions, and for this reason people love him. He does not judge others, so if they fall short, Alyosha will not condemn them. In later chapters, this young man will reveal that he has a deep understanding of human nature and easily forgives because he can see the suffering of others and how it sometimes warps the personality. Like all Karamazovs, Alyosha is passionate, but he has embraced God and immortality rather than sensual excess. Not surprisingly, the young man is drawn to the monastery's elder, who is kind and nonjudgmental and can look into people's hearts. Zosima, recognizing Alyosha as spiritually gifted, informally takes him under his guidance.

Elders in the Orthodox Christian tradition are the wise ones—equivalent to the enlightened yogis of India, the shamans of Native American religion, or the arhats of Buddhism—people who are thought to have reached spiritual perfection. The elder Zosima is characterized as such a person, and the depth of his wisdom will be revealed in subsequent chapters. Not uncommonly, such people are expected to exhibit special psychic powers, and Alyosha, as well as others who revere Zosima, are expecting miracles from the saintly elder. Disciples of an elder agree to be ruled by him because they believe such a person is free of egotism. They wish to reach the same level of wisdom and have faith that the elder can guide them.

In Alyosha's quest for holiness, his family is an obstacle. He knows that his father is given to theatrical outbursts and therefore likely to embarrass him, but that fear keeps him rooted to this society and its social norms. Likewise, Alyosha is aware that Miusov and Ivan are nonbelievers, and he is afraid they will look down on the elder or condescend to him. A wiser, more enlightened soul would either realize that Zosima is strong enough to withstand their scrutiny or that they require compassion.

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