Literature Study GuidesThe Brothers KaramazovPart 1 Book 3 Chapters 6 9 Summary

The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Part 1, Book 3, Chapters 6–9 : Sensualists | Summary



Alyosha goes to see his father, just finishing dinner with Ivan. Karamazov makes a joke about Smerdyakov, calling him "Balaam's ass" (Chapter 6). The narrator interrupts the current story to provide background on this "unsociable and taciturn" young man who "seemed to despise everyone." As a boy he used to hang cats and bury them with a pseudo-religious ceremony. Grigory beat him when he caught him, and told him he was not a human being but "begotten of bathhouse slime." Smerdyakov mocked religion from an early age, and Grigory punished him physically on a regular basis. Although the young man is fastidious with his appearance, he has no interest in women and seems to be sexless. He is also an epileptic who has periodic seizures.

Karamazov is in the habit of socializing with his servants after dinner, and Smerdyakov has taken to hanging around since Ivan has arrived, because he wants to impress him (Chapter 7). A conversation has ensued about whether a Christian may renounce his faith under threat of torture. Smerdyakov constructs an elaborate argument which is, in essence, a mockery of religious faith. Fyodor Karamazov dismisses him and now turns to Ivan and Alyosha, asking them if there is a God or immortality (Chapter 8). Ivan says no and Alyosha says yes. By now old Karamazov is quite drunk, and at one point tells his sons there is no such thing as an ugly woman. He then begins telling terrible tales about how he psychologically tortured his second wife, and Alyosha has a minor fit. Karamazov refers to the late Sofia as if she were only Alyosha's mother when he asks Ivan to bring his brother water. Ivan coldly reminds him she was also his mother, which he has temporarily forgotten. Suddenly, Dmitri bursts into the house.

Dmitri first knocks Grigory down because he is trying to hold him back (Chapter 9). Although Ivan and Alyosha also try to intervene, Dmitri succeeds in beating his father. He finally leaves when he is convinced by Alyosha that Grushenka is not in the house. Ivan remarks that it would not take much to have killed his father, and when Alyosha says "God forbid!" Ivan replies, "Viper will eat viper, and it would serve them both right!" When Alyosha is leaving, Ivan offers to meet with him the next day. He also reassures him that, whatever his private wishes may be, he will always protect his father from Dmitri.


Smerdyakov's background reveals similar sadistic tendencies as those demonstrated by Fyodor Karamazov, and his rejection of religion further aligns him with Ivan. However, in both cases, he is willing to go where society dare not tread. In the 1800s, sex was a man's prerogative, so Karamazov's crimes, while distasteful, would not have been so reviled as Smerdyakov's cruelty. Likewise, as a nobleman and a writer, Ivan has the freedom to debate the relative merits of atheism with impunity. His servant/brother's pseudo-religious ceremonies are outside the pale.

This section emphasizes the essential differences between Karamazov's children, a point driven home by the father's confusion about their mothers. As similar as the boys may be, each has his own well-defined personality that should inform the reader's judgment of the upcoming events.

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