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Literature Study GuidesThe Brothers KaramazovPart 2 Book 6 Chapters 1 3 Summary

The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Part 2, Book 6, Chapters 1–3 : The Russian Monk | Summary



When Alyosha arrives back at the elder's cell, he finds a gathering of monks who have come to hear Zosima's final words (Chapter 1). Alyosha bows before his teacher and begins to weep, and Zosima again encourages him to find his brother Dmitri and try to save him. Alyosha reminds him of his own brother, Zosima says, who then begins talking about his life. Alyosha writes down what he said on that day.

Chapter 2 presents Zosima's biography, as recorded by Alyosha. The elder's brother Markel, who died young, was initially an unbeliever. However, he fully embraced Christianity before his death, and from him Zosima learned the doctrine that "each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all." Markel experiences spiritual ecstasy before he dies, asking even the birds to forgive him.

Zosima grows up and joins the military, becoming an officer and engaging in "drunkenness, debauchery, and bravado." He falls in love with a girl who is engaged to another and then makes an excuse to challenge the man to a duel. On the morning of the duel, he brutally beats his servant, but suffers terrible remorse and a spiritual epiphany: "how did I deserve that another man, just like me, the image and likeness of God, should serve me?"

The words of his brother come back to him, and he begs his servant for forgiveness. When he gets to the duel, he allows the man to shoot at him and then asks for his forgiveness, too. Before leaving town to become a monk, he makes friends with a mysterious man who eventually tells him he has committed a murder and gotten away with it. Zosima encourages him to confess, quoting John: "I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." The man contemplates killing Zosima, but he eventually confesses, even though he is not believed. He dies shortly thereafter, comforted by Zosima.

Chapter 3 brings together excerpts from the talks and homilies of Zosima. The first section addresses freedom, pointing out that greed distorts one's nature. People who pursue such "freedom" are slaves, whereas a monk seeks the path to true freedom by cutting away "superfluous and unnecessary needs." Section two addresses whether masters and servants can be brothers in spirit. Russia will be saved, Zosima predicts, and "[s]alvation will come from the people, from their faith and their humility." While "[t]he world cannot do without servants," masters and servants can also be brothers in the same family.

In section three, Zosima exhorts his listeners to "Love all of God's creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light." Life is like an ocean, and everything "flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world." Therefore, it is not crazy to ask the birds for forgiveness. When people make themselves responsible for everything and everyone, they will realize they are also "guilty on behalf of all and for all."

It is not possible to judge others, Zosima argues in Section 4. Rather, take the criminal's sin upon oneself. Chances are, the criminal will judge himself more harshly than the judge. And even if he does not, it means "his time has not yet come, but it will come in due course." If his time never comes, surely another will "accuse himself, and the truth will be made full." Hell is "[t]he suffering of being no longer able to love," Zosima says in Section 5. Nothing is worse than spiritual torment, which one cannot take away from another. Still, Zosima thinks that the love of others may bring the tortured in hell some relief. Although the church says not to pray for suicides, Zosima believes he may pray for them also. After Zosima finishes speaking, he kneels on the floor and bows, with outstretched arms, kissing the ground. Then he dies.


Zosima's biography and homilies serve as a testament of faith and a refutation of the doubt presented in Ivan's chapters that make the case for unbelief. Zosima begins his career much in the same way as Dmitri, but he comes from a loving home and has the example of his saintly brother to guide him. His first epiphany comes when he is cruel to his servant and feels shame for the first time for his pride and arrogance. This puts him on his spiritual path. The transformation in Zosima after the duel brings the murderer to him, and compassion and mercy toward the man are instrumental in the murderer's transformation. Zosima's doctrine, as recorded by Alyosha, is a testament to his inner spiritual work.

The elder's central teaching is that everyone is responsible for everyone else, and that all are guilty before all. This doctrine is based on the Christian idea of original sin, the knowledge of good and evil appropriated by the first parents (Adam and Eve). According to Catholic and Orthodox Christian doctrine, everyone is born with original sin, so everyone is equally guilty. Zosima generalizes this guilt to guilt for all sins, because all sin is based in original sin. At the same time, Christianity is a brotherhood, and there are many references in the novel to people being brothers and sisters to one another. As part of the same Christian family, all are responsible for all and must take care of all.

A corollary of these ideas is the necessity for practicing active love, which includes mercy, compassion, generosity, and the withholding of judgment. This does not mean pretending sin does not exist, but rather not judging the sinner, which is the provenance of God. Zosima's image of God is one of boundless mercy. He is very much like the image of Jesus in "The Grand Inquisitor." The Inquisitor does not have access to the mercy of Jesus because he chooses judgment over mercy, judging even God. Zosima has faith that through the practice of active love, all crooked paths will be made straight, but it is necessary first to eradicate one's egotism to be reborn in the body of Christ. This is what the quotation from John means: it is only by "dying" to one's old life of sin that it is possible to be reborn into grace.

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