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The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Brothers Karamazov takes place in the era of the 1860s, shortly after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the judicial reforms of 1864. The setting is an obscure country town somewhere in Russia, 15 miles from Mokroye (which is about 250 miles south of Moscow).

The main story centers on the Karamazov family and the murder of the patriarch, Fyodor Karamazov. The hero is Alyosha (according to the narrator), the youngest son who returned to the town about a year ago and took up residence as a novice monk at the local monastery under the guidance of the spiritually gifted elder, Zosima. Also recently back in town is Alyosha's brother Ivan, a gifted intellectual, and his half-brother Dmitri (also called Mitya), a former army officer and wastrel. Old Karamazov is an inveterate buffoon and amoral degenerate who survived two wives and abandoned three children. He also fathered a fourth son, Smerdyakov, by raping a homeless and mentally handicapped woman. Old Karamazov's legitimate sons have been raised by other people, and Dmitri has returned to settle a dispute over money left by his mother. Ivan has returned at the request of his brother Dmitri to help mediate the dispute. Smerdyakov works as a cook in old Karamazov's house and was raised by the servant, Grigory, and his wife.

In addition to arguing about money, Dmitri and his father are rivals for the affections of the same woman, Grushenka, who was abandoned by her fiancé five years earlier and saved by an old merchant, her lover for a time. Dmitri's beautiful fiancée Katerina has also come to town. She and Dmitri became engaged after he saved her father from disgrace. But because he has met Grushenka, he wants to break it off. She is now an heiress, and Dmitri has taken 3,000 rubles of her money and used it to throw an elaborate party to impress Grushenka. In truth, he has used only half the money with the idea of returning the rest, which he keeps in a pouch around his neck.

After the meeting at the monastery, Dmitri beats his father in a rage, thinking he is hiding Grushenka. Ivan has decided to leave town because he is disgusted with his father and brother and is being strung along by Dmitri's fiancée, Katerina, with whom he has fallen in love. The feeling is mutual, but Katerina insists she has to save Dmitri. Ivan is feeling more and more uncomfortable around Smerdyakov. He is a twisted psychopath who used to torture and kill cats as a child. Ivan initially was friendly with Smerdyakov, and they had philosophical conversations, especially about whether everything is allowable once God and immortality are put aside. Ivan claims to be an atheist, although he is tortured by his lack of faith. Smerdyakov seems to want something from Ivan.

Alyosha befriends the child Ilyusha and his father, who have been humiliated by Dmitri. The boy has tuberculosis, and his family is impoverished. He has been picked on by his peers, especially after his father was beaten by Dmitri. Katerina gives them money, and after Alyosha convinces Ilyusha's peers to make up with him, they begin to visit.

Smerdyakov encourages Ivan to leave the next day, predicting Dmitri will murder his father. Ivan shrugs it off, because he does not believe Dmitri is capable of such an act. Before he leaves, Ivan has an extended conversation about God with Alyosha, saying he does not accept the creator because he allows the torture of children. Further, Ivan recites a tale called "The Grand Inquisitor" to prove that Jesus is a failed savior, because he can save only the elite few, not the majority of people who are weak and want to escape the responsibility of free will.

Smerdyakov murders old Karamazov right after Dmitri comes looking for Grushenka a second time; she has disappeared. By now, Ivan is on his way to Moscow. When Dmitri satisfies himself that Grushenka is not there, he climbs over the garden wall, but Grigory tries to grab him. Dmitri hits him over the head, leaving behind a pestle later taken for the murder weapon that kills Karamazov. After Dmitri leaves, Smerdyakov takes the 3,000 rubles.

Dmitri learns Grushenka had actually left for Mokroye, the scene of their spree the previous month. She is meeting her ex-lover who now wants to marry her. Dmitri chases her to Mokroye, to have one last evening with her and then kill himself. He extracts the remaining 1,500 rubles from the "amulet" around his neck to buy supplies and pay for entertainment. When he arrives, Grushenka realizes she loves him, not her ex-lover, and another party ensues. Toward the end of the evening, the police arrive to arrest Dmitri for the murder of his father. He is also accused of stealing the money, and no one believes the money he has been spending is part of the original stash he appropriated from Katerina.

Ivan returns from Moscow, and Alyosha tells him Dmitri is innocent. Ivan does not believe it, but to put his conscience at rest, he keeps questioning Smerdyakov, who finally admits to the crime. He thought they had an understanding, he says, and that Ivan wanted his father dead. Ivan is going mad and begins seeing the devil in his room. At Dmitri's trial he tries to clear his brother, but no one believes him, and by now Smerdyakov has killed himself. To protect Ivan, Katerina shows the court an incriminating letter from Dmitri saying he will kill his father, and her evidence erases any remaining doubt.

Dmitri is found guilty and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor. Ivan has brain fever, but Katerina is nursing him. Together with Alyosha, they are planning an escape to America for Dmitri and Grushenka. Ilyusha dies, and Alyosha gives a speech to the boys about never forgetting one another and remembering the good they did here.

The Brothers Karamazov Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Alyosha, Ivan, and Dmitri return to the town of their birth.

Rising Action

2 Dmitri and Karamazov argue, and Zosima bows to Dmitri.

3 Dmitri breaks it off with Katerina, Grushenka insults her.

4 Alyosha says Katerina loves Ivan; Ivan admits it is mutual.

5 Alyosha makes friends with the captain and his family.

6 Ivan rebels against God and shares his poem with Alyosha.

7 Smerdyakov says murder may occur and urges Ivan to leave.

8 Alyosha has a vision of Zosima at Cana and leaves monastery.

9 Dmitri knocks Grigory unconscious at his father's house.

10 Grushenka confesses love, and Dmitri is arrested for murder.


11 Smerdyakov admits he killed old Karamazov and kills himself.

Falling Action

12 Ivan testifies he is responsible for the murder.

13 Katerina provides damning evidence against Dmitri.

14 Katerina and Alyosha plan Dmitri and Grushenka's escape.


15 Ilyusha dies; Alyosha gives speech to boys after funeral.

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