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The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Themes


The themes in The Brothers Karamazov center on existential questions—the meaning of life and death, the existence of God, and the problem of evil.

Faith and Doubt

The central opposing polemics in the novel are faith and doubt. The doubt expressed in the novel ranges from the soulless materialism and nihilism of characters (like Fyodor and Smerdyakov) to the experience of faith as an embodiment of God's grace in an individual life and soul—exemplified by the characters of Zosima and Alyosha. The petty socialists who have turned their backs on God, such as Miusov and Rakitin, fall into the camp of doubt. Grushenka and Dmitri, the couple with true Russian hearts, have faith but must learn to practice the active love of Zosima. Ivan, the most compelling character in the novel, is caught between faith and doubt. He claims to be an atheist but is tortured by his own unbelief and the idea that, ultimately, there may be no meaning to the suffering experienced by human beings. For Dostoevsky, faith—a belief in God and immortality—was necessary to lead a wholesome and meaningful life. Atheism could only lead to despair and immorality, in the author's view. Thus, Ivan's suffering over his possible complicity in his father's death is a sign that he is not entirely without faith.

Suffering as Purification

As a Christian, Dostoevsky had to account for suffering, and he had suffered plenty in his own life. Suffering in the novel creates purification, which ultimately leads to redemption. In an individual life, suffering allows people to learn from their mistakes and to purify the personality. Two characters who are transformed through suffering are Grushenka and Dmitri. Suffering may be necessary to atone for the sins committed, and suffering can create compassion in the one who suffers. But Ivan's question—about the suffering of children—is not answered by this view.

Forgiveness and Transformation

Faith-based forgiveness leads to self-transformation and stands against evil. In the author's (and Zosima's) view, a primary duty of a Christian is to forgive, in imitation of Jesus who intercedes between man and God and grants forgiveness for sins. Forgiveness is based on compassion and understanding of the other, and the knowledge that all are equally sinful. For example, Alyosha forgives his father, acknowledging that he is "twisted," but believing there still remains in him some basic goodness. He forgives Lise, understanding that she is a young girl with psychological problems. The cultivation of unconditional love leads a person's mind to abide in the love of God. This is why Zosima says that hell is the inability to love. The one serious failure of love in the novel is the failure of anyone to love Smerdyakov, particularly as a child.

Responsibility of Brotherhood

In Zosima's gospel, all are guilty and all are responsible for all. This connection is because all people share original sin. With redemption and entrance into the Christian community (the body of Christ), all sinners become brothers and sisters. As part of this family, each person is responsible for all others. People are intricately linked, and the actions of one person profoundly affect everyone in his or her society, particularly those in the immediate family. Practicing the idea that "I am guilty before all, and guilty of the sins of the other" leads to the development of humility, compassion, and the withholding of judgment with regard to others.

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