The Brothers Karamazov By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part 1: Book I

Summary

Karamazov: the name is well-known in Russia; it carries a taste of violence and dark Slavic passion. And there is much truth in the rumors and whispered tales told of Fyodor Karamazov. In his youth he was a loud profligate. His drinking and high living were notorious; he seemed insatiate. And marriage did not tame him. His marriage, true to form, was scandalous. But initially it was not scandalous because of its melodramatic elements — that was to be expected; life with Karamazov could not be otherwise. Initially, Karamazov's marriage was scandalous because it was romantic: he was penniless yet he wooed and married an heiress.


Adelaida Ivanovna believed in her young rebel-husband. Perhaps his spirit was bold and irrepressible, but he was the new breed of liberal Russian manhood. She believed it firmly. She tried to believe it for a long time. Then she was forced to face the ugly reality that instead of a rich-blooded idealist she had married an opportunist who was physically cruel and usually drunk. She also was forced to face another unpleasant truth: she was pregnant. She bore the baby, a son — Dmitri, or Mitya as she often called him — and when she could no longer endure her husband's viciousness, she abandoned both her son and husband and eloped with a young student.

Karamazov, ostensibly, was staggered by her rejection and, still the overly dramatic sort, like a loud tragedian he spent many of his days driving through the country, lamenting over his wife's desertion. But even that pose grew wearisome and soon he returned to his life of debauchery. When he received the news of Adelaida's death he was in the midst of a drunken orgy.

Young Dmitri was neglected and finally taken in by a cousin and when the cousin tired of him the child was given to other relatives; thus the baby grew up with a variety of families. But he was always told about his real father, that the man still lived, and that he held a rather large piece of Adelaida's property that was rightfully Dmitri's. The boy never forgot these tales of land and money and when he reached maturity, he visited his father and asked about the inheritance. He was unable, of course, to get any information from the old man but he began receiving small sums of money and, convinced that the property did exist, he revisited his father. Again the old man evaded his son's questions.

But if Karamazov was able to evade Dmitri, he could not evade other matters so successfully — the problems of his other sons, for example. For after the four-year-old Dmitri was taken away, Karamazov married a second time. This wife, Sofya Ivanovna, was remarkably beautiful and her loveliness and her innocence attracted the lustful Karamazov. He convinced her to elope with him against her guardian's wishes and quickly took advantage of her meekness. He began having loose women in the house and even carried on orgies of debauchery in her presence.

During Karamazov's years of cruelty and depravity, Sofya Ivanovna gave birth to two sons, Ivan and Alyosha. But she was not well and did not feel loved despite the attentions of old Grigory, the servant who did his best to comfort her and protect her from Karamazov. In spite of his care, she soon fell ill and died. When her former guardian heard about her death, she came and took the two boys, Ivan and Alyosha, with her and upon her own death she left a thousand rubles to each boy for his education.

Ivan Karamazov developed into a brilliant student who helped support himself by writing for journals. He slowly began to make a name for himself in literary circles. One of his articles, for instance, dealt with the function of the ecclesiastical courts; it attracted widespread interest and even the monastery in his native town spoke of it. Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, developed into a devoutly religious person, his faith based on reality and untinged by mysticism or fanaticism. He was universally well liked, never criticized anyone, and seemed to love everyone.

As the action of the novel begins, Alyosha returns to his father's house and meets his brothers. He and Dmitri rapidly become good friends, but he feels puzzled by Ivan's reserve and intellectuality. As for his father, Alyosha openly loves him; he has never criticized or condemned his father's way of life. Alyosha has always been generous and forgiving, thus it was that Karamazov was not surprised when Alyosha first told him that he wanted to become a monk, the disciple of the renowned elder, Zossima. In those days, incidentally, an elder was often controversial. "An elder," it was said, "was one who took your soul, your will, into his soul and his will." But elder, by also setting exemplary models of holiness in their own lives, often attracted large numbers of followers.

The Karamazovs are reunited, and the reason for their reunion deeply concerns Alyosha. The discord between Dmitri and his father has reached such a point that one of them, apparently the father, has suggested a meeting in Father Zossima's cell, where they can discuss differences under the conciliating influence of the elder. Alyosha, who understands his brothers and his father better than most people think, greatly fears the meeting.

Analysis

The Brothers Karamazov is often considered one of the world's most complex novels. Dostoevsky examines many different facets of life, investigates many problems of lasting importance, and is able to do so successfully in this novel because the mere size and bulk of the book allows him to proceed with deliberate slowness in introducing and developing his ideas. Attempting in these Commentaries, however, to isolate some of the main ideas and to analyze them destroys the essential unity of the novel. Part of its greatness is the manner in which Dostoevsky is able to integrate all the divergent elements into one unified whole. Each idea borders upon another and is somewhat vitiated when isolated from the remainder of the novel.

In the complex spirit of the novel and in the leisurely nineteenth-century fashion of giving the intricate background of the main characters, Dostoevsky begins his book, then immediately establishes its tone. He first announces the element of mystery in the novel — the "gloomy and tragic death" of Karamazov — and then begins defining the elements of tragedy — especially the Karamazov tragedy.

The older Karamazov is depicted as base, vulgar, ill-natured, and completely degraded, and his "tragic" death will be revealed to be tragic only because his sons are implicated in the death — not because Karamazov himself arouses tragic emotion. In fact, in the trial scene later in the book, it is pointed out that the murder is not a parricide in the truest sense because Fyodor Karamazov never functioned as a proper father. To support this idea, Dostoevsky begins at the very outset of the novel to show the blackness and vulgarity of the man who is to be murdered.

To emphasize the monster within Karamazov, Dostoevsky illustrates the lack of paternal instincts. Karamazov did not discard his children from hatred or malice; he simply forgot about their existence. Furthermore, he was pleased each time that strangers came and took the children and therefore released him from responsibility; this allowed him to devote all his energy to his various orgies. One of Dostoevsky's ideas, prominent throughout the novel, then, concerns the place of the child in society. This theme receives its first expression in the chapter dealing with Fyodor Karamazov's treatment of his children.

In Chapter 2, Dostoevsky tells us that Dmitri "was the only one of Fyodor Pavlovitch's three sons who grew up in the belief that he had property and that he would be independent on coming of age." This idea is established early in the novel because it becomes the source of the antagonism existing between father and son. Dostoevsky carefully avoids making a direct statement about the full extent to which the father has cheated his son, but by the manner in which he arranges his descriptions of the father, we can assume that Fyodor has indeed cheated Dmitri out of a major portion of the inheritance. It is also noteworthy that, of the three sons, Dmitri is the only one whom the father intensely dislikes. This is easily explained: the other two sons make no financial demands upon the father; only Dmitri insists upon having his inheritance.

Following his thorough characterization of the older Karamazov, Dostoevsky devotes the next several chapters to the offspring — the brothers Karamazov, as different from one another as can be imagined.

Dmitri, throughout the novel, develops into the extreme sensualist, the emotional son. He did not complete his education; instead, he worked his way up through the military ranks to become an officer. He lacked discipline, however, and soon became involved in a duel and was demoted. Later he gained promotion again. But his deeds and emotions are fluid and fluctuating. He has, for instance, an instinctive dislike for his father but forms an immediate friendship with his brother Alyosha. He is the fiery-hearted, fierce, and emotional person who is easily swayed by his feelings.

Ivan, on the other hand, is the cold intellectual. At an early age, he developed his propensity for study and his unusual aptitude for learning. He is the very proud son, always conscious that his early training was at someone else's expense. He began, therefore, as soon as possible, to write reviews in order to support himself, and before arriving in his native town, he has published a widely read, widely discussed article about the ecclesiastical courts. This article is the subject of a conversation in the next book between the monks and Ivan.

In contrast to his two brothers, Alyosha has none of Ivan's pride, nor is he as fiery as Dmitri. He is "simply an early lover of humanity," one who always tries to see the best side of everyone. He possesses an implicit trust in all people and, in all his relationships, he never judges others. Beneath his modest exterior, however, is a penetrating and understanding mind that detects many subtleties and distinctions. Alyosha is of course deeply religious but he is not the fanatical sort who bases his faith upon miracles. He is the complete realist who arrived at his beliefs concerning immortality and God through reasoning.

While presenting the characteristics of the three Karamazov sons, Dostoevsky introduces another principal theme — the conflict between faith and disbelief. Alyosha and Ivan represent the two opposite poles of acceptance, and it is only natural that they do not become intimate friends at first. Alyosha, however, is perceptive enough to understand Ivan's problem. He knows that "Ivan was absorbed in something — something inward and important that he was striving toward, some goal, perhaps very hard to attain and that was why he had no thought for him." Looking forward, we realize that Ivan will forever struggle with the idea of belief and immortality and that this struggle will form one of the most dramatic sections of the novel. In contrast, Dmitri will slowly become a person of faith. He and Alyosha, consequently, become intimate friends from the very beginning.

In all his writing, Dostoevsky was interested in the psychology of actions. He was particularly interested in the nature of contradictory actions. Many of his characters therefore perform actions that do not seem consistent with their personalities. Dostoevsky often investigates this idea in an attempt to understand why a person who acts in a certain manner will often perform an action that seemingly contradicts his nature. In the character of the father, for example, he shows Fyodor visiting the grave of his first wife and being so touched by her memory that he gives a thousand rubles to the monastery for requiems. For a man usually so miserly with money and not professing a belief in God, this action is strange and contradictory. Dostoevsky comments that "strange impulses of sudden feeling and sudden thought are common in such types." Later he also writes that Fyodor "was wicked and sentimental," and, even though the question of contradictory actions is never solved by Dostoevsky, it does occupy portions of the novel, and the reader should be aware of the investigation.

The introduction of Zossima concludes the first book, the brief introduction being a transitional device. Zossima, one should be aware, will hold center stage in the following section. His role is important because he is antithetical to all but one of the vigorous Karamazov clan. He is a passive sort, yet he influences the decisive actions of Alyosha and thus influences the course of the novel. Dostoevsky attempts, in the character of the elder, to present the almost perfect person, and his characterization is convincing. So convincing, in fact, is it to Alyosha that his beliefs are shaken at Zossima's death. He has convinced himself that after the elder's death, Zossima would bring extraordinary glory to the monastery. Death is rarely that simple. The fact that Zossima decomposes so rapidly weighs heavily on Alyosha, and he is therefore tempted to question the validity of God's justice.

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