The Brothers Karamazov By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part 1: Book III: Chapters 1-5

Summary

Long ago, a child with six fingers was born to Grigory and Marfa, Karamazov's servants; it lived only two weeks but was immediately replaced by a foundling, discovered under rather curious circumstances. On the night of his baby's burial, Grigory thought that he heard an infant crying in the yard. He investigated and found a dying young girl and, lying beside her, a newborn child. The mother was an idiot girl, commonly known as "stinking Lizaveta." But in spite of her abominable appellation, almost everyone liked the harmless feebleminded waif; many even provided her with food and clothing. Lizaveta grew up like the town's stray pet, and, naturally, the townspeople were outraged when it was discovered that she was pregnant. It was unthinkable that someone would molest a helpless idiot, a girl who could not even talk — could not even identify her seducer. Rumors as to the father's identity, however, finally agreed on a culprit: old Karamazov. The baby, meanwhile, was adopted by Grigory and Marfa, and they called it by the name Karamazov assigned to it: Smerdyakov.


After Alyosha leaves the monastery, he finds himself growing increasingly fearful of his interview with Katerina Ivanovna, even though he knows that the girl is trying to save Dmitri from disgrace. But he has promised to see her, so he departs. He takes a shortcut to Katerina's house and is stopped by Dmitri. His brother insists on talking, explaining that he can tell only Alyosha everything that troubles him. Immediately he begins an anguished confession of his baseness and sensuality. Painfully he recounts his history, and he particularly ponders over this quirk in his sordidness: whenever he is in the very depths of degradation, he says, he likes to sing Schiller's "Hymn to Joy." He tells Alyosha of his irresponsible life as an army officer and describes his first encounter with Katerina Ivanovna. Then, she was the proud and beautiful daughter of the commanding officer of the camp, and, for some time, she ignored Dmitri's presence and remained at a proper distance. But when Dmitri secretly discovered that her father had lent 4,500 rubles to a scoundrel who refused to pay them back, he sent a message saying that her father was about to be arrested. He would, though, lend her the money if she would come to his room as payment. He hoped to use the promise of a loan to seduce the proud and beautiful Katerina.

When Katerina arrived, Dmitri suddenly changed. He felt like such a blackguard before the frightened and beautiful girl that he gave her the money without trying to take advantage of her. She bowed down to the floor and then ran away. And, sometime later, after her father died, she came into a large inheritance from a distant relative. She returned the money and offered to marry Dmitri. He agreed, and such were, he explains to Alyosha, the circumstances of the engagement.

Following his engagement, Dmitri returned to his father's town and became madly infatuated with Grushenka. But, though she heard much of the gossip about Dmitri, Katerina remained faithful and devoted to him. On one occasion, she even trusted him with 3,000 rubles to send to her half-sister; characteristically, Dmitri squandered the money on an all-night revel. His companion that night was Grushenka.

Now, Dmitri can no longer endure the burden of Katerina's love. He asks Alyosha to be understanding and to go to Katerina and break the engagement. He also has one other request of his brother: he asks him to go to their father and ask for enough money to repay Katerina the 3,000 rubles. The money exists, Dmitri assures Alyosha; he knows for a fact that Fyodor has 3,000 rubles in an envelope intended for Grushenka if ever she spends one night with him. If Alyosha will do this, Dmitri swears that he will repay Katerina and never again ask for money.

Analysis

In the opening chapter of this section, we receive much information about the Karamazov servants. Dostoevsky is not being needlessly thorough; these servants will play a significant role in the murder of old Karamazov, and it is well that we become acquainted with them early in the novel. We learn that Grigory was a determined and an obstinate man, for example. "If once he had been brought by any reasons to believe that it [his viewpoint] was immutably right," Dostoevsky tells us, "then nothing can make him change his mind." Consequently, some of the damaging evidence at Dmitri's trial is given by this old servant, a man who would never change his story even though the reader knows that the servant's evidence is false.

Besides the character of Grigory, Dostoevsky also deals with the relationship between Alyosha and his father. "Alyosha," he says, "brought with him something his father had never known before: a complete absence of contempt for him and an invariable kindness, a perfectly natural unaffected devotion to the old man who deserved it so little." We, of course, understand that Alyosha is only following the dictates of Father Zossima, who advocates that we must love indiscriminately, even those who do evil to us.

Also dealt with in this section is one more highly individual character in this Karamazov tangle of personalities — the village idiot, "stinking Lizaveta," whose depiction grandly displays Dostoevsky's greatness in capturing the essentials that round out and animate his cast of minor characters. Here, in a few sure strokes, he creates a grotesque creature to whom we respond as a human being. Lizaveta is strikingly real; we believe in this creature who sleeps in barns and in passageways and whose appearance is so repulsive that some people are actually appalled. And we learn that it was Karamazov who fathered her child; now all of his noxious qualities suddenly become putrescent. To dare think that anyone might embrace her is shocking, but to think that Karamazov satisfied his lust upon her is to equate him with a barbaric and sordid savage; the man is bestial. He later tells Ivan and Alyosha that "there are no ugly women. The fact that she is a woman is half the battle."

Smerdyakov, then, the fourth son of Fyodor Karamazov, is the offspring of an idiot and a sensualist — little wonder that he is one of the most disagreeable persons in the novel, resenting even the kindness of his foster parents.

In addition to his introduction of Smerdyakov and the boy's background, Dostoevsky also presents the first lengthy, analytical description of Dmitri. And with this Karamazov son, Dostoevsky elaborates upon one of his favorite themes: the contradictory impulses within a personality. Often this idea is referred to as the "Madonna-Sodom" opposition, meaning that radical and diametrically opposed feelings exist at the same time within a person. Dmitri uses this concept to help explain his position, saying, "I can't endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What's still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna."

Dmitri wallows in his emotional mud and mire but, at the same time, longs to imbue his life with utmost purity. He is especially attracted to purity as represented by the Madonna image but finds himself helplessly trapped in a life of orgies; these he equates with the city of Sodom, destroyed by God because of its corruptness.

He says further that when he sinks "into the vilest degradation," he always reads Schiller's "Hymn to Joy," and "in the very depths of that degradation I begin a hymn of praise. Let me be accursed. Let me be vile and base, only let me kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded. Though I may be following the devil, I am Thy son, O Lord, and I love Thee, and I feel the joy without which the world cannot stand."

The poem Dmitri refers to tells of the Goddess Ceres' visit to earth as she looked for her daughter. She found man instead, "sunk in vilest degradation" and displaying total "loathsomeness." In the chorus of the poem, Schiller suggests a remedy: "if man," he says, "wants to purge his soul from vileness," he must "cling forever to his ancient Mother Earth." It is to this poem that Dmitri's soul is attracted; the poem is his credo as he seeks the good and beautiful as a refuge from his periods of degradation. But Dmitri seems damned; there is no ready haven for him. He finds that "beauty is a terrible and awful thing." Beauty, for Dmitri, is especially trying when it is embodied in a woman; it evokes his most saintly emotions and simultaneously arouses his most sensual desires. He cannot reconcile this polar madness; he feels washed with purity and, at the same time, sloshed with torrents of base and vile emotions; his sanity is shielded by only a single thought: he is not totally dishonorable. And it is for this reason, to prove to Alyosha that he is honorable though at times low and base, that he narrates the story of his relations with Katerina Ivanovna.

He tempted her to his apartment when she was desperate for money. He planned to use her poverty to satisfy his own needs; he failed. A dramatic reversal occurred, and he gave her the money and made not a single demand upon her body.

Dmitri's confusion is compounded by the fact that he knows that his father has offered Grushenka 3,000 rubles for one night of pleasure. He will not allow this to happen. If Grushenka ever accepts the invitation, for whatever reason, Dmitri tells Alyosha that he is forever doomed because he cannot accept the "leavings" from his father. If she does come to the old man, Dmitri warns his brother, he will be forced to kill their father. In fact, he confides, he hates old Karamazov so much that he is afraid "he will suddenly become so loathsome to me" that he will provoke his own murder. Such statements naturally forewarn us that Dmitri is ripe for murder. He is sensually frustrated, financially troubled, and romantically threatened; all these, coupled with his explosive nature, are ample reasons for us to realize that Dmitri is indeed capable of spilling his father's blood.

Throughout Dmitri's narration and throughout many other scenes of this type, Alyosha functions as a so-called father confessor figure. Dmitri is only one of many characters who will confess to Alyosha. His dress, his priest-like attitude, and his willingness to listen without condemnation make him an ideal person to receive such confidence. But he is much more than a Dostoevskian device for the reader. His personality evokes confession. He has an intense need to listen and learn and understand mankind, and it is this that matches the other characters' powerful urge to talk, to confess, and to be understood.

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