This is the second part of the summary & analysis of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This book is commemorated as one of the greatest novels ever written. It weaves together psychology, spirituality, and sociology to find answers to our greatest questions: the meaning of life, what is the truth, morality, God, and atheism.
See the homepage for The Brothers Karamazov Part 1: The Disposition of our souls
One evening, Fyodor is found dead at his home. His skull is smashed to pieces. Next to him lies an opened envelope - a sign of stolen money. Shortly after, Dmitri is seen in a bar with a bloodstained shirt and a load of cash. He is terribly erratic. He buys champagne and expensive foods, loads them on a carriage, and rushes to impress Grushenka with his sudden wealth. Grushenka is engaged to a Polish noble, so Dmitri yearns to win her back. Yet, on the way there, a dark emptiness grips his soul, and he contemplates suicide.
As he arrives, Grushenka and her fiancée are having a dinner party, which Dmitri decides to join along with a band of musicians and tens of liters of expensive wines. The party becomes an orgy of alcohol, gambling, gluttony, and wild dancing. But amid the festivities, Dmitri is weighed down by a sense of fatal meaninglessness. He is very depressed, until Grushenka, in a drunken haze, suddenly declares that she loves him wholeheartedly and wants to elope with him. This electric séance is nevertheless cut short when police officers abruptly enter and arrest Dmitri. He is charged with murder.
Dmitri is interrogated for hours but denies profusely that he has murdered. He admits to being a scoundrel, yes, but never a murderer. But then, how did he suddenly get so much money? Dmitri refuses to say, claiming it is too personal. But it is so overwhelmingly obvious that he is guilty: he threatened to kill his father many times; he had a clear motif (steal his inheritance money and remove his rival for Grushenka’s love); he suddenly obtained thousands of roubles when the same amount is missing from Fyodor's house; he was seen covered in blood right after the murder. Dmitri was also seen running away from the house that night. Grigory, the housekeeper (and Dmitri's foster father), ran after him, but Dmitri turned and smashed his head so he fell unconscious. Dmitri admitted to having struck Grigory, but was jubilant when hearing Grigory was alive! For hours, he feared the blow had killed him. Indeed, he confessed all his past stupidity but vehemently denied having killed his father.
News of this incident spreads across Russia. Everyone agrees that Dmitri – the scandalous, impulsive buffoon – did it. Except for Alyosha. Alyosha is adamant that he is innocent but fails to argue convincingly. Ivan believes Dmitri is guilty, but is fine with it, and plans to help him escape from prison. Grushenka pleads for Dmitri’s release, and Katerina sees an opportunity for vengeance.
If he didn’t kill Fyodor, who could? The interrogators consider Smerdyakov, who was also at the house that night. But Dmitri instantly rejects this theory. Smerdyakov is too weak to murder, he says. In a strange way, his refusal to blame his brother is an honorable act, and it implies that he tells the truth. Any murderer would blame someone else to divert attention. But not Dmitri.
The Burden of Responsibility
Smerdyakov had an epileptic seizure on the night of the murder and was taken to the hospital. Ivan Karamazov decides to go check on him. Their encounter is strange. Smerdyakov seems haunted. As they discuss the murder, Smerdyakov viciously accuses Ivan of wanting Fyodor dead to inherit his money. This accusation unsettles Ivan. He denies it, but still senses a bizarre feeling of guilt as if he was complicit.
This prompts Ivan to investigate the case. He visits Katerina Ivanova, Dmitri’s fiancée. Katerina shows him a recent letter where a drunk Dmitri wrote that he would kill his father, if necessary, to obtain the 3,000 roubles he owed her. This re-assures Ivan that Dmitri is guilty and that he had nothing to do with it.
But Ivan still feels a strange, guilty bite in his heart. He, therefore, becomes obsessed with convincing Smerdyakov, his accuser, of his innocence. Encouraged by new proof, Ivan returns to Smerdyakov’s hospital bed. But this time, Smerdyakov is brutally honest: he reveals that he killed Fyodor himself, but only because of the nihilistic ideas Ivan once taught him.
Some days before the murder, Smerdyakov had approached Ivan to ask him about his intelligent ideas. All his life, he adorned Ivan. While he was the stupid one, Ivan was smart. While he was unsuccessful and bullied by everyone, Ivan was prolific and respected. Smerdyakov was Fyodor’s humiliated servant, while Ivan was a free man.
At the time, Ivan was murderously irritated for having to talk to such a “stupid fool" as Smerdyakov, but he reluctantly began explaining his ideas to “the idiot”, delivering them with hostile animation. Ivan said that since there is no God, everything is permitted. Morality is a human construct. And every man is an individual actor with no shared responsibility for anyone or anything. He said, by example, that killing Fyodor would bestow a lot of inheritance money on the sons – so why not do it?
Smerdyakov took his words to heart. He listened attentively with stellar eyes. “It is always interesting to talk with an intelligent man,” he boasted in admiration. Ivan, meanwhile, reeked of contempt for him.
Now, by the hospital bed, Smerdyakov reeked of contempt for both Ivan and life itself. He revealed: “…It was true what you taught me…because there is no infinite God, then there is no virtue either, and no need of it at all. It was true. That’s how I reasoned.” He even stole the missing 3,000 roubles and showed Ivan the cash. But Smerdyakov was an empty shell, devoid of any life and joy. He probably felt fooled by Ivan’s false promises. Ivan promised a world where all is possible, and guilt doesn’t exist. Smerdyakov took the bait and is now experiencing a soul-crushing emptiness and a pang of hellish guilt. More profoundly, Smerdyakov had one love: his brother Ivan. But when he experienced the lie Ivan had told him, he felt betrayed, and ceased to hope.
Hearing this, Ivan Karamazov begins to experience the terrible, haunting, dreadful, tormenting realization that there exists a moral conscience. He realizes that his theories had encouraged Smerdyakov, a man of no self-respect, to murder. He understands his complicity. And with it, he understands the overwhelming complicity he has for everyone and everything.
He sees how his own behavior has led to chain reactions causing enormous suffering for others. He understands the blame is on him alone. And this feeling crushes him. This feeling proves to him that there is such a thing as objective truth, and so, objective morality. Anxiety surges in his heart.
Ivan retreats to a dark cabin, where he is visited by the devil. The devil wears fashionable clothes, boasts of his education in Paris, and has sophisticated speech. It appears the devil is in the image and likeness of Ivan himself! And the devil bullies him throughout the night. How can he, Ivan the rationalist, believe he is talking to the devil? At daybreak, Alyosha arrives, and the devil vanishes. But Alyosha brings terrible news: Smerdyakov just committed suicide. This is the final straw for Ivan’s heart. He descends into madness.
The Final Verdict
Were there good reasons to kill Fyodor? Sure. He was detestable. He stirred pain, shame, and anger among others. He was abusive, manipulative, and selfish. He was the evil one, so to speak. So, if you killed him, the evil one, then the world would surely become a better place, right? A little less evil in existence.
But as we have seen, the murder did not diminish evil but amplified it. It led to a traumatic hurricane in Dmitri’s heart. It drove Ivan into madness. It tormented Smerdyakov into suicide. It became Grushenka’s heartbreak and Katerina’s tragedy. Great suffering was unleashed.
Evil is not isolated to one person, group, or class. It exists within us all. If we truly want to rid the world of evil, we must crucify the evil that exists within us. But, as the Russian philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked, who wants to kill a part of themselves?
Dmitri was brought to the civil court, where top lawyers from all over Russia has arrived to participate. The jury, however, consists of random peasants who have no understanding of legal matters.
The case starts horribly for Dmitri. The attorney convinces the audience that he is guilty, presenting all the proof needed to convict him. But suddenly, Ivan storms in. Weeping and shouting, he rambles on that Smerdyakov killed Fyodor, and that he himself is complicit also. The devil, whom he admits visits him every night, can confirm that he is speaking the truth. As proof, he presents the missing 3,000 roubles obtained from Smerdyakov, before he is escorted away by the guards.
No one believes Ivan. Everyone agrees he has lost his mind. Yet, this is a spectacular moment. In front of Russia’s most prestigious lawyers and journalists, Ivan humiliated himself in service of the truth. Ivan the atheist admits to speaking with the devil; Ivan the rationalist would rather die than see his brother convicted unjustly. At that very moment, Ivan chose to crucify his own ego in the name of love and truth. All of Ivan’s sufferings suddenly became meaningful: for they led him to this heroic moment.
After this, the court case begins to swing in Dimitri's favor. Katerina Ivanova quells her vindictiveness and pleads for Dimitri's innocence. Then Grushenka does the same. Alyosha testifies in his defense and even brings important information in his favor.
Lastly, Dmitri’s evincing lawyer begins a brilliant defense speech. His argumentation is flawless, showing that while Dmitri appears guilty, there is no definite proof. We first made him the scapegoat, and then associated each clue exclusively with him, exposing our own bias and hypocrisy. The lawyer ties together sociology and philosophy, with charismatic delivery and emotive language, swaying the entire audience in Dimitri’s defense. By the end of the trial, everyone agrees Dmitri is innocent and looks forward to his release!
But the peasants of the jury are clueless about philosophy and sociology. After a brief discussion, they announce their decision: Guilty. Dmitri is sentenced to 20 years in forced labor camps.
“There is only one way to salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men's sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things.”
– Elder Zosimas
Alyosha rushes to visit Dmitri in jail and encourages him. As he arrives, Rakitin, the bitter God-denying monk, storms out of Dmitri’s cell. Dmitri greets Alyosha with gladness. He is condemned for a crime he did not commit, yet he is full of life and hope. Dmitri explains:
“Brother, in these past two months I’ve sensed a new man in me, a new man has arisen in me! He was shut up inside me, but if it weren’t for this thunderbolt, he never would have appeared. Frightening! What do I care if I spend twenty years pounding out iron ore in the mines, I’m not afraid of that at all, but I’m afraid of something else now: that this risen man not depart from me! Even there, in the mines, underground, you can find a human heart in the convict and murderer standing next to you, and you can be close to him, because there, too, it’s possible to live, and love, and suffer! You can revive and resurrect the frozen heart in this convict, you can look after him for years, and finally bring up from the cave into the light a soul that is lofty now, a suffering consciousness. You can revive an angel, resurrect a hero! And there are many of them, there are hundreds, and we’re all guilty for them! Why did I have a dream about a ‘wee one’ [a suffering, innocent child] at such a moment? ‘Why is the wee one poor?’ It was a prophecy to me at that moment! It’s for the ‘wee one’ that I will go. Because everyone is guilty for everyone else. For all the ‘wee ones,’ because there are little children and big children. All people are ‘wee ones.’ And I’ll go for all of them, because there must be someone who will go for all of them. I didn’t kill father, but I must go. I accept! All of this came to me here . . . Within these peeling walls. And there are many, there are hundreds of them, underground, with hammers in their hands. Oh, yes, we’ll be in chains, and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great grief, we will arise once more into joy, without which it’s not possible for man to live, or for God to be, for God gives joy, it’s his prerogative, a great one…”
Dmitri experiences a spiritual rebirth (“a new man has arisen in me!”) that is so blissful that the fear of losing this state of grace exceeds the fear of physical suffering. This “new man” is not foreign to Dmitri’s soul. On the contrary, it is his intended abode, for this “new man” was always “shut up inside” him. All he needed was the “thunderbolt” – the life-changing horrors relating to Fyodor’s death - to make him understand and accept the ultimate, absolute truth: that each one of us is complicit in the sufferings of mankind.
Every act, word, or even thought, weaves into the fabric of reality and impacts those around us, shaping the world we live in. This is the price of being human, of having free will. And it is a very hard truth to face, precisely because we know deep down our moral failings.
When facing this hard truth, you may choose Despair. That is, to become bitter about life itself. You resent the Moral Law (i.e, God, the truth) for asking a moral standard you fail to attain. You seek distractions in the form of cheap entertainment or constant busyness to keep your mind off the Truth. And when these temporary amusements dry up, and hardships of life persist, you blame God for everything, even for your own existence.
This poisons your soul because resenting God means to resent the source of Goodness. And by resenting Goodness, you slowly dismantle your ability to heal. Resenting God also places your own self at the center of Being, further driving your selfishness. There is no room left in your heart to love others. This entrenches you in hell. It leads to destruction.
Smerdyakov took this path. He could have decided to testify in court, which would have undoubtedly saved his brother Dmitri. But instead, his heart swelled with self-pity. Having no love, he chose despair and mockery. Feeling betrayed by Ivan, he smeared pain onto him by the hospital bed, before killing himself.
What truly killed Smerdyakov was not his remorseful struggle, but his hopelessness. He thought that denying the existence of God would somehow alleviate the suffering, but it was the exact opposite: it made the suffering impossible to bear. A struggle with no hope is meaningless to continue. We need the hope of (objective) Good – embodied in Christ – to not only bear the suffering but to make it worthwhile to do so.
Ivan initially suffered without hope, as he attempted to bear the burden of moral responsibility without faith in God. He was in hell – suffering for no good purpose. The devil bullied him for it. But Ivan was not completely lost. He had self-respect. And with that self-respect, he chose to selflessly love Dmitri. He sacrificed his life in court for his brother and in service of the truth. Even though he failed to save Dmitri, this noble act redeemed him. It resurrected the light of faith that lay buried deep within him. He sacrificed the lies of who he wanted to be for the truth of who he really was. This self-denial became Ivan’s “onion” – the good deed, however small or ridiculed – that rescued him out of hell.
Then there was Dmitri. While Ivan had tried denying morality altogether, Dmitri had tried molding his own standard of morality to justify his self-image and personal ambitions. Evil, to him, was to be a murderer. Other sins admittedly existed, but as long as he did not murder, he could stride through life with his pride intact. Hence his repeated insistence: I am a scoundrel, but not a murderer!
The nightmare of thinking he had killed Grigory therefore almost drove him to self-destruction because he thought he had broken his own, fabricated morality! Thus, Grigory’s fortunate survival gave him a second chance at assessing himself. And when seeing his inability to save himself even from his own standards, he finally abandoned the pursuit of being morally self-reliant.
Dmitri never lost sight of Christ, he just kept failing to follow him. He locked Christ deep in the chambers of his heart, but then, in the prison cell, he finally unlocked the door. Dmitri accepted the full truth of who he was, and in humility, surrendered himself over to the One who can truly heal us. By “leaving the door open”, he made his heart receptible to Divine Love - a love that overflows in our hearts as an existential love for everyone and everything, as Dmitri boasts. He deposited all his pride in a self-sacrificial surrender to Christ. Through Christ, his suffering is then transformed into immense joy.
The very man who once exclaimed profusely: I am a scoundrel, but never a murderer!, now freely accepts his condemnation as a murderer with joy and rushes to join other murderers in the mines and to love them. This stunning, beaming love is, to Dmitri, an intimate experience that triumphantly reveals God’s existence: “Oh, yes, we’ll be in chains, and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great grief, we will arise once more into joy, without which it’s not possible for man to live, or for God to be, for God gives joy.”
Perhaps Ivan was correct in saying that only very few of us will become Christlike. But if the rest of us simply embrace the truth about who we are, deeply, in our soul, weep over it, and then decide to live our lives anchored in truth, the dreadful and complete truth, with faith and hope in Christ, then the Kingdom of Heaven may begin to grow inside us, such that we can bear our burdens (“crosses”) with tears of joy. We may begin to love everyone and everything, so dearly and sincerely that the joys of heaven are sown in new souls. Perhaps that’s Heaven. And this is a joy that would be denied if Christ acted like the Grand Inquisitor would want him to.
This is the power of Christianity. It is transformative. The cross, an instrument of torture and shame, was transformed by Christ to become a symbol of love and life. Similarly, all the guilt, pain, hurt, and shame we experience in life can be transformed through Christ into unimaginable love, joy, and light. Through Christ, your cross becomes your path to Paradise.
Hurrah for Karamazov!
After Alyosha’s visit to Dmitri, he attends a funeral of a local schoolboy who died of disease. Then, he goes for a walk with the children and speaks lovingly to them. Alyosha urges the boys to cherish the sweet, loving moments of life, and never forget them, nor forget their deceased friend. He tells them to keep their friend eternally in their memory – Memory Eternal, he exclaims!
Interestingly, these schoolboys began the story by using the family name Karamazov as a pejorative slur. A Karamazov was a liar, buffoon, and hypocrite. But by the end of the story, the schoolboys express their profound love for the grace-filled Alyosha. In a jubilant expression of joy and love, they celebrate Alyosha and praise him, singing “Hurrah for Karamazov! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Thus, the family name is redeemed through faith, love, and humility. It is now defined by the wonderful courageous acts of the Brothers Karamazov. It is now a name related to redemption. To hope.