Hello Readers and Writers. Remember me? I’m not sure where the last weeks went. August rolled in with a wave of busyness—school preparations in the midst of new regulations, kids’ swim lessons, a broken dishwasher and microwave, reading through my new book’s final copy, and all of the other things-and-stuff in the world. But, with the school year starting in 9 days (YIKES!) it’s time to emerge and tackle at least some of my blogging goals.
As you might recall, way back in May (May? Really?!) I shared information about The Brothers Karamazov Read-Along, hosted by talented blogger and photographer, Arti. I’d had a copy of the Brothers K on my shelf for a few years and hadn’t carved out time to read it. Arti’s Read-Along was a great incentive. Participants would read the book and there would be opportunities for discussion of the various parts.
Well. I read it. I even got it done a little early. I managed a little discussion in the group but I’m a bit late with my blog post for one simple reason. I’d planned to just write one blog post on this book, but even after mulling it over for the last month or so, I’ve struggled with distilling all of the themes and plot threads of this book down into one coherent post. And I thought that writing a worth-while reaction to Middlemarch (another Read Along) was challenging…
I’ve come to the conclusion that to do this justice I need to do two posts. Today, I’ll focus on giving a quick sum-up of the characters and situations of the book. If you’re familiar with The Brothers Karamazov this might be superfluous, but if you aren’t it should help the next post (where I’ll focus on Dostoyevsky’s characterizations) make a lot more sense.
Perhaps I should note that, even in this bare-bones sum-up, spoilers are coming. Since the book has been around for 141 years, I hope that you won’t be too upset by them. If you don’t want to know how the story ends, I’d advise stopping now!
The Main Characters
The first character the readers meet in any detail is not one of the brothers, but their father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov —and what a father! In Dostoyevsky’s own words from the first chapter, he’s an “ill-natured buffoon.” Financially well-off thanks to his first marriage, he’s completely wrapped up in himself and satisfying his own pleasures, be it with women, drink, or just going around and annoying people. As his sons didn’t contribute to his pleasure, he’s had little to nothing to do with their upbringing. They largely survived due to his servant Grigory and to relatives and acquaintances who took them on.
Next comes Dmitri, (often called Mitya.) The only child from his father’s first marriage, he wound up in the military where he moved up and down in the ranks as his lack of self-control got him into trouble. He’s particularly bad with money, has built up debt, and is convinced that his father is holding money back from him. This is a major bone of contention between them, as is the fact that they’re both pursing the same woman: Grushenka. To add to the drama, Grushenka is toying with both of them, even though Fyodor Pavlovich is much older than her and Dmitri is already kind-of-sort-of engaged to a young lady named Katerina Ivanova.
Ivan and Alyosha
Ivan and Alyosha are both children of Fyodor Pavlovich’s second marriage to a devout young lady who suffered from mental illness brought on by her terrible treatment in her husband’s house.
Ivan has never liked being indebted to people. He’s made something of a reputation for himself as an intellectual, and has recently come to stay with his father for reasons that are unclear.
Alyosha, (who, the reader is informed, will be the protagonist of the novel) is the youngest and most universally liked of the brothers. He has been living at the local monastary as a student under an esteemed local elder, Father Zosima.
A Fourth Brother?
Finally, in Book III of the first Part of the novel (The novel is divided into four parts of three books each) we meet a fourth brother…maybe. A young woman who was mentally handicapped and non verbal used to live in the same village as Fyodor Pavlovich. She was found to be pregnant, gave birth in Fyodor’s back yard, and died. Though the man who had assaulted her was never identified definitely, it was always rumored that her son, Smerdyakov, is another son of Fyodor Pavlovich.
Smerdyakov was also raised by the servant Grigory and his wife and has stayed on to work for Fyodor Pavlovich, who trusts him implicitly. He seems to particularly like hanging around Ivan, and has taken to Ivan’s philosophy that, if one does not believe in God then “everything is permitted”—in other words, without God, there is no morality.
The Plot (The Very Abridged Version)
As the story begins, Dmitri and his father are going to have a family meeting moderated by Father Zosima to try to settle their issues. In brief, it does not go well, though Father Zosima, whose preaching focuses largely on showing love to others, is very kind about the whole thing. In the end, he does an odd thing, bowing down at Dmitri’s feet. Everyone feels that this portends something—what is still uncertain.
As the story continues, Alyosha visits with all of the primary characters—and some new ones—in hopes of preventing something terrible from happening. We follow interviews between him and Katerina Ivanova, (Dmitri’s fiancée if you recall, who may actually be in love with Ivan though she tries to make sure that Grushenka won’t take Dmitri from her…) his brothers Dmitri and Ivan, and some village boys who’ve started bickering because Dmitri shamed one of their fathers by dragging him into the street by his beard.
Dmitri desperately searches for a way to find money so that he can convince Grushenka to run away with him, while his father offers her 3,000 rubles if she’ll…ahem…come see him some night. In the mean time, Smerdyakov advises Ivan to go away for a little while, hinting that he might just “happen” to have an epileptic fit, and if that happens, Dmitri might just “happen” to do something to Fyodor Pavlovich. Ivan takes his advice, though in the end this course will overwhelm him with guilt.
In the end, in spite of Alyosha’s attempts to keep the peace between people, Fyodor Pavlovich is murdered. Everyone assumes it’s Dmitri’s doing. After all, he was at his father’s house when it happened with a weapon in hand. The money that Fyodor had been keeping for Grushenka disappeared at the same time, and Dmitri had threatened his father’s life for that money.
Dmitri goes to trial. Ivan tries to get him off and to take responsibility after a meeting with Smerdyakov in which the illigitemate brother all but confesses his guilt, but he has brain fever and no one believes him. Katerina Ivanova becomes upset about Ivan’s attempt at self-sacrifice and brings out a letter in which Dmitri said that he would kill his father as further evidence of Dmitri’s guilt. In spite of his defense lawyer pulling out all the stops (citing the circumstantial nature of the evidence as well as Dmitri’s bad upbringing and blaming society) Dmitri is found guilty.
Alyosha’s faith in Dmitri’s innocence is unflagging, and in the end he gives his blessing to a plan to help Dmitri and Grushenka escape to America. The book closes with him returning to visit the village boys who he befriended. The boy whose father Dmitri shamed has died, but Alyosha encourages the surviving boys to remember him, to remember their friendship, and to continue to show love and kindness to each other.
Naturally, there’s a HUGE amount of the story that I haven’t covered here, but at least this gives you a broad idea of the story’s main events. Next time, I’ll try my hand at a bit of analysis.
In the mean time, for some excellent thoughts on the novel I’d recommend checking out Arti’s reflections on the four parts—links on the Read Along’s main page, here.
AND, once I’ve bade The Brothers Karamazov farewell, I have a cover reveal to share with you!
Alright, The Brothers Karamazov fans—what parts did I miss that you thought I ought to include? Did certain characters or events particularly resonate with you?
Thanks for stopping by!