Here are some questions to consider before you read each book of Brothers Karamazov. These questions are designed to make you aware of key issues so that you can keep them in mind as you read.
Note that these are just a few of the questions that will arise in your reading. Be sure to keep track of questions of your own.
The entire point of the author’s note seems to be to declare that Alexei is the hero of the book. Such a pointed declaration raises several questions:
- Why do we need to be told who the hero is? Is Alexei really such an ineffective hero that he needs to be identified?
- Might there be other candidates for hero of the book? Who? Why?
- What is a hero, according to Dostoevsky’s view?
Book One introduces the main characters in this nice little family. Consider:
- Who are the characters in this family and what do they represent?
- On the very first page of Chapter One, Dostoevsky talks about role-playing. This idea will recur throughout the novel. Why is it important?
- Note that Dostoevsky includes Father Zosima as a member of this nice little family. Why?
- Pay attention to passages about shame and love. These will resonate throughout the book.
- Consider the discussions of crime. Most important is Ivan’s declaration that if there is no immortality, then everything is permissible. But there are other, very complicated discussions of the nature of guilt and crime. Note them, too.
- Dostoevsky gives considerable attention in this book to what it means to be a Karamazov. (Dmitri’s speech at the end of “A Confession in Verse” is a good example.) Make sure that you have a solid grasp of what the Russians call “Karamazovshina” (the essence of the Karamazov).
- In the discussion at Fyodor’s house, Dostoevsky will introduce the problem of miracles. He notes that humans need miracles in order to prove the existence of God. This idea will come up in subsequent books; keep track of how Dostoevsky explores it.
In this book, Dostoevsky provides several example of “Strains.”
- In each of the chapters, note the role that pride plays in creating strains.
- Be sure to have a good grasp on the “strain” between Father Zosima’s Christianity and Father Ferapont’s Christianity.
Book Five contains two very important chapters: “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor.”
- In “Rebellion,” Ivan rejects a world built on suffering. He demands a reason for suffering. As you read on in the novel, you’ll want to ask: What is Dostoevsky’s answer to the problem of suffering? How do you respond to that answer?
- In “Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan makes the argument that Christ didn’t really love humankind, and that he proved it by resisting the three temptations in the desert. Try to outline the logic of Ivan’s argument, and note Alexei’s response.
- Zosima’s two important arguments in this chapter are that life is paradise and that we are all guilty for each other. The two arguments are linked. Consider how
- Note how Zosima makes his argument – and consider it in the light of Ivan’s argument in the previous chapter.
- By now you should have noticed that Brothers Karamazov is an intricately structured novel. Any position that is expressed is countered with another position. Moreover, because the novel works in threes (three brothers, three women, and so on) each argument tends to have a counterargument, which sometimes raises yet another argument. Pay attention to how Dostoevsky crafts his arguments so that they resonate in different characters and situations throughout the book.
- Consider the crisis of faith that Alyosha experiences in the chapter. What brings his crisis? What resolves it? How does this crisis reflect the other crises in the novel?
- Before the novel’s end, each of the brothers will have an important, character-defining dream. Alyosha has his in Book Seven. What is the message/significance of his dream? Compare it later to the dreams of Dmitri and Ivan.
- Dmitri’s story in Book Eight in some ways resembles Zosima’s story of how he became a monk. What does Dostoevsky intend in this similarity? (Again, pay attention to how themes resonate and replay themselves throughout the novel.)
- Who do you think is guilty of Fyodor’s murder? In forming your answer, consider fully Dostoevsky’s position on guilt and crime.
- In this book, Dmitri swings from being damned, to being saved, and back again. Observe this process closely.
- Also in this book is Dmitri’s dream. Consider the dream’s meaning/significance.
- Why does Dostoevsky turn his attention from the drama of the murder story to this story about the children?
- What themes does this book share with the rest of the novel?
- You’ll want to note that Kolya’s opinions are those of the liberal press in Dostoevsky’s time. Try to define the ideas that Dostoevsky is lampooning. Why does he attack these ideas?
- In this book, everyone is tormented by a demon. Consider each character in turn: Grushenka, Lise, Alyosha, Dmitri, Katya, Smerdyakov, and Ivan. Define the particular demons that torment them. Do you see patterns? What larger point is Dostoevsky arguing?
- In this chapter, Ivan has his dream. What is its meaning/significance?
- Consider Smerdyakov. What role does he ultimately play in the novel?
- Reconsider an earlier question: Who is guilty for Fyodor’s murder?
- Just like in modern courtrooms, the lawyers argue the individual case by pointing to larger cultural issues. What issues does Dostovsky raise? What portrait is he painting of 19th century Russian culture?
- Who and what are on trial?
- In the epilogue, Alyosha delivers the book’s final message. What is the message? Is it a satisfying message? Does it answer all the questions that Dostoevsky raises in the book? Why or why not?
- Do you agree with Dostoevsky’s declaration in the Author’s note: that Alyosha is the hero of the novel? If not, who is the hero of the novel? Why?