Questions for Writing about Brothers Karamazov
The following writing questions were generated by students in Professor Gocsik’s English 2-3 class over the years. Please note that the following questions are designed to prompt you towards your paper topic. You should NOT try in your paper to answer any of these questions completely; they are far too broadly conceived. Instead, pick an aspect of one of these questions and use it to guide your paper’s thesis and structure. Good luck.
- In his author’s note, Dostoevsky tells us that Alyosha is the hero of the book. This declaration sparks some interesting questions. For example, why does Dostoevsky feel compelled to make this sort of announcement? Is it really, as he claims, that Alyosha has not quite come into his role as hero, but is really a hero-in-training? Or is it that Dostoevsky wants to raise the question “What makes a hero?” in his reader’s mind? The question, “Who is the hero of the book?” is intriguing. If you decide to take this question on, you will first have to define the idea of “hero” as Dostoevsky understands it. Does Dostoevsky use the word “hero” in the classical sense? In the Christian sense? In the epic sense? Once you have this definition in mind, your paper might take many turns, including a consideration of who best fits the criteria for hero; why Alyosha is or is not the hero; and so on. You can also think about how a misunderstood notion of heroism plays itself out in the novel in destructive ways: consider, for example, how Ivan is a hero to Smerdyakov; how Kolya is a hero to Ilyusha; and so on.
- Many readers are interested in the idea “Everyone is guilty for all.” If this idea intrigues you, you might want to explore its implications. You may wish to take a practical look at the book, showing how everyone is responsible for a particular event: Fyodor’s death, Ilyusha’s death, even Smerdyakov’s death. Or you may investigate how this idea interacts with other ideas in the book. For example, how does the idea of shared guilt relate to the notion of Christian love? How does the idea of shared guilt answer Ivan’s rebellion and his feelings about suffering? In what ways does it confront the idea that “If there is no immortality, then everything is permissible?” (Don’t feel that you need to consider ALL the ideas in the book. An in-depth look at one will do.)
- One of the most important themes in Brothers Karamazov is the nature and the role of suffering. You might write a paper in which you explore Dostoevsky’s debate concerning the value of suffering. To give your paper broader context, look to other Christian doctrines on suffering. Consider what the church has said over the years about the role of suffering in the Christian world, and examine how Dostoevsky’s ideas fit into that ongoing debate.
- The novel begins with the book, “A Nice Little Family.” Of course, the Karamazov family is not nice at all. But what is the root of their problem? And why does Dostoevsky find them so interesting? Is he making some larger point about families? About the state of Russia? If so, then what? You’ll also want to note that Dostoevsky includes Zosima in his “nice little family,” raising questions about who is, or is not, an “authentic father.” We might also ask who is, or is not, an authentic brother, or an authentic son. These questions, raised in Book One, resonate throughout the novel, but are explored extensively during Dmitri’s trial. Trace the idea, and then try to articulate what larger point Dostoevsky is trying to make. Remember: Dostoevsky preceded Freud – who in fact wrote a commentary on Brothers Karamazov. So don’t make the mistake of contributing Dostoevksy’s parricide to Freudian notions about the Oedipus Complex.
- As early in the book as page one (in his reference to the girl who imitates Ophelia), Dostoevsky talks about people who are carried away by role-playing. We’ve seen how everyone in the book – even the “wise” characters like Alyosha and Zosima, and children like Kolya and Lise – play roles that distort their true selves. In another book, Demons, Dostoevsky argues that the real demons are the ideas that we attempt to live by, for those ideas distort us, leading us to lose our humanity. Consider the various roles that are being played in Brothers Karamazov. Why are these roles dangerous? How do they contribute to the book’s tragedy? And how do these roles illustrate the truth in Zosima’s advice, “not to lie – for that is the start of everything?”
- What does it mean to be a Karamazov? What is the essence of “Karamazovshina”? Three brothers claim to be a Karamazov, so it’s important to understand what is meant by the “Karamazov trait.” After all, these three men are very different: one represents the body, one the mind, and one the soul. Does being a Karamazov influence the brothers in the same way? And does the idea of “Karamazov” remain static throughout the book, or does it change? Also, you might consider to what extent the illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, is, or is not, a real Karamazov.
- The women in Brothers Karamazov – Katya, Grusha, Lise (and even Madame K.) – are interesting to consider. Each of the women swings back and forth between one brother and another, trying to determine whom they love. Why? Also, while these women are powerfully interested in matters of suffering and redemption, they don’t seem to be able to overcome their baser instincts – specifically, they seem unable to overcome their jealousy or their pettiness. Could it be that Dostoevsky’s attitude towards women is that they are inferior beings? Could it be that the women are misunderstanding Zosima’s principles about love and suffering, mistakenly applying these ideas to romantic (rather than to spiritual) love? Or is there some other answer?
- Brothers Karamazov is a book of ideas. The novel concerns itself with the eternal questions, organizing itself as a debate between Christian faith and atheistic nihilism (pro and contra). Within this debate, many questions are raised and answered. But which of the book’s many questions is the most important? In other words, which idea is the “hero” of the book? In your paper you might choose one idea as the book’s central idea and argue why that idea is dominant or important. Investigate how this idea has played out in history, or how it was played out in Russia and/or Europe during the nineteenth century.
- In “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan outlines his reasons for disbelieving in God. What are these reasons? Lay them out systematically. Then consider how Ivan’s ideas play out in other chapters. OR compare Ivan’s ideas to those raised in ‘The Life of the Elder Zosima.’ Try to arrange the ideas of both books so that they create a very clear pro and contra. Then show how Dostoevsky answers this debate between Ivan and Zosima via the fates of his characters.
- Ivan is perhaps the most intriguing character in Brothers Karamazov, in that his intelligence is consumed by the unbearable strain between belief and disbelief. This “strain” is illustrated most fully in his conversation with the devil. What is at stake in Ivan’s conversation with the devil? Is the devil real, or is he a creation? Why is this question so important to Ivan? Also consider the devil’s more sympathetic characteristics: he wants to sing Hosanna, but he can’t, for if he does, then history stops, suffering stops, and man loses the beautiful possibility of redemption. In a way, the devil is like the suffering child in Ivan’s rebellion chapter: he is the suffering soul upon which God’s entire system of salvation depends. Do you find the devil sympathetic, or is he indeed sinister? Dostoevsky provides lots of questions to consider here.
- In the novel, each brother has a dream in which he faces his spiritual dilemma and attempts a conversion. Examine each of the three dreams, describing the spiritual crisis that each brother faces. Do the dreams succeed in transforming each of the brothers? How, or how not? Why, or why not?
- Consider the end of the book. Dostoevsky chooses to leave the fate of his characters unresolved. We don’t know if Dmitri will escape, if Ivan will die, if Katya will marry Ivan or follow Dmitri, if Lise will get well and marry Alyosha, and so on. Why does Dostoevsky leave the fate of the characters unresolved? Also, many critics have expressed dissatisfaction with the thematic end of the novel, saying that Alyosha’s final message (that we should all remember some one good thing about childhood) is weak. Do you agree? In other words, does Dostoevsky answer his eternal questions? Some? All? Why, or why not?
- Consider the time and place in which this book is written. What historical events influence the various characters and their fates? Find some aspect of the book that interests you – the Prosecutor’s speech on the fate of Russia, for example – and examine it in the context of Dostoevsky’s times.
- Dostoevsky is clearly interested in crime. All of his major novels – Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Demons — revolve around a crime. Even more specific, they revolve around a murder. Do a little digging in Dostoevsky’s journals and other writings. See if you can determine why he is so interested in crime, and what he is trying to say about the human condition through the crimes in his novel(s).
- Other ideas: If you have a good idea for a paper on Brother Karamazov, please submit it to Professor Gocsik.