Teaching Brothers Karamazov
Below are some ideas for teaching Brothers Karamazov that we hope you’ll find useful.
- Role-playing and Debate. Brothers Karamazov is a book that lends itself very well to debate. One exercise that is fun for students is to assign them different identities (for example, Ivan and Smerdyakov; Fyodor and Zosima), provide them an appropriate question, and ask them to debate in character. This exercise requires students to master the finer points of Dostoevsky’s arguments and leads to lively class discussion.
- Small Group Questions on “Strains.” One exercise that worked well is to divide the class into small groups of three, assign each one a different chapter of “Strains,” and ask them to define the precise nature of the strain assigned them. Instruct students to find three passages of text that illustrate the strain. Then ask them to consider how that strain related to the book’s larger issues. At the end of the class, reconvene students and have them present their discoveries.
- Final Debate on “Who is the Hero of the Book?” After they’ve finished the novel, divide your class into four groups, each representing one of the four brothers. (You can include Smerdyakov in the exercise.) Ask each group to develop the argument that their brother is indeed the “hero” of the book. Require that each group define “heroism” as Dostoevsky might define it. Then open the matter up to class debate.
- Wrap-up Exercise. Another way of wrapping up the discussion of the novel is to ask students to choose one passage that was especially powerful or meaningful to them. In class, ask each student to read that passage of text and to explain why he or she found it powerful.
Ideas for Writing Assignments
Below are some ideas for creating writing assignments for Brothers Karamazov. You’ll note that many of these assignments require short responses. They are designed to enhance students’ understanding of the novel and to challenge their critical thinking and writing skills. Prompts for longer papers can be found at Ideas for Writing.
- Ivan’s vision of the church as society (Book Two). Julie Kalish asked her students to visit her chat space and to come to a consensus about how Ivan’s understanding of crime in this chapter (i.e., what crime would be if the church were society) rationally leads to his idea that without immortality, everything is permissible. The students were required to write up a single paragraph in response. The chat that led to the final paragraph was exceptional.
- The Grand Inquisitor. Julie Kalish asked her students to write a two-paragraph essay. In the first paragraph, students were to summarize Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor argument. In the second, they were to reread the “So Be It!” chapter in Book Two. Then they were asked to examine the distinction between these two ideas of the church taking over. She required students in this essay to pay attention to the rules for writing a good paragraph. In short, the paragraphs must have good topic sentences and should be well crafted and concise.
- Alyosha the monk. Julie Kalish asked her students the following question: “Why must Alexei leave the monastery? Think about this question from all available angles – not just practical, but philosophical; not just from Alexei’s point of view, but also from Zosima’s. Be sure to take Zosima’s philosophical and religious discussions fully into account, and address his claim that Alexei will suffer much, but find happiness in suffering. When you have thought these issues through, you will want to come up with a single coherent argument to control your whole discussion.”