Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Brothers Karamazov

  • This summary of The Brothers Karamazov includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The Brothers Karamazov Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Written over a two-year span, The Brothers Karamazov is the hugely influential final novel by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Originally published as a serial in The Russian Messenger between 1879 and 1880, the impassioned philosophical novel set in nineteenth-century Russia entertains ethical debates over God, morality, free will, faith, doubt, judgment, patricide, and reason. Broken into twelve books, the story follows a tragedy that brings the Karamazov family together after being apart for several years. When Fyodor Karamazov’s three estranged sons, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, visit him, various disputes threaten to damage the family even further. In addition to its philosophical musings, the novel is also a murder mystery, a courtroom procedural, and an erotic romance. The Brothers Karamazov, hailed by Sigmund Freud as “the most magnificent novel ever written,” won the admiration of Albert Einstein, Leo Tolstoy, Martin Heidegger, Cormac McCarthy, Albert Camus, and many others.

Narrated from varying perspectives, the story begins around 1865. The Karamazov brothers return to their hometown in Russia after many years being raised far from home by distant relatives as a means of escaping their father Fyodor’s lecherous behavior. Each brother has a different reason for returning home. Dmitri, the impulsive eldest sibling who has a different mother than his brothers, has returned to settle an inheritance dispute. Dmitri’s overly-rational younger brother Ivan has returned to serve as a novice at the local monastery, while the healthy youngest brother, Alyosha, seemingly plans to assist Dmitri. Despite Dmitri’s engagement to Katerina Ivanova, a dispute arises between Fyodor and Dmitri from their romantic rivalry for Grushenka. Dmitri needs money to reimburse Katerina so he can run off with Grushenka guilt-free. The Karamazovs visit the elder Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor, to solve the dispute. When Fyodor causes a scene, problems worsen.

Following the ordeal, Alyosha searches for Dmitri, who is spying on Fyodor from a nearby garden. Dmitri confesses to his passionate tryst with Grushenka and shame over stealing from Katarina. Alyosha returns home to find Ivan, Fyodor, Smerdyakov, and Grigory (servants) in a religious debate. Dmitri storms in and attacks Fyodor. Afterward, Alyosha searches for Katerina, whom he is shocked to find entertaining Grushenka. Grushenka derides Katerina and is kicked out. Alyosha is given a note by Katerina’s maid. Reading it at the monastery, Alyosha learns that Lise Khokhlakov has declared her love for him.

The next morning, Zosima dispatches Alyosha to check on his family. Alyosha visits Fyodor, who is madly paranoid about Dmitri and Ivan. Upon departing for Lise’s residence, Alyosha comes across a gang of school bullies attacking a classmate. Alyosha tries to help, but the boy bites Alyosha’s hand and runs off. Later, Alyosha arrives at Lise’s and proposes marriage. Soon after, Alyosha finds Ivan and Katerina arguing. Ivan leaves, and Katerina gives Alyosha 200 rubles to hand to Captain Snegiryov as recompense for Dmitri’s insults. Alyosha goes to Snegiryov’s abode, where he meets  Ilyusha, the young boy who bit him earlier in the day. Alyosha’s charitable act is proudly rebuked by Captain Snegiryov. Alyosha searches for Dmitri in the garden by Fyodor’s residence. Alyosha is met by Smerdyakov and told Dmitri has left to visit Ivan at the local tavern. Alyosha finds Ivan alone at the tavern; Ivan reveals his religious skepticism in a lengthy poetic screed dubbed “The Grand Inquisitor.” The brothers finish dining and part ways.

The novel shifts to Ivan’s perspective as he returns home. Ivan is agitated by Smerdyakov’s mention of Fyodor’s possible murder. That night, Ivan shamefully checks on Fyodor. The next morning, Ivan bucks his father’s wish of traveling to Chermashnya, going to Moscow instead.

Shifting back to Alyosha’s point of view, the youngest Karamazov brother sits in Zosima’s cell awaiting his mentor’s final moments. Zosima tells his life story and religious lessons to the gathered monks, suddenly falling dead to the floor in the middle of a prayer. The next morning, Zosima’s corpse is put on display, but instead of a grand miracle, his body begins decaying. This delights Zosima’s naysayers. Troubled, Alyosha returns to Grushenka’s. She informs him that her former Polish lover has returned. Thankful he wasn’t seduced by Grushenka, Alyosha returns to Zosima’s wake. With a renewed sense of faith, Alyosha gives a prayer.

The point of view shifts to Dmitri. Dmitri seeks a loan for 3,000 rubles, the same amount he took from Katerina. Kuzma Samsonov and Madame Khokhlakov refuse to loan him money. When Dmitri’s suspicions of Grushenka’s presence are proven false, he believes she must be at Fyodor’s place. When Alyosha arrives, he restrains Dmitri from attacking Fyodor. When Grigory tries to prevent Dmitri’s escape, Alyosha bonks him on the head. Dmitri returns to Grushenka’s, learning she has fled to Mokroye to meet her Polish lover. Dmitri goes to Mokroye. Grushenka rejects her Polish lover, declaring her love for Dmitri. Dmitri is arrested for the murder of Fyodor, sullying the celebration of their romantic union.

Fast-forwarding to Dmitri’s trial many months later, the story shifts focus to Ilyusha Snegiryov and Kolya Krasotkin. Ilyusha fell ill following his incident with Alyosha. Kolya, one of the boys Alyosha encourages to cheer up Ilyusha, gifts Ilyusha with a dog. It is the same dog Ilyusha thought he had killed. Ilyusha is elated by the gift, but a Moscow doctor soon arrives with the news that Ilyusha hasn’t much time left. As Dmitri’s trial gains sensational notoriety, Ivan tries to convince his brother to escape trial. Shortly after, Smerdyakov admits to Ivan that he murdered Fyodor. Ivan returns home and has a hallucinatory vision of the devil in his room. Alyosha suddenly appears, informing Ivan that Smerdyakov has committed suicide.

Dmitri’s trial commences the following morning. Just as eyewitness testimony seems to support Dmitri’s claims, Ivan causes an uproar at the trial. This, in turn, induces Katerina to expose incriminating evidence about Dmitri. After a strong closing argument by his lawyer, Dmitri is ultimately found guilty. The novel concludes days later, as Dmitri considers fleeing to America with Grushenka. Katerina nurses Ivan back to health after he falls ill at the courtroom. Alyosha consorts with friends at Ilyusha’s wake.