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The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, exaggerates the extremes of Russia, saying that “[Russians] need continually…two extremes at the same moment, or they are miserable and dissatisfied and their existence is incomplete. They are wide, wide as mother Russia.” In many of his works, Dostoyevsky’s characters represent thoughts and ideas greater then themselves. Set during a period of conflict for the Russian people, Dostoyevsky uses allegorical characters to show the conflicting ideals in his isolated society and in Russia as a whole. The characters’ flaws are magnified by this comparison and are used to show the influence of pride on men, as well as the effects of fate and faith.
Dostoyevsky’s Russia, like the Karamazovs, was rife with extreme thoughts and ideas that were ready to collapse under the strain. Dmitri is strong and powerful, but he is also quick to act and does not consider the effects of his words and actions. Throughout the novel, Dmitri fights his love of two women, and ultimately undergoes a sudden emotional transformation. He quickly moves from extreme hubris to extreme humility; however, it is his hubris that leads to his conviction for his father’s murder. When Dmitri is arrested and put on trial, his lawyer tells the jury that it is better to “acquit ten guilty men then to condemn one innocent one.” Dostoyevsky uses Dmitri as a tool to reflect the conflict in Russia over the proper service of justice and the necessity of the death penalty.
Standing in sharp contrast to Dmitri is Alyosha, who represents the purity and hope of Russia. Alyosha is fair, kind, and willing to make any sacrifice necessary to help those he loves. When Zossima dies and his corpse rots, Alyosha leaves the corruption of the monastery. Alyosha is torn between his absolute faith and his disgust for the elders at the monastery. The religious conflict that Alyosha experiences is a motif that is woven throughout the novel. Each character, in turn, experiences a conflict that makes him reconsider the effects of fate and free will and the necessity of faith. Dostoyevsky says that “so long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship…For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword.” The characters look for someone to worship, and when they find no one, they are destroyed. Alyosha is the only character to regain his faith, and he only finds it because of a child.
The influence of faith and doubt is shown not only in Alyosha, but also in Dmitri. Dmitri has no faith in God, only in fate. Dostoyevsky portrays Dmitri as a man driven to commit crimes and then place blame on fate. Although it is unlikely that Dmitri killed Fyodor since Smerdyakov confesses, he goes to his father’s home with the intention of killing him for money. Dmitri says he understands now that “such men as I need a blow, a blow of destiny to catch them as with a noose…I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I meant to kill him.” Dmitri is a reflection of Russia because of his desperation for money and his willingness to commit any action to get the funds he needs. Grushenka and Katerina, the women who tear Dmitri apart, speak to the contrasting levels in the Russian caste system. Although both women are wealthy, Grushenka is considered part of the lower class, while Katerina is in the upper class. Together, they force Dmitri to make a decision about who he loves, but although he loves Grushenka, he is in debt to Katerina. Dostoyevsky uses Dmitri to reveal the futility of choosing between love and money.
In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan asks what will happen to those people “who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly.” Suffering from the effects of a tyrannical reign and a caste system, Russia became a place of religious doubt, as people began to believe “there is no crime, and therefore no sin, there is only hunger.” Ivan questions God’s existence because he fears for the absolution of the Russian people. In this section, Dostoyevsky also questions the concepts of justice and forgiveness. A child who is murdered can forgive his murderer, but his mother has no right to forgive her child’s killer. “She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will. Let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him!” Dostoyevsky shows that the Russian people can forgive the crimes committed against them, but that they have no right to forgive the crimes committed against others.
When Ivan begins to lose his grip on reality, he comes to believe that he is being visited by Satan. They discuss the effects of the belief in heaven and hell on humanity, and the contrast between heaven and hell. They acknowledge the fact that “nothing human is beyond the possibility of Satan” since “man has created him in his own image and likeness.” Ivan accuses his delusion of doing nothing but repeating his old thoughts and ideas, but Satan says that he does not simply repeat Ivan’s thoughts. “I am not answerable for it [sin]. Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat…So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what’s irrational because I am commanded to…men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy.” Satan is meant to show how every character is his own worst enemy. Accusing him of being the root of all evil is an evasion of the truth: man, like Russia, creates his own hell.
Like Russia, the characters in The Brothers Karamazov are influenced by their desire to experience extremes. They want faith and doubt, hunger and opulence, guilt and innocence, God and Satan. Dostoyevsky creates a nameless town in Russia and tells a story from the perspective of a nameless narrator, thus symbolizing the corruption taking place all across Russia. Dostoyevsky portrays a Russia that is corrupted and confused, but that still holds an element of hope. The characters are held accountable for their crimes, but the conflicts are not entirely resolved and the ending is left open to interpretation and manipulation.
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