Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a twice-married “old buffoon” from the town of Skotoprigonyevsk and the patriarch of the Karamazov clan, which includes his three legitimate sons—Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei. Fyodor is also the probable father of his cook and “lackey,” Smerdyakov, due to a brief liaison with the “holy fool” and unwashed itinerant, nicknamed “Stinking Lizaveta.” Marriage and fatherhood didn’t quell Fyodor’s sensual appetites. He frequently conducted orgies in his home, spent much of his time drunk, and forgot about all three of his children, who were left in the care of his servant, Grigory Vasilievich.
The three Karamazov boys take different paths, though all are alike in their determination to distinguish themselves from their father: Dmitri becomes a military man, Ivan is a well-regarded intellectual and journalist, and Alexei enters the monastery and falls under the tutelage of the revered Zosima, the Elder. One day, the Karamazovs visit the monastery. They’re accompanied by Dmitri’s cousin, Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov. Zosima is also routinely visited by women—both peasants and members of the upper-class. Madame Khokhlakov brings her paralyzed daughter, Lise, with the hope that the elder’s blessings will help the girl to walk again. When the Karamazovs arrive, Alexei worries that they’ll embarrass him, and his fears come true. Fyodor plays the buffoon to ingratiate himself with Zosima. This infuriates Miusov, who despises Fyodor anyway, and they quarrel.
The hostility within the family is further revealed when Fyodor exposes how Dmitri abandoned his fiancée, the upper-class Katerina Ivanovna, to take up with a “courtesan” named Grushenka, who is also Fyodor’s love interest. Meanwhile, Alexei’s supposed friend and Ivan’s rival, Mikhail Osipovich Rakitin, believes that Ivan Fyodorovich is trying to steal Katerina away from Dmitri. Katerina is “a beautiful, proud, and imperious girl,” whose pride comes from performing acts of self-sacrifice. She offers herself to Dmitri after her father attempts suicide to escape from having others discover that he embezzled government funds. She tells Dmitri that her sister, Agafya Ivanovna, told her that Dmitri would give Katerina forty-five hundred roubles if she went to him and “offered” herself. Dmitri gives her a bank note for five thousand roubles.
After her father dies, Katerina goes to Moscow, where she’s welcomed into the family of a general’s widow, whose two nieces, her closest heirs, have died. The widow gives Katerina a dowry of eighty thousand roubles. Katerina takes forty-five hundred—the sum that she requested from Dmitri—and sends it along with a letter in which she demands to be his wife. Dmitri explains the matter in a six-page letter to Ivan, who is in Moscow, and asks him to meet with Katerina to explain why he can’t marry her. Dmitri has already gone to Mokroye with Grushenka, using the three thousand roubles that Katerina entrusted to him for Agafya. Katerina knows about Dmitri’s interest in Grushenka and gave him the money as a test of his character, to see if he’d be willing to steal from her to be with another woman.
During his meeting with Katerina in Moscow, Ivan falls in love. Meanwhile, Fyodor Pavlovich has promised three thousand roubles to Grushenka and seals them in an envelope tied, according to Dmitri, with a red ribbon (it is actually a pink ribbon). Fyodor sends Grushenka word of the sum, hoping that it’ll tempt her back to him. Dmitri knows about the money and asks Alexei to go to their father and ask for it. He also requests that Alexei go to Katerina, with or without the three thousand that Dmitri owes her, to tell her that he is “bowing out”—meaning that he’d like to depart from her life with honor. Alexei goes to see Katerina at dusk. Unbeknownst to him, Grushenka is there, too. It seems that the very different women have become friends, due to Grushenka’s promise to give up Dmitri. This turns out to be a lie, which is revealed by Grushenka’s refusal to kiss Katerina’s hand, and her mention of Katerina’s brief act of prostitution. After telling Dmitri about the ensuing clash, Alexei returns to the monastery. He reads a letter from Lise, in which the girl confesses her love for him.
One day, Alexei visits his father, who expresses his refusal to allow Dmitri to have Grushenka. When Alexei leaves, he encounters six schoolboys throwing rocks at one whom they identify as a “scoundrel.” The boy, whose name is Ilyusha, stabbed an older classmate and friend, Kolya Krasotkin, with a penknife. Alexei defends the lone boy, who then turns on him and bites his hand. Ilyusha resents Alexei for being a Karamazov. The boy witnessed Dmitri humiliate his father, Captain Snegiryov, by dragging him out of a tavern by his beard. Dmitri went after Snegiryov in response to the captain going to Grushenka, on Fyodor’s behalf, to ask her to take over Dmitri’s promissory notes. This way, Grushenka could sue Dmitri for his debts and have him locked up, due to his inability to pay.
Alexei then visits the Khokhlakovs, where he tells Lise that he will marry her when he leaves the monastery. Katerina is in the drawing room. She gives Alexei two hundred shining roubles to give to Snegiryov, to compensate the impoverished captain for the assault. Alexei goes to the captain’s house to give him the money and, while there, he officially meets nine-year-old Ilyusha. Alexei soon gets better acquainted with Ivan when they meet at a tavern and discuss the existence of God. Ivan is an atheist who doesn’t think that humanity is capable of unconditional love. To prove his point, he recites to Alexei a poem he wrote called “The Grand Inquisitor.” In the story, God enters the world. He performs miracles and is then imprisoned by an inquisitor who, through interrogation, finds out the true identity of the elderly stranger. The inquisitor releases the stranger and sends him away, assuring him that the people will never accept him if the inquisitor doesn’t want them to. After telling Alexei this story, Ivan says goodbye to his brother, assuming that they won’t see each other again for another six or seven years. Soon thereafter, Smerdyakov warns Ivan about the possibility of Dmitri killing his father over the three thousand roubles that Fyodor promised to Grushenka. He suggests that Ivan not go to Moscow but to Chermashya because it’s closer to home. Fyodor wants Ivan to go there to see if the merchant, Lyagavy, is sincerely interested in buying a woodlot for eleven thousand roubles. The errand is also an excuse to get rid of Ivan while Fyodor awaits Grushenka.
Back at the monastery, Zosima is dying. Alexei enters his cell and listens to the old man’s life story, which he transcribes. Zosima talks about being born of a noble father, and having an older brother named Markel who died when Zosima, then named Zinovy, was still a child. After he insulted a romantic rival and nearly entered a duel, Zosima decided to enter the monastery. After narrating his life story, Zosima dies. His body lies in a coffin in the monastery. Alexei awaits a miracle, while some of the monks gossip about the deceased elder and question the validity of his holy reputation. When the corpse begins to stink, revealing that the elder is a mere mortal, it confirms the others’ skepticism, and Alexei becomes disillusioned. He leaves and encounters Rakitin, who’s both surprised and pleased by Alexei’s sudden loss of faith. He invites the young monk to go with him to see Grushenka. It turns out that she’s promised Rakitin twenty-five roubles to bring Alexei to her so that she can seduce him. This is her revenge against Alexei for averting her gaze in the street. When she finds out about Zosima’s death, she expresses sorrow, which surprises Alexei. He realizes that Grushenka isn’t as bad as he thought. He takes comfort in her sympathy, while she’s relieved to realize that he doesn’t think so ill of her. They agree that they have each offered the other “an onion.” When he returns to the monastery, Alexei dreams that the elder Zosima appears to him. The dream inspires him to leave the monastery and “sojourn in the world,” as Zosima once advised.
Meanwhile, Dmitri is still trying to figure out how to return the three thousand roubles that he owes Katerina. He thinks about suing his father for his land inheritance. Desperate, he offers Grushenka’s “patron,” Samsonov, three thousand roubles to take over his claims on the land. Samsonov advises that Dmitri go to Lyagavy in Sukhoy Possyolok and make him the offer instead. Dmitri makes the trip, but Lyagavy is too drunk to talk business. Finally, Mitya pawns his pistols to Pyotr Ilych Perkhotin and then visits Madame Khokhlakov to borrow three thousand roubles from her. Madame Khokhlakov detests Dmitri and wants Katerina to be rid of him so that she can pursue a relationship with Ivan instead. She suggests that Dmitri can get far more than three thousand by going to work in the mines to prospect for gold. When he again requests the three thousand that he needs now, she says that he doesn’t have it. Furious, he leaves. He then runs into Samsonov’s servant who tells him that Grushenka was just at Fyodor’s house. Dmitri rushes to Grushenka’s residence at the widow Morozov’s house and demands that her maid, Fenya, tell him where Grushenka is. Fenya says she doesn’t know. Before going back out, Dmitri snatches a brass pestle off of the table and rushes to his father’s house.
Grigory awakens, remembering that he didn’t lock the garden gate. He sees that his master’s window is open and someone is running in the dark, toward the fence. Grigory runs after the figure and is hit on the head. Dmitri climbs back into the garden and feels Grigory’s bloody head. He has no time to look after the old man, however, and rushes off to find Grushenka. He returns to the widow Morozov’s house. The head porter tells him that Grushenka left two hours ago for Mokroye, where she’s meeting with the Polish officer to whom she’s supposedly engaged. Dmitri meets again with Perkhotin and asks for the pistols back. Perkhotin sees the blood on Dmitri’s hands and face and suspects that something is wrong. Nonetheless, Perkhotin returns the pistols, and Dmitri goes to Mokroye to see Grushenka for what he thinks will be the last time, because he plans to commit suicide. He arrives at Plastunov’s inn and greets the owner, Trifon Borisovich. There, he finds Grushenka with Pytor Fomich Kalgonov and two panie, or Polish officers. Pan Mussyalovich is Grushenka’s fiancé. Dmitri plays cards with them and loses money, but it’s then discovered that the men have been playing with a marked deck. Dmitri offers Pan Mussyalovich three thousand roubles to disappear—he promises to give five hundred up front and the rest to be delivered in town. Pan Mussyalovich refuses and then leaves Grushenka, declaring her “wanton and shameless” for her involvement with both men. With the panie gone, Dmitri, Grushenka, and Kalgonov get drunk. Dmitri and Grushenka declare their love for each other and pledge to be together. This romantic idyll is disrupted when the police commissioner enters and arrests Dmitri for murdering his father. Around this time, Ilyusha succumbs to consumption. Kolya Krasotkin reunites with him and brings him the gift of a small cannon. Kolya also brings his dog, which he claims is Ilyusha’s old dog, Zhuchka, whom Ilyusha believed had died after he played the mean trick of feeding the dog a piece of bread stuck with a pin—something he learned from Smerdyakov. Kolya also befriends Alexei—the only person Kolya respects because the monk speaks to the thirteen-year-old boy as an equal.
While Dmitri sits in jail, Alexei, Katerina, and Ivan come up with three thousand roubles to get the famous defense attorney, Fetyukovich, to represent him. Ivan, meanwhile, feels guilty for having wanted his father dead. Smerdyakov admits to Ivan that he killed Fyodor. He explains how he did it, revealing that he’s not at all the idiot that people take him to be. Smerdyakov then presents Ivan with the three thousand roubles that he stole. Ivan insists that they go to the prosecutor the next day and confess; however, the next day, Ivan succumbs to “brain fever” and hallucinates a conversation with a gentleman who turns out to be the devil. Alexei later announces that Smerdyakov has hanged himself. Still, Ivan insists on confessing. During Dmitri’s trial, Ivan testifies to Smerdyakov’s guilt. He appears unwell, and everyone in court assumes that he’s merely trying to protect Dmitri. Alexei, too, takes the stand and asserts Dmitri’s innocence. The public is equally unimpressed. Katerina also testifies and talks about how she gave Dmitri the three thousand roubles. She presents the letter that Dmitri wrote in a drunken rage, declaring his plan to kill his father. This is the same letter that Ivan once declared “mathematical proof” of his brother’s guilt, and the public concurs. The prosecutor, Ippolit Kirillovich, and Fetyukovich, deliver their closing statements. Kirillovich uses the Karamazov case as an allegory for Russia’s decline in moral character. Fetyukovich tells a story that denies the existence of the three thousand roubles promised to Grushenka and argues that Fyodor was never a true father to Dmitri. An hour past midnight, the jury leaves to deliberate. They return after an hour and find Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov guilty. Before he fell ill, Ivan prepared for the possibility of Dmitri being convicted. He set aside nearly ten thousand roubles of his inheritance to plan for Dmitri’s escape. He entrusts the money to Katerina, who has moved Ivan in with her so that she can look after him. Dmitri plans to go with Grushenka to the American West. They’ll later return to Russia; he thinks that they would both be too homesick to remain abroad.
After leaving Dmitri’s cell, Alexei goes to Ilyusha’s funeral. The boy died two days after Dmitri’s sentencing. Alexei is late and the pallbearers take the coffin to the church without him. Alexei notices how there’s nearly no odor emanating from Ilyusha’s body. It’s the “miracle” he had expected from Zosima, revealing the truth in his former elder’s belief in the inherent goodness of children. It also confirms Alexei’s belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. Ilyusha’s passing restores Alexei’s faith in the afterlife and encourages Ilyusha’s former schoolmates, particularly Krasotkin, to strive toward kindness and good will.