The Brothers Karamazov is rife with stories of dysfunction in families. Orphans, absent or negligent fathers, and financial ruin are commonplace. Dostoevsky strongly suggests that the family is the source of moral guidance, and that without said guidance, people are likely to become detriments to society. Thus, Fyodor Pavlovich’s failure to be a good parent is partly to blame for the downfall of his eldest son, Dmitri Fyodorovich, and for the mental breakdown of his middle son, Ivan Fyodorovich. Dostoevsky uses the theme of family to illustrate the need for human belonging; he reveals that when family fails to foster belonging, people are likely seek community elsewhere, with mixed success, or become morally corrupt.
All three of the Karamazov boys learned early in their lives that they could not depend on their father, setting the stage for the entire family’s corruption. All three children, as well as Fyodor’s probable son, Smerdyakov, were raised by Fyodor’s servant, Grigory, and his wife, Marfa Ignatievna. However, Grigory, too, proved inept at raising all four boys. Dostoevsky makes Fyodor Pavlovich emblematic of a problem that the novel establishes with paternity. Fathers are often absent, incompetent, or corrupt, setting their children up for moral abdication.
After Fyodor’s first wife, Adelaida Ivanovna, dies, Fyodor forgets about their son, Dmitri, who goes to live in the servant’s cottage with Grigory. The narrator presents this forgetting, which recurs with Fyodor’s next two sons, Ivan and Alexei Fyodorovich, as a simple act of negligence. Fyodor has no malice toward his sons and doesn’t neglect them out of animosity toward his wives—he simply has no interest in being a father. This results in his boys wearing nothing but dirty undershirts as small children. They grow into men who know little about their father and, as a result of their poor familial connection, they also know little about each other. With this backstory, the author strongly suggests that the family’s corruption is rooted in Fyodor’s indifference and self-indulgence—a pattern of behavior that Dmitri repeats.
Ironically, Fyodor takes more interest in the upbringing of his “lackey,” Smerdyakov, than he does in that of his own sons, but even this uncharacteristic care for another person doesn’t redeem Fyodor. Smerdyakov’s vulnerability, due to his epilepsy, prompts a sympathy in Fyodor that he doesn’t express toward anyone else. When he sees the boy loitering around his bookcase, he gives Smerdyakov the key to the bookcase. When Smerdyakov demonstrates a discernible palate, Fyodor sends him to Moscow to train as a cook. Fyodor’s interest in Smerdyakov’s cultural development could be an attempt to atone for his past negligence. It could also be the result of genuine admiration for Smerdyakov, whose tastes in “clothes, pomade, [and] perfume” resemble his father’s sensuality, while his honesty suggests a higher character. Thus, when it’s discovered that Smerdyakov is Fyodor’s murderer, this truth seems to be a greater betrayal, given Fyodor’s attempts to establish a closeness with Smerdyakov that he never fostered with his legitimate sons.
When fathers aren’t negligent in the novel, they are altogether absent. For instance, the thirteen-year-old prankster Kolya Krasotkin has no father. Unlike the Karamazovs, who seek surrogate families within communities—the military, intellectual circles, and the monastery—Kolya is eager to establish his independence and his manhood. However, his lack of paternity results in the mixed feeling of having both contempt for older male figures and a desire for their guidance. Kolya’s contempt is most visible at school. He antagonizes his instructors, even his world history teacher, Dardanelov, who stands up for Kolya when he gets in trouble with his other teachers. Kolya’s attempt to embarrass Dardanelov with the question of who discovered Troy is not only an attempt to undermine Dardanelov’s authority on the subject but is also a dismissal of his instructor’s wish to befriend and protect him—in other words, it is a rejection of paternal authority.
On the other hand, Kolya eagerly seeks Alexei’s friendship and respect and talks often to Rakitin, from whom he gets his socialist ideas. Kolya likes Alexei because the monk speaks to the boy as though he were an equal. Kolya’s friendship with Alexei strongly suggests a desire to connect with an older man but without anyone trying to establish authority or dominance over him. It seems that Kolya has a desire to repair this missing familial connection but insists on having it without relinquishing his rebellious independence. Kolya’s connection to Alexei is successful, for the monk’s humane values influence him in becoming kinder and letting go of some of his previously defensive behavior. In contrast, Fyodor’s connection to Smerdyakov is evidently unsuccessful, for the “lackey” ends up being the most morally corrupt of all of Fyodor’s sons and the most resentful of Fyodor’s indifference. In the end, the novel strongly suggests that the corrosion of family values results in disobedience or downright depravity. However, the novel concludes with the optimistic prospect that people can be redeemed through friendship, faith in God, and faith in their own inherent goodness.
Family Quotes in The Brothers Karamazov
“You know, with us it’s beating, the birch and the lash, that’s our national way […] I know for certain that there are floggers who get more excited with every stroke, to the point of sensuality, literal sensuality […] I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. A little girl, five years old is hated by her mother and father, ‘most honorable and official people, educated, and well-bred.’ You see, once again I positively maintain that this peculiar quality exists in much of mankind—this love of torturing children, but only children [….] These educated parents subjected the poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises […] they locked her all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to get up and go in the middle of the night […] for that they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement […]”
Oh, we will allow them to sin, too; they are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children for allowing them to sin. We will tell them that every sin will be redeemed if it is committed with our permission; and that we allow them to sin because we love them, and as for the punishment for these sins, very well, we take it upon ourselves [….] And they will have no secrets from us. We will allow them or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children—all depending on their obedience—and they will submit to us gladly and joyfully. The most tormenting secrets of their conscience—all, they will bring to us, and we will decide all things, and they will joyfully believe our decision […] Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in your name, and beyond the grave they will find only death.”
The people are festering with drink and cannot leave off. And what cruelty toward their families, their wives, and even their children, all from drunkenness! […] But God will save Russia, for though the simple man is depraved, and can no longer refrain from rank sin, still he knows that his rank sin is cursed by God and that he does badly in sinning. So our people still believe tirelessly in truth, acknowledge God, weep tenderly. Not so their betters. These, following science, want to make a just order for themselves by reason alone, but without Christ now, not as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, there is no sin. And in their own terms, that is correct: for if you have no God, what crime is there to speak of?
“He ran there, went up to the window […] ‘Grushenka,’ he called, ‘Grushenka, are you here?’ He called her, but he didn’t want to lean out the window, he didn’t want to move away from me […] because he was very afraid of me [….] ‘But there she is,’ I said (I went up to the window and leaned all the way out), ‘there she is in the bushes, smiling to you, see?’ He suddenly believed it, he just started shaking, because he really was very much in love with her, sir, and he leaned all the way out the window. Then I grabbed that same cast-iron paperweight, the one on his desk […] and I swung and hit him from behind on the top of the head with the corner of it.”
“‘The thing is that I am precisely in my right mind...my vile mind, the same as you, and all these m-mugs!’ he suddenly turned to the public. ‘A murdered father, and they pretend to be frightened,’ he growled with fierce contempt. ‘They pull faces to each other. Liars! Everyone wants his father dead. Viper devours viper…If there were no parricide, they’d all get angry and go home in a foul temper…Circuses! ‘Bread and circuses!’ […] Calm yourselves, I’m not mad, I’m simply a murderer! […] I have no witnesses. That dog Smerdyakov won’t send you evidence from the other world…in an envelope. You keep asking for envelopes, as if one wasn’t enough. I have no witnesses…except one, perhaps [….] He’s got a tail, Your Honor, you’d find him inadmissible! Le diable n’existe point!”
“I visited Smerdyakov [….] His health was weak […] but his character, his heart—oh, no, he was not at all such a weak man as the prosecution has made him out to be. I especially did not find any timidity in him [….] As for guilelessness, there was nothing of the sort […] I found a terrible mistrustfulness in him, behind a mask of naivety, and a mind capable of contemplating quite a lot.”
“I gathered some information: he hated his origin, was ashamed of it, and gnashed his teeth when he recalled that he was ‘descended from Stinking Lizaveta.’ He was irreverent towards the servant Grigory and his wife, who had been his childhood benefactors. He cursed Russia and laughed at her. He dreamed of going to France and remaking himself as a Frenchman. He used to talk about it often and said that he only lacked the means to do so. It seems to me that he loved no one but himself, and his respect for himself was peculiarly high [….] Considering himself (and there are facts to support it) the illegitimate son of Fyodor Pavlovich, he might very well detest his position as compared with that of his master’s legitimate children: everything goes to them […] to them all the rights, to them the inheritance, while he is just a cook.”
“He was a nice boy, a kind and brave boy, he felt honor and his father’s bitter offense made him rise up. And so, first of all, let us remember him, gentlemen, all our lives. And even though we may be involved with the most important affairs, achieve distinction or fall into some great misfortune—all the same, let us never forget how good we once felt here, all together, united by such good and kind feelings […] You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home [….] If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life.”