When Dmitri is arrested for his father Fyodor Pavlovich’s murder, there appears to be little doubt, even in the reader’s mind, that Dmitri is the likeliest culprit. Dmitri’s resentment of his father’s neglect during his childhood, Fyodor’s withholding of Dmitri’s land inheritance, and their rivalry for Grushenka’s affections all seem to confirm Dmitri’s motives for and guilt in committing parricide (the killing of one’s parent). When Ivan Fyodorovich learns that it is actually the conniving Smerdyakov who killed Fyodor, and that he committed the act knowing that Ivan wished for his incorrigible father’s murder, it complicates the reader’s understanding of innocence and guilt. Meanwhile, the public’s eager condemnation of Dmitri poses the question of whether the truth matters as much as the semblance of guilt. Ultimately, Dostoevsky’s exploration of innocence and guilt in The Brothers Karamazov exposes the baseness of human character, which seems to value finding fault more than seeking justice.
For most people, Dmitri’s moral transgressions make him an ideal murder suspect, setting up the idea that placing blame based on the appearance of guilt is of more interest to the public than ensuring genuine justice plays out. Dmitri’s brother, Ivan Fyodorovich, seems to share this view and makes Dmitri the scapegoat for his own murderous feelings toward their father. Dmitri’s angry letter, in which he exposes his rage toward Fyodor, becomes a convenient excuse to cast for blame at the expense of justice. Dmitri swears to Grushenka that he didn’t kill his father, despite wanting him dead and writing a letter to his fiancée, Katerina Ivanovna, saying as much—a document that Ivan calls “a mathematical proof” that Dmitri killed their father. The public overlooks Dmitri’s drunken anger when writing the letter in favor of pegging him as a vindictive and self-indulgent son. This explanation initially satisfies Ivan and discounts Smerdyakov’s assertion that he committed the murder to satisfy Ivan’s secret wish for his father’s death. Dmitri’s letter takes on “a mathematical significance” that sets Ivan “completely at ease,” in the belief that he’s blameless. The letter serves as physical evidence of Dmitri’s guilt, while Smerdyakov’s story is based on suspicion. The letter, therefore, satisfies Ivan’s preference for proof in explaining events, while it also exonerates him of any possible responsibility for his father’s murder.
Even after Ivan learns the truth about how Smerdyakov carefully planned and committed the murder and tries to present it during his court testimony, the facts of Ivan’s mental illness and the absence of a confession “in [Smerdyakov’s] dying note,” only further the public’s wish to find Dmitri guilty—reflecting the human impulse to place blame rather than pursue genuine justice. To them, Ivan merely seems to be protecting his older brother. It’s assumed that his fraternal bias, as well as his mental fragility, make him a poor witness to his older brother’s true character. More precisely, Ivan is a poor witness due to his own sinful rage toward his father. Knowing this, Ivan develops more sympathy toward Dmitri at the end of the novel. He sees how his eagerness for his brother’s condemnation was unfair and self-serving.
Smerdyakov’s plan rests on the notion that people are more interested in blame than justice. He claims that Ivan wanted someone to kill their father so that he, along with his brothers, would get the nearly forty thousand roubles—if not more—that they each would have inherited as long as their father didn’t marry Grushenka. Smerdyakov also claims that Ivan would’ve been fine with Dmitri committing the murder and getting caught; that way, he and Alexei Fyodorovich only would’ve needed to split the money two ways. Smerdyakov suggests that, like Dmitri, Ivan viewed his father’s wealth as the key to his happiness and comfort, while the man himself was an impediment that Ivan wished to be rid of. Smerdyakov’s accusation of greed leaves “a certain unhealing scratch” on Ivan’s heart. By offering to plan for Dmitri’s escape from prison after his sentencing, and using a portion of his inheritance to arrange for it, Ivan seems to be atoning for his role in facilitating his brother’s imprisonment. The “scratch” is a metaphor for Ivan’s unreasonable impulse to condemn his brother—an instinct that brings him shame, both due to his lack of loyalty toward Dmitri and because this sentiment is so contrary to his intellectual principles.
Dmitri’s arrest and trial for murder do not result in justice for Fyodor’s murder, which doesn’t seem to be of great interest to the public anyway. What seems to matter most is that the person who appears to be guilty gets punished. By exploring the lust to condemn a man who turns out to be innocent, Dostoevsky shows how prejudice can spoil the pursuit for justice. By exposing Ivan’s own wish for his father’s death, the author complicates our understanding of culpability, leading one to wonder if the impulses that can inspire murder—greed and anger—are just as problematic as the act itself.
Innocence and Guilt ThemeTracker
Innocence and Guilt 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 […]”
“My action is set in Spain, in Seville, in the most horrible time of the Inquisition, when fires blazed every day to the glory of God, and ‘In the splendid auto-da-fé / Evil heretics were burnt.’ Oh, of course, this was not that coming in which he will appear, according to his promise, at the end of time, in all his heavenly glory, and which will be sudden ‘as the lightening that shineth out of the east unto the west.’ No, he desired to visit his children if only for a moment, and precisely where the fires of the heretics had begun to crackle. In his infinite mercy, he walked once again among men, in the same human image in which he had walked for three years among men fifteen centuries earlier.”
“In the deep darkness, the iron door of the prison suddenly opens, and the Grand Inquisitor himself slowly enters carrying a lamp. He is alone, the door is immediately locked behind him. He stands in the entrance and for a long time, for a minute or two, gazes into his face. At last he quietly approaches […] ‘Is it you? You?’ […] ‘Why, then, have you come to interfere with us? […] I do not know who you are, and I do not want to know whether it is you, or only his likeness; but tomorrow I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the most evil of heretics, and the very people who today kissed your feet, tomorrow, at a nod from me, will rush to heap the coals up around your stake […]’”
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.”
“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.”
“I am perhaps the only man in all of nature who loves the truth and sincerely desires good. I was there when the Word died on the cross and was ascending into heaven, carrying on his bosom the soul of the thief who was crucified to the right of him, I heard the joyful shrieks of the cherubim singing and shouting ‘Hosannah,’ and the thundering shout of rapture from the seraphim, which made heaven and all creation shake. And, I swear by all that’s holy, I wanted to join the chorus and shout ‘Hosannah’ with everyone else. It was right on my lips, it was already bursting from my breast…you know, I’m very sensitive and artistically susceptible. But common sense—oh, it’s the most unfortunate quality of my nature—kept me within due bounds even then, and I missed the moment!”
“Someone takes all the honor of the good for himself and only leaves me the nasty tricks. But I don’t covet the honor of living as a moocher, I’m not ambitious. Why, of all beings in the world, am I alone condemned to be cursed by all decent people, and even to be kicked with boots [….] There’s a secret here, I know, but they won’t reveal this secret to me for anything, because then, having learned what it’s all about, I might just roar ‘Hosannah,’ and the necessary minus would immediately disappear and sensibleness would set in all over the world [….] No, until the secret is revealed, two truths exist for me: one is theirs, from there, and so far completely unknown to me; the other is mine. And who knows which is preferable…”
“‘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!”
“Gentlemen of the jury,” the prosecutor began, “the present case has resounded throughout Russia. But what, one might think, is so surprising, what is so especially horrifying about it? For us, for us especially? We’re so used to all that! And here is the real horror, that such dark affairs have almost ceased to horrify us! It is this, and not the isolated crime of one individual or another, that should horrify us: that we are so used to it. Where lie the reasons for our indifference, our lukewarm attitude towards such affairs, such signs of the times, which prophesy for us an unenviable future? In our cynicism, in an early exhaustion of mind and imagination in our society, so young and yet so prematurely decrepit? In our moral principles, shattered to their foundations, or, finally, in the fact that we, perhaps, are not even possessed of such moral principles at all?”
“For now we are either horrified or pretend that we are horrified, while, on the contrary, relishing the spectacle, like lovers of strong, eccentric sensations that stir our cynical and lazy idleness, or, finally, like little children waving the frightening ghosts away, and hiding our heads under the pillow until the frightening vision is gone, so as to forget it immediately afterwards in games and merriment. But should not we, too, some day begin to live soberly and thoughtfully; should not we, too, take a look at ourselves as a society; should not we, too, understand at least something of our social duty, or at least begin to understand? A great writer of the previous epoch, in the finale of the greatest of his works, personifying all of Russia as a bold Russian troika galloping towards an unknown goal, exclaims: ‘Ah, troika, bird-troika, who invented you!—and in proud rapture adds that all nations respectfully stand aside for this troika galloping by at breakneck speed.”
“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.”
“This is what I’ve thought up and decided: if I do run away [...] and even to America, I still take heart from the thought that I will not be running to any joy or happiness, but truly to another penal servitude, maybe no better than this one! […] This America, devil take it, I hate it already! So Grusha will be with me, but look at her: is she an American woman? She’s Russian, every little bone of her is Russian, she’ll pine for her native land, and I’ll see all the time that she’s pining away for my sake […] And I, will I be able to stand the local rabble […] I hate this America even now! And maybe every last one of them is some sort of boundless machinist or whatever—but, devil take them, they’re not my people, not of my soul! I love Russia, Alexei, I love the Russian God, though I myself am a scoundrel!”
Thus they prattled to each other, and their talk was frantic, almost senseless, and perhaps also not even truthful, but at that moment everything was truth, and they both utterly believed what they were saying. “Katya,” Mitya suddenly exclaimed, “do you believe I killed him? I know you don’t believe it now, but then…when you were testifying…Did you, did you really believe it!” “I did not believe it then either! I never believed it! I hated you, and suddenly persuaded myself, for that moment…While I was testifying…I persuaded myself and believed it…and as soon as I finished testifying, I stopped believing it again. You must know all that. I forgot that I came here to punish myself!” she said with some suddenly quite new expression, quite like her prattling of love just a moment before.
“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.”