The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov


Fyodor Dostoevsky

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on The Brothers Karamazov makes teaching easy.

Morality and Modernization Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Faith vs. Reason Theme Icon
Innocence and Guilt Theme Icon
Jealousy and Envy Theme Icon
Morality and Modernization Theme Icon
Suffering Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Brothers Karamazov, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Morality and Modernization Theme Icon

During Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov’s trial for the murder of his father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the prosecutor, Ippolit Kirillovich, uses the Karamazov clan’s intrigues as a cautionary tale against “modernizing Russia,” which he compares to a troika “galloping by at breakneck speed.” Russia is a nation that is rapidly progressing, but toward what? The country’s abdication of moral sense is, according to the prosecutor, making it “impossible for it to arrive at anything sensible.” Dostoevsky uses Kirillovich’s speech to the jury to argue that Russia’s urge to modernize, or to adopt more Western values, is making it vulnerable to ideas that compromise its moral character and weaken its defenses against corruption.

For Kirillovich, Russian society’s corruption is exemplified by the fact that the horrific case of patricide (the killing of one’s father) isn’t even the worst story of criminality and depravity that has been reported to the public. The prosecutor contends that the Russian people read about “horrors of unbridled will and moral degradation” daily and are indifferent to them. This he takes to be a sign of “some general malaise that has taken root,” due to living in a nation in which, as Ivan Fyodorovich would say, “everything is permitted.” For instance, Kirillovich tells the story of “a brilliant young officer of high society, just setting out on his life and career” who stabs a petty official and the official’s “serving-woman” for money, then puts pillows under the two corpses’ heads. Kirillovich juxtaposes the officer’s expression of warmth—putting pillows under their heads—with the coldness of murdering them to ensure his own advancement. Furthermore, this coldness has no bounds—he kills the petty official, who is of a higher social class, as easily as he kills the “serving-woman,” who is a mere peasant. Though modern Russia has become more egalitarian, the new wave of progressive ideas have not, it seemed, reaffirmed the sanctity of human life.

Kirillovich ironically offers the story of another “young hero” who, “all hung with medals for valor […] kills the mother of his chief and benefactor.” The soldier behaves, according to the prosecutor, “like a robber on the highway.” Again, there is the juxtaposition between an honorable appearance, fostered by centuries of patriotism, and a dishonorable character, which has presumably resulted from prioritizing individual needs over institutional values. While the young men in Ippolit Kirillovich’s concluding remarks are regarded as pillars of Russian society that have fallen to depravity, he uses Smerdyakov to personify the simple Russian soul that is easily corrupted by ideas that he doesn’t understand.

The prosecutor characterizes Smerdyakov as having been “oppressed” by epilepsy, or “the falling sickness”—too weak and helpless to have been capable of premeditating murder, which Dmitri Fyodorovich himself admitted by describing Smerdyakov as cowardly, or “a chicken with falling sickness.” These views reinforce superstitions about people with epilepsy, while it also reinforces an image of Smerdyakov as a helpless member of the peasant class, abused and exploited by wealthier, more cosmopolitan types—in this case, epitomized by the Karamazovs. This juxtaposition of Smerdyakov’s “oppression” with the Karamazovs’ power paints a simplistic yet effective portrait of how those leading the country toward modernity are doing so at the expense of the peasant class. When the jury finds Dmitri guilty of murder, it’s concluded that the “peasants stood up for themselves.” It’s also assumed that Smerdyakov was too mentally weak to handle the ideas to which his probable half-brother, Ivan, exposed him. Kirillovich portrays Smerdyakov as “a feebleminded man with the rudiments of some education” who was “confused” and “frightened by certain modern-day teachings on duty and obligation,” as well as by “the various strange philosophical conversations” that he had with Ivan. These teachings, along with his supposed fear of Dmitri, caused a “highly honest young man by nature” to succumb to guilt for the discord in the Karamazov family. Thus, Smerdyakov becomes symbolic of how modern ideas can create such confusion and chaos within the populace that otherwise simple and gentle people could be spurred to commit immoral acts. The language that Kirillovich uses to describe Smerdyakov’s supposed feelings convey the sense that the “lackey” was a victim of Ivan’s instigation.

Kirillovich uses Dmitri and Smerdyakov’s case histories not only to prove the former’s guilt but also to make a point about the perilous influence of modern, post-Enlightenment ideas in Russian society. The prosecutor believes that ideas which emphasize liberty over responsibility and privilege individual will over institutional obedience have created a society that is morally numb—in this case, no longer shocked by patricide. Kirillovich’s moralizing remarks, which appropriately come from a representative of the state, read like a plea to save Russia from modern intellectuals, like Ivan, whose tolerance permits everything, even the prospect of a nation that will believe in nothing.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Morality and Modernization ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Morality and Modernization appears in each chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire The Brothers Karamazov LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Brothers Karamazov PDF

Morality and Modernization Quotes in The Brothers Karamazov

Below you will find the important quotes in The Brothers Karamazov related to the theme of Morality and Modernization.
Part 1: Book 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

“‘To insects—sensuality!’ I am that very insect, brother, and those words are precisely about me. And all of us Karamazovs are like that, and in you, angel, the same insect lives and stirs up storms in your blood. Storms, because sensuality is a storm, more than a storm! […] Too many riddles oppress man on earth. Solve them if you can without getting your feet wet.”

Related Characters: Lieutenant Dmitri “Mitya” Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov, Agrafena “Grushenka” Alexandrovna Svetlov, Katerina “Katya” Ivanovna Verkhovtsev
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Book 5, Chapter 3 Quotes

“You see, my dear, there was in the eighteenth century an old sinner who stated that if God did not exist, he would have to be invented […] And man has, indeed, invented God. And the strange thing, the wonder is that such a notion—the notion of the necessity of God—could creep into the head of such a wild and wicked animal as man […] As for me, I long ago decided not to think about whether man created God or God created man […] I have a Euclidean mind, an earthly mind, and therefore it is not for us to resolve things that are not of this world […] All such questions are unsuitable to a mind created with a concept of only three dimensions. And so, I accept God […] It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s […] that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.”

Related Characters: Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov
Page Number: 234-235
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Book 5, Chapter 4 Quotes

“In my opinion, Christ’s love for people is in its kind a miracle impossible on earth. True, he was God. But we are not gods. Let’s say that I, for example, am capable of profound suffering, but another man will never be able to know the degree of my suffering, because he is another and not me, and besides, a man is rarely willing to acknowledge someone else as a sufferer […] And why won’t he acknowledge it, do you think? Because I, for example, have a bad smell, or a foolish face, or once stepped on his foot […] Beggars, especially noble beggars, should never show themselves in the street; they should ask for alms through the newspapers. It’s still possible to love one’s neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close.”

Related Characters: Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov
Related Symbols: The Onion
Page Number: 237
Explanation and Analysis:

“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 […]”

Related Characters: Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov
Page Number: 239, 241-242
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Book 5, Chapter 5 Quotes

“Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such miracles and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: ‘Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you—save us from ourselves’ [….] But the flock will gather again, and again submit, and this time once and for all.”

Related Characters: Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov, The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

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.”

Related Characters: Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov, The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Book 6, Chapter 3 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Zosima, the Elder (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov
Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

In Europe, the people are rising up against the rich with force, and popular leaders everywhere are leading them to bloodshed and teaching them that their wrath is righteous [….] Yet the Lord will save Russia, as he has saved her many times before. Salvation will come from the people, from their faith and their humility [….] I have been struck by the true and gracious dignity in our great people […] I can testify to it myself, I have seen it and marveled at it, seen it even in spite of the rank sins and beggarly appearance of our people. They are not servile, and that after two centuries of serfdom. They are free in appearance and manner, yet without any offense. And not vengeful, not envious. “You are noble, you are rich, you are intelligent and talented, very well, God bless you. I honor you, but I know that I, too, am a man [….]”

Related Characters: Zosima, the Elder (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov
Page Number: 315-316
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4: Book 11, Chapter 9 Quotes

“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…”

Related Characters: The Gentleman (speaker), Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov
Page Number: 647-648
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4: Book 12, Chapter 5 Quotes

“‘The thing is that I am precisely in my right 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!

Related Characters: Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov, Lieutenant Dmitri “Mitya” Fyodorovich Karamazov, Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, Katerina “Katya” Ivanovna Verkhovtsev, Fetyukovich, The Presiding Judge
Related Symbols: The Envelope and the Three Thousand Roubles
Page Number: 686-687
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4: Book 12, Chapter 6 Quotes

“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?”

Related Characters: Ippolit Kirillovich (speaker), Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, Lieutenant Dmitri “Mitya” Fyodorovich Karamazov
Page Number: 693
Explanation and Analysis:

“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.”

Related Characters: Ippolit Kirillovich (speaker), Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, Lieutenant Dmitri “Mitya” Fyodorovich Karamazov
Page Number: 695
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue, Chapter 3 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Lieutenant Dmitri “Mitya” Fyodorovich Karamazov, Ilyusha, Nikolai “Kolya” Ivanov Krasotkin, Captain Nikolai Ilyich Snegiryov
Page Number: 774
Explanation and Analysis: