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The main characters of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov are, as the title suggests, the members of the Karamazov “family,” if it can indeed be called such. The only things that the members of this family share are a name and the “Karamazov curse,” a legacy of base impulses and voluptuous lust. References to this tendency towards immorality are sprinkled heavily throughout the novel; phrases such as “a brazen brow and a Karamazov conscience,” “voluptuary streak,” and “Karamazovian baseness” abound.
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father of the brothers Karamazov, is the embodiment and the source of this immorality. In him Dostoevsky creates such perversity and depravity that one can feel no positive emotions for the man. His physical appearance--he is “flabby” with “small, suspicious eyes” and a “long, cavernous mouth with puffy lips, behind which could be glimpsed small fragments of black teeth”--accurately reflects his foul, disgusting character. He has no respect for himself; he enjoys playing the part of the shameless “buffoon” for attention, even though the attention he receives is negative. Because he has no respect for himself, he can have no respect for others, either. He has no respect for women, for example; he is a despicable “voluptuary,” and he satisfies his lust at any cost. He drives his wife to madness by bringing “women of ill-repute” into their house right in front of her. Even more shockingly, he rapes a mentally retarded woman, who later dies giving birth to his illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, who grows up as his father’s servant.
Fyodor is even more blatantly disrespectful to his three legitimate children. After his wife’s death, he abandons them, for they “would have been a hindrance to his debaucheries.” He is never a true father to any of them. When his oldest son, Dmitry, becomes an adult, Fyodor is even so cruel as to deny Dmitry his inheritance and instead use the money to seduce Grushenka, with whom his son is in love.
It is Alyosha, the youngest brother, that is most successful in escaping the curse of the Karamazovs. Miraculously, he is almost the complete opposite of his father; he is an easygoing “lover of mankind” whom everyone likes. When the reader first meets Alyosha, he is a young monk of strong faith, a disciple of the Elder Zosima; he is the embodiment of Zosima’s teachings that one must love man unconditionally and not condemn man’s actions. Indeed, Alyosha treats everyone he meets with respect and love, and consequently everyone responds to him in the same way. He tolerates anything without censure, even the “filthy lewdness” of his father. As a result, even his father grows to be “sincerely fond of him.”
Alyosha plays the role of the mediator in the novel. Dostoevsky deliberately creates Alyosha as a static character who undergoes few changes, and, therefore, he is the stable, solid character around whom the conflicts of the novel unfold. He moves in and out of these various conflicts and attempts to ameliorate the existing tensions and solve the problems. And, indeed, the other characters open up to him and trust him because of his refusal to judge them and their actions.
Alyosha is not a Christ figure, however, nor is he a mere “holy fool.” He is, in fact, a “real Karamazov” , and he has more credibility as a mediator because as a Karamazov, he knows and understands the lowest depths of the soul. The ability that he has to understand the depravity inherent in man gives him, and therefore the reader, great insights into the personalities and motives of the other characters. For example, it is Alyosha that guesses that Katerina Ivanovna does not truly love Dmitry, and that she acts out this “false love” only so that she can, out of pride, “observe [her] heroic sacrifice of faithfulness and reproach [Dmitry] for his unfaithfulness.” Dostoevsky uses Alyosha’s insights into the minds of others as a unique way by which to develop his characters.
Ivan, the second youngest of the brothers, is much different from both Fyodor and Alyosha. Ivan is a cold and haughty yet brilliant man incapable of forming lasting relationships with anyone; his intellect is the only thing he values. He rarely talks to
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