An adequate summary of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is far beyond the scope of this post. There are too many plots, subplots, side plots, twists, and turns, too many characters with a long list of nicknames, and even—I must confess—parts that I, as a 21st-century American and forensic science nerd, simply couldn’t get through. (The fault is mine, not the book’s.) Rather than giving an overview of the whole book, therefore, I want to focus on one of its many themes, presented in a single recurring quote: “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”
Middle brother Ivan Karamazov, an intellectual cleric having a crisis of faith, wrestles with this idea throughout the novel. He discusses his philosophical objections to belief in God and the afterlife with anyone who will listen, primarily with tender-hearted youngest brother Alyosha and the family’s epileptic cook Smerdyakov. Alyosha’s only answer to Ivan is love, with the acknowledgment that some questions can’t be answered by anyone but Jesus. Ivan counters that such a response doesn’t resolve his doubts. And Alyosha, in turn, briefly experiences his own crisis of faith and runs away from his monastery when reality doesn’t meet his expectations—only to be shocked back to faith when he discovers he’s misjudged the town prostitute as well.
Smerdyakov, on the other hand, readily agrees with everything Ivan has to say. He’s not interested in philosophy as an intellectual exercise, however. He sees far more practical applications for Ivan’s thesis. The child of a mentally handicapped woman allegedly raped by patriarch Fyodor Karamazov, Smerdyakov is already notorious for torturing cats and similar bad behavior. But then Ivan leaves town, and eldest brother Dmitri has a violent argument with Fyodor and strikes a servant with a pestle on his way out of the house. Sensing an opportunity, Smerdyakov graduates to murder. Not only does he batter drunken, abusive Fyodor to death, he does so with the pestle Dmitri has left behind and steals the money that was the subject of the argument, effectively framing Dmitri with circumstantial evidence. When Ivan confronts him, Smerdyakov confesses his crimes but argues that Ivan shares the culpability, both for leaving the scene of a murder Ivan suspected might occur and for giving him the moral justification for the act:
If there is no God, everything is permissible.
Smerdyakov then kills himself, not out of remorse or fear of being apprehended as the real murderer, but because he can. And thus the frame is complete.
Already fighting a fever and crippled with guilt over seeing the logical, practical consequences of his philosophy, Ivan suffers a major psychotic break. Alyosha nurses him through the night, but when Ivan finally appears at Dmitri’s trial the next day, he’s so incoherent that even his revelations of the truth are dismissed out of hand. Without another witness to confirm any of what Ivan says, the peasant jury convicts Dmitri, and the judge sentences him to twenty years in Siberia. Ivan has already arranged for Dmitri to escape to America, and he tells Alyosha he could never kill himself; but his repentance has come too late and at the cost of his health and sanity.
In this storyline as in the rest of the novel, Dostoevsky is careful not to give any one character the last word or to present any one perspective as definitively right. Even Ivan’s fate is left ambiguous in the epilogue. Instead, by structuring the book as an interwoven group of dialogues, Dostoevsky leaves topics like this one open for the reader to ponder, allowing each of us to form our own opinions… and grapple with their ramifications.