It has a murder mystery, two love triangles and the story of a fractious family but none of that conveys the depth, power and thoughtfulness of this novel. The Brothers Karamazov is a masterful examination of free will, truth and personal responsibility.
Fyodor Karamazov has three sons, one, Dmitri, by his first wife and two more, Ivan and Alexei, by his second. Rumour has it that he also fathered an illegitimate fourth son, Smerdyakov, who now works as his servant. Dmitri is a reckless, drunken womaniser like his father. Ivan is a rationalist drawn to atheism by the suffering in the world. Alexei is an idealist, a novice monk and a passionate believer in the goodness of people.
Fyodor and Dmitri are in love with the same woman, Grushenka, a temptress who is not well thought of by the villagers. Adding to the tension between father and son is Dmitri's insistence that Fyodor owes him money. Dmitri has deserted his fiance, Katerina, to pursue Grushenka and, to complicate the story further, Ivan has fallen in love with Katerina.
When Fyodor is murdered, halfway through the novel, all the evidence points to Dmitri, though both his brothers believe him to be innocent. The second half of the novel is the build-up to Dmitri's trial.
It's a long book - 800 pages - and Dostoevsky takes his time setting out the story. For a while it seems that each new character will get a chapter detailing their life so far, which slows the pace of the story down considerably. However, it pays off in the end. Even the seeming digressions, for example the long section devoted to the life and reminiscences of Zosima, Alexei's elder, prove ultimately to be thematically relevant to the whole.
It was one such digression that, for me, was the highlight of the book. The Grand Inquisitor, the 'poem' Ivan relates to Alexei to explain his religious doubt, is so strong that it has been published as a stand-alone piece of philosophy. In it, Jesus returns to Spain in the time of the Inquisition and is arrested. The Grand Inquisitor tells him that he has hindered the work of the Church by offering mankind free will when all people want is to be looked after and kept secure. As a threat to the Church's control, he will have to be killed.
It could be removed from the novel without any damage to the narrative and yet it, along with the life of Zosima mentioned above, is in fact the heart of the novel. I suppose that could be seen as a weakness. It's certainly odd for a major part of a novel to be thematically essential but irrelevant to the narrative and yet Dostoevsky gets away with it. It fits with the sedate pace and the sprawling vision of the novel.
The unnamed narrator is happy to spell out his prejudices and frequently offers accounts of events that he did not witness. This drifting between omniscience and subjectivity could also be seen as a flaw in the novel but in fact helps to raise questions about the nature of truth, another of Dostoevsky's themes.
It's difficult to praise this novel highly enough. It's a simple and engaging story examined in the deepest and most profound way. I'd recommend it to all.