'The Brothers Karamazov' is the story of a wealthy, crazy, Russian family. Well, they're not all crazy, though the father most certainly is. The father, Fyodor Karamazov, is wealthy and something of a fool. In fact, even when he knows better, he can't help but say something foolish. This has alienated him from his sons and many of the townspeople. The rest of the townspeople basically put up with him because he's wealthy.
The sons are all his but they come from two different mothers, with the eldest being a half brother to the others. The eldest is named Dimitri and he is somewhat like his father in that they both act on impulse, rather than reason. Dimitri was a soldier and has already squandered his inheritance. He's also bound up in a web of romances that cause him no end of trouble.
The middle son, Ivan, doesn't get much space in the first half of the novel. He is an intellectual and has written a treatise on the relationship between the church and the state that has many people talking. I say that he doesn't get much space, but the conversation that he has with his little brother is the highpoint of the first half.
The youngest is named Alexi and he is the spiritual one of the bunch. Alexi is a novice at a local monastery and (most likely) the hero of the novel. His brothers look to him for help. He is well respected by the town and has been given a special place by the Elder of the monastery.
This is a very talky novel and excellent because of it. Dostoevsky uses the differing personalities and conflicts to simply talk about the various issues of the time. When Ivan talks about how the state should be like and unlike the church, he's talking about something that was important then, as the idea of a secular government was coming into focus.
One of the most important topics discussed is that of mercy. When Dostoevsky was younger, he had been sentenced to execution by firing squad. The sentence was commuted at the last minute and this (obviously!) had a strong impression on him. He argues for mercy and against harsh penalties.
When Ivan speaks about the state, he argues that it is unduly harsh, both in capital punishment and also in using prison. This cuts a person off from society and only embitters them. The criminal is bound to become worse, not better.
"...all these sentences to exile with hard labor, and formerly with flogging also, reform no one, and what's more, deter hardly a single criminal, and the number of crimes does not diminish but is continually on the increase." ... "If anything does preserve society, even in our time, and does regenerate and transform the criminal, it is only the law of Christ speaking in his conscience. It is only by recognizing his wrong-doing as a son of a Christian society - that is - of the Church - that he recognizes his sin against society - that is, against the Church. So that it is only against the Church and not against the State, that the criminal of today can recognize that he has sinned."I imagine that this passage gave people pause in 1880. It did for me today, in 2014.