The Age of Guilt: Children and Sin in The Brothers Karamazov

Anne Hruska, Stanford University

One of the single weightiest questions in The Brothers Karamazov is the idea of sin, responsibility and guilt. In one of the novel’s most famous lines, Father Zosima exhorts his listeners to “know, my dears, that each one of us is guilty for all and for everything on earth beyond a doubt.” We all, in other words, bear responsibility for each other and are guilty for each other’s sins – a thought that is both frightening and joyful, since it means that we are guilty and yet (perhaps) will ultimately be forgiven.
But the specifical question of the guilt of children is raised continually, almost obsessively, within the novel. The assertion that “we are all guilty” becomes considerably more complicated when it is extended to children as well. Are children also to be held responsible for the sufferings of the innocent? Are they to be held responsible even for their own cruel and destructive actions? If not, then when do they reach the stage when they are, in fact, held responsible?

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, at the age of seven a child goes from being a mladenets to an otrok. One of the meanings of this distinction is that the mladenets is not considered responsible for his sins, while the otrok is old enough to understand, and thus be responsible for, his own actions. In this, as in many other ways, The Brothers Karamazov is a deeply Russian Orthodox novel that nonetheless challenges some of the ideas and assumptions of nineteenth-century Russian Orthodoxy. Within the novel, the border that divides the sinless from the sinful is constantly being questioned, and in particular the innocence of children is always in doubt.

In this paper I will look at some of the instances of sins committed by children in The Brothers Karamazov. I will examine the ways in which these sins both mirror and are often in part caused by the transgressions of grownups. I will end by discussing the ways in which the question of the innocence and guilt of children in the novel lies at the heart of conflicting and irreconcilable ideas of sin, forgiveness, retribution and free will.