Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov satisfies Richard Peaver’s claim as “a joyful book” (xi) on two levels. On the base level, the story is seen as a religious proclamation, brimming with declarations of faith and quotably life-affirming passages which one can reference as the core meaning of the novel, a refutation of negative theory. Father Zosima’s “Talks and Homilies” drip with the theology of the author as studied and understood by biographically-versed readers. Keeping both with the novel’s biblical epigraph (“if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit”) and the central, oft-repeated prophesy that one must be “guilty before everyone and for everyone” (298), the story illustrates a path from sin to redemption through acceptance of suffering. These simply expressed, pure, and holy ideas, though unarguably the very heart of the novel, when at first examined, fit into the complex, multifaceted plot as convincingly as they do the ear of the skeptic. Upon finishing the novel, with each brother’s fate left unknown and a number questions unanswered, a first-time reader cannot help but hear these deafening doctrines ring in his ears like the pre-adolescent cries of Alyosha’s schoolboys. One must not unquestioningly accept what is known to be the author’s intention, but doubt this over-simplified interpretation, passing Dostoevsky’s and Father Zosima’s rightful “Hosannah” through a personal literary crucible of doubt. From this point emerges the second level of this joyful book, a level that encompasses the whole of a Karamazov, devil and all, bringing a palpable and frightening human struggle to the foreground to replace abstractions of suffering. Ivan Karamazov’s antithetical role in the novel provides the dynamics that drive both the physical and ideological plot. He proves the author’s ideas by negating them, the same way each man’s ideals and beliefs are proven and revealed to himself. This process of discovery—setting beliefs against each other to the point of mutual destruction—is what makes Ivan the most dynamic of the brothers through the course of the novel. Of all the brothers, Ivan, alone, changes. He, alone, abandons his former self, pushed from disbelief into madness. As the rebel, the middle child, the dynamic antithesis, and necessary evil, Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov illustrates through contrary action a weightier, tempered version of the novel’s joyful truth.
Ivan’s pivotal role starts most basically in an examination of the storyline. The three legitimate brothers are born in dialectic succession: Dmitri, the firstborn, represents the original thesis (body), Ivan, the negator, stands in antithesis to the former (mind), and Alyosha creates a bridging synthesis of the two (soul). Though the brothers are undoubtedly part of the same whole, each has his own separate breakthrough, cited by critics, defined in those passages strewn with inspiring phrases, begging to be underlined. For Dmitri, the hymn for the “wee ones” drives his ideals (Book IX, Chapter 4), for Alyosha, his visions of “The Cana of Galilee” and sudden decision to “sojourn in the world” (Book VII, Chapter 4), and for Ivan, it is said to be his love of the “sticky spring leaves” that fuels his will to live (Book V, Chapter 3). However, each of these situations, when considered with the whole of the plot (instead of being isolated in rapturous quotations), proves questionable. In Dostoevsky’s novels, all words can be second-guessed on psychological premises, leaving uncertain impressions that echo throughout the story. Though the powerful expressions in these passages should suggest a permanent change, in comparing the character’s actions a few chapters before and after the supposed breakthrough, one sees next to no change in manner and attributes these thoughts to a mere “fit of passion.” Dmitri still looks to escape his sentence even after he proclaims, “I accept!” (591). He emphasizes, “All of this came to me here…within these peeling walls” (591). Dmitri claims enlightened suffering after only two months in the small Skotoprigonyevsk prison, assuming that a lifetime of hard labor will be no comparison. The suffering leading up to his rapture is short-lived, just like Alyosha’s afternoon depression. Alyosha continues to do good, still acting as a messenger between family members, and immersing himself in brotherhood, this time not of monks, but of schoolboys. Though his developing clairvoyance counters his naivety, the reader may still assume the novice has not reached the full potential Dostoevsky planned to give him in the unwritten post-Karamazov work, The Life of a Great Sinner, in which Alyosha would truly live up to his title as the “hero” (3). At the conclusion of the novel, it can be assumed that Alyosha will continue to do good for the next generation and Dmitri will continue to drink of life with amazing passion but little elegance, while Ivan’s fate remains unresolved.
His initial confession on behalf of the sticky little leaves, the precious graves, and the blue sky is threatened by his pervasive, gnawing self-doubt that, repressed through pride, one senses in his laughing, twisted smile and condescending words to his brother Alyosha (“I see you’re feeling inspired. I’m terribly fond of such professions de foi from such…novices” ). Ivan’s confession turns out to be as fruitless as his brothers’, though his differs in that it was not in a complete “fit of passion,” but something of a planned out scheme to curb Alyosha’s thoughts before presenting his Legend. However, Ivan begins a second descent in the end of the novel in an internal battle more physically and mentally destructive than any other character’s. Ivan’s fatal meeting with the Devil both influences and confirms his growing madness, a force of the mind and body set on torturing the soul. At the close of Book XI, Ivan’s sickness renders him weak and incoherent. The mind the reader has come to know so well is on the brink of destruction. Sickness subdues his seemingly indestructible ideas and the man Ivan, for once, is painfully mortal: “The sick man lay fast asleep, without moving, breathing softly and evenly” (654). Only after the most intense sufferings that destroy one like a real death, can a true resurrection take place. The narrator authoritatively affirms Ivan’s condition: “God, in whom he did not believe, and his truth were overcoming his heart, which still did not want to submit” (655). Ivan’s ongoing breakthrough, left in the stage of breakdown, cannot be put into rapturous words to underline and highlight; his physical condition speaks more clearly to the reality of the story than any speech.
This crucial breakdown comes about only through the will of rebellion and negation, the values of the devil. Ivan is living proof of the Devil’s words that “if everything on earth were sensible, nothing would happen. Without [the devil] there would be no events…” (642). With this in mind, one accepts evil as an active part of life, a force—or even the force—of the material world. Without the serpent’s diabolical temptation, man would have remained in Eden; Smerdyakov would not have committed the murder around which each turn of the plot occurs. Without the devil’s influence on man, he would never rebel in order to gain a fuller understanding of his situation; he would ignorantly sit in thesis. There would be no “crucible of doubt” for Hosannahs to pass through and “everything would turn into an endless prayer service: holy, but a bit dull” (642). The devil is appointed to negate. Ivan’s philosophy is rebellion (“…I will not accept it. That is my essence, Alyosha, that is my thesis” ). Ivan’s Devil must exist in order to create action, driving the plot and testing the philosophies of the characters.
The Devil’s chief objective is to convince Ivan of his existence in reality. This would allow Ivan to project his guilt for the intentions of murdering his father onto a separate entity. However, denying the Devil’s realism, Ivan repeatedly argues, “You are not in yourself, you are me, me and nothing else!” (642). His argument does not deny the existence of the devil, but his existence outside of man. Man accepts the devil in him, which is neither good nor bad but is life. Man accepts his necessity to rebel. He accepts his free will. The devil exists as a force with which to be dealt. The devil’s reality synonymously influences all negative deeds while taking the blame for them, leaving man forever in the right. Ivan is, by the nature of reality, condemned to believe in the devil.
Ivan’s Devil, however, does not live up to the descriptions presented by the Grand Inquisitor as “the dread and intelligent spirit” (251). He is something of a lackey, pretentiously spouting off scientific facts, banal anecdotes, quips of French, and dated opinions. Dostoevsky presents the Devil as an utterly human spirit, one that would be seen in a public bathhouse. He is even likened to the coarse Fyodor Pavlovich:
“Such spongers…are usually single, either bachelors or widowers, and if they have children, the children are always brought up somewhere far away, by some aunts, whom the gentleman hardly even mentions in decent company, as though somewhat ashamed of such relations” (636).
If the devil is a part of man, he is “the most loathing and stupid” (637) part. Precisely because the devil is in man but in such a repulsive form, he seems entirely conquerable. The responsibility for negative actions shifts away from the devil and back to man. By presenting negative ideas in a disagreeable way, Dostoevsky negates the negator, roundaboutly proving a positive truth.
The famous Legend of the Grand Inquisitor and its illustration of the disparity between man’s ideals and the life he must live are also, like the Devil’s profession of realism, subject to an enthusiastically bleak interpretation of life. The Devil’s final argument for a Marxist revolution parallels that of the Grand Inquisitor, describing a time without religion when “the man-god will appear” (649) and humanistic love will increase tenfold, creating earthly heaven, as it no longer has to be saved for the afterlife. This theory provides only the ideal for which to strive, so until the entire race reaches this revolutionary moment, the enlightened members of society may act on the amoral principles of the future class, as universal following will come in due time. In order to attain the specific ideals set out by this theory (the most important being atheism in this context), the Devil and the Grand Inquisitor, like so many political philosophers, declare that the end justifies the means. However, since this end in utopia is so far off (“…it may not be settled for another thousand years…” ), the means, in which everything is permitted, including bloody revolutions and sacrifices, becomes the ends, and the ideal of utopia gradually sours. Ideals of perfection abandoned due to the state of the material world pervade The Brothers Karamazov, forming most characters’ bases for dissatisfaction and corruption. Ivan suggests the ultimate (conflict) between ideals and reality in the Grand Inquisitor’s accusation that Christ set an unattainable standard for man by rejecting the devil’s temptations. The assertion that man can never attain these ideals points to his inevitable acceptance of the devil or, more likely, the devil’s inevitable sway on man. With this acceptance, man must either compromise his ideal, an event that will always leave him dissatisfied, or give up on it completely. Ivan wishes for an absolute belief in something, but the reality of his Euclidean mind prevents him from understanding God. Accepting the curse of reality, Ivan compromises his ideal (and therefore gives up on it) by taking on the belief that a similar end can be reached through faith by force, the devil’s version of religion presented in the third temptation. Now, with a clearly defined earthly means, the original ideal is forgotten and corruption ensues. (This explains the Grand Inquisitor’s dual love and hatred for mankind: he loves the ideals of the future generation, the utopia, and so, fighting for an ideal of mankind, he condemns living men. Likewise, Dmitri’s human sensuality corrupts his ideals of platonic love and Ivan sees that “it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possibly love,” (236) as the love for the ideal neighbor spoils the love for the material one, and “as soon as he shows his face—love vanishes” (237).) Man takes pride in Ivan’s rebellion, for he must suffer the facts of an unjust world. The great following of this theory, this contrary chapter, still leads men into misinterpretation. D. H. Lawrence’s Preface to Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor illustrates the negative spin of the concluding actions: “Jesus kisses the Inquisitor: Thank you, you are right, wise old man! Alyosha kisses Ivan: Thank you, brother, you are right, you take a burden off me! So why should Dostoevsky drag in Inquisitors and autos-da-fe, and Ivan wind up so morbidly suicidal? Let them be glad they’ve found the truth again.”
Just as the Devil’s banal weaknesses open a path around his seemingly inevitable realism, an opposing interpretation of Ivan’s “poem” confirms the falsity of the Inquisitor’s statements. Ivan calls his Legend a poem, opening it up for interpretation beyond pure reason. The final, interpretable act of the poem is Christ’s kiss as an answer to the Inquisitor’s accusations. To this “the old man shudders. Something stirs at the corners of his mouth; he walks to the door, opens it, and says to him: ‘Go and do not come again…do not come at all…never, never!’” (262). The Inquisitor does not accept this gesture out of pride, though “the kiss burns in his heart…” (262). His actions reference a proud, enraged Ivan. When Ivan asks Alyosha if he will renounce him for saying everything is permitted, Alyosha mirrors Christ and with his kiss answers, ‘No, I will not renounce you for rejecting the world.’ Christ’s kiss approves of the Grand Inquisitor’s actions as an expression of free will, a necessary step in a movement towards something greater. Though “the old man would have liked him to say something, even something bitter, terrible” (262), Christ leaves him unsatisfied, accepting the Grand Inquisitor’s rebellious nature and encouraging him (and Ivan) to continue searching until an equilibrium is reached. Here Christ does not give up completely on attaining ideals in the horror of reality, but believes they can still be reached in some form. He, like Dmitri, suggests there can be “beauty in Sodom,” and “for the vast majority of people, that’s just where beauty lies” (108). Due to the revelatory power of poetry, Ivan’s main theory is enhanced by the fact that it may have multiple interpretations of which he is not even consciously aware.
Both the reevaluations of Ivan’s evil characters and the failure of facts in the trial illustrate a plurality of interpretation central to the novel. In the final chapters of Part Four, which Victor Terras calls “Dostoevsky’s Swan Song,” the concluding philosophical statements are made through the attorneys’ closing speeches. In the argument for the defense (or the argument for what the reader knows be the objective truth), Fetyukovich claims that because each supposed fact set out against Dmitri can be refuted, his guilt, the final truth of the novel, rests arbitrarily on “a stick with two ends” (725). The facts of life do not indicate good or bad, innocence or guilt, right or wrong. They simply exist. It is then man’s job to interpret these facts how he likes, subjectively creating his own “novel” of meanings. When “it all depends on whose hands it is in” (728), there seems to be no graspable objective truth, only man’s subjective judgment (embodied in the jury). For the final glorious time, the action of the novel belittles Ivan’s faith in the truth of reason, giving more veracity to the trial’s absurdities (for example, Alyosha’s fateful recollection of the 1,500 rouble amulet). Both he and the Devil were correct in believing “the world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen” (243). Ivan rightly says, “If I wanted to understand something, I would immediately have to betray the fact but I’ve made up my mind to stick to the fact…” (243). Precisely because Ivan sticks to the facts does he end up in delirium, for Dostoevsky proves well that facts are impossible to stick to without faith in the absurdities and “fits of passion” that make up the essence of existence. This most important truth acknowledged, Ivan himself is driven to abandon the facts around which he centered his beliefs, tossed into a more genuine madness. His Euclidean mind falters because it cannot reason in more than three dimensions, for the knowledge of reality is useless; each man must use at least four dimensions, and that fourth must be of his own making.
When the courtroom officials drag him off of the witness stand, Ivan “[keeps] shouting and crying out something incoherent” (687). This last dramatic sighting of the rebel seems only appropriate. The primary cerebral force of the novel is destroyed completely, making way for a new stage, assuring progression. Ivan will be truly reborn. The synthesis he reaches, however, is a matter of subjectivity. On one side of the stick is death, the synthesis of life’s pure and irreconcilable struggle; on the other side is life, one that has not yet been lived.