This article is part of a series on Dostoevsky’s Great Works. See also:
- The Brothers Karamazov: The Other Brothers
- Crime and Punishment: Flesh and Bronze
- The Idiot: Give and Take
“Man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil.”
The Brothers Karamazov tells the story (many stories, actually) of three brothers, each very different, as they adventure through trial, love, and every emotion on earth. Dmitri is the oldest: he’s a recently retired soldier, rash, impetuous, and driven by emotional impulse; Ivan is the middle brother: he’s cynical, intellectual, and probably depressed, and hides an enormous well of philosophical wonder; Alyosha is the youngest: he’s bright-eyed, optimistic, and highly religious with unlimited faith. Ivan struggles through an existentialist “Rebellion”, denying the order of the universe (or, rather, denying willingness to reconcile with its lack of order); eventually, crushed by the criminal trial of his older brother, Ivan suffers taunting hallucinations and mental illness and eventually loses his mind.
I claim that Ivan himself is the site of a battle between the Devil and God. His “brain fever” is purposefully ambiguous: are his hallucinations the result of physical illness, or is the illness merely a convenient explanation for goings-on that are much deeper and more mystical? I’ll note here that his “illness”, I believe, had already begun back in Pro and Contra, when he sits down with Alyosha for “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor”…
And the Devil and God are both mighty-convincing! Surprisingly so: it’s much deeper than a trivial case of good vs. evil. Regarding Ivan’s desire to testify for his brother, the Devil taunts, “You are going to perform an act of heroic virtue, and you don’t believe in virtue; that’s what tortures you and makes you angry, that’s why you are so vindictive.” The Devil insists that only cowardice holds Ivan from betrayal; that only cowardice confines him to his facade of sacrificial virtue. These evil thoughts overwhelm Ivan’s mind: “Conscience! What is conscience?” he asks Alyosha. “I make it up for myself. Why am I tormented by it? From habit. From the universal habit of mankind for seven thousand years.”
God, in the form of Alyosha, teaches Ivan to love unconditionally. “Alyosha could not help crying, looking frankly at his brother. ‘Never mind him, anyway,’ ” urges Alyosha regarding Ivan’s hallucination; “ ‘have done with him and forget him. And let him take with him all that you curse now, and never come back!’” Later, as Alyosha thinks to himself: “ ‘Yes, if Smerdyakov is dead, no one will believe Ivan’s evidence; but he will go and give it.’ Alyosha smiled softly. ‘God will conquer!’ ”
The conflict reaches its peak around Ivan’s decision whether to testify for Dmitri’s innocence. At the end – in the truest tragedy of all – Ivan takes the side of the good, and it fails him. Ivan tries to testify for Dmitri, but, paralyzed by the decision, utters only an incoherent mess, consummating his insanity, and collapsing on the scene; Mitya gets convicted anyway, and is sent to hard labor in Siberia. Ivan gets neither his sanity nor an acquitted brother. At the end of the day, the Devil was right all along!
Alyosha offers hope at the end but it’s up to you whether you buy it.
And finally, Dmitri, in prison: “I’m innocent, but I’ve got to go to Siberia. I accept it. It’s all come to me here, here, within these peeling walls. There are numbers of them there, hundreds of them underground, with hammers in their hands. Oh, yes, we shall be in chains and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great sorrow, we shall rise again to joy, without which man cannot live nor God exist, for God gives joy: it’s His privilege—a grand one. Ah, man should be dissolved in prayer! What should I be underground there without God? And then we men underground will sing from the bowels of the earth a glorious hymn to God, with Whom is joy. Hail to God and His joy!”
What a great book.