HomeLiterature Study GuidesThe Brothers KaramazovPart 4 Book 11 Chapters 910 Summary

The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Part 4, Book 11, Chapters 9–10 : Brother Ivan Fyodorovich | Summary

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Summary

The narrator notes that Ivan was on the verge of brain fever the night before the trial (Chapter 9). He wakes up and notices someone sitting on the sofa on the opposite wall, a threadbare Russian gentleman past his prime, a sponger who goes from house to house. Ivan tells him he is only his own mind talking to him, and the gentleman says, "Who knows whether proof of the devil is also a proof of God?"

The devil jokes about a number of things. He says it is unfair his job is to negate. But without the devil, nothing would happen on Earth, and "for the sake of events," he continues to be the "x in an indeterminate equation." The devil begins taunting Ivan with his old ideas. For example, once mankind gives up God, people can come together in harmony and take from life its full measure and become man-gods. Man will conquer nature through his will and science and become content with earthly delight. This man will accept the "momentariness of life," and he will "love his brother then without any reward." Moreover, the briefness of life "will increase its fire." But because this paradise on Earth may take another thousand years, he who "already knows the truth is permitted to settle things for himself ... on the new principles." The devil's monologue is interrupted by a knock on the door, and Alyosha tells Ivan that Smerdyakov hanged himself about an hour ago.

Smerdyakov leaves a suicide note that says, "I exterminate my life by my own will and liking, so as not to blame anybody." Ivan claims he already knows because "[h]e was just telling me." Ivan says the devil is himself, although he would prefer "that he were really he and not I!" The devil accused Ivan of wanting to perform a virtuous deed, even though he does not believe in virtue, which is what makes him so angry. He also accused him of wanting people to praise him for his magnanimous feelings, even though he is a murderer. He relates all of this to Alyosha, who tries to calm his brother. When Ivan finally falls asleep, Alyosha thinks that "God, in whom he did not believe ... was overcoming his heart, which still does not want to submit."

Analysis

The devil that manifests in Ivan's room is a paltry shadow of his archetype, perhaps to show, as Hannah Arendt elucidated many decades later, the banality of evil. The devil's monologue is at first comical, as he complains to Ivan about the problems of embodiment, for example. But once he begins throwing Ivan's old ideas in his face, he is not so funny. Ivan understands the devil is only in his mind, and when he tells Alyosha that he wishes he really were the devil, what he means is that he wishes there were proof of God. The devil knows Smerdyakov has killed himself because Ivan knows that—Smerdyakov clearly indicates he has lost interest in life. He gives Ivan the money because he no longer has use for it.

In a strange and twisted reversal, Smerdyakov, like Jesus, is betrayed three times by Ivan, who balks at taking responsibility for the murder. Smerdyakov is disappointed in Ivan because he does not have the "courage" to live up to his ideas. Further, the "lackey" realizes that his relationship with Ivan was based on an illusion. Ivan did not consciously give him permission to murder his father, and that makes Smerdyakov once again feel entirely alone. Not surprisingly, he takes his own life. His suicide note is a nuanced message. First, he will not confess, so in death he continues to punish his brothers. Second, he is mocking Ivan by taking responsibility for his suicide "by his own will and liking," according to his half-brother's philosophy. Finally, he may be implying that Ivan is responsible for his suicide ("so as not to blame anybody"), that Ivan is not responsible for his suicide, or that he is letting Ivan off the hook by not testifying in court that he put him up to the murder.

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