By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Winter 1968-69; reprinted in The Edge of Impossibility.


There is no writer who better demonstrates the contradictions and fluctuations of the creative mind than Dostoevski, and Dostoevski nowhere more astonishingly than in The Brothers Karamazov. Of the psychology of Dostoevski’s works a great deal has been said—Nietzsche pronounced him the only psychologist from whom he learned anything—and of the ideas of The Brothers Karamazov much has been argued. In this essay I would like to discuss the various components of the novel—psychology, ideas, structure, fiction—only as they relate to the work as a creative act. For it is clear even upon a superficial first reading that this novel is like few other great works; it seems almost a novel in the making, a novel as it is being written, in the very process of being imagined.

The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in LiteratureNot that it is crudely improvised: like most of Dostoevski’s novels, it is well planned, blocked out in a general pattern of point and counterpoint. The novel moves toward one clear statement about the transformation of suffering into joy, in preparation, as Dostoevski states in his preface, for the novel that is his real concern—a novel he did not live to write that was to be called The Life of a Great Sinner. The sadistic and disturbing novel we do have ends with the words, ” ‘Hurrah for Karamazov!’ ” The explicit novel—the daylight novel—is one of affirmation underscored not just by the juggling of sequences so that the young boys who are Alyosha’s friends have the last word, but by the voice of the “narrator” throughout. Whenever the anonymous narrator speaks as a person, the novel sinks to a simplistic moral level that clearly seems the level Dostoevski wants, since he feels the necessity of bringing his novel back again and again to this level, no matter how far it has soared from it. When the narrator disappears, and the characters come alive—in long, rambling, and often hysterical speeches—the novel attains a vitality that wrenches its parts out of relationship to the whole. One can argue that this is also what the author “wants,” but, if so, then this Dostoevski seems to be someone other than the author of the total work called The Brothers Karamazov. Structurally, the novel moves to a great trial scene, which is to try everyone, but this scene is the climax only of the external novel. The bewildering sense of incompleteness one feels after having read the novel is perhaps explained by the fact of the novel’s being written (however it may have been planned) with a double of itself contained in its most brilliant pages, a kind of shadow or antinovel whose tragedy mocks the positive accomplishments of the larger, Christian work. Two visions—one existential and tragic, the other Christian and “comic”—are unequally balanced in this novel and do not in my opinion resolve themselves.

Though most readers are familiar with the plot of The Brothers Karamazov, its very length and intricacy necessitate summary. One can see how Dostoevski has imagined his work structurally: a series of statements, the best of them dramatized, are worked out, qualified, or refuted by what follows them. Book 1 is called “The History of a Family,” and here the narrator—surely Dostoevski’s voice—reports on the history of the bizarre Karamazov family, stressing by his technique the epic and realistic mode and never the poetical and imaginative, for this is not fiction but rather history, and the Karamazovs are Russia. Dostoevski’s style seems at first to be no style at all, but simply reporting. It is bare of all adornment, all fanciful description; nature is never imagined as the slightly distorted landscape viewed by man, but only as a stage backdrop against which man acts out his drama. There are no metaphors in Dostoevski’s writing because his works as wholes are metaphors themselves.

Book 2, the “Unfortunate Gathering” in Father Zossima’s cell, dramatizes the conflicts implicit in book 1. The gathering, which is Ivan’s idea, is entirely improbable: Dostoevski brings together in this symbolic episode all significant characters and all significant philosophical conflicts, minor themes are introduced by implication, and the brothers Ivan and Mitya are confronted with the prophetic insight of Father Zossima. The fates of these two brothers are taken up in the next three books, “The Sensualists,” in which Mitya explains his torment, and “Lacerations,” in which the masochistic impulses of several characters, including Ivan, are dramatized, and “Pro and Contra.” This book contains the famous “Grand Inquisitor” sequence, in which the complex and mysterious Ivan explains himself to his brother Alyosha. The anguish of rebellion against God’s world can be seen to account for the various lacerations of the preceding books: something is wrong, something ruined in human nature, and Ivan is the only person articulate enough to explain it. Book 6, “The Russian Monk,” is an answer to Ivan’s questions, its very length and its repetitious piety addressed to the impatience of the young Ivan.

The conclusion of “The Russian Monk” contains Dostoevski’s famous definition of hell as “the suffering of being unable to love”; it is clearly a diagnosis of the sorrows of the modern world. But book 7, “Alyosha,” forces the reader (as it forces the young hero) into a realization of the mystery of the world and the futility of human wishes, in the rather grotesque episode in which the corpse of Father Zossima begins to decompose more rapidly than seems natural. Alyosha is then precipitated into the “world,” represented by Grushenka, but is not conquered by it. The next two books deal with Mitya’s drunken happiness and his arrest. Book 10, following, is a contrasting account of the relationships between boys of the village, the “new generation”; one of them is a young Ivan. Book 11, “Ivan,” is in direct contrast to book 10, containing the interviews with the half brother, Smerdyakov, and the devil, who may or may not be Ivan’s hallucination. Book 12 is the great trial scene, in which everyone is shown to be on trial, and the epilogue deals with the plans for Mitya’s escape and the magical rebirth of joy and communion between Alyosha and the boys over the grave of the child Ilusha. Out of the novel’s several deaths come this resurrection and an implied transformation of the “Karamazov” or Russian potentiality in the boys under Alyosha’s influence. “How good life is when one does something good and just!” Alyosha exclaims.

The novel as it is summarized dramatizes the epigraph from the Book of John: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Every significant character in the novel—Mitya, Grushenka, Alyosha, Katerina, even Ivan—is transformed. Ivan’s brain fever is symptomatic of his particular sin—the sin of intellectual pride. That he is perhaps mad is a way of pointing toward his future regeneration, though Dostoevski evidently did not feel that he could violate Ivan’s character, as he did Raskolnikov’s, in providing for a ritual conversion. The bulk of the novel is one of affirmation, though Ivan, the most eloquent person in the novel, is not saved but is made impotent, broken, most violently changed.

The problems of The Brothers Karamazov are not due to any weakness on the author’s part, but to his extraordinary inventiveness. Within the confines of his careful structure a series of mocking antitheses appear: have they been created consciously or unconsciously? Are they ingenious, or are they simply mistakes? The key to Dostoevski’s genius, however, seems to be in his command of the dynamics of fiction. Not life, certainly: life is never equal to the pace and intricacy of any of Dostoevski’s works. The theme of transformation or rebirth is more than simply a religious (and rather magical) idea; it is a part of Dostoevski’s imagination. Reality is constantly turning into something else; simplicity breaks up into fragments, baffling us; nothing stays, nothing is permanent; characters who are defined in one way break loose and assume deeper, vaster dimensions; dogmatic truths are echoed and mocked hundreds of pages later; the revered father figure is shadowed by demonic father figures; doubles multiply and question the very basis of individual identity; what is intended to be a parable or prophecy (Russian spirit threatened by European intellect) becomes a great mystic work in which all of men’s acts, whether “good” or “evil,” are held finally to be of little account, for it is precisely this heresy of Ivan’s tragic pride, his assumption that man’s sin is of importance, that Dostoevski wants to destroy.

* * *

The narrator of the novel seems at times to be speaking directly for the author; at other times he is refined out of individual existence, simply an omniscient point of view. He reveals himself in the trial scene (book 12) as “far from esteeming myself capable of reporting all that took place . . . I may have selected as of most interest what was of secondary importance. . . . But I see I shall do better not to apologize. I will do my best and the reader will see for himself that I have done all I can.” Here, after eight hundred pages of the closest possible attention to his heroes’ thoughts, the narrator “sees” them evidently for the first time and pronounces rather stern judgments upon them. Mitya and Grushenka made bad impressions; Alyosha is not particularly impressive. The novel begins with much attention paid to the old father, Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov: “a strange type. . . abject and vicious and at the same time senseless.” He is seen to be rather naive and simple: “As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.”

When Dostoevski begins to consider Fyodor seriously, however, the old man’s character changes. We witness in his speeches the very genesis and development of a fictional creation. The perverse buffoonery of the lecherous old man turns into a shrewd, sinister, even diabolic wit when he begins to talk:

“So you want to be a monk? . . . Well, it’s a good opportunity. You’ll pray for us sinners; we have sinned too much here. I’ve always been thinking who would pray for me. . . . You see, however stupid I am about it, I keep thinking, I keep thinking—from time to time, of course, not all the while. It’s impossible, I think, for the devils to forget to drag me down to hell with their hooks when I die. Then I wonder—hooks? Where would they get them? What of? Iron hooks? . . . Now I’m ready to believe in hell, but without a ceiling. It makes it more refined, more enlightened. . . . And, after all, what does it matter whether it has a ceiling or hasn’t? But, do you know, there’s a damnable question involved in it? If there’s no ceiling there can be no hooks, and if there are no hooks it all breaks down, which is unlikely again, for then there would be none to drag me down to hell, and if they don’t drag me down what justice is there in the world? II faudrait les inventer, those hooks, on purpose for me alone.” (p. 23)1

Though one would know that this is Dostoevskian, the speech is uniquely Fyodor’s; he is set off from Dostoevski’s other buffoons by a certain perverse blend of the degraded and the spiritual, a brilliant comic creation who cannot sit down to drink without questioning the meaning of life. He is filled with life, the base drive of the Karamazovs for life, and he springs into being for us time and again, opening to question the narrator’s flat statements about him. There is something wonderful in so dedicated a baseness, one thinks; only Fyodor, bleeding from having been kicked in the face by Mitya, could forget his pain and become transported with lustful thoughts of Grushenka once he believes she is in the house. The most atrocious behavior in Father Zossima’s cell is certainly Fyodor’s; he has the audacity, or perhaps the insight, to ask Father Zossima, “Is there room for my humility beside your pride?” In the richness of Dostoevski’s narration, nothing ever fulfills itself. Therefore, it ceases to develop, and is immediately transformed into something else. Characters are introduced, summarized, and, when they come to life, display remarkable complexities that were certainly not imagined in Dostoevski’s exposition—but only in his drama. And though the most audacious behavior is old Fyodor’s, the cruelest behavior is Ivan’s. In striking the foolish Maximov and knocking him from the carriage, Ivan commits the only act of violence up until this point, astonishing his father with his brutality.

The other remarkable metamorphosis of character takes place in Smerdyakov. The fourth son, the shadowy illegitimate child of Fyodor’s lust, Smerdyakov is a warning that man’s sins will come back to him; the sins of old Russia will destroy her and out of this violence a new Russia will be born. Smerdyakov, imagined initially as a kind of idiot, an epileptic “chicken” who has no courage, no intelligence, and who is capable only of echoing Ivan’s radical ideas, emerges as superior even to Ivan; he is the killer of their father, Ivan’s “instrument,” but at all times shrewder and more perceptive than Ivan himself. As Ivan’s “shadow” he acts out Ivan’s suppressed or unrealized wish, which is recognizable as the act of a Dostoevskian double, but the creation of Smerdyakov himself is an extraordinary one. The fact that Smerdyakov, like the author, is an epileptic, the fact that the sickish, affected, pompous young man emerges as one of the strongest characters in the novel, supports Freud’s observation of the role of the criminal in Dostoevski. Though Freud ignores Ivan’s relationship to Smerdyakov and concentrates instead upon Mitya’s (Freud is concerned with the sexual rivalry of father and son), what he says about the criminal is highly significant: the criminal to Dostoevski is almost a redeemer.2 This is a startling reversal of Zossima’s teachings—or perhaps a startling new view of them—for while Zossima instructs us to judge no one, to withhold condemning the criminal out of a feeling of Christian love for him, Freud suggests that the criminal himself is the blessed one, precisely because he commits the forbidden sin and thereby absolves us of our own desires for crime.

One must be grateful to the murderer, according to Freud, for, except for him, one would have been obliged to murder. Not kindly pity but rather the “identification on the basis of similar murderous impulses—in fact, a slightly displaced narcissism”—lies behind Dostoevski’s insistence upon forgiving sin. And one notices with surprise how readily sin is forgiven in these novels. To kill with one’s brain is evil, but to kill with one’s passions is excusable; Ilusha’s death, the result of Mitya’s brutality, is simply an event on the way to Mitya’s spiritual transformation!

The gradual development of Smerdyakov as a person, the shadowy brother emerging out of the darkness to control all destinies, is explicable in such terms if we understand that for Dostoevski the criminal is the true saint, one who sacrifices himself for the wishes of the community (note the insight of Lise and Ivan, who accuse the townspeople of liking the murder) and who must ultimately sacrifice himself. Zossima has preached sympathy for the suicides, who are the most unhappy of all. Smerdyakov’s suicide is a parallel to Svidrigailov’s; like Svidrigailov, the shadow-hero of Crime and Punishment, the true redeemer of that novel, Smerdyakov chooses death not because he despairs but because, having committed the act the novel has prepared him for, he no longer has any identity. All of Dostoevski’s novels deal with the long preparation for the consummation of a violent act, without which the works could not be imagined. Though it would be difficult to prove, it seems likely that the acts of violence—the sheer consummation of murderous impulses designed to “change one’s life”—are the bases upon which the novels were written; the ideological dialogues come second. Hence, the strange sympathy Dostoevski shows for his murderers, out of proportion to their behavior before or after their crimes; their boundless egoism is clearly no sin to him so long as it is not “rational.” (It is interesting to note that the only despised and unforgiven characters in The Brothers Karamazovand Crime and Punishment are the mediocre, calculating, would-be liberals, Rakitin and Luzhin.) All this is suppressed or disguised in the narrator’s voice, who withdraws from a discussion of Smerdyakov because this bastard son of Fyodor’s is so insignificant: “I ought to say something of this Smerdyakov, but I am ashamed of keeping my readers’ attention so long occupied with these common menials” (p. 118). It would seem that Dostoevski at this point has not clearly worked out the complex Smerdyakov of six hundred pages later; that Smerdyakov is a result of the creation of the novel itself, the fulfillment of a desire not immediately felt that the criminal not be a simple lackey but an intelligent man equal to the role of redeemer.

* * *

Of the use of “doubles” in Dostoevski much has been written. The literary “double” is a manifestation of the wish that, in a dream, would create itself as a concrete image. The dream-work is like the texture of formal allegory, personifications and desires being present as pictorial realities. In literature the double is a result of the author’s conscious or unconscious desire for a wider range of action, possibilities of behavior for his hero that go beyond the morally acceptable, and this wish will create itself in the form of a double, or antihero. Dostoevski’s second novel, The Double, explores the disintegrating ego of a schizophrenic as his other self emerges out of the darkness to claim his total identity. Such obvious works as Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness provide us with conventionally intelligent and moral narrators who are obsessed by the dark, satanic, murderous, and damned heroes at the center of their narratives, heroes who provide an important initiation and education for the observer—and they are clearly redeemers, also, dying with their forbidden knowledge available to the more ordinary observer (and the reader) who need not travel so far into the heart of darkness to realize such truth for himself. Handled skillfully, the story of the hero and his double makes the most satisfactory kind of narrative, for the “hero” makes such claims upon the audience’s loyalty that to allow him the range of all desire—which belongs to the shadow-hero, the antihero—would be unpleasant. Certain contemporary works, in refusing to grant readers the conventional moral protection provided by the double (for instance, Mailer’s An American Dream) upset our sensibilities; we want the release of a consummation of violence, but we are frightened at having it offered so bluntly to us, the spectacle of an untrammeled ego being too close to our own fantasies for comfort.

Dostoevski’s imagination is such that he conceives the kernel of his drama as a conflict within the parts of one self. We may assume that this self is Dostoevski. Lesser characters—for instance, Ilusha’s father, Lise, Madame Hohlakov—are exaggerations, usually approaching caricature, of certain main obsessions. Critics have remarked upon the airlessness of Dostoevski’s world, its failure to imagine nature as anything but a metaphorical Mother Earth existing only to be kissed, and clearly Dostoevski is concerned only with psychological drama. “One reptile will devour another,” Ivan prophesizes grimly, and the irony—which he does not know—is that to have so perceptive an insight into the workings of this world will necessitate his being “devoured” as well. Dostoevski always punishes those characters who express what he is doing, the characters we feel are the closest to him—not only Smerdyakov and Svidrigailov, but also Stavrogin of The Possessed.

These doubles, imagined fantastically, exert influences upon one another that cannot be explained in any naturalistic way. There are moments of doubleness, of understanding and insight that must be denied (one always denies the double), and there are peculiar echoings of ideas, ideas doubled and tripled as the novel proceeds. It is not just in the sequence involving Ivan and his devil that the question of individual identity comes up; the boundaries of one soul and the influence of wishes thought to be unvoiced are questioned throughout the novel, and in extraordinarily flat, banal prose. For instance, the relationship between Ivan and Smerdyakov is an obvious example of the relationship between mysterious doubles, with Ivan apparently the stronger and more intelligent, and Smerdyakov the instrument of his will. Ivan’s unconscious wishes for his father’s death direct Smerdyakov, who communicates with the unconscious directly; Smerdyakov is, then, the master, the controller of fate simply because he is able to penetrate the barrier of consciousness that must conventionally deny evil impulses.

Smerdyakov is linked explicitly to Ivan when he says to Alyosha that he knows nothing about Mitya: “It’s not as if I were his keeper” (p. 269). Only a few pages later Ivan says, in answer to another question of Alyosha’s about their brother, “‘You are always harping upon it! What have I to do with it? Am I my brother Dmitri’s keeper?’ ” (p. 275) And there is a peculiar scene in “The Sensualists,” in which old Fyodor, reminiscing drunkenly upon the exquisite tortures to which he subjected Alyosha’s mother, is suddenly told by Ivan that this woman was his mother, too. The father says:

“Your mother? . . . What do you mean? What mother are you talking about? Was she? . . . Why, damn it! of course she was yours too! . . . Excuse me, why, I was thinking Ivan . . . He, he, he!” He stopped. A broad, drunken, half senseless grin overspread his face. (p. 164)

The father is either thinking that Ivan had no mother, being inhuman, or that he is the son of Lizaveta and, therefore, is identical with Smerdyakov. They are both the same age, twenty-four, and are momentarily confused in their father’s mind. Alyosha, as well as Smerdyakov, functions as a kind of double for Ivan, though only from time to time. Alyosha’s mysticism perhaps accounts for his being able to speak so directly to Ivan, past the defenses of Ivan’s consciousness: “I only know one thing . . . it wasn’t you killed father” (p. 732). Ivan is enraged by this declaration, but when Smerdyakov repeats it some pages later—”Why are your fingers [trembling] like that? Go home, you did not murder him” (p. 757) —he falters and is about to lose control of himself.

When Smerdyakov finally makes his contemptuous confession to Ivan, we have a typical Dostoevskian scene in which Smerdyakov takes off his garter and reaches unaccountably into his stocking:

“He’s mad!” [Ivan] cried, and, rapidly jumping up, he drew back, so that he knocked his back against the wall and stood up against it, stiff and straight. He looked with insane terror at Smerdyakov, who, entirely unaffected by his terror, continued fumbling in his stocking, as though he were making an effort to get hold of something. (p. 759)

Typically Dostoevskian because it is bizarre and darkly comic, the scene is typical also because it demonstrates the awakening of the consciousness to the grotesque depths of the unconscious—the fumbling for and revelation of the truth, the suppressed wish. Such revelation pushes the coldly rational Ivan to “insane terror.”

It is not only characters who are doubled; there is also a strange interweaving of ideas and attitudes in this novel, so that a tragic Zossima is parodied by the society lady, Madame Hohlakov. Ivan’s refusal to acknowledge Christian love except as a form of self-laceration is anticipated by the shallow doubts of this society lady when she says:

“You see, I so love humanity that—would you believe it? —I often dream of forsaking all that I have, leaving Lise, and becoming a sister of mercy. . . . But could I endure such a life for long? . . . And, do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude.” (p. 63)

Father Zossima’s statement about the impossibility of judging criminals, certainly meant to be serious—”no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him” (p. 385)—is mercilessly parodied by this same woman some three hundred pages later:

“Let them acquit [Mitya]—that’s so humane, and would show what a blessing reformed law courts are. . . . And if he is acquitted, make him come straight from the law courts to dinner with me, and I’ll have a party of friends, and we’ll drink to the reformed law courts. I don’t believe he’d be dangerous; besides, I’ll invite a great many friends, so that he could always be led out if he did anything. And then he might be made a justice of the peace or something in another town, for those who have been in trouble themselves make the best judges. And, besides, who isn’t suffering from aberration nowadays?” (p. 703)

Dostoevski is at his best when he is being destructive. The cruelest doubling in the novel is the parallel implied between Ivan and the ignorant Father Ferapont. Ivan, disintegrating in the courtroom, talks of the devil’s presence—”under that table with the material evidence on it, perhaps”—and reminds us suddenly of the religious fanaticism of the old monk, who sees devils everywhere; they have become in Father Zossima’s time “as common as spiders in the corners” (p. 403).

The most interesting doubling is in relationship to the figure of the “father” in this novel. Alyosha’s physical father, old Fyodor, is paralleled by Alyosha’s spiritual father, Zossima; Zossima is paralleled by Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor; the tragic nihilism of the Grand Inquisitor is, in turn, parodied by Ivan’s devil, the “true” devil—shabby, second-rate, a buffoon who threatens to bring us back full circle to the father-as-buffoon, another version of Fyodor. What is stated by Father Zossima is questioned indirectly by the Grand Inquisitor, and the high seriousness of both is further questioned by the shabby devil. For instance, it is stated in the first book that Alyosha had unquestioning faith in the miraculous power of his elder:

Alyosha did not wonder why they loved him so, why they fell down before him and wept with emotion merely at seeing his face. Oh! he understood that for the humble soul of the Russian peasant, worn out by grief and toil, and still more by the everlasting injustice and . . . sin . . . it was the greatest need and comfort to find someone or something holy to fall down before and worship. “Among us there is sin, injustice, and temptation, but yet, somewhere on earth there is someone holy and exalted. He has the truth; he knows the truth; so it is not dead upon the earth; so it will come one day to us, too, and rule over all the earth according to the promise.” (p. 30)

This mystical faith in a kind of apocalyptic truth on its way to sinful mankind is always taken seriously by Dostoevski, who mixes it in his prophesizing with the future of Mother Russia. Surely Ivan’s article on the dissolving of the State into the Church is a serious statement—though Ivan has written the article as a kind of jest, for, outside the Church, the criminal cannot be saved and will fall into despair. One comes back again and again to the criminal, who is the most important person because he alone of all people acts; he alone, by causing others to suffer and by passing through suffering himself, makes happiness possible.

But this mysticism, so fervently preached by Father Zossima, is given a different interpretation by Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor’s secret is that he does not believe in God, but he is a victim of a terrible love for mankind. His indictment of Christ is that Christ himself does not love man and does not understand him; Christ, in refusing to display his powers through miracle, excludes from the State-as-Church most of humanity:

“Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? . . . what is to become of the millions . . . who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Or cost thou care only for the . . . great and strong . . . ? No, we care for the weak too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them. . . . Choosing ‘bread,’ Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity—to find someone to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.” (p. 300-301)

In saying this, the Grand Inquisitor does not declare himself a foe of Father Zossima. On the contrary, they are identical; they are the same person, viewed by differing temperaments. Zossima is the mystic, and his mysticism has the psychological power of ridding the peasant (most of humanity) of his burden of freedom; the Grand Inquisitor is the mystic-turned-political figure, the organizer and savior of mankind. Both Zossima and the Grand Inquisitor are altruistic, ruled by love of man. Dostoevski presents these two passages with equal enthusiasm—one is not necessarily a parody or a demonic echo of the other. One points toward a cessation of individual anguish that is religious and “comic” in the sense in which the Divine Comedy is comic; the other is bitter in its assumption of the tragic role certain enlightened men must play on earth.

Like other religious conservatives, Dostoevski displays an anxiety over ridding the mind completely of any power over religion. If man’s rationality is not to be allowed the possible destruction of religion through skepticism, it must be denied as well the possibility of belief. This is an extraordinary demand. Dostoevski’s narrator says:

Oh! no doubt, in the monastery [Alyosha] fully believed in miracles, but, to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. . . . Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, “My Lord and my God!” . . . he believed solely because he desired to believe. (p. 25)

Ivan’s devil, in an ingenious attempt to make Ivan believe in his existence independent of Ivan’s mind, echoes this:

“Don’t believe it then. . . . what’s the good of believing against your will? Besides, proofs are no help to believing, especially material proofs. Thomas believed, not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to believe, before he saw.” (p. 774)

These remarks, one offered by the narrator and the other by the “father of lies,” support each other, though in a sense they exist in no relationship to each other at all. Both are perhaps “true” because they are truths of different worlds, different dimensions.

It is the incongruity of different dimensions brought together as if by magic that gives this novel its complex, richly varied texture. For instance, the thematic climax of the novel consists of Ivan’s questions concerning the presence of evil and Father Zossima’s answer to him. But even this central problem cannot be resolved, for we have a diabolical echoing of what should have been the final word: indeed, in Dostoevski there is no final word! Ivan, in “Pro and Contra,” talks to Alyosha of the suffering of children, which seems to him entirely unjustified. His attack upon man’s sadism is only a means to attacking God, who has allowed such horrors:

“Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’!” (p. 287)

Ivan goes on to tell the story of the Russian landowner who has a child torn apart by hunting dogs, and asks if the man deserves “to be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings.” But Ivan does not care for revenge, for a hell for oppressors. He wants to be able to forgive, but he cannot forgive; out of a love for humanity he will not accept the “harmony” that is based upon suffering and forgiveness. “I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong“: this must be the first statement of tragic existentialism ever written. There is a certain terror in the readiness to forgive, Ivan recognizes, and in so doing he strikes at the very basis of Dostoevski’s sympathy for the criminal. What is this sympathy but a recognition of similar murderous impulses in the self?

It is not simply that Ivan represents the “intellectual” or the “European” in this novel; in a crucial way he represents the forbidden knowledge that lies in Dostoevski and in the religious temperament, a kind of spiritual sadism. No wonder, then, that Ivan will have to be destroyed. There has been a great deal of misleading criticism written about Ivan’s place in this novel, particularly since the apparent orthodoxy of the work attracts critics of a conservative or reactionary nature. Here is Eliso Vivas on Ivan’s predicament: “Thus it turns out that Ivan, who believes in the primacy of evil, when you press him, does not know, is an absolute solipsist, and cannot discover proof of the world, of God, or even of Satan.3 And [Zossima’s answer] resolves the conflict because it reveals that hell is life without love. And it also reveals that Ivan’s dossier is possible only through a lie. For Ivan forgets that he is a creature, that he therefore has no right to challenge God.”4

It would probably be pointless to suggest to Vivas that the whole idea of Ivan’s suffering turns upon his “not knowing” and that his Euclidian earthly mind, being all he has, is all he will accept. In adhering to his instincts “even if he is wrong,” Ivan is being true to the earth and is not betraying humanity. And who can “discover proof of the world, of God, or even of Satan”? Dostoevski argues constantly that one cannot “discover proof” of anything; the very idea of proof is repugnant to him. To say that Ivan forgets that he is a “creature” is to utter the most pathetic sort of nonsense. The existentialist accepts all responsibility for his actions and does not beg forgiveness, but he accepts absolutely no responsibility for actions that are not his own. The essentialist (in this context, the ideal Christian) accepts all guilt for all actions, is morally ubiquitous, has no singular identity, and can be forgiven for any sin, no matter how terrible, because he ultimately has no freedom and no responsibility, not simply for his own sins but for the sins of mankind; he is a “creature.” To recognize oneself as a “creature” is, then, to submit gratefully to the condition of having no responsibility for one’s actions—like Mitya, whose brutality transforms him and, incidentally, destroys others—and to remain forever a child. A critic like Vivas might be quite right, within his religious context, to disapprove of Hamlet’s despair and recommend for him fasting and prayer—but this would not show much insight into the tragic vision of life, which is certainly opposed to the Christian vision.

Dostoevski understands perfectly the significance of Ivan’s questions, and the answer he suggests for them is not so much an answer as another point of view. This is Zossima speaking on the Book of Job:

“I heard the words of mockery and blame, proud words, ‘How could God give up the most loved of His saints for the diversion of the devil . . . and for no object except to boast to the devil?’ . . . But the greatness of it lies just in the fact that it is a mystery.” (p. 347-348)

“Mystery,” then, is offered as a reasonable answer to Ivan’s question, just as it is offered as a political expedient by the Grand Inquisitor. And Father Zossima goes on to say of the Bible:

“And what mysteries are solved and reveal; God raises Job again, gives him wealth again. Many years pass by, and he has other children and loves them. But how could he love those new ones when those first children are no more? . . . Remembering them, how could he be fully happy? . . . But he could, he could. It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet tender joy.” (p. 348)

Dostoevski offers here no “answer” to Ivan’s demands, and certainly the existential mind is offended at the ease with which pain is righted through words; the children who suffer and die clearly do not exist for Father Zossima as existing individuals, but only as objects in a continuous evolution that brings us closer to God and “truth.” If there is to be punishment for deeds of evil, it will have to be self-punishment. Zossima teaches that one cannot judge the criminal, but he says:

“If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him . . . and let him go without reproach. . . . If, after your kiss, he goes away untouched, mocking at you, do not let that be a stumbling-block. . . . It shows his time has not yet come. . . . And if it come not, no matter; if not he, then another in his place will understand and suffer, and judge and condemn himself, and the truth will be fulfilled.” (p. 385)

In such Christianity, then, it is precisely the individual who does not exist. One individual or another, one grasp of truth or another, it does not matter: truth itself is all that matters. So Zossima’s religion is the same religion as that of the Grand Inquisitor: the existing individual is of no importance. One needs “saints” to bow down to, but it is the bowing down that is significant, not the fact that a certain individual bows down. Dostoevski imagines the Grand Inquisitor as the pragmatic representative of Zossima’s mysticism. Both are lovers of mankind, but the Grand Inquisitor, in rejecting God, realizes that all men need laws and punishments and the process of confession and absolution. But both the Grand Inquisitor and Father Zossima recognize that man is a child—he is far from the existentialist’s ideal of a fully committed, rational, responsible human being.

Then, having set up daytime and nighttime equivalents of saviors, Dostoevski cannot resist going further and hypothesizing a bitter antithesis to both. The arena is once again Ivan’s mind, at the beginning of the illness brought on by Smerdyakov’s confession. The devil who appears to him is a disappointment—a kind of poor relation addicted to French phrases (anything French is decadent to Dostoevski) and strained jokes, the very bottom of Ivan’s unconscious powers and therefore the most frustrating of his trials; he is a blow to Ivan’s pride, like the dwarfish devil who rides Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and the “flabby devil” of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. What this devil is, of course, is the human mind, and out of it everything has come. That Dostoevski knows this seems clear enough, though he will pass beyond it in creating his epic comedy of faith. The devil says:

Je pense, donc je suis, I know that for a fact, all the rest, all these worlds, God and even Satan—all that is not proved, to my mind. Does all that exist of itself, or is it only an emanation of myself, a logical development of my ego which alone has existed forever?” (p. 781)

He echoes Ivan’s earlier remarks in saying that life is possible only by virtue of the absurd; without the scapegoat of the devil (or man’s unpredictable mind) nothing would have come to pass. The “devil” is equated with the “irrational”:

“For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course . . . but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life.” (p. 780)

Dostoevski says in this way that the basis of life is the irrational, the “devil” in man that mocks all too casually the farce of suffering that is human destiny. Of the Atonement nothing is said; this too is perhaps no more than an “emanation” from the mind of man.

But the harshest blow to the idealistic beliefs of Father Zossima is the devil’s conception of conscience. What Dostoevski says here is absolutely in contradiction to what he has said earlier. Asked by Ivan about the tortures of hell, the devil says:

“What tortures? Ah, don’t ask. In old days we had all sorts, but now they have taken chiefly to moral punishments—the stings of conscience’ and all that nonsense. . . . And who’s the better for it? Only those who have got no conscience, for how can they be tortured by conscience when they have none?” (p. 782)

That Ivan is driven mad is no necessary indication that his experience has been illusory; on the contrary, madness is often a sign in literature that the truth has blasted away all normality. Like Pip of Moby Dick, like Hamlet who plays mad and then no longer needs to play, Ivan has realized something so devastating that he cannot return to the world of ordinary men. He disappears from the novel, lost in the bustle of preparing for the freedom of Mitya and the “new Russia” symbolized by the boys. “Men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy”: Ivan’s part in the novel is that of tragic protagonist, making a certain choice (leaving his father to be killed), overreaching in his estimation of his own strength to bear the kind of truth he demands, and falling at last, destroyed by the fate that is so much a part of his character as to be inseparable from him. His tragedy differs significantly from that of Stavrogin in The Possessed, for Stavrogin lacks all will, all generosity, all purpose. As he says at the end of his life: “The only thing that has come out of me is negation without strength. . . . I can never lose my reason and never believe in an idea the way [Kirilov] did. I cannot even get very deeply interested in an idea.” Indeed, Dostoevski is careful to insist that Stavrogin is sane when he commits suicide—remaining sane, resisting the grace of insanity, is symptomatic of Stavrogin’s damnation. Though Ivan shares some of Stavrogin’s beliefs, he is far closer to humanity. If Ivan is presented as the rational existentialist, then the fate of such an intellectual and ethical position is madness and destruction, and such fate constitutes tragedy.

For we see that only those without consciences will survive and only the sensitive will suffer. The devil’s glib complaint about the new punishments is an answer to Father Zossima, undercutting the elder’s mystic conception of a man as a child thirsting for punishment and forgiveness. On the contrary, to be a child is to be a brute, and those few men who raise themselves above the brute level will suffer and be destroyed.

* * *

One is driven, then, again and again to a reassessment of this novel: is it an affirmative work, a kind of divine comedy that successfully answers the questions it asks? Or does it mock its very intentions, containing within it an antinovel, a tragic vision of life that bitterly opposes the joy of the ending? Kafka asks whether eternity can wipe out the humiliation of time, and one answers such a question in one of two ways: from the essentialist point of view, in which eternity does indeed lose everything in it, or from the existentialist point of view, in which there is no eternity but only segments of time that are never transcended. Dostoevski allows for both answers, though he clearly intends the essentialist view to justify the novel’s sufferings. He is credited with a shrewd understanding of society and of human character, but in reality he limits himself severely—probably by choice—in his dealings with “society,” and his characters all seem to belong to the same family; his psychological insights deal mainly with the self-lacerating effects of egoism and its corollary, the wish for destruction and death. As a writer of ideas he is always fascinating until he brings his works to a close. (Only The Idiot, with its beautifully shaped form, and the bizarre The Possessed, with its unleashing of Peter Verkhovensky onto the world, seem satisfactory as wholes.) What has made Dostoevski so highly esteemed a writer is, perhaps, not his understanding of human nature or his ability to work intelligently with ideas, but rather his fluid demonstration of the art of writing—the splendid unpredictability of the writer as writer, who can leave nothing unsaid, whose imagination is so nervously rich that characters and ideas multiply themselves as if by their own volition. The highest vision that Dostoevski gives us is the vision of the unfathomable raw process of creation as it leaps from the unconscious.


  1. All quotes from The Brothers Karamazov used in this paper are taken from the Modern Library edition of the novel.
  2. Sigmund Freud, “Dostoyevsky and Parricide,” in the anthology Character and Culture (New York: Collier Books, 1963), p. 288.
  3. “The Two Dimensions of Reality in The Brothers Karamazov,” in Creation and Discovery (New York, 1955), pp. 55, 66.
  4. Ibid., p. 66.


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