The Brothers Karamazov
Book Five, Chapter Six
by Dennis Abrams
“A Rather Obscure One for the Moment” “And Ivan Fyodorovich, on parting from Alyosha, went home to Fyodor Pavlovich’s home.” Ivan’s unbearable anguish. Is it loathing for his father’s home? Was it parting from Alyosha and their conversation? “Anguish to the point of nausea, yet it’s beyond me to say what I want. Perhaps I shouldn’t think…” “Above all, this anguish was vexing and annoyed him by the fact that it had some accidental, completely eternal appearance; this he felt. Somewhere some being or object was standing and sticking up, just as when something sticks up in front of one’s eye and one doesn’t notice it for a long time…” On arriving at his father’s, Ivan sees Smerdyakov, and “realized at the first sight of him that the lackey Smerdyakov was also sitting in his soul, and that it was precisely this man that his soul could not bear.” Ivan’s growing dislike for Smerdyakov. The appearance of Smerdyakov’s “boundless vanity…an injured vanity besides. Ivan Fyodorovich did not like that all.” “but in the end the thing that finally most irritated Ivan Fyodorovich and filled him with such loathing, was a sort of loathsome and peculiar familiarity, which Smerdyakov began displaying towards him more and more markedly.” Despite this, Ivan speaks politely first to Smerdyakov, asking about his father. Smerdyakov wonders why Ivan isn’t going to Chermashnya. Smerdyakov tells Ivan about his father’s desperate longing for Grushenka to visit, and of his playing on both Fyodor’s and Dmitri’s side. Smerdyakov warns that he’ll be having a “long attack of the falling sickness,” that could last for days. Smerdyakov reveals that Fyodor locks himself into his room at night, and has a series of coded knocks to let him know if Grushenka is coming, or if something urgent is happening, or if Fyodor is coming — Fyodor has been informed of the code by Smerdyakov. Smerdyakov tells Ivan that Grigory Vasilievich has come down sick, and is receiving treatment from his wife Marfa, which involves drink that will make them both sleep for some time. Is Smerdyakov arranging matters to allow Dmitri to come in? The envelope with 3000 roubles for Grushenka — does Dmitri need it? Would Grushenka marry Fyodor for his money and keep the brothers from inheriting anything while, if he should die now, each of them would receive a sure forty thousand all at once? why is Smerdyakov advising Ivan to go to Chermashnya? “What do you mean to say by that? I’ll go, and that is what will happen here?” “Exactly right, sir,” Smerdyakov said quietly and reasonably…” Ivan is about to leave, when he suddenly stopped and turned to Smerdyakov, “all of a sudden, as if in a convulsion, Ivan Fyodorovich bit his lip, clenched his fists, and in another moment would certainly have thrown himself on Smerdyakov…But the moment passed favorably for Smerdyakov…” Ivan announces he’s going to Moscow the next morning. Which is better, Moscow or Chermashnya? “but Ivan Fyodorovich, much to Smerdyakov’s surprise, suddenly laughed and walked quickly through the gate, still laughing. Anyone seeing his face would certainly have concluded that he was not laughing at all out of merriment. And for the life of him he himself could not have explained what was happening to him at that moment. He moved and walked as if in spasms.”
Loved this chapter, loved the way that Dostoevsky allowed Smerdyakov to take control, to slowly reveal…If the chapter is called “A Rather Obscure One,” is he referring to what appears to be a plot by Smerdyakov and Dmitri to kill Fyodor, with Ivan seemingly giving his silent blessing? Is the “obscure one” the motivation?
And, I thought it most interesting that Smerdyakov’s question to his father regarding the source of light on the first day of creation if the sun, moon and stars weren’t created until the fourth, had been previously discussed with Ivan.
Miller points out that “Book V closes with nightmarish intimations of Ivan’s oncoming madness — ‘Some person or thing seemed to be standing out somewhere, just as something will sometimes intrude itself upon the eye’ — and with his dreadful encounter with Smerdyakov. The atmosphere quickly fills with stifling foreboding. Alyosha has departed for the monastery, and the demonic lackey Smerdyakov enacts his temptations. “I am a scoundrel,’ whispers Ivan to himself.'”
And from Joseph Frank:
“Ivan’s rebellion and his Legend are framed between two encounters with Smerdyakov. He returns home to encounter the obsequiously insinuating but also vaguely sinister presence of his father’s cook and manservant, and the subconscious expectation of meeting Smerdyakov plunges him, though he is not fully aware of this reason himself , into a state of intense depression. The relation between the two — only hinted at previously — is now developed more fully. Ivan had initially ‘taken an interest in Smerdyakov, and had even thought him very original.’ They discussed questions such as the literal accuracy and truthfulness of some of the statements in the Old Testament, and Smerdyakov had begun to see himself as Ivan’s disciple. Indeed, when Smerdyakov was ridiculing the heroism of Foma Danilov in refusing to renounce his faith, Feodor had said to Ivan, ‘He’s got this all up for your benefit. He wants you to praise him.’
Ivan now comes to feel an ‘aversion’ to Smerdyakov because the lacky ‘began to betray a boundless vanity, and a wounded vanity,’ that Ivan finds intolerable. The irony of this observation is obvious: Smerdyakov’s ‘vanity’ is a parody of his admired model, who in the person of the Grand Inquisitor had imagined himself capable of ‘correcting’ the work of God. Worst of all, from Ivan’s point of view, is that Smerdyakov now acts as if they ‘had some kind of compact, some secret between them,’ unknown to everyone else, which created a bond. Such a bond exists whether Ivan desired it or not because Smerdyakov has assimilated the amoral nihilism of Ivan’s ideas, which had begun to ferment within a mind and heart lacking his own sensitivity to human suffering. The dialogue that ensures is portrayed on two levels — the exchange of words between them, accompanied by the dialogue of Ivan with himself. In this second dialogue, the loathing Ivan has come to feel for Smerdyakov is dominated by his subconscious sense that both are linked by a secret, subliminal compact — one that he resents but cannot resist or shake off. Ivan’s clash of feelings about Smerdyakov dramatizes, on the moral psychological level, the same conflict between reason and faith (the source of moral conscience for Dostoevsky) that forms the basis of Ivan’s character.
Even though Ivan does not wish to speak to Smerdyakov, he finds himself involuntarily addressing Smerdyakov in a tone inviting conversation. Ivan behaves under a compulsion, almost a fascination, that can only arise from the tormenting paralysis resulting from his inner conflict. In the course of their exchange, Smerdyakov insinuates in veiled terms all the events that will leave the way clear, if Ivan goes to Chermashnaya, for Dimitry to invade the house again and carry out the threat to kill his father. As he listens, Ivan becomes incensed by Smerdyakov’s allusive words, which provide purposeless information but in fact hint at the likelihood of murder. Almost throwing himself upon the servant in a paroxysm of rage, he then quietly announces instead that he will leave for Moscow the next day. Ivan’s contradictory behavior has been foreshadowed by his words to Alyosha, after they both pulled Dimitry away from their bloodied father. ‘One viper will devour the other,’ he had said. ‘And serves both of them right, too.’ Nevertheless, while insisting to Alyosha that he would always defend his father, Ivan had also added: ‘But in my wishes I reserve myself full latitude in this case.’
Book Five, Chapter Seven; Book Six, Chapter One