The Brothers Karamazov
Book XI, Chapters Six and Seven
by Dennis Abrams
“The First Meeting with Smerdyakov” “This was now the third time that Ivan Fyodorovich had gone to talk with Smerdyakov since his return from Moscow. The first time had seen him and spoken with him after the catastrophe was immediately upon the day of his arrival; then he had visited him once more two weeks later.” Ivan had arrived from Moscow the fifth day after his father’s death (nobody knew where to find him) — “so that he did not even find him in his coffin: the burial took place just the day before he arrived.” His belief in Dmitri’s guilt; his surprise that Alyosha thinks him innocent. His meeting with Dmitri “did not even weaken his conviction of Mitya’s guilt, but even strengthened it.” Dmitri and the money. The devil opened the garden gate. Dmitri insults Ivan by saying he refused to be suspected by questioned “by those who themselves assert that ‘everything is permitted.” Ivan’s refusal to give evidence about his talk with Smerdyakov to the investigator. Ivan visits Smerdyakov, “then in the local hospital.” Is he now mad? Smerdyakov’s physical condition. Ivan cuts to the chase: “Why are you sighing? You knew, didn’t you?” How could Smerdyakov have foretold he’d have a falling fit as he went into the cellar? Ivan refuses to be toyed with. Smerdyakov explains to Ivan that because he was in fear, having lost his protection from Ivan, that the fit would come, that he “was seized by the throat by this same inevitable spasm, sir…well, and so I fell in.” Ivan’s shock that Smerdyakov had told all to the investigators — with the exception of his statement that he could “sham a falling fit.” Was it true or just a boast? Smerdyakov’s lack of directness frustrates Ivan. Smerdyakov says that he was afraid that Dmitri would cause a scandal and take Fyodor’s money, and that Ivan should have guessed that because he ws sending him to Chermashnya instead of Moscow. “Thereby you should have guessed, sir, that if I was dissuading you from Moscow to Chermashnya, it meant I wanted your presence closer by, becuase Moscow is far away, and Dmitri Fyodorovich, seeing you were not so far away, wouldn’t be so encouraged.” “If I’d have guessed, I would have stayed!” Smerdyakov says he meant “It’s always interesting to talk with an intelligent man” as a reproach for abandoning his parent and not protecting them. Smerdyakov asks if he had planned to commit murder, why would he have given so much evidence against himself, “what kind of villain is so simple-hearted beforehand?” Ivan says that he won’t testify that Smerdyakov knows how to sham falling sickness. “And since you won’t testify about that, sir, I also will not report the whole of our conversation by the gate that time…” Over the next few days, Ivan becomes more convinced than ever of Dmitri’s guilt. Katerina throws herself at Ivan as her savior. Her remorse for having betrayed Dmitri, her quarrels with Ivan. Dmitri’s constant question for himself: “Why, on his last night in Fyodor Pavlovich’s house, before his departure, had he gone out silently to the stairs, like a thief, and listened for what his father was doing down below.” Why had he said to himself on reaching Moscow, “I am a scoundrel?” Alyosha concedes that at one point he thought that Ivan had wished for their father’s death.” “The Second Visit to Smerdyakov” “Smerdyakov had already been discharged from the hospital by then.” His new lodgings. Smerdaykov’s unhappiness at Ivan’s appearance. What did Smerdyakov mean when he said he would not tell the district attorney about the whole of their conversation at the gate? Was he threatening Ivan? “This is what I meant then, and this is why I said it then; that you, having known beforehand about the murder of your parent, left him then as a sacrifice; and so as people wouldn’t conclude anything bad about your feelings because of that, and maybe about various other things as well…” How could Ivan known about the murder? What various other things? “I meant that maybe you yourself were even wishing for your parent’s death then.” Ivan punches Smerdyakov in the shoulder hard. Smerdyakov insists he was testing Ivan at the gate. Smerdyakov grins contemptuously when Ivan accuses him of killing Fyodor. Did Ivan want his inheritance before Grushenka could have a chance to marry Fyodor? And if Ivan allowed Dmitri to go ahead with the murder, could it have been because he’d then be deprived of his rights, leaving the entire estate to be divided between himself and Alyosha? Smerdyakov suggests to Ivan that he keep his suspicions to himself, “Because what can you tell about me, in view of my complete innocence, and who will believe you? And if you begin, then I too, will tell everything, sir, for how could I not defend myself?…So be intelligent, sir.” Ivan leaves, “Yes, that is what I expected, it’s true! I wanted the murder, I precisely wanted it! Did I want the murder, did I…? I must kill Smerdyakov…! If I don’t dare kill Smerdyakov now, life is not worth living…!” Ivan, seemingly insane, goes to see Katerina, trying to convince her that Smerdyakov killed Fyodor. Katerina shows him the “mathematical proof” that Dmitri killed Fyodor, which convinces him of Dmitri’s guilt. Ivan offers Dmitri a plan of escape — but why? For the money? Because of guilt? Katerina herself had gone to see Smerdyakov, but told Ivan that it was he himself who convinced her of Dmitri’s guilt. Ivan decides to visit Smerdyakov yet again, “This time maybe I’ll kill him.”
How can this book continue to get more and more intense, and how cleverly has Dostoevsky built the structure of the book so that nearly every action, every word, reflects, mirrors, or amplifies nearly every action and word from earlier in the text?
Doesn’t Smerdyakov, in all his…loathsome weaseliness, remind you of a character out of Dickens? He certainly seems to embody a certain kind of evil, and he certainly knows how to push each and every one of Ivan’s buttons…
“Ivan, continuing in his role of visitor, sets out to visit Smerdyakov for the third time. Taken together, his three visits to Smerdyakov constitute a descent into the most complex aspects of guilt explored in this novel. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 explore the borderline between merely wishing for a criminal act to occur and actually being an accomplice to or instigator of it. The finely tuned psychological probing that goes on in these chapters finds an equally complex juxtaposition in the portrayal of the devil in chapter 9. What is his role in persuading Ivan toward evil?
As twentieth-century readers, we tend to squirm at any demonic interpretations of events if we sense that we are being asked to take them literally. But our modern aesthetic squeamishness cannot undo the fact that Dostoevsky believed in the devil. As a major novelist of the nineteenth century, however, he knew that his readers would balk at the sudden introduction of the devil into a novel that had hitherto operated within the confines of realism, however ‘fantastic.’ Dostoevsky’s aesthetic sense would not allow him to upset the delicate balance in his novel between religion (the struggle of God and the devil in the heart of man) [MY NOTE: If you prefer, think of it as the battle within all of us between good and evil] and psychological motivation. Hence, even as the religious and psychological strands of the novel intensify, their perfect, though competing balance remains intact.
As Ivan heads off for his third visit to Smerdyakov, the narrator-chronicler backtracks to Ivan’s first visit. Ivan had visited Smerdyakov in the hospital, five days after Fyodor’s murder and on the first day of his own arrival back from Moscow. Just before visiting Smerdyakov, Ivan had visited Mitya in prison. This encounter had strengthened Ivan’s conscious belief in Mitya’s guilt. Nevertheless, the first time he gave evidence to the district prosecutor he had remained silent about his conversations with Smerdyakov just before the murder. Ivan’s habit of putting things off has drastic consequences, as Book XI progresses.
In their first conversation, Smerdyakov confuses Ivan by presenting him with a tangle of facts tempered by lies. [MY NOTE: Like Satan?] Smerdyakov interprets their fateful conversation at the gate as a justification of his own innocence. He acknowledges his comment, ‘It’s always worthwhile speaking to a clever man,’ but asserts he had not meant it in praise of Ivan but as a reproach. He claims that he had wanted Ivan to go to Chermashnya, not Moscow, so that Ivan would be nearer in case of trouble. Even as he spews out these lies, however, Smerdyakov is uncomfortably aware that God may be listening in. ‘No one hears this talk of ours now, except Providence itself.’
Their first interview ends with a second instance of Ivan deciding, fatally, to remain silent. ‘Goodbye. But I won’t say anything of your being able to sham a fit, and I don’t advise you to, either,’ something made Ivan say suddenly.’ Smerdyakov concurs and vows a silence of his own that Ivan quickly realizes is insulting. Yet again, he resists his impulse to go back and confront Smerdyakov. Book X had closed with the invocation of Psalm 137, with its emphasis on memory. Here in Book XI Ivan strives towards a dangerous forgetfulness. “He felt as though he wanted to make haste to forget something.’
Two weeks after this first interview Ivan finds himself, despite his drive toward forgetfulness, at the mercy of undesired memories, memories that have perhaps surfaced, according to the precept of Zosima, ‘at the needed time.’ As Ivan is remembering, with repulsion, the words he had muttered to himself on the train to Moscow — ‘I am a scoundrel’ — he suddenly meets Alyosha. For the first time Ivan lets himself explore that dangerous boundary between the passive desire for evil and the role of accomplice. ‘Tell me, did you think I desired father’s death or not?’ ‘I did think so,’ answered Alyosha softly.’ Then Ivan asks him an even more difficult question; he asks whether Alyosha thought him ‘prepared to bring that about?’ Alyosha turns pale and remains silent. After Ivan has begged for the truth, he at least replies, ‘Forgive me, I did think that too, at the time.’ This exchange recalls the ending of Ivan’s narrative of the Grand Inquisitor. Then too Alyosha had turned pale as he acknowledged a truth painful for him to utter. Now the chapter that begins with Ivan being persuaded of Mitya’s guilt closes with Alyosha’s acknowledgement that he had imagined Ivan capable of conspiring in murder. Upon hearing these words, Ivan heads off immediately for his second interview with Smerdyakov.
During the ensuing two weeks, moreover, Ivan’s own sense of his guilt has grown. He angrily asks Smerdyakov, ‘Have I entered into some kind of compact with you?’ He asks this even as he denies that he could have known of the murder. Ironically, it is Alyosha whom the demonic Smerdyakov echoes when he accuses Ivan of having desired his father’s death. these words, coming from Smerdyakov rather than from Alyosha, provoke Ivan’s fury; he strikes Smerdyakov. Despite this dramatic confrontation and Ivan’s sudden accusation (‘It was you who murdered him!’), Dostoevsky does not yet let these powerful disclosures take root. Once again Ivan fatally delays going to the district prosecutor. He rushes instead to Katerina Ivanovna.
He expresses his fear to her. ‘If it’s not Dmitri, but Smerdyakov who’s the murderer, I share his guilt, for I put him up to it.’ His words frighten her into showing him the drunken, self-incriminating letter Mitya had written to her on the first night of the novel’s action. The chapter closes with Ivan being more certain than ever that Mitya committed the crime. The seed of truth that had so tentatively planted itself in Ivan has quickly been encased in a husk of versimilitudinous falsehood and ‘mathematical proof.’
As Chapter 8 opens, the reader myst note that chapters 6 and 7 have been chronological backtrackings on the part of the narrator-chronicler. the novel now renters its ongoing time, that of the day before the trial is to begin. Ivan heads off through the dark for his third and final interview with Smerdyakov. But Alyosha has just spoken his words to Ivan beneath the lamppost; he has softly intoned that God has sent him to tell Ivan that, despite his self-accusation, he is not the murderer. Alyosha makes a firm distinction between desiring and enacting murder. To him those boundaries are clear.
The narrator-chronicler uses every possible device to highlight the importance of Ivan’s third visit to Smerdyakov. He carefully prepares for it by his flashback depiction of the first two visits. the chapter title, ‘The third and last interview with Smerdyakov,’ also underlines its importance. Even the weather plays a role: as Ivan moves away from the light and Alyosha and toward the darkness and Smerdyakov, he is ‘unconscious of the storm.’ Finally, the chapter itself contains a frame and as such is like a short story embedded within the novel. The frame story, moreover, duplicates in miniature the larger drama that Ivan is enacting.”
The Weekend’s Reading:
Book XI, Chapters Eight and Nine
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.