The Brothers Karamazov
Book XII, Chapter 5
by Dennis Abrams
“A Sudden Catastrophe” “I will note that he had already been called once, ahead of Alyosha.” Ivan’s testimony, “The presiding judge began by saying that he was not under oath, that he could give evidence or withhold it, but that, of course, all testimony should be given in good conscience, etc., etc.” Ivan’s resemblance to a dying man. His attitude. Ivan starts to leave, the courtroom, compares himself to that peasant girl, “…you know how it goes, ‘I’ll jump if I want, and I won’t if I don’t…'” Ivan reveals the 3000 roubles, “here is the money…the same money that was in that envelope…I got it from Smerdyakov, the murderer, yesterday. I visited him before he hanged himself. It was he who killed father, not my brother. He killed him, and killed him on my instructions…Who doesn’t wish for his father’s death…?…Everyone wants his father dead. Viper devours viper…” Alyosha jumps up and insists that Ivan is delirious. Ivan responds, “Calm yourself, I’m not mad, I’m simply a murderer!” Ivan admits he has no proof and no witnesses, “except one perhaps…” Ivan is escorted from the courtroom, turmoil ensues. Katerina Ivanovna has hysterics, begins sobbing and asks to give a piece of evidence — the letter with the ‘mathematical proof’ that Dmitri killed his father. “He killed his father, you’ll see now, he writes to me how he’s going to kill his father! And the other one is ill, ill, he’s delirious! I’ve seen for three days that he’s delirious!” Katerina throws Dmitri under the bus, telling the court that Dmitri hated her, that she knew when she gave him the money that it was for him to court Grushenka with, that he wanted to marry her only for inheritance, and so that she would go “trembling before him all my life out of shame for having come to him that time, and that he could despise me eternally and so hold himself above me…He’s a monster!” Katerina blames Ivan’s madness on his concern for Dmitri, “He tormented himself, he kept trying to minimize his brother’s guilt…Oh, he has a deep, deep conscience?…He could not bear it that his own brother was a parricide…And yesterday he learned that Smerdyakov had died — he was so struck by it that he’s lost his mind…and all because of the monster, all to save the monster!” Did Katerina believe what she was saying? “‘Mitya,’ she cried out, ‘your serpent has destroyed you! See, she’s shown you what she is!'” Ivan’s brain fever is confirmed. “Fetyukovich was visibly shaken by Katerina Ivanovna’s evidence. But the prosecutor was triumphant.” After an intermission, “I believe it was precisely eight o’clock in the evening when our prosecutor, Ippolit Kirillovich, began his statement for the prosecution.”
What a tremendous courtroom scene! Reading it, I found it difficult to believe that the same man who wrote such a completely theatrical yet completely true to the characters scene, is the same man who also gave us tremendous, philosophically chapters such as Zosima’s Mysterious Stranger, The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, and Ivan’s great scene with the devil. The range of this novel is rather breathtaking.
And, I was struck again by Dostoevsky’s use of the narrator-chronicler’s uncertainty as to what he is witnessing. “I do not remember everything in order, I was excited myself and could not follow…”
And of course by Ivan’s famous line, “Who doesn’t wish for his father’s death?” As Freud points out in his essay, “Dostoevsky and Parricide, “It can scarcely be owing to chance that three of the masterpieces of the literature of all time — the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov should all deal with the same subject: parricide. In all three, moreover, the motive for the deed, sexual rivalry for a woman, is laid bare.”
“But in this strange trial the truth, as Mitya quickly realizes during Katerina Ivanovna’s first round of testimony, serves to damage his case. Ivan’s sudden producing of the stolen money and his accusation of Smerdyakov and himself (“Who doesn’t desire his father’s death?”) hurts Mitya most of all. Moreover, like Grushenka and Alyosha, Ivan, when he speaks the truth, has no proof of it. “That’s just it. I have no proof.” The court reacts to Ivan as the mysterious visitor’s interlocutors did to him so long ago.
Yet to us Ivan’s words summarize the immense spiritual journey he has undergone. His wavering has continued until the last moment — he has approached, departed from, and reapproached the witness stand. Although his words sound like mad ramblings to those in the courtroom, to us they have a poetic and recapitulative significance. At last he cries out: ‘You see, listen to me. I told him I don’t want to keep quiet and he talked about the geological cataclysm…idiocy! Come, release the monster…he’s been singing a hymn…It’s like a drunken man in the street bawling how ‘Vanka went to Petersburg,’ and I would give a quadrillion quadrillion for two seconds of joy.’ By the time a hysterical Katerina Ivanovna, intent on saving Ivan, offers up her ‘mathematical proof’ of Mitya’s guilt, we know that all is lost for Mitya. The devil’s arithmetic seems operative in the courtroom.
We have see at length Mitya’s extraordinary skill at creating and depicting possible scenarios for himself, beginning with his description of his successive motivations in his first meeting with Katerina Ivanovna. Now his drunken letter to her, describing yet another of his unexecuted plans, is interpreted as evidence for what actually occurred. His own character, his habit of working out innumerable scenarios before settling on a single course of action, has undone him. Katerina Ivanovna shrikes, “Look, everything is written there beforehand, just as he committed the murder after. The whole scenario.” The dreadful irony of this scene is that, to defend Ivan, Katerina Ivanovna makes her consummate accusation of Mitya at the very moment when she believes ‘all of a sudden’ that it is Ivan who is guilty.”
And a few excerpts from Joseph Frank:
Regarding Ivan’s scene with the devil:
“The portrait of the devil, as Victor Terras has remarked, contains more descriptive detail than that of any other character. Dostoevsky takes great pains to present him in entirely earthly terms as a Russian social type. Because Ivan keeps insisting that the devil is just a figure of his imagination, Dostoevsky ironically gives him a solid embodiment…He lives as what the Russians call a prizhivalchik, a sponger on more affluent relatives and friends who continue to offer him hospitality because he is, after all, a gentleman; his manners are good, he can be presented in society, and he is agreeable, accommodating, and amusing. Such an image carries a symbolic meaning. Religion itself, from Dostoevsky’s point of view, was now a hanger-on in Russian educated society, accepted as a respectable relic of the past but hardly exercising its old power and influence. As the devil remarks himself, ‘it’s an axiom generally accepted in society that I am a fallen angel…If I ever was, it must have been so long ago that there’s no harm in forgetting it.”
Ivan’s dialogue with the devil plays on the continual fluctuation between the stirrings of his conscience and the amorally Nihilistic conclusions that he has drawn from his refusal to accept God and immortality. The devil had first appeared to Ivan once he began to brood over his possible part in the murder, and in this sense the evil represents paradoxically the voice of Ivan’s conscience revolting against his reason. Dostoevsky’s devil, however, does not preach moral sermons but ridicules the inconsistency between Ivan’s pangs of conscience and the ideas he has accepted and expounded. ‘Everything is permitted’ for those who do not believe in God and immortality, and Ivan has rejected both. Why, then, should he be tormented of moral guilt that derive from such principles? The devil arrives to personify Ivan’s self-mockery of his own moral-psychic contradictions, which have driven him into what Dostoevsky called brain fever and we now diagnose as schizophrenia. Ivan will finally break down completely — but not before the devil has exhibited both Ivan’s longing for faith and difficulty of attaining it for someone who refuses to accept any non-Euclidean world.
The involutions of Ivan’s conversation with the devil are so intricate that it is impossible to give in brief any adequate account of their complexities. Essentially, however, its aim is to dramatize the antinomies in which Ivan is trapped once his conscience comes into clashing opposition with those rational convictions that give rise to his rebellion against God and Christ. The supreme irony, of course, is that it should be the devil who apparently leads him along the path to faith, and Ivan (who is of course speaking to himself through the devil) realizes all the incongruity of such a situation.
Ivan insists ‘I knew Smerdyakov hanged himself,’ affirming that ‘he [the devil] had told me so just now.’ This not literally true, but the devil had indeed warned Ivan that the conflict between belief and disbelief was such torture that ‘it could be enough to make you hang yourself.’ And in Ivan’s disordered frame of mind, such words applied to himself could well have been shifted to Smerdyakov, similarly tormented by the same uncertainties. Alyosha’s arrival causes the devil to vanish from Ivan’s psyche, if not as a recollection then as a presence, but Ivan’s inner debate with himself continues. Completely bewildered, he insists that the devil had been in his rooms, but then acknowledges that ‘he is myself…All that’s base in me.’ Still, Ivan insists that ‘he told me a good deal that was true about myself…I would never have owned it to myself.’ Most of all, the devil understood the source of Ivan’s mortification: ‘You are going to perform an act of heroic virtue,’ he had told Ivan. ‘and you don’t believe in virtue, that’s what tortures you and makes you angry, that’s why you are so vindictive.’ Now that Smerdyakov is dead, any hope of saving Dimitry has vanished, and yet, the devil sneers, Ivan will go anyway. ‘And it would be all right if you believed in virtue…But you are a little pig like Feodor Pavlovich and what do you want with virtue?’
The devil had had no doubt about how Ivan would act: ‘you’ll go because you wont’ dare not to go’ though why this should be be so ‘is a riddle for you.’ But is not a riddle for Alyosha, who finally puts Ivan to bed when he collapses. Alyosha ‘began to understand Ivan’s illness. The anguish of a proud determination. A deep conscience! God, in Whom he disbelieved, and His Truth were gaining mastery in his heart.’ Alyosha naturally imagines that ‘God will conquer,’ and we shall soon see that Ivan will indeed obey the voice of his conscience. But Alyosha’s fears also leave open the possibility, not resolved by the time the novel ends, that Ivan will ‘perish in hate, revenging himself on himself and on everyone for having served the cause he does not believe in.’
Indeed, during the trial of Dimitry for the murder of their father, all of Ivan’s contempt for humanity — the contempt underlying the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, despite its humanitarian pathos — comes to the fore as he turns on the judges and all the spectators in the courtroom, none of whom is shown as especially concerned with moral questions. When the startled president asks if Ivan is in his right mind, he replies, ‘I should think I am in my right mind…in the same nasty mind as you…and all those…ugly faces.’ Humankind now becomes identified with himself: ‘They all desire the death of their fathers. One reptile devours another.’ Alyosha cries out that Ivan has ‘brain fever,’ but Ivan continues, ‘I am not mad, I am only a murderer.’ When asked for proof of his accusation against Smerdyakov, he replies that he has no witnesses — except possibly the devil — and then rambles on, as if confiding a secret, in a stream-of-consciousness monologue composed of fragments taken from earlier scenes. ‘I told him I don’t want to keep quiet and he talked about the geological cataclysm…idiocy! Come…release the monster [Dimitry]…he’s been singing a hymn…that’s because his heart is light…It’s like a drunken man in the street howling how ‘Vinka went to Petersburg,’ and I would give a quadrillion quadrillions for two seconds of joy.’ The poignancy of these last words requires no comment.”
The Weekend’s Reading:
Book Twelve, Chapters Six-Eight
And enjoy your weekend.