Summary and Analysis
Book V: Chapters 1-4
When Alyosha returns to Madame Hohlakov's to report his failure with the captain, he learns that Katerina has developed a fever following her hysterical outburst and is now upstairs, unconscious. To Lise, Alyosha explains the nature of his mission and his failure and analyzes the captain's character for her. As he talks, Lise becomes very impressed with such deep insight and such warmth and love of humanity. She confesses that she indeed meant what she wrote in the letter. The revelation is startling, and she and Alyosha discuss their feelings for each other and begin to make plans for marriage. For his part, Alyosha admits that he has told a white lie concerning the letter. He did not return it, not because he did not have it but because he valued it too much.
Meanwhile, Madame Hohlakov, who has eavesdropped on the conversation, stops Alyosha as he is leaving and expresses deep disapproval of the match. Alyosha assures her that the marriage is yet far in the future, that Lise is much too young to marry presently.
Alyosha, then, puzzling over Dmitri's actions of the previous night, decides to try to find his brother. It is more important, he believes, to "have saved something" of Dmitri's honor than to flee back to the monastery. The summerhouse seems a likely place to find his brother; this is where he often watches for Grushenka and dreams of her. As Alyosha waits, he overhears Smerdyakov singing and playing the guitar for the housekeeper's daughter. Alyosha interrupts, with apologies, and asks Smerdyakov if he has seen Dmitri. The cook is able to help Alyosha and says that Ivan has made an appointment to meet Dmitri at the Metropolis restaurant. Alyosha rushes there but Dmitri is not to be found. Instead, Ivan is dining alone. Ivan beckons to his brother, and Alyosha accepts his brother's invitation to talk. Ivan admits, first off, that he is eager to know Alyosha better; he has come to respect and admire the boy. Ivan also admits that he has an intense longing for life even though he constantly encounters only disorder and injustice. Alyosha, however, is more concerned about Dmitri and what will happen to him and what will happen to Fyodor if Ivan leaves the family. To this, Ivan insists that he is absolutely not his brother's keeper, nor his father's keeper, and confesses finally that he is dining at the restaurant for only one reason: he cannot bear the presence of his loathsome father.
That settled, Ivan begins to tell Alyosha of his views on "the existence of God and immortality." He says that he does not reject God but cannot accept Him. If God does exist and if He indeed created the world, the human mind should be able to fathom the deed and understand the purpose of creation. Ivan cannot and therefore rejects the world God created. If, he adds, this means that he must reject God, then that is another problem. Alyosha queries more closely, asking Ivan to be more specific as to why he cannot accept the world. Ivan answers by saying that he can love man at a distance but that he is unable to love his next-door neighbor. For him, "Christ-like love for men is a miracle impossible on earth." That which makes it especially difficult to accept the world, as it is, is the vast suffering and brutality in the world. If God exists, says Ivan, how can this horror be accounted for? He singles out the suffering of children as prime evidence of the world's indifferent cruelty. Children have had no time to sin, but they suffer. Why? Certainly not because of sin, supposedly the cause of suffering. He then recites several horrible examples of atrocities inflicted upon children by other human beings. Because such injustice is allowed to happen, Ivan simply cannot accept the mythical "harmony of God" or accept a universe in which one who is tortured embraces his torturer. Such "harmony," says Ivan, "is not worth the tears of one tortured child." He concludes that if truth must be bought at the price of the suffering of children, then such truth is not worth the price. He tells Alyosha: "It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket."
Alyosha is horrified and tells Ivan that these thoughts constitute rebellion. Ivan offers Alyosha a further example: suppose, he says, one could create a perfect world for man but it could survive only by torturing to death "one tiny creature." Would Alyosha be the architect of such a world? As an answer, Ivan is reminded that there is One who can forgive everything "because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything." Ivan assures his brother that he has not forgotten "the One without sin" and recites a prose poem that he wrote several years ago. He calls his poem "The Grand Inquisitor."
As Alyosha tells Lise of his encounter with the captain, we see that he, like Zossima, has a deeply penetrating mind and understands the inner workings of those whom he is trying to help. This understanding of human nature proves Alyosha much more than a simple person of simple faith.
Zossima, remember, has commanded Alyosha to marry. Because of the elder, Alyosha has chosen Lise; no one, he believes, will make him a better wife. But for all of Zossima's influence, he is not a puppet-master. Alyosha is objective about the wisdom of his mentor's teachings, and although he knows that Zossima is dying, he feels that it is a higher duty to find Dmitri than to go to the elder's deathbed. Thus Alyosha matures into a man of worldly responsibility and makes other men much more than only of spiritual concern.
In Chapter 3, Dostoevsky makes clear the earlier ambiguities of Ivan's character. Previously, the brother maintained a distance from Alyosha because he had been evaluating him to see if he is merely an empty-minded religious fanatic. Now, however, Ivan has learned to respect and admire Alyosha because "you do stand firm and I like people who are firm like that, whatever it is that they stand by." Ivan is now ready to thoroughly discuss his beliefs with his brother. In addition, Ivan also feels that his impending departure makes it imperative to explain himself to Alyosha. But if he is concerned for Alyosha, he is certainly not concerned for Dmitri; he refuses to be either his brother's keeper or the "keeper" of Fyodor. He is quite adamant concerning this, and his vehemence is easily recalled when the idea of Fyodor's being vulnerable for murder is discussed.
Preluding his views on religion, Ivan announces that he has a strong desire to live. He loves life even though he finds it illogical. Such an acknowledgement of a love of living is important because Ivan, with a philosophy seemingly nihilistic, might too easily be categorized as a suicidal cynic. Ivan is morally much stronger and is deeply committed to the business of living.
Both brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, agree that "for real Russians the questions of God's existence and of immortality . . . come first and foremost and so they should." In its largest context, this is the subject of the novel. These ideas are central not just to the characters but to an understanding of Dostoevsky's entire point of view.
Ivan surprises Alyosha by announcing, "perhaps I too accept God," reminding his brother of the saying, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." For Ivan, the astonishing factor of Christianity is that man is basically such a "savage, vicious beast" that it is illogical that he could conceive of an idea so noble and magnificent as "God." Ivan is, of course, leading into his views about the baseness of most humans and the difficulty of believing man sufficiently noble to conceive of something so totally transcending his own vicious nature.
Most of all, Ivan desires a world in which his human intellect can fully comprehend the logic and purpose of life. He uses the analogy of two parallel lines, which, according to Euclid, can never meet. Ivan's mind can comprehend this concept because he has a "Euclidian earthly mind." But if someone tells him that two parallel lines might meet somewhere in infinity, and even if he sees it himself, he still cannot accept the theory. Therefore, even though he is willing to accept God, His Wisdom, and His purpose, he cannot accept "this world of God's . . . it's the world created by Him that I don't and can't accept."
To explain further why he does not accept the world, Ivan examines the brutality found in the world, saying that he cannot love his neighbor. It is easy to love man in the abstract sense, certainly, but when one looks into the face of a man, it is impossible to love him. For Christ, to love men was easy because He was God; but for ordinary men to love one's neighbor — the idea is ridiculously impossible. Later, Ivan will elaborate upon this in his poem "The Grand Inquisitor."
Ivan uses the suffering of innocent children as his principal grounds for the world's unacceptability. The idea of the suffering innocent has plagued philosophers since time's beginning; it is the subject of such great works as the Book of Job. But Ivan does not concern himself with the sufferings of adults. For them, a philosophical justification is possible: the adult has sinned, and his suffering is a punishment for his sins. Children, however, have not yet sinned, and therefore Ivan cannot understand a world created by God that justifies their suffering. And regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Ivan, one must recognize the logic at work in this system of thinking. Life, for Ivan, must be rational — it must especially be rational if one is to appreciate God's wonder and love Him as one should.
So well has Ivan considered his philosophy that he is even amused by the term "bestial cruelty," for this, he believes, is an insult to beasts. An animal kills only for food and kills rapidly, but man kills slowly, deliberately, and often only for the sadistic pleasure of watching his victim suffer.
As Ivan speaks, he is quite aware that he is causing Alyosha to suffer; he knows well of Alyosha's fondness for children. But, although he is not his "brother's keeper," he is far from heartless; for him, children are revered. He can find no logic that justifies their suffering. He asks Alyosha what would be the basis of an eternal harmony if a victim would "rise up and embrace his murderer." If this higher harmony would, even in part, be based on such suffering, then Ivan must renounce it. Truth is not worth such a price. In reference to the story of the general who had his dogs kill a peasant boy, Ivan states, "I don't want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother's heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him!" Ivan rejects such monstrous injustice; he would rather remain with his "unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation."
When Alyosha tells Ivan that his view is that of rebellion, Ivan presents Alyosha with the following hypothesis: "Imagine you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature . . . to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?" This analogy of Ivan's offers the same view as that expressed throughout the chapter — that a world created for men should not be founded on innocent suffering. As a humanist, Ivan cannot accept happiness or eternal harmony at the expense of any "unexpiated blood."
Alyosha reminds Ivan that he has forgotten the one Being Who "gave His innocent blood for all." Because of Alyosha's objection, Ivan is provoked to narrate his prose poem, "The Grand Inquisitor."