The Brothers Karamazov is, on one level, a thriller with many unexpected twists and turns in the plot. But it is not possible to discuss the character of Ivan without giving away some of these twists and turns. So if you haven’t yet read the book, but plan to, and don’t want the twists of the plot revealed, it might be best to give this post a miss.
Ivan famously says that if God didn’t exist, then everything would be permitted. This has been seen as an attempt on Dostoyevsky’s part to justify religious belief. Probably it is: it seems to me quite likely that Dostoyevsky himself did not think it possible to have any reasonable grounds for a moral code without belief in God. This is not to say that atheists are necessarily immoral people, nor, conversely, that believers are necessarily moral people – but merely that without belief in a divinity of some sort, there can be no moral code that is binding.
Not surprisingly, this has proved controversial, and I don’t know that I want to enter into this controversy: ethics is a difficult area, and I would prefer not to rush in foolishly where even experts fear to tread. But whatever Dostoyevsky’s own thoughts and convictions on the matter, in the context of Ivan and of the role he plays in the novel, his statement is perfectly coherent. Having rejected God – having rejected God even if God were to exist – Ivan feels he has to formulate his own moral code; and that, in the process of doing so, any moral imperative that comes from God, or claims to come from God, is, and must be, irrelevant: he has to start from scratch – nothing is given to begin with. In this sense, everything is, indeed, permitted.
Ivan is aware that his statement may be interpreted in different ways, but that doesn’t seem to bother him: quite the contrary – it seems to amuse him. He knows that Dmitri has been much struck by this thought, and he knows also that Dmitri has interpreted it in his own manner: but when he repeats to Alyosha that everything is, indeed, permitted, he adds that “Dmitri’s version of it isn’t bad either”. Even as he says this, Ivan is hoping that Dmitri would kill their father. As he puts it, what does it matter if one reptile were to kill another? Indeed, if one were to formulate one’s moral code on strictly rational grounds, then the killing of so depraved and so wicked a man as old Fyodor Karamazov need not be seen as a crime at all.
In the event, of course, it is not Dmitri who kills the the father, but Smerdyakov. This is what Ivan had been dreading. If Dmitri is the murderer, then the guilt is his; but should Smerdyakov turn out to be the killer, then it is he, Ivan, who is guilty, for Smerdyakov would have done it for Ivan’s sake. And what is more, Ivan had given him the go-ahead to do it. Not directly, of course: nothing is said directly. But in a sort of coded message, Ivan had effectively told Smerdyakov that he could go ahead with the killing. So terrible is this, that Ivan had, to a great extent, hidden his true motives even from himself; but Smerdyakov had understood it, and when he confronts Ivan with it afterwards, Ivan cannot deny it: being intellectually honest, he cannot deny it to his own self what he had desired, and, more, what he had actually done.
This idea of a “transferred guilt”, as it were, possibly derives from Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov (it is present also in Mussorgsky’s opera based on the play, composed some ten or so years before The Brother Karamazov was written). Boris had been tortured with guilt for the killing of the young Tsarevich Dmitri. He had not killed the boy himself, and nor had he given direct orders: but he had wanted it; he had made his desire known; and it had been done on his behalf. He could deny his guilt to the world, but not to himself. In both the play and in the opera, we see, in some of the most intense and terrifying of scenes, Boris being driven mad with guilt: eventually, it kills him. In Dostoyevsky’s novel, we see Ivan suffering tortures equally terrible. On the very last page of the novel, Alyosha describes him as being “on the point of death”.
Of the three brothers – at least, of the three legitimate brothers: Smerdyakov may well be a fourth Brother Karamazov – Ivan is the only one who is denied a moment of revelation, of epiphany. Not for him the glorious spiritual experience Alyosha has as he hears the reading of Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast in Cana; nor for him the transforming dream Dmitri has after his torments through Hell. Ivan goes through his own Hell, of course: mirroring Dmitri’s passage through Hell in those three chapters of the preliminary investigation entitled “The Passage of a Soul Through the Torments”, Ivan is given three chapters in which he meets with Smerdyakov, in a room unnaturally hot; and in the course of these meetings, his most unthinkable nightmare proves to be true: it is indeed he, Ivan, who is the murderer. But where Dmitri after journeying through Hell is granted a transforming vision, Ivan, after his journey through Hell, has to face the most horrendous nightmare of all: he has to meet with the Devil.
The novel at this stage has reached so febrile a pitch of intensity, that even the physical appearence of the Devil himself does not seem out of place. Ivan knows that this figure is a hallucination – is, indeed, an aspect of his own self-accusing soul. And yet, by this stage, Ivan cannot be sure even of his own knowledge. As he raves and babbles to Alyosha afterwards, he seems to believe that the figure he had encountered really was the Devil in person.
The scene with the Devil is perhaps the climactic point of the entire novel, and is the most dramatic and powerful scene in a novel full to bursting with dramatic and powerful scenes. (Thomas Mann later paid tribute to this scene by writing his own version of it in Doctor Faustus in which the protagonist, Adrian Leverkühn, meets the Devil is a hallucination brought on by syphillis.) The Devil comes not in a sulphurous flames or with thunder and lightning, but unassumingly, in the form of a rather shabbily dressed middle-aged gentleman. And his conversation – throughout the scene, it is the Devil who does virtually all the talking, while Ivan is driven further and further towads the edge of insanity – is not in grand, sonorous, Miltonic tones: it is everyday, peppered with jokes and anecdotes, almost convivial and friendly. But the Devil knows exactly how to drive Ivan mad: he knows exactly where to insert the needles to cause the maximum of pain. The scene builds over some twenty or so pages with insidious intent. This figure is, of course, most likely to be an aspect of Ivan’s own psyche; or, conceivably, it could actually be the Devil. Most frighteningly, it could be both.
Ivan’s mental collapse could, I suppose, be seen as a sort of moral judgement – as if Dostoyevsky were saying “This is what happens when you reject God”. But to see it in such terms is to reduce an extremely complex work into something very simple-minded. Even if we were to believe that rejection of God inevitably leads to this (and I don’t for a minute think that Dostoyevsky would believe something quite so simplistic), it is worth remembering that Ivan’s argument against God has not been answered. One must not look for easy solutions in a work such as this.