But hesitation, anxiety, the struggle between belief and disbelief—all that is sometimes such a torment for a conscientious man like yourself, that it’s better to hang oneself. . . .
On a wintry day almost two months after Dmitri’s arrest, Alyosha travels to visit Grushenka. Alyosha and Grushenka have grown closer since Dmitri’s arrest, and are now close friends. Grushenka fell ill three days after the arrest, but is now almost fully recovered. As her friendship with Alyosha has deepened, Grushenka has begun to show signs of spiritual redemption as well. Her fiery temper and her pride are still intact, but her eyes now shine with a new light of gentleness. She tells Alyosha that she and Dmitri have had an argument, and that she fears that Dmitri is in love with Katerina again, even though Katerina has not once visited him in prison. Grushenka also believes that Dmitri and Ivan are hiding something from her. She asks Alyosha to find out what it is, and Alyosha agrees to do so.
Before Alyosha speaks to Dmitri, he must pay a visit to Madame Khokhlakov and Lise. Madame Khokhlakov speaks to him before he sees Lise, and tells him something very curious: Ivan has recently paid a visit to Lise, after which Lise’s already erratic moods have become even more unbalanced. Madame Khokhlakov asks Alyosha to find out what is troubling Lise and to tell her after he has found out.
Lise is nearly hysterical when Alyosha goes in to see her. After they decided to become engaged, she changed her mind and broke off the engagement, and now, she says, she does not even respect Alyosha, because she cannot respect anyone or anything. She says that she wants to die because the world is so loathsome. She describes speaking to a “certain man” about this subject and says that the man laughed at her and left. She asks if the man despised her, and Alyosha says that he did not. As Alyosha rises to leave, Lise gives him a note for Ivan. When Alyosha is gone, she slams her finger in the door, crushing her fingernail. As she looks down at the blackened, bloody nail, she whispers to herself that she is mean.
Alyosha goes to the prison, where Rakitin has just visited Dmitri. Perplexed, Alyosha asks Dmitri about the visit, and Dmitri says Rakitin wants to write an article alleging that, because of his circumstances, Dmitri could not have helped but kill his father. Dmitri says he holds Rakitin in contempt, but allows him to visit so he can laugh at his ideas. Sobering, Dmitri tells Alyosha that even though he is not guilty of the crime of which he is accused, he has come to terms with the burden of sin he has created for himself and longs to do penance and redeem himself. He is only afraid that Grushenka will not be allowed to travel with him to his exile in Siberia, and that without her, he will lack the strength necessary for his spiritual renewal.
Dmitri says that Ivan has recently offered him a plan for his escape, even though Ivan believes Dmitri to be guilty of the murder. This plan is the secret that they have been keeping from Grushenka. Tormented with grief and guilt, Dmitri refuses to escape before the trial. He asks Alyosha what he believes, and Alyosha says that he has never believed Dmitri to be guilty. This declaration from his younger brother fills Dmitri with courage and hope.
Alyosha finds Ivan outside Katerina’s. Ivan tells him that Katerina has a letter from Dmitri that proves he is the murderer. Alyosha does not believe it. He insists that Dmitri is innocent. Ivan asks cuttingly who the murderer could be, if it is not Dmitri. Alyosha says that Ivan obviously considers himself indirectly responsible for the crime, and Alyosha reassures him that he is not. He says that God has sent him to soothe Ivan’s conscience. Ivan is troubled by Alyosha’s religiosity and storms away.
Since the murder, Smerdyakov has been sick and is now near death. Ivan has visited him twice, and now goes to see him again. During their first visit, Smerdyakov asserts that Ivan left his father on the day of the murder because he suspected his brother Dmitri would kill their father, and Ivan secretly wanted their father to die.
During Ivan’s second visit, Smerdyakov says that he believes Ivan wished Fyodor Pavlovich to die so that he would inherit a large portion of his wealth. After this visit, Ivan is suddenly forced to accept that he bears part of the blame for the murder. He goes to visit Katerina, and she shows him a letter in which Dmitri promises to kill Fyodor Pavlovich if necessary to repay her 3,000 rubles. This reassures Ivan that Dmitri is responsible for the murder, and that he himself bears no responsibility for it.
On Ivan’s third visit to Smerdyakov, Smerdyakov openly confesses that he murdered Fyodor Pavlovich. But he says that he could not have done so had his philosophical discussions with Ivan not given him a new understanding of morality that made it possible for him to kill. For this reason, he says, Ivan is as much to blame for the murder as Smerdyakov is.
Ivan returns home, thinking that he will now be able to prove Dmitri’s innocence at the trial tomorrow. But in his room, he has a nightmarish hallucination or vision: a luridly dressed middle-aged man who claims to be a devil. The devil taunts Ivan about his doubt and insecurity, and though Ivan is harshly critical of the devil, the apparition eventually drives him mad.
At last Alyosha knocks at the door, and the devil disappears. Ivan insists that what happened was real, but he is hysterical and seems to be undergoing a mental collapse. Before realizing that Ivan is having a nervous breakdown, Alyosha tells him his news: Smerdyakov has hung himself and is dead. Alyosha spends the night caring for Ivan and praying for him.
Lise’s miserable behavior makes her a parody of Ivan. Like Ivan, she is frustrated and hurt by the world’s injustice, saying that she cannot respect anything. But whereas Ivan reacts to his frustration with an intellectually rigorous despair, Lise merely allows her doubts, both about the world and herself, to overwhelm her, so that she loses the ability to take anything seriously. Ivan’s laughter at Lise’s expression of her emotions is a response that involves both pity and -contempt. One of the main ideas of The Brothers Karamazov is that suffering can bring salvation, and that people who purge their sins through suffering can attain self-knowledge and redemption. Grushenka goes through this process, with Alyosha’s aid, in the aftermath of her horrible illness. But Lise vulgarizes this notion: her slamming the door on her finger is a pathetic attempt to invoke this principle, but because her attempt to suffer is full of such obvious vanity and self-pity, it is only a mockery of the lofty idea it seeks to copy.
Apart from Zosima, Alyosha is the most moral character in the novel, and the strength and clarity of his faith are the moral center of the novel. For Alyosha to have faith in Dmitri is not surprising, because Alyosha has faith in human nature. On the other hand, there is a sense in which, within the scope of the novel, the great philosophical conflicts that run through the story are all riding on the question of Dmitri’s guilt or innocence. Thus, if Alyosha places his faith in Dmitri and is proved wrong, the idea of faith will be thrown into doubt.
Ivan’s collapse into madness at the end of this section demolishes his cold dignity and reveals the terrifying emptiness at the heart of his philosophy. At the same time, his crisis brings some of the central ideas of the novel into direct conflict. As the novel progresses, Ivan continually resists the notion that he bears any moral responsibility for the actions of other human beings, saying instead that people are only responsible for their own actions. But his conversations with Smerdyakov gradually illustrate for him the role he played in enabling Smerdyakov to murder Fyodor Pavlovich. Ivan is therefore forced to accept the universal burden of sin for the first time, and it is the agony of this burden that leads to his mental breakdown. In a sense, Ivan’s skepticism is fueled by his general distrust of humanity. He withdraws into his detached intellectualism in part because he is unable to love other people, and wants to remain separate from them. Smerdyakov’s revelation that Ivan’s philosophy enabled him to murder Fyodor Pavlovich finally makes clear to Ivan the extent to which people are involved in one another’s lives. While illuminating the terrifying consequences of Ivan’s amoralism, Smerdyakov’s crime also shatters the walls Ivan has built around himself, and, in a way, the rest of humanity comes flooding in on him. Without the consolation of faith, Ivan cannot handle this burden. His hallucination of the devil, like the revelation of Smerdyakov’s guilt, shows him the nature of a world without God, but having so thoroughly rejected God, Ivan is left defenseless. His breakdown results from the collision between the psychology of doubt and the idea of moral responsibility. Ivan could endure one. He cannot endure both.
Smerdyakov’s motivations for killing Fyodor Pavlovich are vague. Smerdyakov believes Ivan wanted him to kill Fyodor Pavlovich. But he has other motivations as well. Smerdyakov may be living Ivan’s philosophy that if there is no God, all is permitted. He may also kill for the money, or out of his own hatred of Fyodor Pavlovich. Finally, Smerdyakov may simply feel a desire to do evil. Allegorically, the murder signifies the logical extreme of Ivan’s arguments. Smerdyakov shares Fyodor Pavlovich’s brutish wickedness, and so, in a sense, Fyodor Pavlovich is killed by his own loathsome way of living. Ivan’s conviction that good and evil are fraudulent categories, and that no one has any moral responsibility to anyone else, has facilitated the destruction of one amoral monstrosity by another. The deeply moral Ivan loses his mind when confronted with the horror of this development, as apparently does Smerdyakov, whose unmourned suicide is the final cry of terror and pain to come from the novel’s exploration of the nihilism of disbelief.