Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering.
Back at Madame Khokhlakov’s house, Alyosha discovers that Katerina has come down with a fever, apparently due to her intense humiliation over Dmitri’s decision to leave her. Alyosha talks with Lise and tells her about his failure to convince the captain to take Katerina’s money. Deeply moved by Alyosha’s gentle wisdom, Lise suddenly admits that her love letter was sincere. Alyosha also loves Lise, and the two young people begin to plan their marriage. Alyosha also confesses that he deceived Lise about the letter. He refused to give it back to her, not because he did not have it with him, as he claimed, but because it was too important to him to give up.
As Alyosha leaves, Madame Khokhlakov stops him. She has listened in on his conversation with Lise, and says that she is bitterly unhappy at the thought of his marriage to Lise. Madame Khokhlakov implies that Lise has been increasingly unreliable and difficult lately. When the daughter marries, she says, the mother has nothing to look forward to but death. Alyosha tries to calm her by telling her that the marriage will not take place for at least another year and a half, but when she presses him to show her Lise’s letter, he refuses outright.
Alyosha thinks about Dmitri’s violent and passionate behavior, and decides to try to help his brother rather than return to Zosima’s bedside in the monastery as he longs to do. Alyosha notes that Dmitri seems to be avoiding him, so Alyosha decides to stake out the gazebo that he knows Dmitri often visits to watch for Grushenka. There, Alyosha overhears Smerdyakov playing a guitar and singing a song for the housekeeper’s daughter. Alyosha tentatively interrupts this scene and asks Smerdyakov if he knows where Dmitri has gone. Smerdyakov says that Dmitri has gone to meet Ivan at a restaurant.
When Alyosha arrives at the restaurant, he finds Ivan sitting at a table alone. Ivan asks Alyosha to join him and says he has begun to admire him and would like to get to know him better. Alyosha is worried about what will happen to Fyodor Pavlovich and Dmitri if Ivan leaves for Moscow, but Ivan firmly declares that what happens to the others is not his responsibility. He says, in fact, that it was Fyodor Pavlovich’s repulsiveness that caused him to come to this restaurant in the first place, simply to escape.
The two brothers begin to discuss questions of God’s existence and the immortality of the soul. Ivan says that, in his heart, he has not rejected God, but that at the same time he feels himself unable to accept God or the world that God has created. Ivan says that he can love humanity in the abstract, but that, when he meets individual men and women, he finds it impossible to love them. Moreover, he is deeply troubled by the injustice of suffering on Earth. He asks Alyosha how a just God could permit the suffering of children, creatures too young even to have sinned. He says that to love such a God would be the equivalent of a tortured man choosing to love his torturer. When Alyosha is troubled by Ivan’s position, Ivan asks him if he could accept even a perfect world in which the perfection depended on the suffering of an innocent creature. Alyosha reminds Ivan of the sacrifice of Christ, and Ivan, insisting that he has not forgotten Christ, recites a prose poem, called The Grand Inquisitor, that he wrote some time ago.
Lise is portrayed as a character poised between the two philosophical poles of the novel: the love represented by Alyosha and the despair represented by Ivan. Lise’s gleefully mischievous behavior in the early part of the novel is actually the early onset of what finally becomes a wild, temperamental capriciousness. She struggles to be happy, but, as is clear from her increasingly antagonistic behavior toward her mother, she is beginning to distrust the authority figures in her life and to feel frustrated with the shortcomings of the world around her. She reacts to her inner turmoil with wild mood swings and displays of extreme affection and extreme hatred. In this way, Lise is linked to the “shriekers” described in Books I and II, women who are so unable to cope with the horrors of the world that they collapse into hysteria, and thus serve as symbols of the despair that besets those who share the anguished doubt embodied by Ivan. In this part of the novel, Lise seizes on Alyosha as a possible source of salvation. But while she admires his blithe faith, she is unable to share it, and she eventually succumbs to a petulant, spiteful despair. Though this scene seems happy, the seeds of Lise’s downfall are already apparent in the way that she rebels against her mother, in the extremity of her emotional displays, and in the way she oscillates between admitting and hiding her love for Alyosha.
Ivan’s dinner conversation with Alyosha adds a new level of complexity to the novel’s exploration of religion and spirituality. The novel does not simplistically suggest that belief in God brings unmitigated happiness while doubt brings unmitigated suffering, and the brothers’ dinner conversation provides the rationale behind the idea that not believing in God is more reasonable and compassionate than believing in him. Through his description of the unjust suffering of children and of the general misery of mankind’s situation on Earth, Ivan presents the strongest case against religion in the novel. Ivan’s dilemma mirrors the biblical dilemma of Job, who asked how a loving God could allow mankind to endure injustice and misery for no apparent reason. Ivan cannot understand why young children would be made to suffer under a loving God. In rejecting outright the explanation that God’s ways are too mysterious for mankind to comprehend, Ivan illustrates the depth of his commitment to rational coherence. He can only believe in a God who is rational like the human beings he created, and he thinks that a truly loving God would have made the universe comprehensible to mankind. As such, Ivan’s religious doubt is slightly different from atheism, because Ivan says that if God does indeed exist, he is not good or just. The problem is not resolvable. Either no God exists, or a God exists who is the equivalent of a torturer. This problem is the ultimate source of Ivan’s despair. Ivan’s understanding of the world means that mankind is alone in the universe and that Fyodor Pavlovich’s revolting attitude toward life is acceptable and even logical. If this is not the case, then God himself must be a heartless tyrant.