The Brothers Karamazov
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapters 6–7
Summary—Chapter 6: A Rather Obscure One for the Moment
Since arriving at his father’s house, Ivan has spent a great deal of time discussing religion and philosophy with Smerdyakov. But Ivan dislikes Smerdyakov, and when he returns home at night, he dreads the possibility of seeing him. At Fyodor Pavlovich’s house, Ivan sees Smerdyakov sitting in the yard. Ivan intends to walk by Smerdyakov, or even insult him, but to his own surprise he finds himself stopping and asking about their father.
Smerdyakov says that he is worried about Fyodor Pavlovich because Dmitri now knows the secret signs that Grushenka and Fyodor Pavlovich have agreed upon if Grushenka ever decides to be Fyodor Pavlovich’s lover. If Grushenka comes to Fyodor Pavlovich, Dmitri will know about it, and Smerdyakov worries that there would be no one to defend Fyodor Pavlovich from Dmitri’s rage. Smerdyakov says that Grigory and his wife have begun to take a medicine that makes them sleep deeply, and he is afraid that his own nervousness will cause him to have an epileptic seizure.
Summary—Chapter 7: “It’s Always Interesting to Talk with an Intelligent Man”
Ivan suspects that Smerdyakov has told Dmitri about Grushenka’s secret signs specifically to place Fyodor Pavlovich in danger. But Ivan is determined to leave for Moscow as planned the following morning, even though Smerdyakov asks him to go to a city that is not so far away.
The next morning, Fyodor Pavlovich too asks Ivan not to leave for Moscow. Instead, he wants Ivan to go to a nearby village to sell a plot of wood on Fyodor Pavlovich’s behalf. Ivan reluctantly agrees. After he leaves, Smerdyakov falls down a staircase and has the epileptic seizure he has feared. He is confined to his bed, leaving Fyodor Pavlovich alone. The old man waits gleefully for Grushenka, whom he is certain will come to him tonight.
These chapters foreshadow Smerdyakov’s eventual murder of Fyodor Pavlovich. Although Smerdyakov appears to be worried about Fyodor Pavlovich, his concern only serves to mask his deeper malice, and everything he does in this chapter lays the groundwork for killing his father the next night. He tells Ivan that Dmitri knows Grushenka’s secret knock purportedly because he is worried about Fyodor Pavlovich, but really because he wants suspicion to be cast on Dmitri so that Dmitri will be blamed when Fyodor Pavlovich’s body is found. He warns Ivan about his fear of an impending epileptic seizure ostensibly as proof of his fear for Fyodor Pavlovich, but really because he wants to prepare his own alibi for the night of the murder. After all, if he is a bedridden epileptic incapacitated in the aftermath of a seizure, he is hardly capable of a murder. But as we see in Chapter 7, Smerdyakov is capable of faking a seizure so convincingly that everyone around him is fooled. These chapters are thus full of foreshadowing, as every detail—from Grigory’s habit of taking a narcotic medicine to Ivan’s impending departure for Moscow—sets the scene for, and builds tension toward, Fyodor Pavlovich’s death.
The complex combination of disgust and attraction that characterizes Ivan’s relationship with Smerdyakov manifests both Ivan’s hatred of human nature and his dissatisfaction with his own philosophy. When Ivan discusses philosophy with Smerdyakov, the conflicting forces in his character become clear. Ivan is excited at Smerdyakov’s interest, disgusted with Smerdyakov’s manner, and unhappy with himself for providing a hostile figure like Smerdyakov with an amoral philosophy that might justify anything Smerdyakov wants to do. Smerdyakov’s ingratiating behavior toward Ivan results from his realization that Ivan loathes Fyodor Pavlovich. He believes that Ivan is, on an unconscious level, using him to kill Fyodor Pavlovich. He thinks Ivan is preparing him by giving him a new moral outlook in which, because God does not play a role, there is no good or evil, and taking a life is not morally different from saving one.
Ivan’s influence on Smerdyakov presents the philosophical difficulty in determining guilt for a crime. Ivan’s repeated insistence that people are not responsible for one another suggests that he is morally and psychologically free of guilt for Smerdyakov’s actions, no matter how much influence he may have exerted. On the one hand, if Ivan really believes everything he says about the absence of good and evil and the meaninglessness of responsibility, then he should have no cause to feel guilty about Fyodor Pavlovich’s death. On the other hand, if he does not really believe in his own argument, then the complicity he exhibits here will force him to confront the fact that he is partially to blame for the murder of his hated father. Dostoevsky does not show us the outcome of this philosophical question in these chapters, but Zosima has insisted that all people are responsible for the sins of all other people, and Ivan has insisted just the opposite.