No character in The Brothers Karamazov is afflicted with more trauma or inner conflict than Ivan. Ivan is a brilliant student with an incisively analytical mind, and his intelligence is directly to blame for his descent into despair. Unable to reconcile the horror of unjust human suffering—particularly the suffering of children—with the idea of a loving God, Ivan is consumed with doubt and argues that even if God does exist, he is malicious and hostile, and loves to torture mankind. Ivan believes that human concepts of morality are dependent on the idea that the soul is immortal, meaning that people only worry about “right” and “wrong” behavior because they want to experience pleasure rather than pain in the afterlife. Because of his feelings about God, Ivan himself is unable to believe in the immortality of the soul, and thus he argues that good and evil are fraudulent categories, and that people may do whatever they wish without regard for morality. But Ivan only starts thinking about these concepts in the first place because he loves humanity—it is his concern for human suffering that initially leads him to reject God. His logical disbelief in morality is terribly painful for him because it would make a way of life such as Fyodor Pavlovich’s, which Ivan detests, an acceptable mode of human behavior. Dignified and coldly moral, Ivan wants to be able to accept an idea of goodness that would exalt mankind and reject Fyodor Pavlovich’s brutishness, but, trapped in his own logic, he is unable to do so. He is so beset with doubt, and so defensively determined to keep the rest of humanity at a distance, that he is unable to act on his love for Katerina, and seems to scorn the very thought of pursuing happiness for himself.
After Smerdyakov murders Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan’s crisis of faith becomes more traumatic still. Convinced by Smerdyakov that Ivan’s philosophy made it possible for Smerdyakov to kill Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan is forced to confront two very difficult notions: first, that he is responsible for another human being, and second, that his beliefs have paved the way for murder. Ivan’s subsequent collapse into hallucination and madness represents the novel’s final rejection of his skeptical way of life. When the novel ends, Ivan is feverish and unconscious, having been taken home by Katerina to recuperate, and his future is uncertain. It may be that, with Katerina’s love, he will find a way to accept Alyosha’s faith or come to terms intellectually with morality and his own responsibility for others. Or it may be that he will never resolve his crisis—he may become permanently insane. But the extremely optimistic note on which the novel ends suggests that he will find some form of redemption.