“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. . . . I’m leading you alternately between belief and disbelief, and I have my own purpose in doing so. A new method, sir: when you’ve completely lost faith in me, then you’ll immediately start convincing me to my face that I am not a dream but a reality—I know you know; and then my goal will be achieved. And it is a noble goal. I will sow a just a tiny seed of faith in you, and from it an oak will grow—and such an oak that you, sitting in that oak, will want to join ‘the desert fathers and the blameless women’; because secretly you want that ver-ry, ver-ry much. . . .”
This taunt is delivered by the devil that visits Ivan in Book XI, Chapter 9. Ivan has just realized his complicity in Smerdyakov’s murder of Fyodor Pavlovich, and in his ensuing psychological breakdown, he experiences the hallucination of this devil, who mocks Ivan with his former beliefs and their inconsistency with his inner desires. Ivan furiously tries to assert that he does not believe this devil is real, but the devil shrewdly manipulates his desire not to believe so as to make him believe all the more. Then, in this passage, the devil even more shrewdly admits that he is deliberately toying with Ivan’s belief because he knows that deep down Ivan wants to believe in him. Ivan is a moral person who is horrified and appalled by the rejection of morality that he advocates on the surface, and the murder of his father has made him even more desperate in his secret desire for the moral criterion of religious faith. This inner longing makes Ivan ashamed, and the devil teases his shame, even assuming a mockingly singsong tone of voice (“ver-ry much, ver-ry much”). This passage is important because it strips Ivan’s psyche bare and reveals the emotional emptiness and desperation that lie beneath his philosophical positions. Ivan’s doubt collapses into a nervous breakdown, revealing, through his hallucination of the devil, both the inadequacy of his doubt and his secret desire to find a more satisfying faith.