Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov A Diabolical Hero Essay

Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov: A Diabolical Hero? Essay, Research Paper

Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov: A Diabolical Hero?

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky is considered by many to be the pinnacle in a great line of Russian authors who wrote in the 19th century. Gogol, Tolstoy, Lermontov, Pushkin, Chekhov: these writers, like many greats the world round, concerned themselves not only with their art, but with its affect on their society; Gogol, for example, is said to have gone insane while working on his masterpiece, Dead Souls, obsessing himself with the idea that he could bring about the resurrection of his country through his tale.

Eventually becoming disillusioned with the task he had set himself, Gogol burnt much of

the manuscript and renounced all his worldly possessions, going on to lead an ascetic life

until his death from starvation. While Dostoyevsky did not go to such extremes, he also

intended to provide a salvation for his country, which he saw was headed down a

dangerous path. This salvation was to take the form of The Brothers Karamazov and

‘the Church as a positive social ideal was to constitute the central idea of the new novel…’

(xiii)1. Some critics, however, have claimed that while he may have set out to write in

support of the Church, Dostoyevsky ended up writing a novel which in many ways shows

‘evil’ in an attractive, or at least ambiguous, light. For them, Ivan Fyodorovich

Karamazov is one of the most compelling characters in all literature the world round and

that it is with him and not Alyosha (the ‘Saviour’ in the novel), that we as readers identify

most strongly. Thus, they claim, by having us identify with the rational, amoral atheism of


the novel becomes something of a ‘diabolodicy’ rather than the great defense of God and

Church it was intended to be.

But why do we identify with Ivan so strongly when on the surface he seems such an unattractive character? After all, humankind has a long history of trying to excise or annihilate elements that they see as destructive to the whole (in our own recent history think of the Communist witch-hunt or the obsession with rooting out child abusers and racists) and what could be more destructive than Ivan’s assertion, here restated by his brother Dmitry, “‘Evil-doing must not only be lawful, but even recognized as the most necessary and most intelligent way out of the situation in which every atheist finds himself!’” (76) Well, the reasons for this sympathy are several and complex at that, but first and foremost it is because of the great detail in which his character is presented.

True, there are other characters who act upon the idea that ‘all things are lawful’ and, doing so, bring guilt and suffering upon themselves: Ratikin, who is embarrassed to receive 25 roubles for ‘delivering’ Alyosha to Grushenka (406), merdyakov, who kills himself when he realizes that Ivan didn’t intend for him to kill their father, and even the elder Karamazov himself, who rationalizes away his shame by playing the fool and then taking a stand of righteous indignance when he is insulted (as is demonstrated in the scene at the monastery, on 78 to 81). However, we do not see the torments of these other characters as clearly presented as Ivan’s and, furthermore, none of them seems to conceive of their torment as deeply and fully as Ivan does.

Right from the first Ivan we see Ivan as being torn between complete atheistic relativism and the acceptance of God and thus morality. Recall, for example, the scene at the monastery when Elder Zosima sees right to the core of his self-torment:

“Do you really hold such a conviction regarding the consequences of the decline of men’s faith in the immortality of their souls?” the elder suddenly inquired of Ivan Fyodorovich. “Yes, that was what I said in my article. Without immortality there can be no virtue.”

“Bless?d must you be, if thus you do believe-either that or thoroughly unhappy.”

“Why unhappy?” Ivan Fyodorovich smiled.

“Because in all probability you yourself believe neither in the immortality of your soul

nor even the things you wrote about the Church and the ecclesiastical question.”

“You may well be correct … Though actually I spoke not entirely in jest, either …” Ivan

Fyodorovich suddenly confessed in a strange manner, at the same time rapidly blushing.

“Truly said-you spoke not entirely in jest. That idea has not been resolved within your

heart and is tormenting it. But even a martyr sometimes likes to keep himself amused

with his

despair, out of sheer despair, as it were. For the moment this is what you are doing:


yourself with your despair-in articles for journals and in worldly disputations, yourself


believing in your own dialectics and with pain in your heart smiling sceptically at them to

yourself … This question has not been resolved within you, and therein lies your great

unhappiness, for it insistently demands resolution …”

“But can it be resolved in me? Resolved in a positive direction?” Ivan Fyodorovich

inquired, strangely, still looking at the Elder with a vague, inexplicable smile. (76-77)

In this prophetic scene lies another of the keys to understanding our sympathy for Ivan:

somewhat unlike Ratikin and Fyodor, the elder Karamazov, he is tormented because he

feels that he should believe in God, but is unable to do so because he cannot dovetail the

necessary faith with his prideful rationalism. The others mentioned above feel somewhat

similar emotions, but we as readers get the impression that they, if given the choice,

would choose to give up guilt and lead entirely amoral lives if they could do so, whereas

Ivan, it seems, is paradoxically happier tormenting himself for his inability to

wholeheartedly follow God like Elder Zosima and Alyosha do. Ivan would prefer to create

his own devils rather than completely accept his atheistic, amoral ideas-he

subconsciously wants to believe in God but, because of his cold rationality, is unable to do


This then, is an important factor in our sympathy for Ivan. We see his internal torments, which manifest themselves externally in his writings, ironic smile and tilted walk, as self-inflicted punishment for his sin of non-belief. Furthermore, we see that he will probably never come to accept God because of his intellectual pride and thus he becomes something of a tragic hero: doomed because of his own resolute actions and ideas. One scene that leads us most definitely to this conclusion is his confrontation with the devil and the tale the devil relates of the atheist who, dying, finds himself in the afterlife:

“[...] He was amazed and indignant: ‘This runs counter to my convictions,’ he said. Well, for that he received a sentence [...] to walk a quadrillion kilometres [...] in darkness, and when he had finished that quadrillion the gates of heaven would be opened to him and all would be pardoned him [...] Well, so this fellow who had been sentenced to a quadrillion stood still, had a look round, and then lay down across the road: ‘I shall not go, out of principle I shall not go!’” [...]

“The staunch fellow!” Ivan exclaimed, still with the same strange animation. Now he

was listening with a kind of unexpected interest. “Well, and is he still lying there?”

“There’s the rub-no he isn’t. He lay there for almost a thousand years, but then he got

up and went.”

“The ass!” exclaimed Ivan with a loud, nervous laugh, still apparently trying to figure

something out with intense effort [...] (742-743)

One could easily see Ivan, like the atheist in the devil’s tale, refusing to accept the afterlife even once he’d reached it and perhaps even refusing to walk the quadrillion kilometres throughout all time, not just the thousand years of the man in the tale, and yet we still feel that he would like to accept God and be done with it for even as he proclaims the man an ‘ass’ for getting up and walking the quadrillion kilometres Ivan is still ‘trying to figure something out with intense effort’.

And here I find myself realizing that I have missed what is perhaps the most important

reason for why we invest so much of ourselves in Ivan: it is because, all the time that he

is tormenting himself and (as I have said above) thus evoking our sympathy, we see the

remote possibility of his salvation and, because we already sympathize with him, we

desire very strongly for him to have it. Yet, even by the end of the novel, Ivan’s internal

conflict is not resolved. When we see him last it is with ‘acute fever and unconscious’

(871). We cannot help but have pity for someone whose depths of conscience drove him to

insanity and perhaps even to his death-bed. Indeed, it is these very ideas that lead me to

assert that the critics whom I mentioned at the beginning of this essay were wrong: our

sympathy for the character of Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov does not make

Dostoyevsky’s great work a ‘diabolodicy’, but rather supports its intended role as a

theodicy. In identifying with Ivan so strongly we are led through the ‘crucible of doubt’

along with him and, while he apparently succumbs to his intellectual pride, we see this and

are pushed in the direction of accepting God, or, at the very least, His necessity. Of

course, it could be argued that this ‘acceptance’ only stands in the context of the novel-

that is, the events in the novel are structured so as to make all non-believers come to bad

ends and thus make it seem as though any path other than that of Zosima and Alyosha is

the wrong path; however, I must stress that the existence of such a profound conscience

in Ivan and our deep sympathy for him leads us, almost inevitably, to reject the idea that

‘all things are lawful’ because our sympathy proves that we ourselves have consciences

as well. Thus, whether we believe in God or not, we are forced to admit that we must at

least act as though there is. To do otherwise is to risk the fate of Ivan Fyodorovich



Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Trans. David McDuff (Penguin


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