A couple of months after Dmitri’s arrest, Grushenka is undergoing a heavenly metamorphosis. She tells Alyosha that Dmitri is becoming smitten with Katerina again. She also thinks that Ivan and Dmitri have been talking. She thinks the two brothers are making a plan that they are keeping secret from her. She asks if Alyosha can find out what this secret plan is, and Alyosha, her friend, agrees.
Alyosha visits Lise, who is agitated and feeling guilty about her life. She longs to experience God’s retribution for her wickedness in life. She has no respect for her fellow human beings or the world around her, and she feels a very destructive impulse toward everyone and everything. As Alyosha leaves, she slams the door on her hand in a pathetic show of self-loathing.
Alyosha visits Dmitri in prison. Dmitri tells Alyosha that Rakitin wants to write an exposé about Dmitri being the victim of circumstances that led to the inevitable murder of his father. Even though Dmitri did not kill his father, he feels guilty for his reckless lifestyle and, much like Lise, feels a desire to be punished for his immorality. He believes that he will have a new lease on life if only Grushenka can come with him during his exile in Siberia. But he fears that the state will not let Grushenka follow him, and without her, he does not know what he will do.
Dmitri tells Alyosha that Ivan has visited him and told him a plan he has made for Dmitri’s escape. This is the secret that Grushenka suspected. Dmitri asks Alyosha if he thinks Dmitri is guilty, and Alyosha replies that he has always believed in his brother’s innocence. Dmitri greatly appreciates his brother’s support.
Alyosha next visits Katerina, who has just been visited by Ivan. Katerina tells Alyosha she fears that Ivan is going crazy. He feels responsible for his father’s death, and it is tormenting him. Alyosha catches up with Ivan to talk to him. He asks his brother what is troubling him, and Ivan tells Alyosha that Katerina has evidence that damns Dmitri. Alyosha wants to reassure his brother, but he is honest to a fault. Since he is convinced of Dmitri’s innocence, he cannot believe that Katerina can have any evidence that proves an innocent man to be guilty. Alyosha also realizes that Ivan feels guilty for their father’s death. He tells Ivan that God has given him the task of comforting him. He tells Ivan that he is not responsible for the murder–he is certain by divine knowledge. Ivan does not think that this comfort is founded in logic, however. Ivan is disgusted by Alyosha’s talk of God and forgiveness. He asks Alyosha a question about the day Dmitri attacked their father. He asks if Alyosha believed that he wished that Dmitri would kill his father, that “one beast would devour the other?” Alyosha admits that he thought his brother was thinking this. Ivan thanks him bitterly and leaves.
Ivan feels sick, but his sickness has more to do with Smerdyakov than with Alyosha. Smerdyakov is still in the hospital from his seizure the night of the murder. He says he knows Ivan wished for his father’s death, and he stayed out of the way to facilitate this. Ivan, enraged, hits Smerdyakov, but this does not stop the servant from torturing Ivan with his theories. He says that Ivan wanted to leave for Moscow when Fyodor was murdered because he wanted to wash his hands of what he knew would be a messy situation. Ivan tells Smerdyakov he will not report his ability to fake a seizure to the authorities if Smerdyakov will stay silent about their previous conversation before the murder. Smerdyakov says Ivan probably just wanted his inheritance, and this is why he wanted his father dead. Ivan leaves and wrestles with the idea that he may be partly guilty for Fyodor’s murder if Smerdyakov did indeed kill Fyodor. He visits Katerina and confesses his contrition to her. She eases his mind by telling him she has a letter from Dmitri saying that Dmitri will kill Fyodor as a last resort to reimburse her. Ivan feels better, thinking it is his brother Dmitri who is the culprit, not Smerdyakov. He leaves, somewhat comforted.
But when Ivan talks to Smerdyakov again, Smerdyakov shatters his peace of mind by admitting to the murder. Worse, he tells Ivan that it was Ivan’s words that helped him rationalize the act. “It was you who killed him all right,” says Smerdyakov. He gives Ivan the 3,000 rubles he stole from Fyodor, and he begins to explain how he murdered the man. He explains how he faked an epileptic seizure the night of the murder (but that he truly had one before he was taken to the hospital). Smerdyakov tells Ivan that it was through their conversations about immorality and the nonexistence of God that he found the strength and rationalization to commit the murder. He explains that, after Dmitri attacked Grigory, Smerdyakov seized the opportunity to commit the murder. He lured Fyodor out of his room by saying Grushenka had come. Then, as Fyodor leaned out the window, he hit him with a paperweight.
After Ivan is convinced that Smerdyakov did commit the murder and that it was his words that made the murder possible, he leaves Smerdyakov. When Ivan goes back home, he resolves to tell the court about Smerdyakov’s confession during Dmitri’s trial. To his chagrin, he finds a devil in his room, who chides Ivan about his wickedness. Blind with tears of rage, Ivan throws a cup at the devil. Alyosha comes to his door and tells Ivan that Smerdyakov has just hanged himself. Ivan’s behavior worries Alyosha, but when he asks his brother what is wrong, Ivan is too upset to describe his ordeal with the devil. Alyosha realizes that Ivan is having a nervous breakdown, and he stays with his brother for the night.
Many characters experience intense guilt in the novel. Dmitri feels guilty for his treatment of Katerina, and Grushenka and Lise both express regret for their depravity. Ivan’s guilt is even more extreme. He feels responsible for the murder he did not commit. There is a universal longing for catharsis and redemption among the characters in this novel. Though many characters feel contrition for their actions, it is not always clear if they deserve such castigation for their sins. Lise and Grushenka, for instance, are good-hearted girls, and “wickedness” is not something that obviously applies to them. Even Ivan, whose guilt is greater than any single character’s guilt in the novel, feels guilty for a crime he did not technically commit. Father Zossima has laid out the idea that all men share in the sins of all other men, but many characters in this novel seems to feel the entire burden, not just a share. Ivan does not feel that he shares guilt; he feels that he is the only one responsible for his father’s murder. Perhaps the characters all have inflated their own culpability. Dostoevsky puts stock in guilt and suffering. Father Zossima’s lesson about men sharing each other’s sins is thus somewhat misleading. One man’s rightful guilt can be confused for his feelings of guilt, even if these feelings are misplaced. Some characters rationalize their internal turmoil, when in fact they are simply feeling the weight of hard times.
Smerdyakov is an exception to this widespread guilt complex. He single-handedly murders Fyodor, yet he does not blame himself at all. Despite the fact that he is the only character technically guilty of this act, he feels the least liability for it. Smerdyakov is an unfeeling aberration. Can the actual act of murder be such a small proportion of the sin of killing a man? This seems counter to Dostoevsky’s feelings of murder; characters in Dostoevsky’s novels sometimes commit murder because they believe that some people do not deserve to live. They are eventually punished for their sins. For instance, Dostoevsky does not make Fyodor seem sympathetic. He does not make the old Karamazov seem anything but wicked, and his murder seems at worst logical and at best imminent. The only reason his killers feel guilt is because murder is against positive law and divine law. Hence, realizing that these men hardly deserve life is not a sin, but actually taking life is a sin. It follows that Smerdyakov is the only one who is truly responsible for the murder, but everyone else suffers for their part, real or imagined.
Dostoevsky does not address the fact that characters like Ivan may be suffering without reason. Dostoevsky brings complexity to the point. He seemingly condemns the act of murder while allowing hateful feelings. He also promotes universal love toward all creatures while simultaneously portraying some characters as despicable beings unworthy of almost any kind of love. Perhaps it is this ambivalence that leads his characters to feel burdened with guilt.
One of the most shocking events in the novel occurs when Ivan returns to find a devil in his room. Since no one else sees the devil, we assume it is a figment of Ivan’s imagination. The devil is very real to Ivan, however. A devil is a very meaningful symbol in this novel—but not to Ivan. When Father Ferapont sees devils in Zossima’s cell after Zossima’s death, he is decried as a lunatic. He is religious—but Ivan does not believe in God at all, so why would his subconscious manifest a devil? More importantly, why would Dostoevsky choose to represent Ivan’s conscience as a devil? Maybe Ivan is experiencing a religious awakening, realizing that his atheism has been wrong all along. That does not seem quite right, nor is the devil intended to be real. If the novel has a moral center, it is Father Zossima and his teachings, which might permit the reality of devils in the background, yet this is not part of Ivan’s ontology. Ivan may be seeing a devil because devils are part of the mythic-religious culture of his town.
If devils do exist, Father Ferapont is the only character in the novel who has an accurate conception of the world. Atheists like Ivan do not believe in God at all, and Alyosha and Father Zossima believe in a world of love and caring where devils are not needed; bad people are bad enough. The suggestion that devils do exist is quite a turn, casting doubt on the spiritual and moral center of the novel. Fyodor is not at the extreme anymore, now that devils are among the people.
Before this, all signs have led to the view that Father Zossima’s teachings are the moral anchor that holds everyone together. If characters stray from this path of love and understanding, they find longing and remorse. If they adhere to it as Alyosha does, they find strength and purpose. But a devil represents not just judgment but also evil, what is often glossed over in Father Zossima’s world of sympathy and compassion. Despite the new, more fragile moral center in the novel, Alyosha’s faith in his purpose and understanding of the world remain as strong as ever through the end of the novel. Love and understanding continue to help characters find personal salvation.
From the point of view of an Ivan, if he could look at the whole story as we do, he might see a subtle implication that a religious lifestyle, even if deluded in some ways, is a decent and helpful one. For someone who is deeply ambivalent about religion, the introduction of a devil produces a complexity that might appeal to a rational mind that sees both good and evil in the world. Loving one’s neighbor is a good thing, often producing good results even if one’s motivations are misguided, and if there is something more beyond the tangible world, even if one does not understand it, it might seem reasonable to perceive devils as well as angels, a reality at least as complex as the one already on earth. When Dostoevsky brings a devil into Ivan’s room, he thus sheds light on some of his own religious questions and ideas.