The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov Summary and Analysis of Book 5

When Alyosha returns to see Katerina, he finds that she has fallen ill. Alyosha explains to Lise what happened with the captain because Katerina is asleep. Lise is affected by Alyosha’s loving compassion for the man, and she is moved to confess to Alyosha that the letter was not a joke and that she did mean what she said. Alyosha confesses that he has lied; he does have the letter, and he keeps it near to his heart because it is so meaningful to him. They realize that they care for each other, and they decide to get married.

Lise’s mother has been listening to their conversation, and she tells Alyosha she does not approve of the marriage. She thinks Lise is too young. Alyosha tells her that the marriage is still a long way off, so she does not have to worry about Lise’s age. Alyosha goes to find Dmitri. He decides that it is more important to help his brother than to hurry back to Father Zossima’s side. Instead, he finds Smerdyakov, and he asks him if he has seen Dmitri. Smerdyakov tells Alyosha that Ivan is going to meet Dmitri at a restaurant, so Alyosha goes to meet his two brothers there.

He cannot find Dmitri—only Ivan is there. Ivan says he has grown to like and respect Alyosha. He tells Alyosha that he has a desire for living, but the world seems to be an unfair, ugly place. Alyosha is too preoccupied with the situation between his father and Dmitri, however, to focus on this conversation. He is worried that something dreadful might happen between the two of them if Ivan goes to Moscow. Ivan responds that it is not his responsibility to take care of his brother or his licentious father. He tells Alyosha that he hates even being around his father; this is why he came to the restaurant.

Ivan lays out his theological opinions for Alyosha. He says what he “[does] not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world.” He believes that the mystery of God does not make sense to him; man should be able to comprehend God if he is God’s own creation. Ivan ponders that this means he necessarily has to reject God. Alyosha wonders why Ivan cannot accept the world. Ivan adds that he has “never been able to understand how it is possible to love one’s neighbors.” He cannot stand the barbarism that seems to be inherent in man. He hates the suffering of children the most. He says that the only rationalization for the suffering of children is that they are “paying for the sins of their fathers who ate the apple.” He cannot accept a God that allows this sort of injustice. He feels that loving God is like loving one who tortures you. Alyosha is appalled by all this, and he asks how Ivan can be so pessimistic about the world. Ivan responds that he is not being pessimistic; he simply does not think that anything is worth the suffering of an innocent like a child. He asks Alyosha if he would “torture just one single creature” if, by doing so, he could establish peace and tranquility for all mankind. Alyosha says he would not.

Ivan begins to recite to Alyosha a poem that he has composed, “The Grand Inquisitor”:

In the sixteenth century, during the Inquisition, Christ returns to the world, healing and preaching in the streets. As he is healing some gatherers, a cardinal realizes who he is and has him arrested. In prison, Christ is visited by the Grand Inquisitor, who admonishes Christ for reappearing; he says that Christ’s presence is interfering with the church. When Christ resisted temptations from Satan in the desert, he cursed man with liberty. Ever since, the church has had to work to reverse the damage. For instance, human nature dictates that man will not give up nourishment or safety for the promise of something as ill-defined as a heavenly reward. Thus, given a choice, man will always fail to follow a heavenly path. The Grand Inquisitor argues that “security” is preferable to “freedom.” Also, if Christ had demonstrated his heavenly ability by performing a miracle instead of humbly resisting temptation, man would “have something to worship,” which is “man’s greatest need on Earth.” The Grand Inquisitor also says that since Christ did not accept the power offered him by the devil, he forced the church to assert power over man. The church has finally gotten man to give up his Christ-given freedom in exchange for “happiness and security.” The Grand Inquisitor says he realizes that this puts him on Satan’s side of the argument, but he asserts that the precedent that Christ set when he resisted the temptations is very high. It is very difficult for man to achieve this level of strength, and only a few can do so. If only a few strong men can be saved anyway, at least the Grand Inquisitor’s plan grants pleasure and satisfaction on Earth. Christ kisses the Inquisitor, never saying a word. Inexplicably, the Grand Inquisitor sets him free and tells him never to return. Ivan concludes his story and looks to Alyosha for his reaction. Alyosha only kisses his brother, and Ivan says, “That’s plagiarism!” They conclude their meal happily and part ways.

Ivan is troubled after he leaves Alyosha. He starts to feel physically ill, but he does not understand why. When he sees Smerdyakov sitting outside, however, he realizes that this “miserable wretch” has been weighing on his mind. Instead of lashing out at him, he approaches him very amiably, and the two begin to talk. Smerdyakov says that he is worried by the love triangle consisting of Grushenka, Fyodor, and Dmitri. Both Dmitri and Fyodor are so worked up about the girl that they have both threatened Smerdyakov. He says that he might have an epileptic seizure because of the stress, hinting that he may even fake a seizure for his own safety. He then admits that he is burdened with the knowledge of what Grushenka’s “signals” to old Karamazov will be when she visits him. He knows that if Grushenka goes to Fyodor, it will throw Dmitri into a rage, and he will come after his father. Smerdyakov fears that Fyodor will be helpless because Grigory and Marfa will not be able to protect him. They are both ill. In addition, Smerdyakov will not be able to help if he is incapacitated by a seizure.

This information is alarming to Ivan, and he is skeptical of Smerdyakov’s intentions for telling him all of this. He asks Smerdyakov if he has intentionally created a situation where Dmitri will have free reign to murder his father. Ivan realizes that he cannot protect his father (he made clear earlier that he is not his father’s keeper) since he is going to Moscow. Smerdyakov unsuccessfully pleads with Ivan not to go to Moscow, and they both retire. Ivan lies awake, distressed by his talk with Smerdyakov. When morning comes, he meets with Fyodor, who also pleads with him to stay home with him. Ivan, worn down, decides to stay in town. He informs Smerdyakov that he will indeed stay at home. Later on, Smerdyakov in fact has a seizure and falls down the stairs. As Smerdyakov foresaw, Fyodor is left unprotected, waiting for Grushenka.


Ivan reveals much more of his character in these chapters. For the first time, he talks about what he truly cares about, and though he is still speaking about sweeping issues, he is no longer detached and aloof. He is admitting his deepest concerns and principles. He longs for a world without cruelty, but he feels that most people are cruel. Children are the only ones who are innocent. Even though Ivan says he cannot love his neighbor, it is not because he hates people; he thinks people, on the whole, do not live up to their potential.

Ivan is not the cold-hearted intellectual he seemed at first. He is a frustrated idealist. He feels that he is not responsible for his father’s safety or his brother’s actions. Whereas Father Zossima thinks that every man shares part of the responsibility for the sins of all other men, Ivan feels independent of his fellow men. This is one of many ways that Ivan tries to assert his independence. Since he has been a child, he has felt embarrassed about his father, and he does not like to be associated with him. He did not like living off other people’s charity, and he tried to become financially independent. Now, just because he is related to Dmitri and Fyodor, he does not feel compelled to help them as Alyosha does. He feels that he is responsible only for his own actions. His opinion will change after his father is murdered, when his realization of his complicity drives him insane. The lesson Ivan learns about responsibility serves as a sort of parable.

Ivan is uneasy about Smerdyakov, but he is not immediately sure why. The servant expresses concern for his own safety and that of his master. He tells Ivan all of the reasons why Fyodor will be vulnerable to an attacker, and the list sounds like too many coincidences to be true. When Smerdyakov explains to Ivan that it is possible to fake an epileptic seizure, his motives become slightly more suspicious. The idea that Smerdyakov can fake a seizure shows Ivan that Smerdyakov is not as helpless as he seems. Perhaps the pathetic servant is capable of manipulating a situation instead of simply commenting on it. He is not the harmless servant he first appeared to be. It also seems that Smerdyakov looks up to Ivan. Smerdyakov’s motives are unclear, but his adulation of the Karamazov brother does not seem purely innocent. Smerdyakov’s mix of weakness, bitterness, and manipulation is a disturbing combination.

The story of the Grand Inquisitor is an allegory for the difference between Ivan’s and Alyosha’s world views. Like Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor only wants peace and happiness for mankind. He disagrees with Christ, however, about how to achieve this goal. Even though Ivan and Alyosha disagree, they both want the same thing.

The most interesting thing about this chapter, however, is that Dostoevsky has included a parable in the middle of the novel. Why would he do this? What could Ivan’s poem express that could not be expressed in the story? For one thing, the novel has a deep reverence for storytelling. The whole novel is told as a story recounted by an outside observer. Countless references are made to townspeople and citizens talking about each other, telling stories they have heard about one another. The trial is itself an excuse to tell the story of the Karamazovs in front of an audience. This poem adds another layer of mythology, theology, and philosophy to the novel. The parable deserves an essay in itself, and it will repay a close reading.

Ivan brings up an interesting point. He says to Alyosha that if children suffer, it is because they “are paying for the sins of their fathers who ate the apple.” This is the first time a character in the novel has directly referred to the concept of the “sins of the father.” Ivan does not believe that one should suffer for something someone else has done. He believes that a man should be accountable for his actions and his actions alone. He must acknowledge, however, that the world does not quite work this way. It seems as though people are unfairly punished for their predecessors’ or others’ mistakes. Sometimes, though, it may not be nature or God enacting an unjust penalty on the innocent. Perhaps the suffering one experiences is internal, self-generated. For instance, Ivan feels embarrassed about his own dependence on others, and he tries to stay independent of those around him. He is not being punished from above for Fyodor’s neglect; he has made a decision based on his own feelings. He may have developed these feelings in part because of his father, but his desire for independence is his own.

Sometimes, then, one learns to be concerned about poignant issues from the concerns of his ancestors. Perhaps Dmitri does not feel doomed to become an amoral fiend because he is a Karamazov and cannot escape it; or perhaps he feels worried about becoming a bad person because he knows this stigma has plagued his father, and he has developed an irrational fear of this result himself. In any case, Fyodor’s actions weigh heavy on each of his sons, and whether Heaven is exacting torture on them for his sins or whether they have individual battles to fight, they are all haunted by Fyodor’s ghost.