Books Reviews

The Brothers Karamazov: Ivan and Ivan’s Mind Review

By: Phillip Kong

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan is a fascinatingly complex character. Although he seems like the most rational and sensible person at first, he becomes the most ill and mad person at the end of the book. Yet, it is his sensibleness and rationality that drives him to that state of madness. Ivan’s dangerous relationship between his mind and himself is the source of his own destruction. Ivan goes through a traumatic life, navigating life with his father’s absence and fighting with the idea of suffering. Unlike Alyosha, one of Ivan’s brothers, who accepts suffering through God, Ivan struggles to accept the suffering in the world God has created. This is the beginning of Ivan’s epistemological crisis. As I start focusing on this epistemological crisis of Ivan and his destruction, I want to consider this quote: “The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master” (Sharma). For Ivan, his mind is no longer a source for him to use to understand things but rather a master over himself. All of Ivan’s struggles are seen throughout the book, and will give credence to how Ivan cannot disobey his “master.” In this review there will be clear distinctions between Ivan and Ivan’s mind.

To understand the beginning of Ivan’s crisis, we need to look deeper into where Ivan’s denial of faith is derived from. When Ivan talks about the suffering of children and his denial of God’s world, Ivan tears, verbalizing, “lamentation, literally and figuratively, is a wound, an image paralyzing to mind and spirit: it is the mutilation… of children” (Jackson 122). This idea is similar to that of religious Father Zosima and Alyosha, Ivan’s youngest and most devoted brother. All three of these characters are motivated to believe what they believe, understanding that innocents suffering is not morally correct. Ivan indeed realizes that they have similar ideas too, at least in the basis. Yet, Ivan’s denial of faith continues. This is derived from not Ivan but his “mind.” Ivan says to Alyosha, “I will see them and say they meet, but I will still not accept it. That is my essence, Alyosha, that is my thesis” (Jackson 123). Ivan understands the existence of God, but he cannot accept His world. That is where Ivan’s paradox begins. This denial and “essence” Ivan holds comes from his mind. His mind is controlling himself in a certain way. Ivan says one thing, and his mind says another, yet his mind has more control and Ivan does not see the difference until it is too late. The issue for Ivan is that he gives his mind the place of the “master.” Although Ivan’s heart proves to be identical to Alyosha and Zosima, his mind cannot comprehend this concept of suffering with his human logic; therefore, he has to deny it. While Alyosha and Zosima see suffering as inevitable and accept it, to Ivan, it is merely an unnecessary pain to humanity.

In fact, if we look deeper into the text of The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky the author himself, we can see that Dostoevsky had already been hinting at Ivan’s belief in Christ. In Jacksons Alyosha’s Speech at The Stone, Jackson states: “In Dostoevsky’s notebook for The Brothers Karamazov we find the lines: ‘The Inquisitor: God as a merchant’ […] is the metaphor of commerce that Ivan awakens in his discussion of religious redemption” (Jackson 235). Ivan had always been moving towards faith, and Ivan’s basis of thought and mind were secretly based on faith too.

When Ivan writes his Grand Inquisitor, Ivan denies acceptance of Jesus because he makes innocents suffer. Ivan’s explanation for this is that humankind is not strong enough to let go of everything and follow Jesus to paradise. Ivan adds: “you overestimated mankind” (Dostoevsky 256). To Ivan, Jesus is a messiah, and he is a figure that helps people and takes them to paradise, but Ivan is arguing that humans are not strong-willed enough to get there. The weight of suffering is too much for mere humans. There is no complete denial of faith in the Grand Inquisitor in this sense too; instead, Ivan in his view rationally criticizes human beings for not being strong-willed. However, what I see through this denial is not Ivan denying God but his mind denying humanity’s capability. God and faith are not something Ivan can see and evaluate, it is too abstract, so there is no choice but to consider what his mind can comprehend: Human beings.

Ivan’s mind is denying God even though most of his logic is actually based on faith. Where these two ideas come together to fall to pieces for Ivan is when Smerdyakov shows up. Smerdyakov is Fyodor’s servant and suspected illegitimate son who enjoys debating God and the natural order of things. What Ivan had always been afraid of as an intellect is “the terrible ‘if’” (Cicovacki 241). What if his mind is wrong, and God’s word is correct? To keep these “ifs” away from himself, his intellect needed to be perfect; Ivan’s mind had to always make the right decisions. If Ivan’s mind that Ivan served was to be wrong, then Ivan would have nowhere to go, nothing to believe, no logic to hold on to. He would realize that the faith he pushed away so deep in himself was right all along.

As book 11 proceeds, Ivan is the only character other than Smerdyakov who knows that Dimitri is not guilty. To Ivan’s mind, it is the ideal and correct scenario for Smerdyakov to be jailed and Dimitri to be proven not guilty. Ivan’s complications start when Smerdyakov tells him that it was Ivan’s own intellect that led to the murder of Fyodor. Fyodor is Ivan, Dimitri, and Alyosha’s father; he is rumored to be Smerdyakov’s father as well. When Ivan is confronting Smerdyakov, Smerdyakov makes clear that it was Ivan’s ideas that led him to kill Fyodor. Smerdyakov accuses, “But as for wanting someone else to kill— that you did want” (Dostoevsky 615). He continues to say, “You used to be brave once, sir, you used to say ‘Everything is permitted’” (Dostoevsky 625). These words actually have nothing to do with Ivan taking on the blame. The fact is that Ivan did not kill Fyodor and Smerdyakov did. Yet what shakes up Ivan, is the idea that his mind may have led him to the ultimate wrong: the suffering of an innocent. Smerdyakov persuades Ivan to think that Ivan’s “intellect” was what led him to murder Fyodor. The “if” situation has happened to Ivan. He was in a position where his mind and intellect had led to a serious problem that should not have happened. If Dimitri was judged guilty in court, then it would be Ivan’s mind that has led an innocent to suffer.

What puts Ivan into even deeper thought is that, as said above, Ivan’s ideas were very much alike with Alyosha and Zosima’s ideas in the first place. Although he argued God made a world where innocents suffer, his basis in moral argument was that innocents should not suffer. It begs the question, does it actually matter whether you have faith or not if you argue for the same idea? The similarity in this ideal of all three characters concludes that it actually doesn’t matter if you have faith or not. Whether Ivan leaned towards Christianity or his agnostic mind, either way, he would have been fighting for what he thought was wrong. Ivan decided to choose his mind, and now that Smerdyakov proved it to be wrong, Ivan was morally stuck. Ivan was left with the notion that he was wrong all along, but even then, Ivan cannot bring himself to let go of his mind that had for so long served as his master and decision maker.

Adding to the toxic nature of the relationship between Ivan and Ivan’s mind is that although Ivan had trusted and followed his mind all his life, it was something he always wanted to run from. In the chapter The Devil, the devil itself, which is a formation of Ivans mind, resembles Fyodor, his murdered father. The devil, dressed up as a gentleman, articulates, “My dream is to become the incarnate […] merchant’s wife, and to believe everything she believes” (Dostoevsky 639). Something that sounds comfortable and sensualistic, a life Fyodor pursued. Also, if we track back to earlier in the book, Smerdyakov suggests to Ivan, “You’re like Fyodor Pavlovich most of all… having the same soul as him, sir” (Dostoevsky 632). Without Ivan realizing his whole life, Ivan’s mind was just like his estranged father all along. Ivan is the heightened version of his father. With Ivan’s ultimate quest in life being to run from his father’s existence, this consequently leads Ivan to be forever taunted and influenced by his father. Ivan’s intellect that he vehemently believed to be true, was his antithesis, what he hated all along: Fyodor. Yet, it is still so hard to release himself of that mindset; Ivan’s ideals and philosophy that he trusted for so long is not something Ivan can easily shake off or change.

Ivan has his last confrontation with his mind in the The Devil chapter, a moment when Ivan faces his mind in the form of a “devil.” When confronting the devil, Ivan is left with two choices: to accept it or not. If Ivan denies the devil, he is left with believing “the objectivity of evil” (Kurrick 100), and yet if he accepts the devil, he is left “accepting this part of his subjectivity” (Kurrick 100). Either way, he must deny himself, and “his madness lies in having to deny what he knows is himself” (Kurrick 101). Ivan now recognizes that his mind is not something he had always thought it was. Rather, his mind was something he needed to run from and get rid of, but at the same time, his mind is literally all of what he knows of himself; a paradox. Whatever choice Ivan makes with his mind, he has to lose himself in some way.

As Ivan struggles to escape his mind’s trap, the devil continues to bring up the lack of common sense as Ivan’s other issue. The devil believes that having faith in God or not, committing a crime or not, actually doesn’t require any intellect. It is common sense to be moved by desire and emotions. Ivan, all his life, has been trying to move away from this vague idea of common emotions, imagining if he denied himself emotions he could think more clearly. Ivan wanted everything to make sense logically. This resulted from Ivan treating his mind as a master of him. Instead of having no faith in God, Ivan gave faith to his mind. This idea of common sense denies everything Ivan believed and marks all his beliefs as wrong. At this revelation, Ivan is completely broken down, devastated; he has nowhere to go and nothing to believe.

With Ivan’s distrust towards his mind reaching its limit, his fall is evident. Having let himself obey his mind and only his mind, he has nowhere to lean on anymore as his mind failed him. Ivan is stated to have fallen ill, and by the end of the book, Ivan is nowhere to be found. Ivan is left with the guilt that he has made his brother Dmitri go to jail and the fact that he was wrong all along. All Ivan can do is use the last of his sanity to help his brother and fix things he has made wrong. Ivan leaves a note for Alyosha saying, “if [I] should die or become dangerously ill, [Alyosha] must save Mitya alone” (Dostoevsky 758). Ivan, before his fall, already realizes that he cannot let go of what he has been holding and believing his whole life. He has no choice but to leave things up to his brother. Ivan’s mind has completely eaten up Ivan and became the source of his own self destruction.


Works Cited

Cicovacki, Predrag. Dostoevsky and the Affirmation of Life. Transaction Publishers, 2014.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Jackson, Robert Louis. “The Wound and the Lamentation: Ivan’s Rebellion.” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, 120-133.

Kurrick, Maire Jaanus. “The Self’s Negativity.” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, 97-118.

Sharma, Robin Shilp. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Spiritual Fable about Fulfilling Your Dreams and Reaching Your Destiny. Thorsons, 2015.


Phillip Kong has seen much of the world for a 17-year-old. Phillip enjoys good books and discussing philosophy with friends and strangers alike. 

Categories: Books Reviews, Essay

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