Summary and Analysis Part 4: Book XI

On his way to question Dmitri, Alyosha stops and visits Lise, whom he finds feverish and excited. She tells him that she longs to be punished and castigated by God and says that she regularly prays to suffer torture, for she can no longer respect anything or anyone. She continuously feels possessed with a terrible urge to destroy. The young girl becomes hysterical as she confesses her secret thoughts and then suddenly sends Alyosha away. After he leaves, she does a curious thing: she intentionally slams the door on her fingers and calls herself a wretch.

When Alyosha arrives at the prison where Dmitri is being held, he notices that Rakitin, a seminarian acquaintance, is leaving. He asks Dmitri about Rakitin’s visit and is told that the seminarian hopes to write an article proving that Dmitri is the victim of an unhappy environment and that he could not help killing his father. Dmitri then explains to the puzzled Alyosha that he does not take Rakitin seriously, that he tolerates him only because he is amused by his “advanced ideas.” More seriously, Dmitri confesses that he now understands his responsibility for his past life and sins and that he is ready to suffer and do penance for his sins. He is sure that there can still be a full and rewarding life for him. Only one thing troubles him, however — Grushenka. He is afraid that the authorities will not let her accompany him to Siberia and fears that, without Grushenka, he will be unable to face his years of punishment and thus will never be redeemed.

Dmitri also tells Alyosha that Ivan has come to the prison and has given him a plan for escape. Of course, Dmitri says, Ivan believes him guilty of murder. He then turns to Alyosha and asks his brother’s opinion. Never before has he had the courage to speak so candidly with Alyosha, and when he hears the young man say, “I’ve never for one instant believed that you were the murderer,” Dmitri is greatly relieved. He feels the power of a new life rising in him.

Alyosha leaves Dmitri and goes to Katerina shortly thereafter. He finds Ivan just leaving, but his brother remains long enough to hear what Alyosha says concerning Dmitri. When Ivan leaves, Katerina becomes highly emotional and insists that Alyosha follow him; she is convinced that Ivan is going mad.

Alyosha rushes to rejoin Ivan and learns yet another piece of news. Ivan says that Katerina has a “document in her hands . . . that proves conclusively” that Dmitri did indeed murder their father. Alyosha denies that such a document could exist, and Ivan then asks who the murderer is. Alyosha tells him, “It wasn’t you who killed Father,” explaining that he is aware that Ivan has been accusing himself, but that God has sent Alyosha to Ivan to reassure him. Ivan is sickened by Alyosha’s religious mysticism and leaves him abruptly.

Ivan’s nausea, however, is not due wholly to his brother’s mysticism; the sickness begins earlier, almost simultaneously with his first visit to Smerdyakov. The servant is recovering in the hospital and maintains that his epileptic seizure on the night of the murder was real. He says further that he understood that Ivan went to Moscow because he suspected a murder was about to be committed and wanted to be far from the scene of the crime. Ivan answers that he will not reveal to the authorities that Smerdyakov is able to sham an epileptic seizure, and Smerdyakov counters by promising to say nothing of a certain conversation, their last before the murder.

During Ivan’s second visit with Smerdyakov, he demands to know what Smerdyakov meant by his strange statement about their last conversation prior to the murder. Smerdyakov explains that Ivan so desired his father’s death, in order to come into a large portion of the inheritance, that he planned to leave and thereby silently assented to Fyodor’s murder.

Ivan leaves, bewildered, half realizing that he must share the guilt if Smerdyakov murdered Fyodor. He goes to see Katerina and explains his complicity and his guilt. Katerina is able to temporarily alleviate some of his anxiety. She shows him a letter that Dmitri wrote to her saying that, if necessary, he would kill Fyodor in order to repay the money he stole from her. This letter puts Ivan’s mind at ease; Dmitri, not Smerdyakov, is surely the villain.

Ivan does not see Smerdyakov again until the night before the trial, but by this time the Karamazov servant is tired of all pretense. He openly admits that it was he who killed Fyodor. He stoutly maintains, though, that he did not act alone; he acted only as an instrument of Ivan, saying, “It was following your words I did it.” He then explains in great detail how he accomplished the murder, continuously referring to the dual responsibility for the murder. Smerdyakov furthermore recalls all the philosophical discussions the two men have had and accuses Ivan of having given him the moral justification that made it possible. All this Ivan did, he says, besides leaving town and permitting the act.

Stunned, Ivan returns to his lodgings; he plans to reveal at the trial the next day all that Smerdyakov has told him, but in his room he finds a devil. The apparition is dressed like a rather shoddy middle-aged gentleman and is full of cynical criticism. He forces Ivan to face the most terrifying aspects of his inner secrets, taunting him with his private fears and weaknesses until finally Ivan goes mad with rage and hurls a cup at the intruder. At that moment, he hears Alyosha knocking at the window. His brother brings the news that Smerdyakov has just hanged himself. Ivan is so upset by his “devil” that when he tries to tell Alyosha about the experience, he cannot. Alyosha discovers to his horror that Ivan is suffering a nervous breakdown. He stays the night to nurse his brother.


This book is concerned primarily with depicting Ivan’s guilt and with detailing his duplicity in the murder of his father. Particularly, Dostoevsky emphasizes the three interviews with Smerdyakov (solving for the reader, on the plot level, the mystery of Fyodor’s killer) and Ivan’s conversation with his imaginary devil. Dostoevsky manipulates the attention of the reader away from the plot question of legal guilt and confronts him with the intricacies of Ivan’s dilemma about metaphysical guilt.

Also in Book XI, Dostoevsky provides necessary background concerning what has happened during the two months that Dmitri has been in jail. It is most important to the author’s total view that one know that Grushenka has lain ill following Dmitri’s arrest. One of Dostoevsky’s prime concepts, prominent in all his novels, is that crime (or involvement with crime) is often accompanied by illness. Besides Grushenka’s falling ill after she realizes her role in the Karamazov crime, Ivan also falls desperately ill upon his realization of his involvement in the murder. Thus, in addition to coupling crime and illness, Dostoevsky is structuring a much more important tenet. Because Grushenka is ill and suffers, she becomes regenerated. Knowledge through suffering is one of the novel’s prime equations. To underscore his presentation, Dostoevsky, as a contrast to the sensitive Grushenka, records the mincings of the whimsical and impish Lise. This young lady maintains that she needs to suffer in order to learn and that she likes to make other people suffer, but she is both shallow and superficial. She defines suffering, for example, as punishing children by eating pineapple compote before them. She punishes herself by slamming the door on her fingers!

This destructive girl turns Dostoevsky’s theories inside out and delights in reviling everyone and everything. Her perversity functions as a vivid contrast to Grushenka’s more healthy and sound soul.

Chapter 4 records Dmitri’s continued regeneration. Currently, he ponders Ivan’s offer of escape and the finances necessary to accomplish it. Earlier, he might have fled impulsively; now, however, he has developed into a type of Zossima-man. He feels that he is “responsible for all.” “I go for all,” he says, “because one must go for all. I didn’t kill Father, but I’ve got to go. I accept it.” Furthermore, he now believes that life is full of enjoyment even if one must live imprisoned. His dilemma therefore is this: he wants to accept his suffering and looks forward to salvation through suffering, but he knows that he cannot withstand suffering unless Grushenka is beside him, serving as his inspiration. If he accepts Ivan’s plan for escape, might he be rejecting his own salvation?

Dmitri seeks help and explains to Alyosha that Ivan has planned the escape because he believes Dmitri to be guilty. Alyosha reassures his brother that he never believed him to be the murderer. Alyosha then searches for Ivan and finds that he is on the verge of a mental breakdown.

During the first of Ivan’s interviews with Smerdyakov, Ivan is told by the cook that he ran away because he already knew that violence was readying itself in the Karamazov house. Smerdyakov further reminds Ivan that the two of them are very much alike. Ivan accepts neither of these ideas, but he broods on them, and as he leaves he feels that there is “an insulting significance in Smerdyakov’s last words.” It is this ambiguity that brings him back for a second interview.

During this next interview, Smerdyakov accuses Ivan outright of desiring his father’s death. “You had a foreboding,” he says, “yet went away.” This was, in effect, Ivan’s open invitation for Smerdyakov to murder Fyodor. Ivan recoils and threatens to expose Smerdyakov to the police, but the servant is wily. He reminds Ivan that he also will be disgraced in the public eye and will be accused of being an accomplice. Ivan realizes the possibility of the cook’s threat and slowly concedes that he is indeed guilty. Literally, technically, Smerdyakov is the murderer, but he, Ivan, must share the guilt. This realization weighs heavily on Ivan, and before long he is driven to despair. Then he reads the letter that Dmitri has written Katerina telling of his plans to murder his father and is even more confused. His anxiety finally subsides, but he cannot be sure now that Smerdyakov murdered Fyodor. He returns for a third interview.

Now both Ivan and Smerdyakov are ill and no longer talk in riddles. Smerdyakov openly tells Ivan, “You murdered him; you are the real murderer; I was only your instrument, your faithful servant, and it was following your words I did it.” Smerdyakov also reminds Ivan of the philosophy that “everything is lawful if there is no immortality” and that Ivan consented by going away. “By your consent to leave, you silently sanctioned doing it,” he says. Ivan still cannot accept Smerdyakov as the murderer, however; as the facts stand, he is guilty, even if the servant did commit the deed.

Ivan faces his own conscience that night in the form of a tormenting devil. The doppelganger is a witty, urbane, and clever aberration. He affirms nothing for the distraught Ivan, and at Ivan’s every question, he merely asks another, often ridiculing Ivan’s most private fears.

At the end of Book XI, Alyosha arrives with the news of Smerdyakov’s death, but Ivan is little concerned with the cook’s fate. The realization of his own guilt has so shamed and confused him that realities have almost wholly dissolved.