Having finished The Brothers Karamazov, I would say one of the most interesting themes of the book was the struggle between faith and doubt in light of the suffering in the world. In a word, its the age-old problem of evil. Ivan’s speech in Book V, chapters 3-5, is about as poignant and heart-rending an expression of this problem as I’ve ever read. It is so forcefully and understandingly articulated that one wonders if this is Dostoevsky’s own view, shining through Ivan’s words. Ivan’s focus on the suffering of children throughout his speech adds to this suspicion, in light of the fact that Dostoevsky’s writing of the novel was interrupted in May 1878 by the tragic death of his three-year-old son Alyosha. And yet, however forceful Ivan’s argument against God may be, the events of the story undermine this argument. Ivan’s philosophy is Smerdyakov’s rationale for murdering Fyodor, and Ivan, in coming to terms with his indirect complicity for his own father’s murder, goes insane. There is no question that Dostoevsky understands Ivan’s perspective from the inside out – and yet he ultimately condemns it.
Ivan’s moral and psychological disintegration contrasts starkly with the rising prominence of Alyosha throughout the book. Alyosha is a strange hero. He doesn’t do much. He’s often just listening to the other characters go on and on. And yet his sincerity, his simplicity of faith, his love for other specific people (as opposed to Ivan’s focus on humanity in the abstract), and above all his lack of contempt for others in their wretchedness, is what finally prevails in the book. Not only does Dostoevsky emphasize his role as hero in the introductory note to the book, but when he finally does speak, its the final word of the novel, and the book ends with him being cheered by the boys at Ilyusha’s funeral.
The most powerful message of this book for me occurred through this contrast of Ivan and Zosima/Alyosha. The central event of the novel, the murder of Fyodor, is justified by Ivan’s perspective (according to Smerdyakov’s own words), while the perspective of Alyosha, originally voiced through Zosima, is what continually redeems people. Faith in God and love for others win, and religious doubt loses. And yet Dostoevsky does not provide – at least that I can discern – a logical answer to Ivan (unless the Devil’s conversation with Ivan in XI.9 is this??). In other words, Dostoevsky proves Ivan wrong not through argument, but through the narration. The denial of God is not so much answered as shown un-livable. I wonder of this is why some see Dostoevsky as a sort of existentialist: he shows the tension between the logical difficulties of faith, but the existential anguish of any alternative. Besides making this philosophical point, the novel also demonstrates the power of narrative: sometimes a story can display what no argument can refute. Sometimes life can unravel even the most air-tight logic.
At the conclusion of Book XI, Alyosha reflects on Ivan’s madness:
“(Alyosha) began to understand Ivan’s illness: ‘The torments of a proud decision, a deep conscience!’ God, in whom he did not believe, and his truth were overcoming his heart, which still did not want to submit…. Alyosha smiled gently: ‘God will win!’ he thought. ‘He will either rise into the light of truth, or … perish in hatred, taking revenge on himself and everyone for having served something he does not believe in,’ Alyosha added bitterly, and again prayed for Ivan.”
My conclusion: however difficult faith in God may be when faced with the terrible reality of suffering in the world, its only alternative is an un-livable despair.