From Cain to the Good Samaritan: The Conversion of Ivan Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is generally considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It tells the story of three brothers, Alexei (Alyosha), Dmitri, and Ivan. Alexei is the good brother, a follower of the saintly Orthodox priest and monk, Father Zosima. Dmitri is a drunk, a military man, and a womanizer who loves poetry. Ivan is a nihilist who, at first, believes everything is permissible. Much of the plot revolves around the murder of their father, Fyodor, a thoroughly depraved and highly unsympathetic character. Dmitri is arrested, tried, and unjustly convicted of the murder, which actually was committed by Pavel Smerdyakov, who lived in the father’s household, serving as a cook, valet, companion, and general handyman, and who may have been the father’s illegitimate son.

While each of the sons, as well as the father and several other characters, has been analyzed by many commentators, this post looks at Ivan, focusing particularly on his movement from nihilism to compassion.

How Ivan Was:

At the beginning of the book, Ivan is committed to a position of extreme nihilism. He believed that every man was a law unto himself, and rejected the concept that he was his brother’s keeper: “What have I to do with it? Am I my brother Dmitry’s keeper?” Moreover, he did not believe in life after death or immortality. In his view, this absence of a future life meant that “nothing then would be immoral, [and that] everything would be permitted.”

How Ivan Changed:

Ivan’s metamorphosis occurs in the context of discussions with Smerdyakov regarding why the cook killed Ivan’s father. Smerdyakov tells Ivan that he was only Ivan’s “instrument,” and that Ivan is “the only real murderer” because he convinced Smerdyakov that all it is permitted, and that nothing is wrong. As such, “it was following your words I did it.” This accusation strikes Ivan to the core, and he admits that he wanted his father’s murder and perhaps was even prepared to assist in it. Ivan says “I put him up to it,” and “I am the murderer too.” He even goes so far as to testify at Dmitri’s trial that “I am not mad. I am only a murderer.”

Based upon these self accusations, Ivan changes. This change is shown most dramatically by his actions after he confronts a peasant and knocks him into the snow-covered ground, leaving him unconscious. At first, he simply goes away, leaving the peasant in the snow. But later, on his way back, he sees the peasant still lying there. Instead of leaving him on the ground again, he lifts the peasant up, takes him to a police station, and pays for a doctor to see the peasant. In these actions, Cain becomes the Good Samaritan.

How Ivan’s Conversion Reflects the Themes of the Book:

The change in Ivan demonstrates the force of Father Zosima’s teachings in Book VI, Chapter 3. He cautions that we cannot view our actions in isolation. Instead, “all is like an ocean,” and “a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.” As such, each person is responsible for every other person: We are our brothers keeper. There is only one way to salvation, and that is to “make yourself responsible for all men’s sins.”

Ivan’s metanoia is graphically captured in another teaching of Father Zosima: “No one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime.” Nevertheless, God will save the sinner Ivan because God “loves you with your sin, in your sin.”

In starting on his journey of conversion, Ivan mirrors the path of Saint Augustine, who said “See who I was in myself and by myself. I have destroyed myself, but He who made me remade me.”




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