Man, I can’t stop hating on this book. What is it this time? It’s Book XI. Here we finally learn that Dmitri didn’t kill Fyodor, that it was, in fact, Smerdyakov. But everything now has become so contrived that it’s trite and tedious. Here’s my latest issue with the ridiculousness of this book:
Ivan’s first visit to Smerdyakov ends with Smerdyakov implying very heavily that Fyodor’s murder is Ivan’s fault even though Ivan wasn’t even in town. If Ivan hadn’t left town, then he would’ve been at Fyodor’s house to protect him when Dmitri showed up to kill their father. (There’s a letter written by Dmitri that says basically this, but I don’t remember anymore when or under what context that letter is introduced.) Ivan questions himself intensely: “I knew Dmitri had made threats against Fyodor’s life, and yet I still left town instead of staying to protect Fyodor. Did I secretly wish for Fyodor’s death?” This troubles Ivan incredibly, which is weird because he doesn’t even seem to give two licks for Fyodor’s murder in the first place. Okay, so maybe he is a selfish and cynical person and that all he cares about now is whether blame for the murder can be assigned to him. But, Ivan, you weren’t even in town, bro. No reasonable person would ever assign blame to you in this case. No reasonable person.
Okay, so that’s the first visit to Smerdyakov. The guilt, for whatever reason, really gets to Ivan, so he returns to Smerdyakov to accost him. Instead Smerdyakov turns the tables and further convinces Ivan that he “allowed” the murder to happen so that he could inherit his portion of Fyodor’s money. That and he further convinces Ivan that Dmitri was indeed the killer. (Maybe this is when the letter was mentioned.) So Ivan’s conscious is just being absolutely wracked by this, because of course he knew for a fact before the murder that Dmitri would actually follow through on his threats.
I’m being sarcastic there if you can’t tell. It’s only after the murder that all the characters talk about how clear it was that it was only a matter of time before Dmitri would try killing Fyodor. Which is infuriating for me, the reader, because all this information would’ve been much more effective (tension-wise) if it’d been broadcast before the murder. Yeah, there’s Dmitri flying in out of nowhere and beating Fyodor up early on in the book, and there’s a little gossip here and there. But everything else leading up the murder is all about Zosima and building up Alyosha. The rivalry between Dmitri and Fyodor is the B-story behind this whole thing with Zosima’s death and Alyosha going out into the world.
(Throw in the fact that Dostoyevsky has this really annoying habit of introducing implicating evidence or circumstances after the event goes down. In general. We’re hearing about all sorts of things always after the fact. Dmitri’s letter. Reaction’s education and writerly ambitions. The money in the pouch hanging around Dmitri’s neck. Christ, it’s almost as if Dostoyevsky released this story in installments, making it up as he went along, retrofitting things in later chapters to account for changing whims in what should happen in the overall plot….)
Anyway, the fact that I’m supposed to take Ivan’s guilt at face value, when there were no substantial indicators, prior to the murder, that Dmitri would actually commit the crime: I don’t accept this. In terms of pure story-telling, Dostoevsky screwed the pooch here by focusing on too much philosophy and exposition early instead of properly laying the narrative groundwork for the murder. He should’ve worked to all the circumstantial evidence like the money and Dmitri’s letter into the plot before the murder. But what we’re left with in regards to Ivan’s conscious is something so…forced and contrived that I…I can’t believe this book has the reputation that it has.
Okay, but all this gets worse, because Ivan visits Smerdyakov a third time. This time Smerdyakov admits that he, Smerdyakov, was the one who actually killed Fyodor. And that Ivan is culpable in the murder because of a philosophical discussion they had earlier in the day. And Ivan believes him!
The characters in this book are all stupid, stupid people. And their stupidity drives the story in a stupid way. I’m not talking about a character making a stupid choice and then having to come to terms with that stupid choice. (“Maybe if I bang really loudly on this door, it’ll scare all the zombies away!…Oh no! I’m being eaten by all the zombies!”) No, I mean that the plot is stupid and it requires characters to make stupid decisions that no real person would ever make just to keep things rolling. (“Maybe if I bang really loudly on this door, it’ll scare all the zombies away!…Oh look! My knocking has summoned SEAL Team Six to dispatch all the zombies!”) Dostoevsky must’ve said to himself, “I need these a character to experience a life-altering revelation and redemption at the end. But how can I get him into a situation where that can happen? Hmmm…maybe I’ll have him believe that he’s directly responsible for a murder he wasn’t even in town only because he had a conversation about atheism and its moral implications.” (Moral implications of atheism as 19th Century christian man would understand them, that is.) “Yeah, and then he’ll tear his hair out in grief and shame.” I mean, I don’t think I can even properly explain my eye-rolling annoyance with the various plot devices in this book.