When Alexei enters his father’s house, Fyodor is excited to see him. He invites his youngest son to sit down for coffee. He refrains from offering Alexei cognac because he knows that he’s fasting, but then changes his mind and offers it anyway; Alexei refuses. Fyodor has the liqueur served for himself and Ivan. He then asks if Alexei has had dinner and Alexei says that he has, though he’s only had a piece of bread and a glass of kvass in the Father Superior’s kitchen. He requests hot coffee, however.
Alexei’s self-denial contrasts with Fyodor and Ivan’s personal indulgences. Kvass is a Slavic drink made from black bread. Kvass is a typical Russian drink, whereas cognac is a French liqueur, afforded only by those of the upper class. Alexei’s subsistence on a piece of bread is suggestive of the body of Christ in the traditional Eucharist.
Fyodor notes that Smerdyakov, whom he calls “Balaam’s ass,” has started to talk and is quite a talker. Smerdyakov is only twenty-four and usually taciturn. Grigory insists that he grew up “without any gratitude” and “was fond of hanging cats and then burying them with ceremony.” Grigory once caught him in the midst of conducting a ceremony and beat him. Grigory then declared that Smerdyakov wasn’t a human being but something “begotten of bathhouse slime.” Smerdyakov never forgave these words.
Balaam is a figure from the Old Testament, or Torah, who was a non-Israelite but also a prophet. He is famous for having a donkey that once spoke to him after he beat it unjustly. Fyodor thus sees Smerdyakov as less-than-human, and finds his new intellectual ideas amusing rather than valuable. Grigory’s account of Smerdyakov’s youthful violence against cats also suggests psychopathic tendencies in him.
Grigory taught Smerdyakov how to read and write using the Scriptures. During the second or third lesson, Smerdyakov asked where the light shone from on the first day if the Lord didn’t create the sun, moon, and stars until the fourth day. Grigory was stunned at the boy, who “looked derisively at his teacher.” Grigory could only respond by delivering a blow on Smerdyakov’s cheek. A week later, Smerdyakov “had the falling sickness” (epilepsy). This caused Fyodor to change his opinion of the boy, whom he formerly regarded with relative indifference. Suddenly, he was worried about Smerdyakov. He called in a doctor to treat him, but a cure was impossible. Smerdyakov suffered an attack about once a month. Some attacks were slight, others “extremely severe.” As a result, Fyodor strictly forbade Grigory any corporal punishment of his charge.
Smerdyakov has a sharp, critical mind, which intimidates Grigory, who isn’t very bright. In this regard, Smerdyakov resembles Ivan, though he also exhibits his father’s skepticism toward religious institutions. It’s possible, given that we later learn that Smerdyakov can fake falling fits, that he was long aware of his illness and began to “sham fits” to gain favor with Fyodor and get from under Grigory’s thumb. Nonetheless, Fyodor’s expression of sympathy toward Smerdyakov’s condition is unusual, given his indifference toward his other children. He seems to commiserate with Smerdyakov’s suffering. Dostoevsky also famously suffered from epilepsy, so his account of Smerdyakov’s “falling sickness” is deeply personal.
Fyodor also forbade further instruction. Then, one day, when Smerdyakov was about fifteen, Fyodor notices the teenager “loitering by the bookcase and reading the titles through the glass.” There are many books in the house, though no one has ever seen Fyodor reading anything. He gives Smerdyakov the key to the bookcase. Smerdyakov dislikes the first book he reads, so Fyodor gives him Smaragdov’s Universal History instead. Smerdyakov gets through about ten pages and finds it boring, so Fyodor locks the bookcase up again.
Fyodor forbade Grigory’s religious instruction but was open to Smerdyakov learning more about the secular world. Fyodor’s library fosters the pretense that he is a learned, cerebral man when he’s both too lazy and too uncurious for that to be actually true. His ownership of Smaragdov’s history discounts Kolya Krasotkin’s later belief that he's the only one in possession of the book.
Grigory and Marfa notice that, at dinner, Smerdyakov has become particularly discerning and studies his food before eating it. This prompts Fyodor to send Smerdyakov to Moscow to train as a cook. Smerdyakov spends a few years there and comes back greatly changed. He looks much older, but he’s just as withdrawn as before. Moscow’s cultural scene interested him very little, but he did learn to dress well. He also turned out to be an excellent cook. Fyodor provides him with a salary, which Smerdyakov spends almost entirely “on clothes, pomade, perfume, and so on.”
Smerdyakov’s behavior seems to be a refutation of his low birth and illegitimacy. His attention to taste makes him similar to Fyodor and Dmitri, who both enjoy rich delicacies and good drink. His love of fine clothes is also similar to his father’s appreciation for quality garments. Smerdyakov is not a Karamazov in name, but he does seem to be a Karamazov in his sensualist nature.
Smerdyakov seems to hate women as much as men. He also seems to be having more epileptic attacks, which Fyodor finds curious. He says that he wishes Smerdyakov would get married, and that he could find him someone.
Smerdyakov is a misanthrope. Given that it’s later revealed that Smerdyakov can fake seizures, it’s possible that he feigns more attacks to avoid people or to get what he wants out of them.
Fyodor is convinced of Smerdyakov’s honesty. Once, when he dropped three hundred-rouble bank notes in the mud of his yard, he found the notes lying on his table the next day. Smerdyakov picked them up the evening before. As a reward, Fyodor gave him ten roubles. Smerdyakov isn’t a conspirer or a thinker. Instead, he’s a contemplative type who gets lost in the impressions that he’s “greedily storing up.”
This honesty seems to be an inherent trait, because Stinking Lizaveta had the same quality but died in childbirth, making it so that Smerdyakov couldn’t have learned this indifference toward materialism from his mother. Everyone underestimates Smerdyakov’s potential to do harm because he's so seemingly helpless.