Grigory and Smerdyakov run back into the room, after having struggled with Dmitri in the front hall to keep him from entering the house. Grigory closes both doors leading to the inner rooms and guards them, leading Dmitri to think that Grushenka is hidden away in the rooms. Dmitri hits Grigory “with all his strength.” Grigory collapses, allowing Dmitri to go through the door. Fyodor accuses Dmitri of trying to steal money from his bedroom. Breaking away from Ivan, who’s holding him back, Fyodor rushes at his eldest son, but Dmitri seizes the old man “by the two surviving wisps of hair on his temples,” smashes him against the floor, and kicks him “two or three times with his heel.” Alexei, the only one Dmitri trusts, assures him that Grushenka hasn’t appeared. Dmitri then reminds Alexei to go to Katerina Ivanovna to remind her that Dmitri bows to her and “bows out.”
Frequently in the novel, both Dmitri and Fyodor express their obsession with Grushenka by believing that she is always present, or hidden away by the other one, when she’s actually nowhere around. Her presence is palpable, even when she is absent, due to Dmitri and Fyodor’s fixation on her and how that fixation impacts their behavior and their relationship. The image of Dmitri seizing the old man by his “wisps of hair” will later be echoed when he drags Captain Snegiryov out of the tavern by his “whiskbroom” (beard).
Ivan and Grigory help Fyodor into an armchair. His face is bloody, but Dmitri gives him “a hateful glance” as he runs out of the room. Fyodor begins to think that Grushenka is present, while Ivan shouts at him that she’s not. Alexei advises Grigory to put a compress on his head and to go lie down, because Dmitri gave him “a terribly painful blow.” He assures Grigory that he and Ivan will look after Fyodor. Grigory is in shock that Dmitri “dared” to hit him, given that he “used to wash him in a tub.” Ivan reminds Grigory that Dmitri hit Fyodor, too, and that, if he hadn’t pulled Dmitri away, he might have killed Fyodor, who wouldn’t be able to withstand much.
Dmitri and Fyodor’s contention over Grushenka leads both to forget or disregard the fact that they are father and son. Familial roles are further confused by Grigory’s sense that Dmitri has shown great disloyalty by daring to hit him—the man who looked after Dmitri in his infancy after Fyodor neglected him. The tender image of Grigory washing Dmitri in a tub is contrasted with the brutality of Dmitri knocking Grigory to the floor.
Alexei rejects this idea, while Ivan views such a scenario as “viper eating another viper,” and concludes that “it would serve them both right.” Ivan goes for a walk in the yard because he feels a headache coming on. Alexei goes to Fyodor’s room and sits with him for about an hour. Fyodor opens his eyes, gazes silently at Alexei, then asks where Ivan is. After Alexei tells him, Fyodor asks for the mirror on his chest. Fyodor looks at his badly swollen nose and the “large purple bruise on his forehead above the left eyebrow.” Fyodor tells Alexei that he’s the only one of his sons that he isn’t afraid of. He asks Alexei again to assure him that Grushenka wasn’t in the house, and Alexei says that she wasn’t. He assures his father that Dmitri won’t marry her.
The image of a “viper eating another viper” is cannibalistic. Ivan suggests that Dmitri and Fyodor’s equal urges to destroy each other are mutually self-destructive. This image may also refer indirectly to the ancient Egyptian symbol of the Ouroboros—the snake eating its own tail. This is a symbol of infinity or continuity, but it also represents the eternal cycle of destruction and regeneration. This image applies to the enmity between father and son, as Fyodor and Dmitri risk destroying each other, even as one also created the other.
Fyodor then asks Alexei to go to Grushenka and find out if she wants to be with him or with Dmitri. Alexei agrees to run this errand. Then, Fyodor decides that maybe Alexei shouldn’t go to her, because she won’t tell him the truth anyway. He describes Grushenka as “a cheat.” He then asks where Dmitri asked Alexei to go. To Katerina Ivanovna, Alexei says. Before he leaves, Fyodor asks him to return the next morning but not to mention this to Ivan.
Fyodor wants to give Grushenka an ultimatum. This may be more for his own peace of mind—he’s afraid of Dmitri—than out of any need to force a decision out of her. Fyodor seems to know that Grushenka is duplicitous and will continue to play both men’s jealousies against them.
Alexei passes through the yard and sees Ivan sitting on a bench by the gate, “writing something in his notebook with a pencil.” Ivan asks Alexei if they can meet the following morning. Alexei says that he’ll be with the Khokhlakovs, and he may have to return to Katerina Ivanovna’s if he fails to find her now. Ivan knows about Dmitri’s request that Alexei tell Katerina that he’s “bowing out.” Ivan concludes that Grushenka is “a beast,” that Fyodor must be kept at home, and that Dmitri can’t be allowed into the house.
Ivan’s feelings for Katerina, and his own embarrassment in regard to his brother’s behavior toward her, probably impact his feelings toward Grushenka—a woman he has never met but only heard about. In a truly sexist fashion, he seems to regard her as a temptress sowing discord in his family, instead of holding his father and brother responsible for their own actions.
Alexei asks Ivan if he thinks that any man can decide if other people are worthy to live or not. Ivan says that worth has nothing to do with it, but that people make such decisions for other, “more natural” reasons. He adds that anyone has the right to wish for another’s death. He asks Alexei if he thinks that, like Dmitri, he’d be capable of killing Fyodor, whom he calls “Aesop.” Alexei is shocked by the question. Ivan is flattered by his response, and insists that he’ll always protect their father. As for his personal feelings, he says, he’ll keep those to himself. He asks that Alexei not look upon him as a villain. They shake hands, and Alexei feels that his brother “stepped a step towards him…with some purpose in mind.”
Ivan’s question to Alexei concerns whether it is ever proper to commit murder. In his dismissal of “worth,” Ivan is saying that one’s assessment of someone’s character, wealth, or social preeminence plays little role in their decision to kill. Instead, people commit the crime for more “natural” reasons, such as envy, jealousy, or greed. Aesop was an ancient Greek storyteller, famous for his fables. Ivan perhaps refers to his father by this nickname because Aesop instructed his audience in morals, while Fyodor has none, or perhaps because Aesop was traditionally described as extremely ugly.