Ivan admits that he’s never understood “how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors.” He recalls a story about John the Merciful (a saint) in which “a hungry and frozen passerby came to him and asked to be made warm.” So, John lay with him in bed, embraced him, and began breathing into the itinerant’s mouth, “which was foul and festering with some terrible disease.” Ivan thinks that the saint did it out of duty because, it one is truly going to try to love a man, the man must stay hidden. Exposure of one’s humanity makes one less lovable.
Ivan regards one of Jesus’ principle teachings as ridiculous. He also reveals his misanthropy, which makes it difficult for him to believe that others can express love or empathy for a smelly, filthy person. His anecdote contrasts with the kindness with which Stinking Lizaveta was received in town. However, that kindness may only confirm Ivan’s view that people are only kind to feel good about themselves.
Alexei says that the elder Zosima mentioned something similar—how “a man’s face often prevents many people…from loving him.” Alexei insists that there “is still much love in mankind, almost like Christ’s love.” Ivan thinks that Christ’s love is “a miracle impossible on earth.” People can love each other abstractly, or if suffering took place only on a stage, but “hardly ever up close.”
Ivan decides that it’s better for them to talk about the suffering of children because people can love children, “even dirty or homely children,” up close. Adults, on the other hand, are not only “disgusting” and unworthy of love, but know too well about good and evil while children know nothing of it and are, therefore, not guilty of anything. Ivan says that he loves children very much and observes how “cruel people—passionate, carnivorous, Karamazovian—sometimes love children very much.”
Ivan thinks that children are more lovable because they are vulnerable and pure. Others regard them as not having been tainted by the evils and temptations that exist in the world. However, children’s innocence also appeals to sadists who wish to exploit their helplessness.
Ivan narrates stories to Alexei about cruelty toward children. A Bulgarian whom he met in Moscow told him about how the Turks there delight in torturing children. He describes how they cut them out of their mothers’ wombs, and how they toss nursing infants into the air and catch them on the blades of their bayonets before the mothers’ eyes. The main delight, he says, comes from performing the tortures in front of the mothers. Another trick is to “fondle the baby” and make it laugh. At that moment, the cruel Turk will aim a pistol four inches from the babe’s face, watch as the child “laughs gleefully” and reaches its little hands out to the pistol, before the Turk pulls the trigger and shatters its little head. Ivan then notes how they say that Turks are “very fond of sweets.”
There has long been tension between Bulgarians and ethnic Turks who are a minority in the country. The biggest influx of Turks into Bulgaria didn’t occur until the late 1980s, but their presences were perceived as a threat long before they became a more visible objective reality, due to their Muslim faith and different cultural practices. Knowing this, it’s dubious whether or not the man whom Ivan met was telling the truth. His stories about Turkish cruelty may be fantasies concocted to demonize them.
Alexei asks Ivan to describe his point. Ivan says that, “if the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.” In Russia, they have “the birch and the lash.” In Europe, they no longer practice beatings, but they have other ways of expressing cruelty. Ivan mentions a pamphlet he read about a recently executed “villain and murderer named Richard.” He was an illegitimate child sent to Swiss shepherds who raised him to work but otherwise neglected him. He wasn’t even given the mash that the pigs ate. When he stole mash from the pigs, the shepherds beat Richard. So, he grew up to steal. Richard eventually robbed and killed an old man. The religious community of Geneva goes to the twenty-three-year-old man and helps him to repent. He goes to the guillotine, assured that he will be sent to the Lord.
Ivan’s mention of Richard’s story seems to be an allegory about the hypocrisy of both society and religious communities, which failed to protect Richard before he could grow up to become a robber and a murderer. Richard’s faith may bring him comfort, but he will ultimately be executed, and Ivan suggests that his faith is based on false hope. His story slightly mirrors that of Smerdyakov, who is also the product of illegitimacy, routinely shunned and demeaned by those around him. Smerdyakov also resents the society that has villainized him, but he will later exact his revenge by refusing to admit to his crimes.
Ivan says that he’s collected many stories about children, and tells one about a five-year-old girl—the child of educated officials—who was subjected “to every possible torture.” They beat, flogged, and kicked her, without even knowing why. They locked her in the outhouse for not telling them when she needed to use the bathroom. Her mother also “smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement.” Ivan realizes that he may be tormenting Alexei with these stories and offers to stop, but Alexei tells him to continue because he wants to suffer.
This is one of the most memorable anecdotes in the novel due to its graphic nature and unique depravity. Ivan tells Alexei that the girl’s parents were “educated officials” to demonstrate that social position and learning do not always prevent people from exhibiting the worst aspects of their natures. Alexei wants to hear the story so that he can better understand how others suffer in the world, but he may also take a morbid interest.
Ivan tells another story about a general who lived at the beginning of the century. He kept “hundreds of dogs in his kennels and nearly a hundred handlers” for the dogs. A house-serf, only eight years old, one day threw a stone while he was playing and “hurt the paw of the general’s favorite hound.” When the general asked why the canine was limping, someone reported to him about the boy and the stone. The general locked the boy up that night. In the morning, the boy was led out, undressed, and taken into the forest where the general hunted. The house-serfs, including the boy’s mother, were also brought along. The general commanded the huntsmen to release all of the wolfhounds, who proceeded to tear the boy to pieces.
The general is also a misanthrope, but unlike Ivan, he can’t even demonstrate kindness toward children. The general’s inhumanity toward the boy may also related to serfdom, which encouraged the tendency to dehumanize those condemned to servitude, including children. The general regarded the boy as his possession, an item with monetary value, just like the dog. However, he determined that the dog was more valuable to him.
Ivan says that the general was later declared too incompetent to manage his estate. He asks Alexei if the general should’ve been shot, and Alexei agrees that he should’ve been. Ivan then says that “a little devil” does sit in Alexei’s heart after all. Alexei asks why Ivan is testing him. Ivan says that he’s merely “a bedbug” who doesn’t understand why things are as they are. All he knows is that there is suffering and that he doesn’t want more suffering. If the suffering of children is what’s needed to buy truth, then he asserts that the truth isn’t worth the price.
Alexei’s view is probably the result of his embrace of God’s law—“an eye for an eye”—which is an Old Testament view of justice. Christ rejected this in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, in favor of “turning the other cheek.” Alexei’s response to the story is visceral, so he can’t be blamed for his spontaneous reaction to such cruelty. Ivan’s argument against God is essentially that the world is so evil that no benevolent creator could have made it.
Alexei says that his brother’s speech amounts to a rebellion. Ivan asks Alexei to imagine that he’s “building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last.” He asks if Alexei would “torture just one tiny creature” if it were necessary to build the foundation. Alexei says that he wouldn’t. Ivan then asks him to admit that the people for whom he’s building the monument would soon agree to have their happiness built “on the unjustified blood of a tortured child.” Alexei refuses to admit this. He reminds Ivan that humanity’s happiness is already being built with the blood of the one who has already given his body for everyone and everything—Christ. Ivan says that he hasn’t forgotten about him and is surprised that Alexei didn’t mention him sooner. Ivan then says that he composed a poem and committed it to memory. It’s called “The Grand Inquisitor.”
Ivan tests Alexei’s view that all human life is precious by asking if he would be willing to sacrifice one to preserve the whole. With his typical cynicism, he argues that, if Alexei is telling the truth, he is unique, for most would willingly terminate one life for the sake of all humanity. However, Alexei doesn’t wish to believe that people are capable of such indifference, and he doesn’t believe that the ends justify the means. Besides, he thinks that no such mortal sacrifice is necessary because Christ has already suffered for everyone’s sins. Ivan presents “The Grand Inquisitor” to question Alexei’s view that humanity will always be rescued by Christ’s sacrifice.