That evening, Ivan succumbs to brain fever, which will soon take “complete possession of his organism.” He had already seen a doctor that Katerina Ivanovna sent from Moscow when he began to exhibit symptoms. The doctor warned him that he could suffer from hallucinations. He was advised to begin “serious treatment” but ignored this advice. In this moment, he’s aware that he’s delirious. Suddenly, someone appears to be sitting on the sofa—"a certain type of Russian gentleman,” middle-aged, and in well-tailored but tattered clothing.
Soon, Ivan will be completely incapacitated and looked after by Katerina Ivanovna. For weeks, he downplayed his condition and continued his life as usual. However, his illness, compounded with the stress of his brother’s trial and Ivan’s sense of guilt, force him to hallucinate his worst nightmare—the devil whose existence he denied. The Gentleman somewhat resembles Fyodor Karamazov.
Ivan talks to the Gentleman, but never abandons the belief that he’s only talking only to himself. He refuses to accept the phantom as truth. He says that the Gentleman only says what Ivan already thinks but picks out his bad thoughts. The Gentleman says that, in society, everyone agrees that he’s “a fallen angel,” though he doesn’t understand how he could ever have been an angel. That said, he sincerely loves people. His dream is to become “incarnate…in some fat, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife.” The Gentleman will then believe everything she believes. He’ll go into church “with a pure heart” and light candles.
Ivan insists that the Gentleman, who is Satan, is merely a double, or a manifestation of his own ego (doubles are a common motif in Dostoevsky’s work). The reader knows that this character is Satan because he announces himself as “a fallen angel.” Ivan, too, is notable for his rebellion against his country’s Orthodox faith. The devil here is also a sensualist like the Karamazovs, desiring only worldly pleasures and the security of an easy faith.
Ivan starts pacing, and the Gentleman tells him that his “nerves are unstrung.” He tells Ivan that he’s always angry and “[wants] reason only.” Ivan asks him if there’s a God, and the Gentleman says that he doesn’t know. This ignorance confirms that the Gentleman is merely a projection of himself. The Gentleman agrees that he shares Ivan’s philosophy of not dealing with matters that he can’t see.
The Gentleman is, in a way, a projection of Ivan’s ideas. If one keeps to the notion that there’s no literal devil, just as there could be no literal hell, then Ivan’s idea about all of this being no more than a manifestation of his own spiritual torment makes sense. It’s also notable that even though the devil is a supernatural being, he also claims to share Ivan’s atheistic philosophy.
Ivan asks the Gentleman to tell him a “funny anecdote.” He tells a story about a man who was sentenced “to walk in darkness a quadrillion kilometers.” After that, the doors of paradise would open to him. The man stood, looked down the road, and refused to walk. He laid down in the road. Ivan laughs, saying it’s the same whether the man walks forever or lies down forever. The Gentleman says he arrived long ago, and the doors of paradise opened. The man believed that the walk was worthwhile. Ivan says that he made up the anecdote about the man walking a quadrillion kilometers. This surely proves that the Gentleman doesn’t exist.
An existential dilemma is presented here. Should one choose to “walk,” or continue on with life, or “lie down” and opt for apathy? Ivan ignores this, however, and keeps trying to reassure himself that the devil is not real, and the Gentleman is only a projection of his own fevered brain (which is very possible).
The Gentleman says that he only wanted to make Ivan laugh. He tells Ivan other stories. Ivan begs the Gentleman to leave him; his head is throbbing. The Gentleman admits that, before he arrived, he thought of appearing to Ivan as a jokester. He says that he never claimed to be Ivan’s intellectual equal. The Gentleman repeats that he is the only man who “desires good.” He says he was there when Christ died on the cross, and he wanted to sing and shout “Hosannah” with the others, but common sense prevented this. He wonders why he’s the only being in the world condemned “to be cursed by decent people.” He insists that there’s a secret in the world that will not be revealed to him.
The Gentleman again takes on Ivan’s ideas, claiming to value common sense and facts above else, while also mocking these ideas in his very person (and by claiming to be intellectually inferior to Ivan). He resembles the Grand Inquisitor as well, since he claims to “desire good” while doing evil. In all, the Gentleman is a chilling portrait of the banality of most evil.
The Gentleman says that, once humans have renounced God, they will be able to conquer nature. They will also accept death. He tells Ivan that the present question is whether or not such a time will ever come. If it does come, “the new man is allowed to become a man-god.” In such a world, “everything is permitted.” Suddenly, Ivan hears a firm knocking on the window, causing him to jump up. He wants to go to the window, but something seems to bind him. The knocking grows stronger. Finally, the bind breaks and the Gentleman has disappeared. Ivan is now convinced that he wasn’t dreaming. It’s Alexei at the window. Smerdyakov, he says, has hanged himself.
Dostoevsky suggests that the Gentleman—or, the devil—would be on the side of modern science and socialist politics, which find little necessity for God. If humanity is capable of reaching a social contract, according to adherents of modern philosophies, there is no need for God. Yet the Gentleman claims that in a world in which everyone has their own moral code, each human being becomes their own god and there is no longer any singular truth. Once again a character reaches the conclusion that if there is no God, “everything is permitted.”