A significant portion of my adolescence was with the character of Smerdyakov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. After “being” Prince Myshkin from The Idiot for a year, I was sick of all that goodness and I wanted to embrace the opposite. He is described in one article as “up there with the great villains of world literature.” Like Voldemort? Hardly. But he is described by various writers as “repulsive,” with a “perpetual chip on his shoulder” but also lacking in a redeeming grandeur. Who can blame him? He certainly got the short end of the stick. While his three brothers are legitimate sons of their father, he is raised to be a servant. His father-in-proxy is a rigid fundamentalist Christian who condemns him for thinking for himself. His mother is literally the village idiot, humiliating for someone so intelligent. Daddy Dearest calls him “Balaam’s ass” and clearly doesn’t take him seriously. He throws him a coin when he feels generous. Bravo!
You can’t discuss Smerdyakov without discussing Ivan with whom Smerdyakov was deeply attached. I wonder if he was gay. While a local girl is obviously smitten with him, he doesn’t show any reciprocation. When Ivan rejects him in the end, he kills himself. He seemed more motivated to form a bond with Ivan than self-enrichment. The money he stole with which he had planned to get started in a new city meant nothing to him without Ivan’s approval. In this, he has a lot in common with Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnikov, he committed murder, ostensibly for gain but really to prove a philosophical point. Raskolnikov wanted to prove he was a Nietzschean Ubermensch, a superior being who is allowed to disregard conventional morality because he would do great enough things to justify his breach of ethics. Smerdyakov wanted to prove that “nothing is true so everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky believed that ethics only made sense in the context of religion. Without “god,” no morality. But, without the support and loyalty of Ivan, Smerdyakov succumbed to despair.
While I don’t agree that Smerdyakov was a “great villain of world literature” like Voldemort, it is interesting to compare their ancestry. Voldemort’s mother came from what one might call a degenerate family. She, herself, was pretty pathetic, not pretty, a scapegoat in her family of origin and abandoned by her husband while pregnant with Voldemort. Smerdyakov’s mother was the village idiot, homeless and barefoot. Considered a “holy fool” by the townsfolk and cared for by them, she was known as “Stinking Lizaveta” or Smerdyashchaya. That both came from such a unprepossessing background colors the scenerio of the self-reinvention of each of them, Tom Riddle into the most feared wizard in the world and Smerdyakov into a sophisticated and refined dandy.
While Smerdyakov seemed to be a classic psychopath (without the charm), Ivan was in a struggle with “god,” a “rebellion” with how “god” was supposed to be the personification of goodness and yet allowed so much evil in the universe. The Reification of Evil (captioned below) gives a good critique of the Book of Job: “What type of reconciliation did God actually give to Job? In essence, God’s peroration from the whirlwind reduces to ‘I created the universe and you did not’ — with no explanation whatsoever of why Job has been made to suffer. This is all the more galling for readers of Job, because we are told in Chapters 1 and 2 that God inflicts harm upon Job as part of a silly wager with a satan.” As I recall, Satan said that Job was only loyal because he had a good live. Would he remain loyal if God took away everything he had? But, here’s another question. Why the hell should he? I’m loyal to my friends, to those who are good to me. Why should I be loyal to those who are bad to me? But I agree that God’s answer to Job was tantamount to “neener neener neener.”
But what makes “god’s goodness” impossible to swallow is not the evil that occurs on Earth. After all, you can always explain that in terms of the long story, ending in heaven. But it is “god’s” disposition of the “damned” that makes him unworthy of worship. Nobody deserves to go to Hell, not even Ronald Reagan (no matter how often and vehemently I damn him). Think about it. We are mortal, finite beings. What can a finite being do that would make him deserving of eternal torment? But “god” says we all deserve Hell. Say, what? We deserve Hell? But “god” created us, didn’t he? So he created a being so flawed that it deserves eternal torment. And, yet, in his infinite mercy, “god” will save us from the Hell we deserve if we believe in him and ask for salvation. Those who don’t know about it are just shit out of luck. And those who know but don’t believe and just fucked and don’t deserve a moment of consideration. Never mind that we were created with a rational mind. Using it makes us infidels.
The Brothers Karamazov is about a lot more than Smerdyakov. It deals with Dostoevsky’s own struggles about religion and his final embrace of love and humility as the true saving grace of humanity. Each of the brothers deserves a long, detailed discussion. But I have no desire to create one.
Why did Smerdyakov surrender to despair after his plan succeeded so well? Why didn’t he move to Paris and open a restaurant? It seemed he was just genuinely weary of life. He seemed to hope Ivan could give his life meaning but Ivan failed him. He turned out not to be the bold superman he wanted him to be just as Raskolnikov failed to achieve that status in himself. Dostoevsky probably didn’t believe that possible. Despite his knowledge of so much worldly wickedness, he didn’t seem to think it possible to be “evil” and want to live. Svidrigailov, another villain, also killed himself. I failed to understand a lot of this at the age of 13 and so just continued my game of “being” Smerdyakov to the bitter end of attempting suicide which got me into a mental hospital for two years and so continued my own path independent of Dostoevsky who had played such a large role in my adolescence.
- The Reification of Evil and the Failure of Theodicy. The Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
- Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov.
- The Musing of Smerdyakov. by Philip McPherson Rudisill
- Leibniz on the Problem of Evil. I learned a new word, “theodicy.” It means the theology of how can God be good and allow evil.
- Arrested Development is The Brothers Karamazov. Once you realize that Annyong is Smerdyakov, everything else falls into place.
- Male virgins in The Brothers Karamazov.
- Ivan’s Last Meeting With Smerdyakov.