smerdyakov, a dialogue

[a friend just finished doestoevsky’s the brothers karamozov. i had read it before her, and she asked about one of the characters, smerdyakov karamazov. her questions got me thinking, and that’s what this post is about. her text is italicized, mine is not.]


now that i’ve finished, i am most preoccupied with smerdyakov.

does he do it to curry favor with ivan? because he doesn’t like being a social inferior, yet he perfects the art of acting like one? because his birth was the result of an evil act? because of his mother? because he hates his father? because of some ideas he has or ivan has?

he is presented at a distance throughout the novel, and he ultimately gets away with the murder, even though is guilt is proclaimed by those who really know. everyone else suffers, but his suffering, if it indeed happens or happened, is removed from view.

alyosha doesn’t seem interested in saving him. unlike everyone else, even the father, smerdyakov is presented as an entirely hopeless case, starting from when he killed cats as a child.


these are great questions. i can only offer partial answers, as it has been awhile since i read the novel.

Smerdyakov is the forgotten Karamazov. i think his relationship to Gregory and Marfa is telling in many ways; more so with Greg. the testimony Greg gives is as honest as any of the characters, simply because Greg isn’t really smart enough to lie about anything. both Greg and Marfa treat Smerdyakov like a son, albeit an unwanted one. Greg’s testimony also protects Smerdyakov, perhaps unconsciously.

throughout the novel, smerdyakov acts as a mediator (between father Karamazov and Dmitri, between Fyodor Karamazov. and Grushenka, between Dmitri and Grushenka, etc.) and, at the end, martyrs himself, comparable to Christ. as a servant, as a mediator, we might say that this role ends when everyone is convinced that Dmitri seems guilty beyond reproof; with nothing to mediate, what is left for smerdyakov?

i think he does try to curry favour with Ivan and his suicide is the final acting out of this; his suicide is to prove that he is not intellectually, morally, or socially inferior to any of the characters. it is interesting that you note Alyosha doesn’t seem interested in saving him; this is perhaps where we might actually think of smerdyakov as superior to all the Brothers Karamazov: in killing Fyodor Karamozov, smerdyakov liberates all of the brothers from the Freudian / Lacanian “primal father.” however, this liberation is seen as something, if not horrendous, disavowed by all of the brothers. especially because it illuminates the dark passion of Dmitri and Ivan, they both wanted to kill Fyodor K, but is was smerdyakov who wanted it even more and took the opportunity when it presented itself. perhaps the motivation for the murder was to bring him closer to Ivan and get rid of Dmitri … however, the murder achieved almost the exact opposite; not only did the murder alienate I further from smerdyakov, it brought all the brothers together against smerdyakov in solidarity. quite ironic!

the distance smerdyakov is treated with is a curious fact of the narrative. i can only speculate about why Dostoevsky would portray it as such; perhaps we can look to “crime and punishment” for what the suffering of smerdyakov might be like in the form of Raskolnikov’s sufferings. we know that S. is at least as smart as any of the Karamazovs’, so it would make sense that he would not be without guilt over killing the man he believed to be his father.

his birth … ? i’m not sure how to read that. we know that Fyodor K probably raped a girl who was somewhat “touched” … maybe this added to the shame of his always-already guilty existence. smerdyakov’s use of make up may be symbolic of trying to cover up the fact of his “evil nature,” as his manners and style of dress are.

also, we know that smerdyakov is a great cook. and what is cooking, exactly? it is a form of “alchemy” – taking the base substances of nutrition and turning them into delicious tasting foodstuffs. this seems to be his one talent; we never see him enjoying his own cooking, although even Fyodor K compliments him on it. again, without anyone to appreciate his great talent, what is left to him? the master / slave dialectic comes to an end with the death of Fyodor K and with Ivan knowing about smerdyakov’s guilt; outside the position of slave, smerdyakov loses the ability to perform the master’s desire. the position of master seems to be unbearable to S; this happens near the end when Ivan and S. literally switch places. smerdyakov becomes the master and Ivan becomes the slave. smerdyakov sees Ivan totally helpless, making demands of him “to confess!” – but that is as unthinkable to smerdyakov as it is for Ivan to treat smerdyakov as an equal (which i think that Ivan knows he is, but cannot bring himself to admit).

these answers are feeble, at best. i’ll have to give the novel another read with your questions in mind.


one more thing: the grand inquisitor. in opposition to Ivan’s parable, “men do not want heavenly bread, they want regular, earthly bread …” smerdyakov seems to actually want the heavenly bread in the form of Ivan’s approval. when smerdyakov takes Ivan’s words more seriously than Ivan himself does (“they will eat each other like reptiles …”), this seems to indicate that smerdyakov is the remainder of what Ivan can only speak.


yes, and smerdyakov is a cook who feeds the father, so that’s another link to this concept.


i liked your thoughts below. i considered smerdyakov’s relationship to Greg and Marfa too. in the trial where dmitri’s defender says that fyodor was not a real father to dmitri, so there was no parricide, this is another link to smerdyakov’s situation, where smerdyakov kills the one who is his real father but clearly not an acknowledged father, so again, not really parricide. Gregory acts as a father to the 4 sons, thus dmitri’s shame over injuring him. Yet Greg is more the father of smerdyakov than the father of the other 3. And while Greg ostensibly doesn’t like smerdyakov, Greg wrongly incriminates Dmitri (thereby defending his “own son” smerdyakov) by testifying about the door being open.

there’s an early scene where smerdyakov is strumming a guitar and singing to a woman; this is a key scene, where smerdyakov calls himself a man without a father. smerdyakov is observed by Alyosha secretly, and Alyosha is only revealed when he sneezes. Here Aloysha proves to be less “open and honest” than he is everywhere else. smerdyakov confesses sadness/anger over his birth and servitude; he states he could theoretically go to Moscow and open a restaurant to escape his circumstances, but i think he knows he will never do that. he’s a little fatalistic. he shams helplessness, but then he does the deed that the others resist. yet, even when he has the stolen money, he doesn’t make any move toward this “freedom”.

another question: does his sham fit turn into a real illness, or is it all a sham? it does turn into a real illness, i think.


the sham fit … it’s a tough call. on the one hand, he “predicts” it; but, on the other, he does take a nasty tumble down the stairs. my answer, as you may anticipate, is that it is simulation; neither real nor fake, but more real than, more fake than … i totally forgot about the part where he’s playing guitar. the stolen money we might liken to ‘earthly bread.’

all of your observations ring true on my side.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s