Dostoevsky and Tolstoy on Suffering Essay

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The Brothers Karamazov and the Death of Ivan Ilyich

Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich examine the role that suffering plays in the transformation of a soul for better or for worse. Being a much longer work, Dostoevsky’s novel examines suffering from a number of different perspectives, giving a number of different outcomes—each depending on the will of the individual character, the psychological situation of that character, the character’s faith, and so on. Tolstoy takes a narrower focus by looking at how the suffering of one character changes the person’s mental state—and how the suffering of his caretaker gives him a window of grace to truly transform his soul and get it ready for judgment on the other side of the grave. This paper will compare these two works and show how suffering and the transformation of a person are linked by the extent to which the individual views that suffering as having a salvific purpose.

Suffering poses its own qualities in each of the two Russian works. Dostoevsky shows how suffering weighs on the body and mind—how characters choose to run away from it or embrace. Ivan views suffering as an unnecessary and unexplainable evil that no good God would allow, which is why he is an atheist. His view prevents him from seeing the evil in himself, which Smerdyakov, who delights in evil, identifies and confesses as being a source of inspiration for the murder of Fyodor Karamazov. Smerdyakov being the illegitimate son of Fyodor and half-brother of Ivan, Alyosha and Dmitri—though unrecognized as kin by any of them—has a grotesqueness about him that represents some abject form of perfidy. His suffering is both physical (epilepsy) and mental and spiritual (he has a kind of twisted, malformed soul, represented by the joy he takes in hanging cats as a child and which could be linked to his having no legitimate father and a half-wit for a mother). Smerdyakov is likened to a contemplator by Dostoevsky: one who routinely comes under the spell of some impression and “is most likely storing them up imperceptibly and even without realizing it—why and what for, of course, he does not know either; perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both” (Dostoevsky 127). Smerdyakov’s impressions are of a foul sort and they compel him ultimately to commit patricide. Following his confession of his crime to Ivan, he hangs himself. Ivan, shocked and dismayed that Smerdyakov should recognize a kinship between them (as they are both atheists—but also because they both appear to delight in rejecting the source of all that is good—God), refuses to believe Smerdyakov’s confession, partly because he refuses to believe that he had any complicity in it (and Smerdyakov assures him that he did). Ivan spends the novel mainly resting on his laurels of logic—Enlightened Man who has no need of salvation from a God who would allow an innocent child to suffer. It is not this that really moves Ivan to renounce God but rather his own anger and bitterness, his own pride and resentment—for if he had the least bit humility he would see that God gives freedom of will to all to exercise to their betterment or detriment and, ultimately, gives them the grace to seek their betterment should they but choose to do so. Having rejected the giving hand, Ivan sets himself up for internal, psychological and spiritual suffering, which drives him to madness.

It is quite the opposite for Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s tale. Ivan Ilyich is the loutish man of business who never thinks a drop for his own salvation or for the good of his own soul. He is taken up completely with bettering his own self in a materialistic and secular way—by constantly striving for that better rank and position. When stricken with illness, he is suddenly thrust into the ultimate reality—the reality of death. Like Ivan Karamazov, Ivan Ilyich is initially bitter and angry that he should be in such a position after all he has attained in life—and, yet, he is transformed by the devotion of his caretaker Gerasim, who serves Ivan Ilyich with such grace and fidelity that Ivan is moved—converted—transformed into realizing his own oafish behavior all along and suddenly feels a magnanimous and loving feeling for one and all, even those who have scorned him. He feels great pity, great sorrow, great affection, and great forgiveness towards others—and even asks for forgiveness: “He wanted also to say, ‘Prosti—Forgive’” (Tolstoy 137)—and it is this that readies him for coming into the light at the end of the story.
In the story of Ivan is the story of a man being moved from the darkness to the light—from self-seeking to other-seeking—from thinking only of himself to thinking only of others.

The suffering of Smerdyakov and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov is quite something else entirely: it is suffering that does not transform the individual because, ultimately, the individual resists transformation. There are numerous opportunities for Ivan to transform, for instance. When he tells the story of the Grand Inquisitor to Alyosha—of Christ being crucified all over again were He to return (because human beings have no capacity other than selfishness, Christ being the only One in human history to ever exude charity fully, utterly and completely, even accepting his second persecution with a kiss), Alyosha makes no commit but only kisses his brother (to show that of course the grace is there for people to do as Christ did). Ivan is stunned for a moment but cries out, “Literary theft!” (Dostoevsky 263). And yet it is one moment where Ivan is gracious: “Thank you, however,” he says to Alyosha (Dostoevsky 263). Still, Ivan goes left while Alyosha goes right (literally and figuratively—Ivan is heading for American, the land of liberty; Alyosha for his monastery and God). Ivan’s rejection, therefore, though not complete, of the possibility of a good God governing all of existence, is the actually the source of his suffering—and it is the same for Smerdyakov, though he revels in his suffering and rejection like a degenerate while Ivan at least gives room for Alyosha and practically begs, or rather dares, the latter to try to save him. And of course Alyosha recognizes the plea and does desire for Ivan’s salvation—and that is one more of the many sad things that Alyosha suffers: both his brothers (excluding Smerdyakov, whose kinship is never really recognized) cause him sadness because both to him seem lost, confused, in need of help yet vainly attempting to solve everything on their own and on their own terms: “this strange little observation flashed like an arrow through the sad mind of Alyosha, sad and sorrowful at that moment,” as his beloved spiritual leader, too, was on his death bed (Dostoevsky 264). The Elder Zosima, like Alyosha, views suffering as being an opportunity for transformative spiritual development—and losing Zosima fills Alyosha with apprehension because he knows he will now be going out into the world on his own, like his brothers—though he will have his faith to guide him and to help him in times of temptation (which do occur).

Zosima also suffers in his own way, and his story is one in which is recounted the proud arrogance of youth, transformed by the sudden awareness of sin and regret and the need to repent and give love to others. That is why Zosima is so beloved in his old age and respected for his wisdom: he has spent his life showing love to others and allowing God’s grace to shine through him. It is this grace that Ivan does not understand and at root fears because it means he is vulnerable. He sees Alyosha going in the direction of Zosima, which is in the direction of God,….....

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Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. By Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories translation by Benjamin R. Tucker and Nathan Haskell Dole. Digireads Publishing, 2016.

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