Dostoevsky first presents Smerdyakov, in The Brothers Karamazov, in Book 3 of Part 1. The author divulges details of the conception of the fourth son of Fyodor Pavovich Karamazov. Late on a September evening, a drunk Fyodor, by modern standards, “rapes” a homeless woman. Stinking Lizaveta, the victim of Fyodor’s violence, was a legend in the town. Regardless of her unattractive and dirty appearance, her poverty, and homelessness, the townspeople regarded her with sympathy and compassion. Fyodor, on the other hand, treated Lizaveta as an insubordinate who was undeserving of even an ounce of respect. He and his friends mock her. He, then, rapes her. And, as if these actions are not cruel and offensive enough, he vehemently denies any of it happening. Later, when Lizaveta gives birth to Fyodor’s illegitimate son, it is Grigory and Marfa who take the boy in, baptize him, and decide to raise the child. The townspeople mistakenly credit Fyodor for taking the dead woman’s child into his house. All of these disturbing actions on the part of Fyodor are cause for his punishment.
While Fyodor neglected his fatherly duties to his other three sons, to this fourth, he rejects them completely. He finds the controversy around the mystery of the boy’s conception amusing. He employs his own son as one of his servants, as his “lackey.” Although incredible attention to detail is paid to the story of Lizaveta, Dostoevsky waits to speak of the boy himself. It is as if the author is all ready separating this last son. Dostoevsky claims to not want to go into detail about Smerdyakov so as not to distract the reader from the story. However, it is an intention set-up on the part of the author.
When we finally learn more of this mysterious character, it is not until four chapters later. Dostoevsky is oddly able to summarize the character of Smerdyakov in only five pages, whereas, with the characters of his brothers, he needs many more pages. In this way, the author is showing the mistreatment of this innocent boy by all who know him. Grigory is ashamed of him. He spreads the story of Smerdyakov’s birth and ruins his reputation indefinitely. All three of the brothers treat Smerdyakov not as an equal, but as a servant. Despite his displays of intelligence, Smerdyakov is labeled and mocked by everyone. He is called a lackey, an ass, a scoundrel, and more.
So, quite predictably, we find out in the sixth chapter of Book 3, that Smerdyakov is, to say the least, bitter about his mistreatment. Smerdyakov seems to be innately aware of the violence, disrespect, and cruelty from which he was conceived. He is outwardly cold and passionless. Inwardly, he has a lot of anger. As a child, he maliciously unleashes this inward wrath in the ceremonial killing of cats. Thanks to a frank and mean-spirited admonition by Grigory, he is fully aware of his position as a subordinate in the house of his father. Dostoevsky, quite effectively, shows that this son is not only treated differently from the other sons, but is also very different in character.
The similar characteristic of the three Karamazov brothers is their explosive exhibition of their passion. The youngest Karamazov, Alexei, is passionate about religion. He passes some time in the town monastery where he is greatly influenced by the elder Zosima. Even though he decides against living his life as a monk, he vows to uphold the teachings of his mentor. Throughout the entire book, he attempts to exhibit to others the workings of his God. Alexei is greatly admired and respected for his unyielding dedication to the truth. He embodies religious devotion, purity, and spirituality.
The second Karamazov, Ivan, is passionate about his intellect. He is known as an educated and intellectual man. He is the only son to have graduated from college. Ivan’s reviews of books are published and his name is familiar in literary circles. He takes great pride in his talented mind. He is consumed by his love for books.
Dmitri, the eldest Karamazov brother, holds a slightly more complicated passion. His passion lies in dishonest and immoral actions. He is presented as a lover of women, money, and alcohol. His nature is fun loving and easy-going. He seems to attract controversy and is always surrounded by illegal, unethical, and unscrupulous activities.
Smerdyakov, on the other hand, does not exhibit this common Karamazov trait of explosive passion. Dostoevsky precisely outlines in the sixth chapter how Smerdyakov is different in this respect. In this chapter, Smerdyakov systematically rejects the three passions that consume the lives of his three brothers. First, Smerdyakov challenges Grigory’s teaching of the Scriptures. He offends Grigory by questioning the plausibility of the Bible. He rejects religion. Then, Fyodor recommends a book and is offended when Smerdyakov finds it boring. Smerdyakov also finds no humor in a book that is supposed to be funny. He rejects books. Finally, Smerdyakov proves to be trustworthy and honest because he returns money to Fyodor.
He rejects immoral activities such as stealing.
Smerdyakov’s passion stems from his birth in Fyodor’s garden and ripens in his dreams while asleep in the kitchen. His passion is cooking. He closely examines and studies the different characteristics of food. He is then sent to training school in order to become a cook. Smerdyakov has a terrific knack for manipulating foods. The final dishes nearly always turn out perfectly. His culinary artistry imbues his personality. Smerdyakov conjures up a recipe for delicious fish soup as well as a recipe for sweet revenge on his “family.”
Smerdyakov’s entire existence from womb to death is on the exterior of the lives around him. He is born outside of the birth order accepted by society. This is symbolically demonstrated by the fact that his birth took place outside. The servants of Fyodor’s household deliver the baby boy in the garden. As a child, he sleeps separated from the other members of the house, in the kitchen. The author reinforces this separation by introducing his character independent of any other characters. Fyodor physically separates the boy from the household by sending him to Moscow. Ironically, while all of this physical separation is placed upon Smerdyakov, he is unable to separate himself from the one thing that haunts him.
He cannot escape his past and his fate. Within the fenced garden where Smerdyakov was released from his mother’s womb, he is forever attached to his mother’s reputation and trapped by his own fate. Smerdyakov is well aware of his lot in life. His smeared name follows him to Moscow where the physical distance is obviously not sufficient. While he is outwardly distanced and separated both by others and by himself, inwardly he is restricted and confined by his circumstances of birth.
Smerdyakov, outwardly appears to grudgingly accept his fate, while inwardly he cooks up a scheme to seek revenge. In the same way that he meticulously inspects his food as a child, Smerdyakov watches and digests every bit of information about his brothers and his father. He questions and challenges their ideas and beliefs. He learns of their quirks and passions as well as their abilities and insecurities. He secretly gathers all of these items and stores them in his head as ingredients for his recipe. Like a true “broth-maker,” he never divulges his secrets.
His recipe is for the absolute destruction of all who surround him. Smerdyakov skillfully adds the right amount of yeast in order to force the hysterics, insanity, and havoc of the people to rise to unparalleled heights. Seasoned perfectly with the precise number of murders, beatings, illnesses, suspects, and victims, his recipe is for the eventual downfall of the people connected to his life. Smerdyakov is undeserving of his lot in life and of the mistreatment of those around him. But, true to his namesake, which is not Karamazov, his passionate wrath is not explosively exhibited to anyone. On the contrary, he cunningly plots and schemes, manipulates and tortures, with a mask of apathy and innocence.
He tempts Dmitri to the scene of the crime like a child to candy. Smerdyakov sets-up an easy chance for Dmitri to commit the crime that he has been threatening for some time. Knowing his character, Smerdyakov is aware of Dmitri’s cowardly inability to carry out his threats. However, impassioned by the chance, Dmitri, Smerdyakov knows, will certainly present himself at the correct time and place.
Smerdyakov cleverly devises the plan to have Dmitri appear as the main suspect while he himself is able to carry out the actual murder. After years of obeying the humiliating commands of his master/father, Smerdyakov takes revenge into his own hands. He cracks open his fathers cruel and unjust head at the same time as he places his master at his feet.
Smerdyakov then places the guilt of the murder onto Ivan. Smerdyakov plays on his obsession with knowledge and his persistence in gaining it. It is not until Ivan comes to him for the third time that Smerdyakov hands him the truth, the proof (the money), and the responsibility of the murder. Smerdyakov says continuously throughout the book, “it’s always interesting to talk with an intelligent man.” He mocks Ivan’s intelligence because he knows that Ivan cannot handle certain truths. Ivan, indeed, becomes so burdened with this knowledge that he becomes insane.
Smerdyakov handles the destruction of his third brother a little differently. Alexei cares to an extreme extent about others. He is deeply affected by the suffering of Ilyusha and the other schoolboys. Smerdyakov knows that by simply affecting the two brothers whom Alexei loves, he is also affecting Alexei. Alexei, to no avail, attempts to save what remains of his brothers’ dehumanized states.
While Smerdyakov’s actions are cunning and deceitful, he knows at every moment exactly what he is doing and why he is doing it. He is fully aware of his own predicament. He is born into misfortune, attempts to avenge his name, and wreaks havoc upon this small Russian town. While he carefully manipulates people and skillfully executes his plans, he is aware also of the immorality of murder. Like Zisoma’s “mysterious visitor,” Smerdyakov commits his crimes out of passion. He does not wait for the jury to consider his case. Like the “mysterious visitor,” he has convicted himself of murder and sentences himself death. Smerdyakov’s vicious crime and brutal punishment complete a full life of violence starting at his conception. His passionately violent nature erupts implosively beneath a mask of implacable calm.