Dostoevsky uses Rakitin for two primary purposes in the Brothers Karamazov: to supplement the side of pessimism and doubt in the running faith vs. reason theme of the book and to act as a foil to Alyosha as a person who does not responsibly acknowledge a capacity to make moral decisions. Dostoevsky succeeds in establishing Rakitin as a character subconsciously aware of his own faults and all the more defensive of these respective faults. Rakitin is also used to further propel the Christian Socialism proposed earlier by the Grand Inquisitor. Dostoevsky carefully distinguishes Rakitin’s language and facial expressions with grins, sarcasm, crooked smiles, and use of the word smelly. Finally, Rakitin makes several conclusions of notable verisimilitude, as well as several weak deductions, thus defining the benefits and limits to his way of thought.
Rakitin is tormented by his conscience over his own flaws and faults, which is demonstrated by his over-defensiveness. When Alyosha lightly suggests that Rakitin is verbally attacking Ivan because he, himself, has become infatuated with Katerina, Rakitin, unexpectedly and spontaneously bursts, “And of her money, too? Go on, say it” (82)! Alyosha, in no manner, suggested that Rakitin was interested in Katerina’s money, and even further denies believing Rakitin capable of such low thinking, “No, I won’t say anything about money, I’m not going to insult you” (82). Nevertheless, Rakitin’s uncomfortable exclamation signifies a guilty conscience. And Alyosha’s calm response, which perhaps feigns disbelief or indifference, is perfect for causing the sins to rack Rakitin’s soul even more. For being treated like something one is not, is a source of even greater discomfort.
Rakitin is further over-defensive of his betrayal and sale of Alyosha to Grushenka. After Grushenka reveals that Rakitin had, indeed, been offered payment in order to bring Alyosha to her house to be tempted into committing sins, Rakitin’s betrayal becomes less of the focus as Grushenka and Alyosha’s own moments of great self-discovery hit the fore. Nevertheless, judging by Rakitin’s surprise when Grushenka reveals their pre-arranged deal and his growing impatience, he is still thinking in circles about his betrayal of Alyosha. Even the seemingly omniscient narrator reaffirms that Rakitin feels guilty for his sale of Alyosha, “’Why refuse?’ Rakitin said in a deep voice, visibly ashamed, but disguising his embarrassment with swagger” (353). As Alyosha and Rakitin leave Grushenka’s house, Rakitin still subconsciously feels guilty for selling out Alyosha and states, “And now you despise me for those twenty-five roubles? You think I sold a true friend. But you’re not Christ, and I am not Judas” (358). Alyosha coolly responds that the money Rakitin had been paid was the least of his concerns at the moment. Alyosha’s calm dismissal of the topic, pains Rakitin even more, who is unable to admit the wrong in his actions and would be quelled if someone were to treat him as a sinner. The fact that Rakitin expects himself to be equated to Judas by Alyosha is testament that Rakitin, underneath it all, recognizes his similarities to Judas, and duly, Alyosha’s similarities to Christ.
In describing his future career as an atheistic socialist working for a journal as a critic, Rakitin continues the theme of citing others’ fairly accurate perspectives of himself, even when there is no evidence of the perspective and the perspective itself appears to come more so from Rakitin’s own introspection than another character. Nowhere in the novel does Ivan even reference Rakitin, nor do the claimed statements resemble something Ivan would say. Yet, Rakitin remains convinced that he himself is the focal point of Ivan’s conversations. It appears as though the image of Rakitin as a man who has rejected God is a self-projected image, and that Rakitin is sinking into the realm of paranoia with respect to Ivan.
Rakitin is, most importantly, the character that best represents the ideas of the Grand Inquisitor. Although Ivan created and told the story of the Grand Inquisitor, he told the story and subsequently represented its ideas half-heartedly, and the ending of the tale is particularly suggestive of potency for a conversion for Ivan. The idea of having to make a leap of faith instead of relying completely on scientific reasoning – pessimism vs. optimism or skepticism vs. faith – is reiterated and outlined a plethora of times throughout the Brothers Karamazov, and Rakitin is the staunchest example of a pessimistic and skeptical character that chooses to live sinfully over having to make moral decisions. As Dmitry and Fyodor have resigned to accepting that they do not have the will power to make the right decisions and escape their cycles of sin, Rakitin has resolved to do the same. He deludes himself into believing that it is not possible for a person to live to the standards set by the Bible on Earth. The fact that Zosima and Alyosha succeed at living like Christ contradicts this belief. It is for this reason that Rakitin so desperately attempts to find and create pitfalls for these “holy fools” (80).
“His elder got smelly,” (358) Rakitin ambiguously explains for Alyosha’s state of despondency, revealing his disgust for the elder Zosima. Note that Zosima is perhaps most easily differentiated from the other characters of the novel by his incessant love of every person and every part of nature he encounters. Even when Alyosha is ashamed and scared by his own father’s presence before Zosima, Zosima manages to love and feel empathy for the buffoon. The root of Zosima’s philosophy is active love - “Do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin.” Rakitin, representative of seeing the ugly, instead of the beauty, in everything, is naturally disgusted by Zosima. Dependent upon the belief that complete morality is impossible, Rakitin forces himself to assume that men, such as Zosima and Alyosha, who appear to be flawless, are false in some respect.
Although Rakitin is unable to deny the good in Alyosha, “Listen, Alyosha, you always tell the truth” (78-79), he is still determined to lead Alyosha down a path of sin. Twice, he invites Alyosha to the house of Grushenka, who had the desire to corrupt Alyosha as well. During Alyosha’s weakest hour, following the death of Zosima, Rakitin is looking for Alyosha desperately so that he may redirect all of Alyosha’s mixed feelings to a full rejection of God. For, if he can get Alyosha to sin, then he knows that there is no hope for humanity, and he can bask in complete complacency without a contrast to his lifestyle.
Despite the novel’s strong representation of the Christian theology of Alyosha and Zosima, Dostoevsky does portray fairly the benefits and motives to rejecting the Christian God or thinking like an atheist. Rakitin, for example, is able to make several deductions, noteworthy for the crafty psychoanalysis behind them. Through doubting everything and everyone, and further looking for the worst in people, Rakitin arrives at true and revealing conclusions. He correctly understands the nature of Dmitry, “such honest but passionate people have a line that must not be crossed” (79), astutely noting Dmitry sensual and passionate nature. While defending his brother when Alyosha subtly, but clearly, paraphrases Zosima, it is Rakitin who quickly calls him out, “literary theft, Alyosha. You’re paraphrasing your elder” (81). Rakitin recognizes that Alyosha has chosen the life of the monastery in order to try and avoid more difficult moral situations and questions, and he recognizes that Alyosha does not fully understand Zosima’s teachings. Finally, the reader first learns of the possible murder plot, and the potential for Dmitry to kill Fyodor, from Rakitin, “he’ll even put a knife in his own papa” (79). Rakitin’s adept conclusions support his critical, pessimistic way of thinking, however, he, too, makes several false conclusions due to his disposition.
Rakitin succeeds at seeing evil, and the poorer nature of various characters, but he has a propensity to misinterpret acts that are not of a low nature. “I knew he wouldn’t explain it to you,” (78) Rakitin remarks of Alyosha’s inability to answer for Zosima’s deep bow to Dmitry. Rakitin attempts to explain the bow as a shrewd move by Zosima to reaffirm his own wisdom – “So Father Zosima bumps his forehead on the ground, for the future, just in case. Afterwards they’ll say, ’Ah, it’s what the holy elder foretold, prophesied’” (78). However, the bow was, in fact, a message to Alyosha; therefore, both remarks about Zosima are fallacious.
Rakitin also falsely believes that Alyosha despondency following Zosima’s death resulted from the mere fact that he, Alyosha, would not be promoted - “He has grief. He didn’t get promoted” (81). However, as we learn from Alyosha’s interaction with Father Paissy, Alyosha is shocked most by the fact that God could allow Zosima, the most righteous person he knew, to be defamed in such a way after passing away. Alyosha, too, was expecting a miracle instead of “the odor of corruption.” And for once, Alyosha briefly took the side of the devil from the story of the Grand Inquisitor in supporting the use of a miracle to reaffirm Zosima’s holiness and God’s holiness. Despite these desires being low, Alyosha is surely not upset by what may be a decrease in his own reputation as a result of his association with Zosima.
Dostoevsky conspicuously uses the verb grin and the word smelly in association with Rakitin. The use of these words and other similar ones fortifies Rakitin’s main characteristic, seeing the immorality in all those around him. As Rakitin attempts to call Grushenka out on possible ignorance, he is described as grinning throughout his dialogue. The first statement verb Dostoevsky uses for Rakitin is grinned – “’Precisely you,’ Rakitin grinned” (78, also see 82, 340, 341, 348). These smiles and grins, along with descriptions of a sarcastic attitude are meant to establish Rakitin as a self-confident, nefarious, and God-denying character. Notice, for example, that when Alyosha does briefly semi-reject God following the death of Zosima that he, too, becomes marked by Rakitin’s nefarious grin.
“I do not rebel against my God, I simply ‘do not accept his world,’” Alyosha suddenly smiled crookedly.
Additionally, Rakitin has an affinity for the word ‘smelly.’ Not only does he state, “His elder got smelly,” and other quotes linking the smell of Zosima’s body to corruption. Earlier, when describing the Karamazov’s, he links corruption to the wreaking smell of the Karamazov family - “the old man is really astute, if you ask me: he smelled crime. It stinks in your family” (78). The association of putrid, despicable words and descriptions to Rakitin solidifies his main characteristic feature, seeing the ugly in everything and everyone around him.
In conclusion, although Rakitin is a professed Christian, his actions speak to the contrary. Despite referencing twice that Ivan thinks of him as an atheistic socialist (see pages 82, 83, and 342), and despite being appalled by the description, Rakitin’s apparent attempt to reason that making moral decisions is neither possible nor worth it hints that he would be supportive of the socialism proposed by the Grand Inquisitor, in which one would be allowed to commit sins freely, as Rakitin believes a person should be, and one would not have to suffer the freedom of making moral decisions, as Rakitin suffers. Mark, too, that Rakitin has a dislike for hierarchy – “Granted I’m only a priest’s son and a worm next to you noblemen, but still don’t go offending me so gaily and easily” (83). He would thus support the communality of a single kingdom as proposed by the Grand Inquisitor. Ultimately though, Rakitin sees the ugly in everything. And since seeing beauty in the world is the equivalent of seeing the face of God, Rakitin is unequivocally seeing the face of the devil in the world and is rejecting God by denying the beauty of the world, despite being a professed Christian.
Above all though, Rakitin, in several brief moments, reveals empathy towards Alyosha – “By the looks of you, you need fortifying. What a sorry sight!” Rakitin recites these words with legitimate concern, and despite the fact that Dostoevsky has made Rakitin a character of muddled morals, he maintains through these small loving acts and words that every person has the capacity to love, see beauty, and see God.