The Brothers Karamazov
Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4
Summary—Chapter 1: The Odor of Corruption
Most people within the monastery share Alyosha’s feeling that a great miracle will follow Zosima’s death. After Zosima’s body is prepared for burial, a large crowd gathers around it in anticipation of witnessing this hoped-for divine display. But rather than dazzling onlookers with a miracle, Zosima’s corpse merely exudes a putrid stench as it quickly begins to decay. The monks are aghast, and many believe the stench to be an evil omen for the monastery.
Zosima’s enemies within the monastery rudely insist that this omen indicates that Zosima was morally flawed, not a saint but an evildoer in disguise. The people in the town who had breathlessly awaited a miracle are disgruntled and confused by this disparaging talk about the widely adored Zosima. Alyosha is frightened and disgusted, and he cannot understand why God would allow this humiliation to happen.
Zosima’s greatest enemy, the harsh and pious Ferapont, madly attempts to exorcise Zosima’s cell of demons. He is ordered to leave the monastery, but unease reigns among the monks. Alyosha leaves as well, hoping to think things through in a quieter place.
Summary—Chapter 2: An Opportune Moment
Alyosha thinks bitterly about the degradation suffered by his beloved teacher after death. He struggles not to doubt God, but his faith in God’s goodness is shaken. He simply cannot understand why a benevolent God would allow such a good man to come to such a vulgar end.
Alyosha’s snide friend, the seminary student Rakitin, sees Alyosha walking and teases him about his unhappiness. He offers Alyosha sausage and vodka, morsels that monks are forbidden to consume because it is Lent, and to his surprise, Alyosha accepts them. He then asks Alyosha if he would like to visit Grushenka, and Alyosha impulsively agrees.
Summary—Chapter 3: An Onion
The beginning of the chapter tells Grushenka’s history. Four years previously, when she is eighteen, Grushenka is brought to the town by a merchant named Samsonov and taken in by a widow. It is rumored at the time that she has been betrayed by a lover and has given her affections to Samsonov in order to win his protection. Scarcely looked after by the widow, she grows into a beautiful young woman, and, by shrewdly investing the small amount of money she has, amasses an impressive fortune in a short time. She is, and continues to be, pursued by many men in the town, but so far, none of them has succeeded in winning her.
Alyosha and Rakitin find Grushenka waiting not for them, but for a message she is expecting. She says that her former lover, an officer who abandoned her years ago, now wants her back, and she is waiting for his instructions. Excited and nervous, she jests lightly with her guests, teasing Alyosha for his purity and Rakitin for his prickly pride. Seeing that Alyosha is unhappy, Grushenka teases him by sitting on his knee. But when she hears that Zosima has died, and sees the depth and sincerity of Alyosha’s grief, she suddenly sobers and becomes sad. She begins to criticize herself, calling herself a terrible sinner, but Alyosha interrupts her with kind words.
Alyosha and Grushenka suddenly feel a wave of trust and understanding pass between them. While Rakitin watches, increasingly confused and annoyed by the rapport between Grushenka and Alyosha, the latter two have a deep and rapturous conversation about their lives. Alyosha makes Grushenka feel unashamed to be who she is, and Grushenka restores Alyosha’s sense of hope and faith following Zosima’s death. Alyosha admits to Grushenka that, when he chose to come see her, he hoped in his despair to find a sinful woman. Grushenka admits that she paid Rakitin to bring him to her. At last the message from her lover arrives, and Grushenka leaves to join him. She asks Alyosha to tell Dmitri that she did briefly love him.
Summary—Chapter 4: Cana of Galilee
Alyosha returns to the monastery and goes to Zosima’s cell. There, listening to another monk reading from the Bible, he falls asleep and dreams that he is with Christ at the wedding in Cana. Zosima is also there, and he tells Alyosha to be happy. He says that Alyosha has helped to redeem Grushenka and that the young woman will now find her salvation.
Alyosha wakes with a deep joy welling in his heart. He goes outside, falls to his knees, and begins to kiss the earth. He feels as though he has come to a deeper understanding of life, faith, and God.
Analysis: Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4
The panic in the monastery over the stench exuded by Zosima’s corpse is less bizarre than it may first appear. For modern readers, the idea of a corpse emitting a bad smell as it begins to decay is only natural. But in the lore of ancient monasteries, as in ancient medicine, odor was considered an extremely important and revealing quality. The Renaissance physician Paul Zacchias, whose 1557 work Quaestiones medico-legales was at the cutting edge of medical knowledge for its time, wrote that poison, infection, and disease were all transmittable through smell: “We have a thousand and one examples of living beings that have been infected by olfaction alone. . . . We see many people every day who fall into a serious or very serious state because of good or bad odors.” The way something smelled, then, was deeply revealing of its inner quality. A bad smell could be proof that something was internally diseased or corrupted. The importance of smell explains why Zosima’s enemies within the monastery go into such a frenzy when Zosima’s corpse begins to stink. They take the stench itself as proof of an inner unworthiness on Zosima’s part, so that the smell of his corpse threatens to invalidate the wisdom of his teaching.
Additionally, the stench drives many of Zosima’s followers into despair, especially those who consider him nearly a saint. In monastic legend, from the medieval era through at least the eighteenth century, the smell of a corpse is often connected to the saintliness of the soul that inhabited it so that a corpse that does not stink is a miraculous sign of the authenticity and goodness of the recently deceased person. The Jesuit historian Michel de Certeau wrote, “In innumerable stories from the convents, you can tell whether the object seen in a vision is authentic by the smell it gives off, or whether a deceased religious is a saint by the good odor surrounding her.” The Brothers Karamazov is set in an era far removed, in some respects, from the medieval superstitions that underlie these legends—Ivan, for instance, would certainly scoff at them. But within the monastery, in a cloister in a small town in a remote part of Russia, it seems that the legends are more enduring. The high hopes that most of Zosima’s followers have for a miracle following his death are dashed by the smell of his corpse, which, because of the monks’ superstitions about odor, implies not only that Zosima was not a saint, but that he may not even have been a good man.
In the Grand Inquisitor chapter, we see how Christ rejects the Devil’s temptation to throw himself off the pinnacle, seek salvation from the angels, and show the people below a miracle that would restore their faith. The Grand Inquisitor’s insistence that Christ made a mistake in refusing to show the people a miracle is based on his emphatic belief that free will is not enough for most people to find salvation through faith: the monks illustrate this general principle that people need to witness miracles, because they are too weak to hold onto their faith without them. Everyone, even Alyosha, is optimistic about the possibility of a miracle after Zosima’s death, and the speedy putrefaction of Zosima’s corpse is an unpleasant reminder that, in the real world, there are no dazzling miracles, and faith is something that must be achieved without evidence.
In these chapters, Dostoevsky creates a powerful and disturbing symbol of the problem of free will in religious belief. Without the security of miracles, people are left to their own devices, to choose either faith or doubt. The choice to doubt or disbelieve can be based on a model of rational evidence, but the choice to believe must be more mystical, based on a positive feeling of meaning and profundity that is often at odds with the world as we usually experience it. Zosima’s corpse represents a worldly impediment to faith. The physical reality of the world stubbornly works against the claims of faith, giving believers no validation for their belief. Even Alyosha, whose veneration of Zosima continually strengthens and protects his own faith, is driven to doubt by the events surrounding Zosima’s death. The anger that he feels toward God is similar to the cold, intellectual fury that underlies Ivan’s entire project of doubt. Both men are angry about God’s injustice: Alyosha because God permits the posthumous humiliation of his beloved Zosima, and Ivan because God permits the suffering of children.
Rakitin and Grushenka first conspire to bring Alyosha to Grushenka’s because they are threatened by his apparently unshakable purity. Their mistrust and self-doubt are manifest in Rakitin’s smirking cynicism and Grushenka’s angry pride. They want to upset, frighten, or corrupt Alyosha so that his own faith no longer threatens their shared belief that the world is corrupt, painful, and ugly. When the opposite happens, and Alyosha’s troubled goodness elicits a chord of feeling and sympathy in Grushenka, the two young people each find unexpected salvation in their sudden understanding of one another. For Grushenka, finding a man who cares about her renews her faith in the world. Alyosha’s experience with Grushenka, on the other hand, reminds him that the validation of faith lies not in miracles, but in good deeds. He believes that faith is not invalidated simply because a corpse develops a stench, but that it can be validated by active love of mankind.
Alyosha’s dream of Zosima demonstrates that Zosima’s legacy has not died with his body, but lives on in Alyosha’s good deeds, in the forgiveness and love that are the cornerstones of his faith. -Alyosha’s kissing of the earth after he wakes up is a turning point for him. A deliberate echo of Zosima’s final act before dying, it signifies that Alyosha has stepped into Zosima’s shoes and is now fully committed to leaving the monastery and doing good in the world.