On a warm, clear day at the end of August, Fyodor Pavlovich and Ivan Karamazov arrive at the monastery for the meeting with Zosima. Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov, the cousin of Fyodor Pavlovich’s first wife who briefly adopted the young Dmitri, is with them, as is Kalganov, a young relative of Miusov’s who is living with him while preparing to enter a university. None of the men knows much about religion. Miusov, an atheist, has not been in a church for three decades. The men look around the monastery curiously. Miusov detests Fyodor Pavlovich, who intentionally torments Miusov by mocking the monastery and pretending not to understand why Miusov, as an irreligious man, would care what the monks think of him. Miusov angrily chastises himself for letting Fyodor Pavlovich bother him, but Fyodor Pavlovich’s crudeness and vulgarity are so exasperating to Miusov that he cannot control his irritation.
Dmitri has not yet arrived, and the men are shown to Zosima’s cell to wait. The little monk who escorts them tells them that they are all invited to lunch with the Father Superior of the monastery after their meeting.
The men enter Zosima’s room just as Zosima himself arrives there, accompanied by Alyosha and a small group of monks. The monks kiss Zosima’s hand in deference and ask for his blessing, but the other men decline to do so and merely bow to him somewhat stiffly. Alyosha is embarrassed by this awkward display of disrespect, but Zosima gives no sign of being troubled.
Fyodor Pavlovich apologizes melodramatically for Dmitri’s lateness and fills the awkward silence in the room with his chatter. Under the pretense of being apologetic for his uncontrollably -buffoonish behavior, Fyodor Pavlovich indulges in a series of increasingly sacrilegious witticisms and stories, well aware that in doing so, he is embarrassing and irritating the other men, especially Miusov, whom he relentlessly teases. Alyosha is mortified by his father’s behavior, but Zosima does not seem to mind it. When Fyodor begins to play the supplicant and asks Zosima for spiritual advice, Alyosha is even more humiliated. But Zosima merely tells him that, if he wants to attain eternal life, he must stop telling lies, especially to himself. Surprisingly, Zosima attributes Fyodor Pavlovich’s clownish behavior to the fact that Fyodor Pavlovich is embarrassed and ashamed of himself, and Zosima earnestly tries to make him more comfortable.
While the group waits for Dmitri, Zosima goes outside to meet with a crowd of women who have come to ask for his spiritual advice and blessings. Most of these women have endured great hardships and have come to Zosima for guidance. Zosima soothes a hysterical woman by covering her with his stole, then hears the story of a woman who has traveled two hundred miles to see him. After her three-year-old son died, she was overwhelmed with grief and left her husband. He tells her to weep for her son, but to remember with each tear that he is now an angel with God. He also tells her to return to her husband, so that her son’s spirit will be able to stay near his parents. A woman whose son has traveled to Siberia with the army asks if it would be acceptable to publish his name among the dead in the church in order to shame him into writing her. Zosima tells her that to do so would be a great sin. A haggard woman tells Zosima about her husband, who beat her. She then whispers something in Zosima’s ear, implying that she murdered her husband. Zosima tells her that God forgives all sins, and as long as she lives in perpetual repentance and loves God, her sin will be forgiven too. Another woman gives Zosima some money to give to a woman poorer than herself, and Zosima blesses her and her baby daughter.
Zosima then speaks to Madame Khokhlakov, a wealthy landowner who has met him before, and her daughter Lise, a girl with a mischievous look on her face. Madame Khokhlakov tells Zosima that his prayers have healed her daughter, who has been ill and unable to walk, but Zosima suspects that Lise’s recovery is incomplete. Madame Khokhlakov says that she is beset with religious doubt—she not only has trouble believing in the immortality of the soul, she finds it impossible to perform charitable works without expecting praise and admiration in return. Zosima tells her not to worry, but to practice active, committed love for mankind, and God will forgive her flaws simply by virtue of the fact that she is aware of them. In the meantime, Lise teases the self-conscious Alyosha: Lise says that Alyosha was her childhood friend, but since he came to the monastery he never visits her anymore. Zosima warmly promises her that Alyosha will visit her soon.
Through the character of Zosima, Dostoevsky establishes a relationship between love and truth. As displayed in these chapters, the two qualities Zosima values above all others are love and honesty, particularly honesty with oneself. He connects these two ideas intimately: he tells both Fyodor Pavlovich and Madame Khokhlakov that they must be honest with themselves because a dishonest person loses the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, and thus loses the ability to respect and love other people. In Zosima’s view, the ability to love is based on the ability to recognize truth. He explains that if a person cannot believe in himself, he will quickly become suspicious of everyone around him, assuming that the world is full of lies. Because he cannot believe in his own perceptions, he will become unable to tell lies from truth, and because he is corrupted by his own dishonesty, he will suspect that everything is a lie. By becoming suspicious, he loses his respect for others and thus his ability to love them. This mode of reasoning represents a philosophy of doubt that opposes Alyosha’s loving faith. The process described by Zosima here is an incredibly incisive description of Fyodor Pavlovich’s personality and the road he has taken to arrive at it, but to a greater or lesser extent, it becomes relevant to nearly every character in the novel, including Ivan and Dmitri.
Ivan’s speculation—if the soul is not immortal, then there is no morality at all, and people might as well live simply to satisfy their own selfish appetites—links the personality differences between the major characters to broad questions of philosophy and religious faith. Ivan’s troubling hypothesis prompts us to consider the difference between Alyosha’s selfless goodness and Fyodor Pavlovich’s selfish evil. Zosima is thus a central character in the early part of the novel, even though his role in the larger narrative is comparatively small, because he draws the connections between faith and goodness for us, helping us to understand the main characters. He is the first character in the novel to articulate some of Dostoevsky’s great themes. He is also important because of the role he plays in the mind of Alyosha, who venerates him absolutely. A great part of Alyosha’s moral feeling—his kindness, his desire to help others, his modesty—has been influenced by Zosima, and through Alyosha, Zosima’s example influences some of the most important actions in the novel.
Zosima’s goodness causes us to see the flaws in the other characters. All of the other characters are troubled by some irritation or concern, some earthly flaw that makes them seem fallible and even petty in comparison to the saintly Zosima. Even Alyosha, who is relatively saintly himself, is made mortal in these chapters by his embarrassment over his family’s behavior in front of Zosima, and later by his awkwardness around Lise. Miusov’s flaw is his hatred of Fyodor Pavlovich, which fills him with an uncontrollable anger nearly every time Fyodor Pavlovich speaks. For his part, Fyodor Pavlovich is almost entirely fallible and flawed—he is obnoxious, disrespectful, vulgar, and dishonest, and he delights in intentionally irritating the other characters with his brutish humor and his buffoonery. The only person who is not made uncomfortable by Fyodor Pavlovich’s brazen behavior is Zosima, which illustrates Zosima’s own high level of spirituality. Only Zosima possesses the inner serenity and the unshakable love of mankind necessary to overlook Fyodor Pavlovich’s ugly personality and tolerate his boorish behavior. Fyodor Pavlovich’s children, as represented by Alyosha in this section, find him much harder to take.