Zosima, realizing that he will soon die, summons a group of students and friends to his side to have one last conversation about faith, love, and goodness. As he speaks, he emphasizes the importance of actively loving mankind, and of carrying universal love into all dealings with other people. He also discourages his listeners from being judgmental, saying that every person on Earth shares the blame for the sins of every other person.
As Alyosha leaves Zosima’s bedside, he reflects on his elder’s impending death, and thinks that surely God would not let such a wise man die without marking his death with a spectacular miracle of some sort. Alyosha is certain that everyone in the monastery feels the same way, with the possible exception of the dour Father Ferapont, Zosima’s enemy and an advocate of a harsh and ascetic form of piety that bears little resemblance to Zosima’s warmhearted doctrine of love and forgiveness.
Zosima calls Alyosha back to his cell. He asks him again to leave the monastery in order to help his family and to do good in the town. This time, Alyosha agrees to do so.
Alyosha returns home, where he encounters Fyodor Pavlovich scheming about the future. Fyodor Pavlovich tells Alyosha that he plans to live for many years and intends to remain a sensualist until he dies, when his only lover will be death. He says that he will eventually be too old to attract young women, however, and so he will need a great deal of money to lure them into his bed. He also insinuates that Ivan is trying to seduce Katerina in order to make Dmitri marry Grushenka. Should Ivan be successful, Fyodor Pavlovich says, Fyodor Pavlovich himself would be unable to marry Grushenka, and Ivan would ensure that his part of the Karamazov fortune would not be left to Fyodor Pavlovich’s new wife. Fyodor Pavlovich recognizes his own wickedness, and Alyosha replies that he is not evil; he is just twisted.
Alyosha sets off for Madame Khokhlakov’s house. On the way, he sees a group of young bullies throwing rocks at a frail boy, who, despite his disadvantages, ferociously hurls rocks back. When the boy runs away, Alyosha runs after him, hoping to talk with him, but when Alyosha catches him, the boy hits him with a rock and bites his finger. The boy runs away again, leaving Alyosha confused and troubled, wondering what could cause such savage behavior in such a young boy.
At Madame Khokhlakov’s, Alyosha is surprised to learn that Ivan is already there, visiting Katerina. The two are upstairs, and before Alyosha joins them, he asks Madame Khokhlakov for a bandage for his hand. When she goes in search of supplies with which to tend his wound, Alyosha is accosted by Lise, who insists that he give her back the love letter she wrote him. She says that it was merely a joke. Alyosha refuses to give the letter back, saying that he fell for the joke and that he did not bring the letter with him.
Alyosha goes upstairs to talk to Ivan and Katerina. To Alyosha’s eyes, Ivan and Katerina are obviously in love, but they torment one another and themselves by inventing moral barriers to keep them apart. Katerina tells Alyosha that she intends to stay loyal to Dmitri, even if he decides to abandon her and marry Grushenka. Ivan says that he thinks her commitment to Dmitri is the right decision. Frustrated, Alyosha tries to make them see that they are only hurting themselves by refusing to acknowledge their love for one another. Ivan admits that he loves Katerina, but says that he thinks she needs to have Dmitri in her life. He says that he has decided to leave for Moscow the next day, and says good-bye.
After Ivan leaves, Katerina tells Alyosha a story about an old captain who once provoked Dmitri’s wrath. Dmitri beat him badly in front of the captain’s young son, who begged him to spare his father. Katerina asks Alyosha to take 200 rubles to the captain to help make up for Dmitri’s violence, and Alyosha agrees.
Alyosha travels to the poor captain’s hovel, where he discovers to his surprise that the captain’s son, Ilyusha, is the same young boy who bit him. He realizes that Ilyusha attacked him because he is the brother of the man who assaulted Ilyusha’s father.
The captain is at first overjoyed at the prospect of 200 rubles. But after some consideration, he proudly throws the money to the ground, explaining that if he accepted it, his son would never be able to admire or respect him. Alyosha sets out to return the money to Katerina.
Alyosha and Zosima are extremely similar characters. Alyosha possesses Zosima’s ability to ascertain a great deal about a person’s inner self through simple observation. Alyosha also practices Zosima’s -lesson of not judging other people. Finally, Alyosha’s interaction with his father shows his ability to feel empathy for people’s shortcomings while at the same time refraining from apologizing for their failings. His willingness to declare that his father is twisted illustrates his honesty and integrity, as well as his intricate understanding of human character—Alyosha draws a distinction between evil and immorality. His immediate understanding of Ivan and Katerina’s relationship, his respect for the captain, and his sense that there is more to Ilyusha than violence and hostility all attest to his ability to quickly understand other people, a skill he learns from Zosima. Dostoevsky links this capability to moral purity throughout the novel, implying that the more honest and simple a person’s faith is, the more easily that person will understand fellow human beings.
The conflict between faith and doubt that pervades The Brothers Karamazov shows the detrimental effects of skepticism on the human character. For Dostoevsky, faith essentially represents a positive commitment to the truth, while doubt represents the suspicion that what poses as the truth is really a lie. As a result, a religious man like Zosima is capable of immediately perceiving the truth about others, whereas an irreligious man like Fyodor Pavlovich is consumed with suspicion and mistrust. Fyodor Pavlovich illustrates this difference in his suspicion that Ivan’s attempt to seduce Katerina is actually a plot to keep Grushenka from marrying Fyodor Pavlovich. Fyodor Pavlovich himself is so dishonest that he assumes everyone around him is equally dishonest, and as a result, his lack of self-respect translates into as a lack of respect for the rest of humanity. This breakdown is what Zosima means when he says that the man who is dishonest with himself is incapable of love.
Whereas Alyosha and Zosima love humankind because of their faith, the doubt that Ivan and Katerina feel makes them fatalistic. They see human nature as unchangeable, and therefore view people’s lives as predetermined. Ivan sees Katerina’s need to humiliate herself before Dmitri as a necessary part of her personality, and with that knowledge, he is paralyzed to act on his love for her, which he pridefully scorns as irrelevant. Katerina, who has been deeply hurt by Dmitri, has a corresponding sense that other people will disappoint her and cause her pain, and this sense manifests itself in her haughty desire to be made a martyr by the inevitable betrayals of those around her. She is unable to accept happiness as a possible outcome in her life, and as a result, she embraces humiliation and pain. Thus, she is just as paralyzed as Ivan, similarly unable to act on her feelings. In both of their cases, Dostoevsky shows how a kernel of doubt can spread through a person’s character, transforming itself into a defensive pride that renders the person unable to be honest, happy, or capable of pursuing happiness.