Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet they alone constitute the way to real and true freedom. . . .
When Alyosha returns to the monastery, he finds Zosima sitting in bed with a group of his students and followers around him. Zosima asks how Dmitri is doing and tells Alyosha that he bowed to Dmitri as he did because he foresees that Dmitri will soon undergo a great trial of pain and suffering. Zosima says that Dmitri’s destiny is not Alyosha’s, and encourages Alyosha again to leave the monastery and do good in the world.
Zosima says that he holds Alyosha very dear to his heart because Alyosha reminds him of his older brother, who was a great spiritual influence on him. Zosima’s brother was a critic of religion until he came down with consumption at the age of seventeen, at which point he underwent a powerful spiritual change. In the months before he died, he talked continually about loving God’s creation and all living things.
Zosima says that, in addition to his brother, the greatest influence on his life has been the Bible. But he did not discover the Bible until he was a grown man. In fact, he was a military officer, rather like Dmitri. When the woman Zosima loved married another man, Zosima challenged him to a duel and planned to kill him. But when he woke up on the morning of the duel, he saw the beauty of the world and remembered his brother’s commandment to love all living things. He did not back out of the duel, however. Instead, he allowed the other man to take the first shot, and then fell to his knees and began to beg for his forgiveness. Zosima quickly left the army and decided to become a monk.
Zosima tells of one night in the past when he received a mysterious visitor, a prominent philanthropist. After asking Zosima about his conversion, and after paying him several more visits, the philanthropist confesses a great crime. He says that he once killed a woman he loved, and another man was arrested for the crime. The man who was arrested died before his trial, and the philanthropist was free. But he tells Zosima that, despite his success in life and his loving family, he has never been satisfied, because he has always longed to make a confession. Zosima encourages him to confess to the people, and after a great deal of soul-searching, the man agrees. He holds a huge birthday party, and, in front of all his guests, reads a statement of guilt. But no one believes him. It is decided that he has gone mad. Soon after, the man falls ill, and Zosima visits him at his deathbed. There, the man tells Zosima that he almost killed Zosima after he confessed his crime. But God, he says, defeated the devil in his heart. A week later, the man died, and Zosima has kept his secret until now.
Zosima tells Alyosha about the importance of monks in Russian life. He says that the monk is closer to the common people than anyone else, and that the faith of the common people is the hope of Russia. He says that all people are equal in spirit, and that all people should be meek with one another, so that there are no more masters and servants.
Like his brother before him, Zosima urges all who hear him to love all mankind and all of God’s creation. He says that no one should judge anyone else, even criminals. Instead, people should pray for the salvation of the wayward, to save them from spiritual hell. Zosima lowers himself to the floor, and, reaching out his arms as though to embrace the world, he dies.
The main philosophical conflict of the novel is apparent in the structural division between Books V and VI: the dark and brooding Book V is consumed with the tremors of Ivan’s doubt, while the more peaceful Book VI is devoted to the quiet wisdom of Zosima’s faith. Zosima’s final anecdotes work as a cooling antidote to the disturbing arguments in Book V, replacing Ivan’s frenzied logical examinations with more positive examples of the power of faith to do good in the world. In a way, the anecdote of the murderer is the exact opposite of the Grand Inquisitor story. The Grand Inquisitor story tells about an innocent man who is imprisoned and judged, while Zosima’s anecdote of the murderer tells about a guilty man who is goes free and is forgiven. The contrast in the two anecdotes reveals a great deal about the contrast between Zosima’s philosophy and Ivan’s. Zosima emphasizes the power of love to overcome sin, whereas Ivan emphasizes only the baseness of the world and the cold logic with which he believes it must be faced.
In addition to the parallel between the story of the Grand Inquisitor and the anecdote of the murderer, there are a number of other parallels between things Zosima describes in Book VI and events that take place in the larger narrative, both before and after this section of the novel. For instance, Zosima’s description of himself in youth as a soldier like Dmitri, with a brother who helped to redeem him spiritually, echoes the relationship between Dmitri and Alyosha: Alyosha also helps to redeem Dmitri, and Zosima says specifically that Alyosha reminds him of his brother. Zosima’s youthful duel and the murder committed in the anecdote of the murderer are both crimes of passion committed for a woman’s love, and thus echo the rivalry between Fyodor Pavlovich and Dmitri for Grushenka. The murderer’s acceptance of responsibility and his desire to confess involve many of the same issues of responsibility and redemption that affect Ivan. These parallels ultimately are another sign of the infallible wisdom of Zosima. He is able to predict, better than anyone else, what lies ahead for the Karamazovs, and he is thus able to tailor his final lesson to what he knows will be Alyosha’s needs in the coming crisis. Alyosha has proved himself capable of internalizing Zosima’s lessons, and he emerges from this final conversation with Zosima better prepared to handle the hardships that lie ahead.
Zosima’s death, as he stretches out his arms to embrace the Earth, is a symbol of acceptance and faith, indicating his love of God’s creation with the last energy left in his body. Zosima’s sincerity and his assent to the will of God are total. He does not die with fear, resentment, or regret. His final gesture is one of rapturous acquiescence, and thus Zosima’s death works as an emblem of everything he has taught, spoken, and stood for throughout the novel.