The Brothers Karamazov

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Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4

Summary Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4

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.