The Brothers Karamazov

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Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4

Summary Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4

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.