Analysis—Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering, Chapters 1–4

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.