Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Because The Brothers Karamazov is both a realistic novel and a philosophical novel, Dostoevsky’s characterizations tend to yield fully drawn, believable individuals who also represent certain qualities and ideas bearing on the larger philosophical argument. The drama acted out between the characters becomes the drama of the larger ideas in conflict with one another. Most of the important symbols in the novel, then, are characters. Almost every major character in the novel embodies a concept: Alyosha represents faith, Ivan represents doubt, and Fyodor Pavlovich represents selfishness and physical appetite. Some characters have more specific designations. Smerdyakov, for instance, works primarily as a living symbol of Fyodor Pavlovich’s wickedness.
The monks, including Alyosha, all expect Zosima’s death to be followed by a great miracle that will commemorate his extraordinary wisdom and virtue in life. They even expect that he will prove to be a saint. In monastic lore, one of the ways in which a saint can be detected after death is that his corpse, rather than emitting the stench of decay, is instead suffused with a pleasant smell. After Zosima’s death, however, no miracle occurs. Moreover, Zosima’s corpse begins to stink very quickly, exuding a particularly strong and putrid odor, which is taken by his enemies in the monastery as proof of his inner corruption. For Alyosha, who craves a miracle, the indignity visited upon Zosima’s corpse exemplifies the lack of validation with which the world often rewards religious faith. The fate of Zosima’s corpse suggests that faith is not justified by miracles. Rather, the person who chooses faith must do so in defiance of the many reasons to doubt.