The Brothers Karamazov
Book One, Chapters 4-5
by Dennis Abrams
“The Third Son, Alyosha” “He was then only twenty years old (his brother Ivan was in his twenty-fourth year, and their eldest brother, Dmitri, was going on twenty-eight).” The narrator insists that Alyosha was not a fanatic, and “in my view at least, not even a mystic…he was simply an early lover of mankind…” Entering the monastic path was, to him, “an ideal way out for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness towards the light of love.” His attachment to the monastery elder Zosima. Strange from childhood. Alyosha’s memory from two years old of watching his mother before an icon on her knees, sobbing, shrieking and crying, “pleading for him to the Mother of God…” His love of people, his complete faith in people. “There was something in him that told one, that convinced one (and it was so all his life afterwards) that he did not want to be a judge of men, that he would not take judgment upon himself and would not condemn anyone for anything.” Coming to his father’s house at the age of twenty, he would retire quietly when his father’s debauchery became too painful to watch, with no contempt or condemnation; his father’s growing acceptance, “having come to love him sincerely and deeply, more than such a man had, of course, ever managed to love anyone else.” Everybody loves Alyosha, “he possessed in himself, in his very nature, so to speak, artlessly and directly, the gift of awakening a special love for himself.” His childhood lapses into revery, his love of books, his lack of playfulness, his “wild, frantic modesty and chastity. He could not bear to hear certain words and conversations about women.” His lack of worry about who was supporting him, in contrast to his brother Ivan’s bitterness “that he was heating his benefactor’s bread.” Alyosha as ‘holy fool.’ With one year left in school, Alyosha had returned home to visit his mother’s grave, but his father “could not show him where he had buried his second wife, because he had never visited her grave after her coffin was buried with earth, and it was so long ago that he just cou8lt not recall where they had buried her…” A flashback: For years earlier, after the death of his second wife, Fyodor had been living first in the south of Russia than in Odessa, where he mad made the acquaintance of “yids and Jews,” and from whom, the narrator speculates, “he developed his special skill at knocking money together, and at knocking it out of people,” returning to town three years before Alyosha’s arrival, aged, more outrageously repulsive, lightheaded, and drunker. It is the servant Gregory who brings Alyosha to his mother’s grave, it is revealed that it was Gregory who purchased the grave marker because Fyodor had gone off to Odessa, “brushing aside not only graves but all his memories.” Alyosha’s visit stirs memories in Fyodor, who paid for a memorial service to be held for his first wife, “who used to thrash him…He was far from religious; the man probably had never put a five-kopek candle in front of an icon. Strange fits of sudden feelings and sudden thoughts come over such individuals.” Fyodor had grown bloated; his physiognomy “by that time presented something that testified acutely to the character and essence of his whole life.” His “real Roman” nose. Alyosha’s announcement of his desire to enter the monastery, his father’s acceptance of his decision. “Elders” Alyosha, despite what you might think, was not a sickly pale emaciated dreamer, but “a well-built, red-cheeked nineteen-year-old youth, clear-eyed and bursting with health.” His belief in miracles. “It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith…Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his realism, he must also allow for miracles.” Alyosha’s need for truth, “As soon as he reflected seriously and was struck by the conviction that immortality and God exist, he naturally said at once to himself: ‘I want to live for immortality, and I reject any halfway compromise.’ In just the same way, if he had decided that immortality and God do not exist, he would immediately have joined the atheists and socialists…” The history of monastery elders. Their role, “Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it to him under total obedience and with total self-renunciation.” Example of obedience and lack of obedience to elders. The elder Zosima, sixty-five years old, and ailing. The love between Alyosha and Zosima. Zosima’s knowledge of people, his cheerful manner. Is Zosima a saint? Alyosha’s understanding of the love of the people for Zosima, “…there is no stronger need and consolation than to find some holy thing or person, to fall down before him and venerate him.” Zosima as the keeper of God’s truth. On his death, Zosima will bring remarkable glory to the monastery. Alyosha’s growing friendship with Dmitri, Ivan’s wariness. Dmitri’s closeness to Ivan which was significant to Alyosha, since, “it would perhaps be impossible to imagine two men more unlike each other.” It is arranged that the dispute between Fyodor and Dmitri over inheritance and property matters will be held at the monastery in Zosima’s presence; Ivan and Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov, who is still having property disputes with the monastery will also be in attendance. Alyosha’s concern for Zosima.
A few points…
1. I appreciate the time that Dostoevsky put into giving us Alyosha’s background, and I loved Miusov’s description:
“Here, perhaps, is the only man in the world who, were you to leave him alone and without money on the square of some unknown city with a population of a million, would not perish, would not die of cold and hunger, for he would immediately be fed and immediately be taken care of, and if no one else took care of him, he would immediately take care of himself, and it would cost him no effort, and no humiliation, and he would be no burden to those who took care of him, who perhaps, on the contrary, would consider it a pleasure.’
I LIKE Alyosha, and am as attracted to him as the narrator says everyone else is as well.
2. How much is said by the fact that Fyodor does not know know where his second wife’s grave is, that he couldn’t be bothered to give her a gravestone, so it was Grigory who paid for it out of his own pocket?
3. And as for Fyodor…it’s obvious by descriptions like this how Dostoevsky (or the narrator?) wants us to feel about him:
“Besides the long, fleshy bags under his eternally insolent, suspicious, and leering little eyes, besides the multitude of deep wrinkles on his fat little face, a big Adam’s apple, fleshy and oblong like a purse, hung below his sharp chin, giving him a sort of repulsively sensual appearance. Add to that a long carnivorous mouth with plump lips, behind which could be seen the little stumps of black, almost decayed teeth.” And as the coup-de-gras, “He sprayed saliva whenever he spoke.”
And yet…I have to admit that his long monologue upon learning of Alyosha’s decision to enter the monastery, after getting past the other monastery with their ‘monastery wives,’ was, almost, moving when he got to his self-awareness of his sinning, of whether there are hooks (and ceilings) in hell, with his final, “But go, get to the truth there, and come back and tell me: anyway it will be easier to go to the other world knowing for certain what it’s like. And it will be more proper for you to live with the monks than with me, a little old drunk man with his young girls…though you’re like an angel, nothing touches you. Well, maybe nothing will touch you there either…you’ll burn and burn out, you’ll get cured and come back. And I’ll be waiting for you: I really feel you’re the only one in the world who hasn’t condemned me, you are, my dear boy, I feel it, how can I not feel it…!”
4. And I loved when the narrator, after explaining how, if Alyosha hadn’t found religion, because of his need to sacrifice everything for a deed, would have joined the atheists and socialists instead (the need for meaning, for sacrifice, trumping what the meaning is or what is being sacrificed), goes on to explain socialism:
“…(for socialism is not only the labor question or the question of the so-called fourth the question of atheism, [but] the question of the modern embodiment of atheism, the question of the Tower of Babel built precisely without God, not to go from earth to heaven but to bring heaven down to earth).”
5. And finally, for those of us who have read The Idiot and Demons we know, if history is any guide, we know that meetings between laymen and monks in monasteries never go well.
Book Two, Chapters One and Two