The Brothers Karamazov
Book VII “Alyosha,” Chapters One and Two
by Dennis Abrams
“The Odor of Corruption.” “The body of the deceased schemehteromonk Father Zosima was prepared for burial according to the established rite. Father Paissy presides. The readings begin. The crowds arrive. Expectations of immediate signs of healing powers. The busyness of the Oberdosk monk. Rakitin’s early arrival, his half hourly reports to Madame Khokhlakov. Father Paissy finds Alyosha weeping, “Ah, perhaps it’s just as well…perhaps you should weep, Christ has sent you these tears.” The narrator-chronicler warns us that he hesitates to inform us of something that occurred at three o’clock that afternoon, “if it had not influenced in the strongest and most definite way the soul and heart of the main, though future hero of my story Alyosha.” Should the windows be opened in the room holding the coffin? “…to expect corruption and the odor of corruption from the body of such a deceased was a perfect absurdity, even deserving of pity…For quite the opposite was expected.” The smell of corruption reveals itself: “The unbelievers rejoiced; as for the believers, some of them rejoiced even more than the unbelievers, for ‘people love the fall of the righteous man and his disgrace.'” Was corruption a sign of not having lived a righteous life? Why did the people turn against Zosima? Hostility to the institution of elders? Envy of the dead man’s holiness? Crowds arrive to ‘enjoy’ the corruption. “Clearly God’s judgement is not as man’s.” Where could the smell be coming from? Is it true that lack of corruption is not the sign of righteousness, but if the bones turn yellow like was? Which previous elders smelled, which ones exuded a fragrance? Zosima’s enemies attack: He taught unrighteousness; he taught that life is great joy and not tearful humility; he did not accept the material fire of hell; he was not strict in fasting, had cheery preserves with his tea,…What is a monk doing giving tea parties?…he sat in pride and considered himself a saint. Father Ferapont appears, attempts to drive the ‘demons’ out of the room, and is sent out by Father Paissy, and promptly collapses on the ground. Is it he who is holy and righteous? Father Paissy encounters Alyosha who has changed, will not answer his questions, and leaves the hermitage without permission. “An Opportune Moment.” Alyosha’s anguish at the lack of higher justice. Zosima was the person Alyosha loved more than anyone in the world, and now that very person was ‘disgraced’ and ‘defamed.’ Was he being rash? Rakitin swoops in, noticing a change in Alyosha. “I do not rebel against my God, I simply ‘do not accept his world.'” Alyosha accepts meat and vodka from Rakitin, and agrees to go with him to see Grushenka. Rakitin’s aim “to see ‘the disgrace of the righteous man,’ the probable ‘fall’ of Alyosha ‘from the saints to the sinners,’ [and] a material gain as well, one rather profitable for himself…”
Now that we’re past what could be seen as the “philosophical logjam” of the chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” the plot kicks back in full force. The chapter regarding Zosima’s ‘corruption’ was, I thought, fascinating in the way that Dostoevsky showed the reactions to the stench coming from the coffin, to Father Ferapont’s dramatic entrance and exit, and Alyosha’s overpowering grief. And then, I have to admit when Alyosha, with the same crooked grin as Ivan, apes his words about not accepting God’s world…I gasped.
And of course…I’m thinking there’s a parallel between what Alyosha sees as God’s lack of justice to Zosima with God’s lack of justice (or perceived lack of justice) in the Book of Job.
From Robin Feuer Miller:
“With Part III, Book VII, the second half of the novel commences. From here on the present takes precedence over the past. The history of the Karamazov family, Ivan’s poem about the Grand Inquisitor, and the life and thoughts of Zosima h ave prepared an extraordinarily elaborate structure. The reader can now respond to the rapidly ensuing events of the plot. Indeed, it is plot which dominates the second half of the novel. We read the events of the second half in the language learned in the first: the mythologies explicated in Parts I and II will necessarily order our response to Parts III and IV.
In Book VII, ‘Alyosha,’ we can read Alyosha’s and Grushenka’s actions as a demonstration of Zosima’s most cherished precepts — John 12:24, his belief about mutual responsibility, his love of falling to the earth and watering it with his tears. Dostoevsky had originally planned to title this book ‘Grushenka,’ and these two characters do indeed share a valid claim to the title.
The end of Book VI and the beginning of Book VII constitute the dead center of the novel; each is, in fact, full of death. The seed has died; Zosima has fallen to the ground, and his body, contrary to the general expectation and demand for a miracle, has begun to stink (a word that, among its other connotations, recalls ‘Stinking Lizaveta,’ the yurodivaya, Smerdyakov’s mother). Dostoevsky was insistent with his editor about using the word. “I beg you…not to delete anything in the Book [VII}. And there is no reason to: everything is in order. There is only one little word [about the dead body]: he stank. But is said by Father Ferapont, and he can’t speak differently.’ In this letter Dostoevsky also highlights the other key sections of Book VII: ‘The last chapter…Cana of Galilee is the most significant in the wold book, perhaps in the whole novel…P.S…I particularly beg you to proofread the legend of the little onion carefully. This is a gem, taken down by me from a peasant woman, and of course published for the first time.’
Upon Zosima’s death the townspeople and even Father Paissy succumb to the expectation of an imminent miracle. But no such miracle — to cement and secure faith, as the Grand Inquisitor might say, or as the devil proposed in his second temptation — is forthcoming. Instead, by three o’clock the next day, the narrator-chronicler prudishly and hesitantly reveals, something else has happened: ‘I may add here, for myself personally, that I feel it almost repulsive to recall that event which caused such frivolous agitation…I would…have omitted all mention of it in my story, if it had not exerted a very strong influence on the heart and soul of the chief, though future hero of my story, Alyosha, forming a crisis and turning point in his spiritual development.’
This narrative digression is important for several reasons. First, it gives us an important clue to the authorship of the preface to the novel. Upon first reading the novel it is unclear whether we are to assume that the preface at the beginning of the novel is one in which Dostoevsky is directly addressing his readers or whether the novel proper has, so to speak, begun and thus it is the narrator-chronicler directly addressing readers in the preface. This digression in Book VII, which is clearly from the perspective of Dostoevsky’s created vehicle of the narrator-chronicler, uses a language identical to that of the preface and thus suggests that Dostoevsky intended his preface to be read as a statement by his narrator-chronicler. If so, then we need not assume that Dostoevsky definitively meant to continue his story in future volumes. Second, the narrator-chronicler finds it extremely difficult, unlike Dostoevsky, to mention that the elder ‘stank.’ He offers euphemisms — ‘something,’ ‘trivial incident,’ ‘that event,’ ‘natural and trivial matter.’ (Behind his back, of course, Dostoevsky is affirming that the seed — in this case, Zosima — must die and ‘stink’ before it can bring forth fruit.) Third, the narrator-chronicler alerts us that this event will be a turning point in Alyosha’ life. Alyosha has so far been the recipient of the most important words — seeds — and has borne witness to Zosima’s life, that is, through Zosima he has witnessed grace. The focus will now change. Indeed, at the moment the narrator-chronicler makes his observations Alyosha is ‘weeping quietly but bitterly’ behind a tombstone.
As the criticism in the monastery of Zosima mounts, we hear, among the accusations that he abused the sacrament of confession and that he sat in pride, the angry assertion that he ‘allowed himself sweet things, ate cherry jam with his tea.’ This accusation recalls Alyosha and Ivan in the tavern, when Ivan, parodying the first temptation of Christ, which would form part of his poem a few minutes later, asks ‘You don’t live by tea alone, I suppose.’ And Alyosha’s boyhood love of cherry jam turns out to be one of Ivan’s most precious memories.
The antics of Father Ferapont in Book VII enact a dark parody of the spiritual truths the novel is attempting indirectly to assert. He claims to cast out Satan even as he brings Satan in. He stands at the head of those who claim to be able to interpret God’s meaning in an earthly event. Father Paissy reprimands him four times: for disturbing the peace of the flock, for perhaps serving the evil spirit he claims to be casting out, for claiming to be able to make a judgment that only God can make, and for speaking frivolously. A few minutes later, Father Paissy realizes that Alyosha too has begun to expect a miracle, the nonappearance of which has shaken his faith. Alyosha has yielded, however briefly, to the second temptation.
At this point the narrator-chronicler interrupts, proclaiming his own love for Alyosha and asserting that Alyosha is not with those of little faith but with those of great faith. The narrator-chronicler thus inserts his own point of view at this critical moment in his hero’s life in much the same way the narrator-chronicler of The Idiot does at the critical moment in Myshkins’ life. At each of these crucial junctures in the story of the hero — the good man — the language of the narrator-chroniclers is similar to the point of being identical. In Part IV, chapter 9 of The Idiot, the narrator-chronicler demurs, ‘We do not wish at all to justify our hero in the eyes of our readers.’ ‘I am far from intending to apologize for him or to justify his innocent faith,’ says the narrator-chronicler about Alyosha as he proceeds to do both. After his justification, he concludes, ‘Still I am not going to apologize for him.’ As in The Idiot, the more our narrator-chronicler intrudes his presence on the text, the less reliable are his protestations.
The narrator-chronicler defends Alyosha by claiming that he wants not a miracle per se but simply to see higher justice worked out. Thus, if we follow the narrator-chronicler’s reasoning, Alyosha longs for a miracle not to secure his faith but simply as a sign of that non-Euclidean justice. And by longing for higher justice in terms he can so readily interpret, Alyosha is really longing for its fulfillment in earthly terms. This thirst for justice links Alyosha, then, to Ivan and strengthens the bond between them. Alyosha, however, longs for the higher justice, while Ivan steadfastly proclaims he will stick to the eartlhy justice. But God delivers neither justice, as we shall see, on demand.
For all the narrator-chronicler’s apologies and justifications, Alyosha has still fallen into error. But the narrator-chronicler counters even this argument: he proclaims that he is prepared to admit that Alyosha’s response might have been shallow, but he is still glad his hero unreasonably succumbed to the demands wrought by his love for Zosima. Should we rejoice in Alyosha’s fall, since it was caused by love, or should we worry about the demands he has place on his God?
We learn that as he murmurs against God he experiences an evil impression that stems from his earlier conversation with Ivan. A few moments later Rakitin finds Alyosha face down on the ground, but the earth gives him no sustenance. Rakitin exclaims, with malicious glee, ‘Do you know, your face is quite changed.’ Our reading of Book VI has shaped our response to such details, making us more aware of how dire Alyosha’s situation is at this moment.
Yet even in his anger and disillusionment, Alyosha clings to his faith. “I believe, I believe, I want to believe, and I will believe, what more do you want?’ Alyosha expresses his rebellion with another act of plagiarism. Earlier, he had, in imitation of Ivan’s Jesus, kissed Ivan. This gesture had given back to Ivan that which was best in him, even though he could not acknowledge it. Now Alyosha mimics Ivan’s words to express his turning away from full belief. ‘I am not rebelling against my God; I simply ‘don’t accept his world.” Alyosha suddenly smiles a forced smile.
Dostoevsky then gently but firmly piles on the earthly temptations hard and fast. Alyosha accepts sausage meat from Rakitin’s pocket, and they set out in search of vodka at Grushenka’s house. Rakitin, like the devil in the Book of Job, hopes to bring about the ‘downfall of the righteous’; he hopes to see Alyosha’s fall ‘from the saints to the sinners.’ Like Jesus, Alyosha experiences his doubts in a garden, and Rakitin is to be his Judas ready to betray him for 30 pieces of silver.”
Book VII, Chapter Three