“I just gave you an onion, one little onion, that’s all, that’s all…!”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book VII, Chapter Three
by Dennis Abrams

“An Onion” “Grushenka lived in the busiest part of town, near the cathedral square, in a house belong to the widow of the merchant Morozov, from whom she rented a small wooden cottage.” Abandoned by an officer at the age of seventeen, for the past five years, Grushenka had lived under the ‘protection’ of the merchant Morozov, who provided her with some funds and business advice, but would not leave her any of his fortune. Morozov’s advice to choose Fyodor over Dmitri. The cottage. Alyosha and Rakitin arrive to find Grushenka dressed “as if she were expecting someone.” Grushenka’s fear of Dmitri. Waiting for “a message, a certain golden message.” Grushenka flirts with Alyosha, caresses him and sits in his lap. Alyosha’s lack of response, “he was no wearing the strongest armor against any seduction and temptation.” Champagne. Grushenka is waiting for a message from the officer who abandoned her. She confesses her love for Alyosha and apologizes for the way she treated Katerina Ivanovna. Alyosha turns down champagne. Grushenka learns of the death of Zosima and jumps off Alyosha’s lap crossing herself. A change in Alyosha, “She spared me just now…I’m speaking of you, Argafena Alexandrovna. You restored my soul right now.” Rakitin’s spiteful laugh. Was Grushenka going to “eat up” Alyosha? The fable of the onion. Rakitin pockets the twenty-five roubles he earned for bringing Alyosha to Grushenka’s. Grushenka confesses that she had planned to ‘ruin’ Alyosha. Her certainty that Alyosha despised her. Her Satanic marriage to Kuzma. Five years of waiting. The letter from the officer who had abandoned her, telling her that he’s coming, his wife died, and he wants to see her. Would she crawl to him like a little dog? Would she use a knife on him? Grushenka breaks down in tears; Alyosha calls for mercy. Rakitin turns on him, “They just loaded you with your elder, and now you’ve fired your elder off at me, Alyoshenka, little man of God.” Alyosha defends Grushenka, talks about his previous desire to ruin herself, praises her ability to forgive, “She is higher in love than are we…” Has she forgiven the officer or hasn’t she? “I’m violent, Alyosha, I’m wild. I’ll tear off my finery, I’ll maim myself, my beauty. I’ll burn my face, and slash it with a knife, and go begging.” Grushenka tells Alyosha she’s been waiting all her life for someone like him, “What did I do for you?’ Alyosha answered with a tender smile…’I just gave you an onion, a little onion, that’s all…that’s all.” Grushenka receives the message from the officer, she decides to go to him. Grushenka shouts out the window to Alyosha, asking him to tell Dmitri that “Grushenka loved him for one hour, just one hour she loved him…” Rakitin’s anger. Alyosha returns to the monastery.

I think I’m getting a better handle on Dostoevsky’s intentions, and while the long philosophical discussions of the previous chapter might have been a bit…daunting, I can see now why they were necessary for the structure of the book. And I’m also seeing that in Karamazov, as in The Idiot and Demons, once Dostoevsky gets going…he’s pretty irresistible. I’m going to share with you Miller’s take on this chapter (which Dostoevsky felt was so important to the book as a whole), but first, for those who may not be reading the whole book (or who want to have it handy), the fable of the onion:

“You see, Alyosha,” Grushenka turned to him with a nervous laugh. “I was boasting when I told Rakitin I had given away an onion, but it’s not to boast I tell you about it. It’s only a story, but it’s a nice story. I used to hear it when I was a child from Matryona, my cook, who is still with me. It’s like this. Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away. So that’s the story, Alyosha; I know it by heart, for I am that wicked woman myself. I boasted to Rakitin that I had given away an onion, but to you I’ll say: ‘I’ve done nothing but give away one onion all my life, that’s the only good deed I’ve done.’

I can see why Dostoevsky felt so strongly about it.

From Miller:

“When Alyosha accompanies Rakitin to Grushenka’s, it is no surprise that Grushenka, like so many other characters, confesses to Alyosha. She tells him the story of her seduction and abandonment by the Polish officer who has, at the moment that she is telling her story, already dispatched his messenger to inform her that he awaits her at Mokroe. Her confession reflects the same mix of profoundly contradictory impulses as did those of Dmitri and Ivan. She states that she has forgiven and still loves the officer. Then she admits, ‘I’ve grown to love my tears…Perhaps I only love my resentment, not him.’ Alyosha’s gift to her, as with his brothers, is his instinctive response to what is best, most beautiful, and most pure in her words.” [MY NOTE: A trait shared with Prince Myshkin?]

Most important, after Grushenka learns that Zosima has died and has ‘in dismay’ slipped quickly off Alyosha’s lap, she tells the fable of the onion, which, as noted earlier, Dostoevsky was so pleased to be inserting into his novel. This story, coming as it does at the beginning of the second half of the novel, assumes a vital symbolic weight, comparable to what we have already seen with words, seeds, and bows. All are connected with memory, grace, and love. At the ‘needed moment,’ as Zosima would have put it, Grushenka brings forth a ‘precious memory’: she tells Alyosha a story from her childhood about a wicked old peasant woman who had, in the course of her long life, committed only one good deed — she had once given away an onion. Yet the one deed, like a seed long dead, nevertheless embodies the potential of bearing fruit. It could be enough to save her.

The fable’s beginning, with the description of the lake of fire in hell, recalls the opening of Ivan’s poem in which he cites the apocryphal text of Mary’s wanderings through hell. Ivan had also twice referred to Dante’s Inferno. The hell of Grushenka’s folktale also suggests a Dantesque vision of hell; it is full of sinners whose sinfulness continues in hell. Both Mary in Ivan’s poem and the old peasant woman’s guardian angel in Grushenka’s fable manage to prevail upon God to alter his dread sentence. In Ivan’s story the sinners had received respite from suffering once a year from Good Friday to Trinity Day. Here, in Grushenka’s fable God literally gives the old peasant woman a second chance: she can hold on to the onion and be pulled out the lake, unless the onion breaks.

Grushenka’s fable is in fact a parabolic gloss on Zosima’s often repeated aphorism that all are responsible for all. had the old peasant woman not kicked away the other sinners who were clinging to her in the hope of also being saved, she and all the rest — in a living great chain of being — would have been saved. the sinner in the story is undone and redamned because she cried out, ‘It’s my onion, not yours.’ But in this chapter Grushenka and Alyosha do the opposite: they cling to each other, and each offers the other an onion: each will hold on to the proffered onion and scramble out of the burning lake (which has often been described, in Alyosha’s case, as his furnace of doubt.)

This onion, whose meaning has such thematic import, also suggests a metaphor for understanding the structure of the novel. Such terms as ‘polyphony’ and ‘palimpsest’ also offers us ways of appreciating the totality of the narrative. but this simple little garden onion gives the most provocative and heartiest suggestion of all. We have seen the image of seeds dying and bearing fruit, and we have heard each of the major characters speaking in his or her own voice to create a polyphonic effect. The novel, moreover, is certainly a palimpsest with its several cohesive layers of meaning that can exist, if one wishes, independently of each other: a crime novel superimposed on a psychological novel, superimposed on a family novel, superimposed on a metaphysical novel, and so forth.

An onion, like a seed, is a living organism, and to peel away the layers of an onion is to proceed with direction toward a center. Yet each onion layer, the boundaries of which constitute concentric unities in themselves, consists of the same elements as its center. Thus an onion is simultaneously a single unity and a combination of many discrete, layered parts. A slice along its diameter shows its carefully structured and separate layers; to unravel it is to discover that each layer recapitulates all the others. The Brothers Karamazov embodies these attributes of the onion. We can admire its narrative layers — from author, to narrator-chronicler, to character, to inserted narratives — but when we pull out any later for closer scrutiny, we see that it is contiguous with others and that taken together they form a whole. Where are the boundaries between Ivan, his Grand Inquisitor, his Jesus, and Alyosha, or between Alyosha, Zosima, Markel, the mysterious visitor, and Grushenka? Or between any of the countless combinations of characters we can make? Zosima’s love of Markel’s face informs his love of Alyosha’s face. When Grushenka finds herself haunted by Alyosha’s face, she unconsciously crosses into Zosima’s territory. When she remembers the story of the burning lake in hell, she trespasses into Ivan’s terrain. Yet these encroachments, these correspondences — of which there are literally thousands in the novel (and which contribute to the ‘confined geography’ I described earlier) — give the novel its surprising unity, its miraculously operative metonymy.

‘All is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.’ Zosima’s exhortation finds concrete expression in the physical texture of the novel. {MY NOTE: I meant to mention yesterday how similar Zosima’s ‘exhortation’ is close to the idea of the butterfly effect in chaos theory, the idea of which first appeared in the scientific literature at the beginning of the 20th century, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder” in 1952, and was later popularized and given a name by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz in 1969.] In Book VII, this interconnectedness, this ‘flowing’ and ‘blending,’ is particularly evident. Grushenka gives Alyosha both an onion (‘You’ve raised my soul from the depths”0 and a meta-onion (the entire fable of the onion). Yet moments later, as he takes his leave of her, he smiles at her tenderly and exclaims, with tears, ‘I only gave you an onion, nothing but a tiny little onion.’ Who has given whom an onion? No wonder Dostoevsky had trouble deciding on the title of Book VII. Or does the successful giving of the onion depend, as it did in the fable, wholly on mutuality, on shared responsibility? The angel holds out the onion to the sinner. No one must let go of it or push anyone else away.

At any rate, when Alyosha says that he has given Grushenka a tiny little onion, he is once again a saintly plagiarist. Jesus’ kiss glows in the Grand Inquisitor’s heart — a possible seed of his eventual redemption. Alyosha plagiarizes Ivan’s own story by kissing him, but his act, as we have seen, merely returns to Ivan what he already possesses. Likewise Alyosha here gives back to Grushenka the onion from the story she has just told to him — but it was hers to begin with. In each case, the potential for salvation lies within the sinner himself; Alyosha may function as a messenger from God, but he is also a canny intermediary between the parts of the self, a kind of spiritual therapist.

There are, moreover, two kinds of currency that frame the opening and the closing of this chapter. Alyosha arrives at Grushenka’s lamenting the treasure he has lost; he then discovers a similar treasure in Grushenka. This invaluable treasure contrasts with the vile Rakitin’s earning of 25 rubles. Yet Rakitin, perhaps like Ivan’s devil later on in Book XI, and perhaps even like Judas, desires evil but ends up in a roundabout way accomplishing good. Rakitin brings Alyosha to Grushenka in the hope of furthering Alyosha’s rebellion; instead, Alyosha, through his encounter with her, finds his way back to the monastery and to God. ‘Go alone,. there’s your road,’ mutters Rakitin.'”

Wednesday’s Reading:

Book VII, Chapter Four

Enjoy.

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3 Responses to “I just gave you an onion, one little onion, that’s all, that’s all…!”

  1. Catherine says:

    I love the onion story! Miller’s critique and your comments add more layers to my appreciation. Thanks.

  2. Alex Nim says:

    “At any rate, when Alyosha says that he has given Grushenka a tiny little onion, he is once again a saintly plagiarist. Jesus’ kiss glows in the Grand Inquisitor’s heart — a possible seed of his eventual redemption. Alyosha plagiarizes Ivan’s own story by kissing him, but his act, as we have seen, merely returns to Ivan what he already possesses. Likewise Alyosha here gives back to Grushenka the onion from the story she has just told to him — but it was hers to begin with. In each case, the potential for salvation lies within the sinner himself; Alyosha may function as a messenger from God, but he is also a canny intermediary between the parts of the self, a kind of spiritual therapist.”

    brilliant post! i never thought about it that way, extremely insightful.
    thanks for sharing!

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