The Brothers Karamazov
Book VII, Chapter Four
by Dennis Abrams
“Cana of Galilee” “It was very late by monastery rules when Alyosha came to the hermitage. Father Zosima’s coffin. “The window of the cell was open, the air was fresh and rather cool — ‘the smell must have become even worse if they decided to open the window,’ Alyosha thought.” Alyosha begins praying. The story of Cana of Galilee — the wedding and the wine. Alyosha’s dream. Alyosha wakes, goes outside and embraces the earth. His joy. “Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind — now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages.” “Someone visited my soul in that hour…” Three days later, Alyosha leaves the monastery, to “sojourn in the world.”
Alyosha enters Zosima’s cell to the sound of Father Paissy reading from John 2:1-10. Before the actual epiphany begins for Alyosha, varied sensations, the narrator-chronicler tells us, move in his soul ‘in a slow, continual rotation.’ The narrator, who at the beginning of Book VII was distancing himself from his hero by saying he would not apologize for him or justify his actions, now enters the most private recesses of Alyosha’s soul and renders for us an intimate stream of consciousness. The pages of this brief but pivotal chapter gather up numberless strands of the novel into a joyous bouquet.
At first, as Alyosha begins to pray, the fragments of thought flashing through his mind recall the final sections of Zosima’s exhortations — his observations about prayer, love, and contact with other worlds. The sound of Father Paissy’s voice reading from the Bible recalls that moment so long ago when the boy Zosima felt a godly incense enter his soul as he heard the reading from the Book of Job. For the first time Alyosha is able to think directly about the odor emanating from Zosima’s corpse. He names it and is no longer humiliated or hurt by this previously dreadful fact. The third part and third day of the novel coalesce with that third day on which the marriage in Cana of Galilee took place. ‘And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee,’ read Father Paissy.’ Jesus, Alyosha remembers, visited a scene of joy and there performed his first miracle — an unexpected, nearly gratuitous event. The miracle that Alyosha had expected and hoped for had not taken place, yet by the end of this chapter something else has happened. The back alley, the Lake of Gennaseret (the Sea of Galilee, which also recalls the burning lakes), the intercession of Mary with God, the dead man rising from his coffin and comforting Alyosha, the dead man’s telling that ‘he gave an onion to a beggar’ — all these elements of Alyosha’s visionary dream recapitulate and recombine events from the previous three days and from the many words that have been spoken to him. They have all taken root.
At the beginning of Book VII, a bitter Alyosha lay face downward on the ground. His heart was breaking. Book VII closes with Alyosha’s second fall to the earth, yet this time, in a miraculous moment full of rapturous, nearly sensual religious ecstasy, Alyosha embraces and waters the earth with his tears and ‘longs to kiss it, kiss it all.’ (In Russian the intimacy of this passage is far more intense, for the word for earth is feminine, hence the pronoun ‘she’ echoes through the paragraph.)
Yet always in Dostoevsky’s work these heightened moments, which tempt the reader into believing that he is witnessing an actual spiritual conversion, disperse and radiate back through the text when one looks closely. that is, for every conversion, there is a pre-conversion and a pre-pre-conversion, and so on. The seed and the onion thus offer clues to both the mechanism by which grace travels through the world and the way a conversion comes about in a single character, as well as suggesting a model for the narrative structure of the novel.
Here, even before Alyosha returns to Zosima’s cell and listens to the reading of the Gospel, he has heard Grushenka’s fable. Was that the crucial moment when he began to reconsolidate his faith? Or did that moment occur before the telling of the fable when a light seemed to dawn in his face and he said in a firm, loud voice that he she had raised up his soul? Or did the key moment occur even before Grushenka knew that Zosima was dead, when she was still sitting on Alyosha’s lap and Alyosha, smiling gently at her, put down his glass of champagne? This peeling away of the layers of the onion, this unraveling, makes it hard to isolate any single moment in the spiritual development of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha and define it as the crucial one. Once again the words of Xenos Clark about the journey that is completed before it even takes place comes to mind.”
And from Joseph Frank, a few interesting observations about what we’ve read after the fable of the little onion:
“This childhood recollection provokes an even stronger crisis of conscience in Grushenka, and Alyosha is so moved by her confession and repentance, as well as the strength of her desire to forgive her Polish betrayer, that he tells Rakitin, “She is more loving than we.” When the disgruntled cynic asks what Alyosha has said that stirs Grushenka so profoundly, she falls on her knees before the ‘cherub’ and answers, ‘I’ve been waiting all my life for someone like you. I knew that someone like you would come and forgive me…would really love me, not only with a shameful love.’ The scene recalls the first meeting between Myshkin and Nastasya Filippovna in The Idiot, when the Prince recognizes the purity of her spirit despite her past degradation.
Just as in The Idiot, where Nastasya asks Myshkin to decide whether she should marry, Grushenka asks Alyosha to make the fateful decision whether she should now forgive her seducer. Alyosha replies, ‘You have forgiven him already.’ Having hoped to debauch Alyosha, Rakitin spitefully refers instead to his intended victim as having ‘turned the Magdalene onto the true path.’ the sarcasm of his embittered words nonetheless reluctantly recognizes the truth: ‘So you see that the miracles you were looking for just now have come to pass.’ Genuine miracles occur when faith succeeds in aiding the morality of love to conquer egoistic resentment, hatred, and revenge.”
Book VII, Chapter One