DOSTOEVSKY: The Brothers Karamazov [Part III-IV]

Part III of The Brothers Karamazov begins with Book VII, which is entitled Alyosha. In this book, Alyosha undergoes a crisis of faith after Father Zosima’s death. The abnormally quick decay of Zosima’s body and the foul odor that it emits intensifies Alyosha’s despair, causing him to leave the monastery and follow his friend Rakitin to Grushenka’s house.

Grushenka had promised to pay Rakitin to bring Alyosha to her, so that she could corrupt Alyosha. But when she observes the sincere grief of Alyosha at the death of Father Zosima, she feels remorse, and confesses to Alyosha that she is a wicked sinner. Alyosha and Grushenka comfort each other – Alyosha assures Grushenka that she is a good person, and Grushenka restores Alyosha’s faith in humanity and in God.

During the conversation between Grushenka and Alyosha, Grushenka recounts a story of an old woman who once gave a beggar an onion. The story demonstrates the importance of being selfless, and the danger of being selfish. “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.’ And 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.”

Alyosha leaves Grushenka’s and returns to the monastery. He immediately visits Father Zosima corpse. Another monk is reading the Gospel over the body, and Alyosha drifts in-and-out of dreams while listening to the monk read. The subject is the wedding in Cana, at which Jesus turns water into wine, the first miracle that Jesus performs in the Bible. Alyosha dreams that he is at the wedding, and he sees Father Zosima there too. Zosima tells Alyosha to be happy, and Alyosha is indeed happy that he has brought peace to Grushenka. Alyosha awakens and walks outside. He embraces the earth, feeling that he has attained a profound understanding of love, life, and God.

“Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and “he was not ashamed of that ecstasy.” There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over “in contact with other worlds.” He longed to forgive every one and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything. “And others are praying for me too,” echoed again in his soul. But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul. It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind—and it was for all his life and for ever and ever. He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute.”

The rest of the novel is concerned with the murder of Fyodor Karamazov, and the trial of Dmitri, who is accused of committing the murder. The prevailing theme of this part of the novel is the consequences of skepticism. Ivan succumbs to delirium after learning that his skepticism encouraged his half-brother Smerdyakov to murder Fyodor. He cannot manage the guilt that he feels over the murder, and he begins to suffer from hallucinations. He believes that he sees the devil. Dostoyevsky wishes to convey that one must be redeemed through suffering. Ivan suffers for his beliefs, and Dostoyevsky foreshadows his recovery through the hopeful words of his brother Alyosha.

“Men love the downfall and the disgrace of the righteous.”

“One can’t take a step without money.”

“Was not one moment of her love worth all the rest of life, even in the agonies of disgrace?”

“Have you noticed, Smurov, that in the middle of winter we don’t feel so cold even when there are fifteen or eighteen degrees of frost as we do now, in the beginning of winter, when there is a sudden frost of twelve degrees, especially when there is not much snow. It’s because people are not used to it. Everything is habit with men, everything even in their social and political relations. Habit is the great motive-power.”

“How nice it would be if everything were destroyed!”

“There are moments when people love crime.”

“Goodness is one thing with me and another with a Chinaman, so it’s a relative thing. Or isn’t it? Is it not relative? A treacherous question! You won’t laugh if I tell you it’s kept me awake two nights. I only wonder now how people can live and think nothing about it. Vanity! Ivan has no God. He has an idea. It’s beyond me. But he is silent. I believe he is a free-mason. I asked him, but he is silent. I wanted to drink from the springs of his soul—he was silent.”

“Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sees sometimes such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, such events, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy has never invented. Yet such dreams are sometimes seen not by writers, but by the most ordinary people, officials, journalists, priests…. The subject is a complete enigma. A statesman confessed to me, indeed, that all his best ideas came to him when he was asleep. Well, that’s how it is now, though I am your hallucination, yet just as in a nightmare, I say original things which had not entered your head before. So I don’t repeat your ideas, yet I am only your nightmare, nothing more.”

“This legend is about Paradise. There was, they say, here on earth a thinker and philosopher. He rejected everything, ‘laws, conscience, faith,’ and, above all, the future life. He died; he expected to go straight to darkness and death and he found a future life before him. He was astounded and indignant. ‘This is against my principles!’ he said. And he was punished for that … that is, you must excuse me, I am just repeating what I heard myself, it’s only a legend … he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion kilometers in the dark (we’ve adopted the metric system, you know) and when he has finished that quadrillion, the gates of heaven would be opened to him and he’ll be forgiven. Well, this man, who was condemned to the quadrillion kilometers, stood still, looked round and lay down across the road. ‘I won’t go, I refuse on principle!’ Take the soul of an enlightened Russian atheist and mix it with the soul of the prophet Jonah, who sulked for three days and nights in the belly of the whale, and you get the character of that thinker who lay across the road. He lay there almost a thousand years and then he got up and went on. the moment the gates of Paradise were open and he walked in, before he had been there two seconds, by his watch (though to my thinking his watch must have long dissolved into its elements on the way), he cried out that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion kilometers but a quadrillion of quadrillions, raised to the quadrillionth power! In fact, he sang ‘hosannah’ and overdid it so, that some persons there of lofty ideas wouldn’t shake hands with him at first—he’d become too rapidly reactionary, they said. The Russian temperament. I repeat, it’s a legend. I give it for what it’s worth.”

“Our present earth may have been repeated a billion times. Why, it’s become extinct, been frozen; cracked, broken to bits, disintegrated into its elements, again ‘the water above the firmament,’ then again a comet, again a sun, again from the sun it becomes earth—and the same sequence may have been repeated endlessly and exactly the same to every detail, most unseemly and insufferably tedious.”

“As soon as men have all of them denied God—and I believe that period, analogous with geological periods, will come to pass—the old conception of the universe will fall of itself without cannibalism, and, what’s more, the old morality, and everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world. Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven. Every one will know that he is mortal and will accept death proudly and serenely like a god. His pride will teach him that it’s useless for him to repine at life’s being a moment, and he will love his brother without need of reward. Love will be sufficient only for a moment of life, but the very consciousness of its momentariness will intensify its fire, which now is dissipated in dreams of eternal love beyond the grave.”

“Conscience! What is conscience? I make it up for myself. Why am I tormented by it? From habit. From the universal habit of mankind for the seven thousand years. So let us give it up, and we shall be gods.”

“His passion might well, for a moment, stifle not only the fear of arrest, but even the torments of conscience. For a moment, oh, only for a moment! I can picture the state of mind of the criminal hopelessly enslaved by these influences—first, the influence of drink, of noise and excitement, of the thud of the dance and the scream of the song, and of her, flushed with wine, singing and dancing and laughing to him! Secondly, the hope in the background that the fatal end might still be far off, that not till next morning, at least, they would come and take him. So he had a few hours and that’s much, very much! In a few hours one can think of many things. I imagine that he felt something like what criminals feel when they are being taken to the scaffold. They have another long, long street to pass down and at walking pace, past thousands of people. Then there will be a turning into another street and only at the end of that street the dread place of execution! I fancy that at the beginning of the journey the condemned man, sitting on his shameful cart, must feel that he has infinite life still before him. The houses recede, the cart moves on—oh, that’s nothing, it’s still far to the turning into the second street and he still looks boldly to right and to left at those thousands of callously curious people with their eyes fixed on him, and he still fancies that he is just such a man as they. But now the turning comes to the next street. Oh, that’s nothing, nothing, there’s still a whole street before him, and however many houses have been passed, he will still think there are many left. And so to the very end, to the very scaffold.”

“In another man’s hands, a crust always appears larger.”

“Even there, in the mines, underground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths a lofty soul, a feeling, suffering creature; one may bring forth an angel, create a hero! There are so many of them, hundreds of them, and we are to blame for them.”

5 thoughts on “DOSTOEVSKY: The Brothers Karamazov [Part III-IV]”

  1. Read this for my English degree. Thirty years ago now but still one of the great works of art. Postulated the idea that Christ was evil because He knew man could never attain the moral perfection that Christ wanted men to aspire to

    Thanks for posting

  2. Love this book! I really enjoyed the way all the separate stories within the book – stories that didn’t seem to have any connection to each other – came together at the end. Wonderful!

    (Currently reading Catch-22 for the first time. Ohmygosh. Another great one!)

  3. The ways in which Dostoevsky brings the brothers and the father Karamazov together on a the continuum of pureness and holiness to abject baseness and revealing that most of us mortals possess a little bit of all of the Karamazovs makes this one of my all-time favorites. I particularly enjoy the conflicted character of the agnostic intellectual who ironically delivers the powerful quote when discussing spiritual matters with his saintly brother Alyosha, “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

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