The Brothers Karamazov – Book VII – Alyosha

Something that’s amazed me about this book so far is its ability to maintain a really unique form of emotional intensity, even though (a) it’s hundreds of pages long, (b) it’s translated from 19th century Russian, and (c) its characters themselves are often discussing very abstract philosophical-religious issues.  I mean when I read a George Pelecanos DC crime novel, I sort of expect the drama of the plot to keep me keyed up a bit.  When reading Dostoevsky, it seems less intuitive.  Even as compared with other books, which, granted, had intense sequences (the murder in Crime and Punishment, the suicide-riot-arson of the end of Demons), but this book has a type of sustained intensity to it I don’t really remember encountering elsewhere.

Book VII begins with the funeral held for Father Zosima, who passes away just at the end of Book VI.  The action begins with a mundane detail – as his body is being washed and dressed, all according to solemn ritual, someone asks whether they should open a window in the room with the body.  The issue is – dead bodies rot and smell; opening a window is normally a concession to this fact of life.  But here, it is essentially a profession of disbelief.  There has arisen such an expectation around Zosima’s death that, as a saint, his body would not decay.  But gradually through the day, it begins to.  The “odor of corruption” (the name of the first chapter) gives rise to a swirl of chaos.  Father Paissy begins the ceremonies and reads the gospel.  There is something important in this – instead of just the standard psalms, which I guess are called for during normal orthodox funerals, instead here, the gospel is read.

As Paissy carries on, he sees Alyosha in the back of the service crying.  He’s frustrated by this, and admonishes him: “’Enough, dear son, enough, my friend…What is it?  You should rejoice and not weep…’ Alyosha glanced up at him, uncovering his face, which was swollen with tears like a little child’s” (329).  Paissy’s words echo those of one of the women who had previously (in Book II) come to Zosima seeking solace.  She told Zosima that her other priest had told her not to weep for her lost child, because he was with the angels.  Zosima, in reply, told her that she should weep, but also know he was with the angels (a more complex message).  Paissy I guess did not learn that lesson.  But Paissy perhaps feels a bit of it, again, because of the interpersonal nature of the experience: “And he moved away from Alyosha, thinking of him with love.  He hastened to go, incidentally, because he felt that, looking at him, he might start weeping himself” (329).

The service continues as many townspeople show up.  They had developed the expectation that Zosima’s body would cure them and their sick children.  But as word spread of his body’s decay and “the odor of corruption” everyone gets more and more uneasy.  Things develop into a bit of a scene, as part of the crowd begins to turn against Zosima (he had always been controversial).  There’s a parallel here to Christ’s second temptation: the people want to see proof of Zosima’s sanctity, and it is not given to them.  Some of them seek other explanations, such as the priests that note that it isn’t until years later, when the would-be saint’s body is dug up, that his sanctity can be judged (by the color of his decayed bones).  Opponents seize on the legends of other saints, whose bodies didn’t corrupt (or were said not to have corrupted).  It’s one of those moments where a traumatic and controversial experience ends up reconfirming already held beliefs on all sides.  The detractors immediately see corruption; Zosima’s allies immediately pursue other lines of reasoning.  The actual event seems of less consequence than the immediate interpretations available for it.  Father Ferapont, the anti-Zosima monk visiting from out of town, takes the opportunity to show off his own piousness.  He, along with some followers, bursts into the funeral and begins to demand that the devil (i.e., the stink from Zosima) depart.  He carries on, at the funeral, about all that this decay proves about the institution of elders, and how it stands of a refutation of all of Zosima’s beliefs.  Paissy eventually succeeds in getting him to leave, but the crowd is swept into quite a fervor.

Even though they’re arguing over something that on its face is absurd to me (that someone’s body wouldn’t decay when they die) still the emotional effect it had on me while reading was severe.  I think this is because you really begin to feel for Alyosha as he weeps.  He seems to weep as much for the crowds and their behavior as for the death of Zosima (or his contrary expectation about how his body would react to death).  Alyosha is really demoralized by everything, to the point where he allows his opportunistic careerist “friend” Rakitin to do two things.  First, he takes him up on an offer to violate the culinary restrictions of the monastery: Alyosha eats some sausage.  Then, in a more surprising assent, Alyosha agrees to go see Grushenka, and the implication is clear: she we will ruin his monastic purity.

Upon their arrival at Grushenka’s, one of those strange Dostoevskian, sprawling scenes opens up.  First, Grushenka pays Rakitin 25 rubles, apparently because she’s previously agreed to do so if he could get Alyosha to her house (the allusion to Judas’s betrayal of Christ is obvious, just from the number 25).  Grushenka is actually very dressed up, in a way that confuses and tempts Rakitin.  He just can’t let it go.  He keeps asking and asking why she is so dressed up.  Finally she suggests that her original seducer, the one who took advantage of and then abandoned her, is coming from Mokroye, and will make right for his advantage-taking (how, we don’t really know).  Grushenka speculates that perhaps his former wife has died.  It’s hard for me to see exactly why, if this is what’s happened, this is a redemptive act on his part, which Frank’s interpretation of this section seems to assume – I see it more of evidence of her fundamental instability and the confusion it brings to others.  We also get some background on Grushenka in this chapter.  It turns out she’s actually not slept with either Fyodor or Dmitri (at least she claims so).  She has been only with one man, Samsonov, her older “benefactor,” who brought her to this town and set her up in his home.  The two conduct business together: sometimes Grushenka buys up bad promissory notes and collects on them.

Anyway, though she is dressed like this and expecting the arrival of the out-of-town gentleman, she still leaps into Alyosha’s lap and aggressively flirts with him.  It’s a very upsetting experience for him.  He’s sort of transfixed and unable to react.  But then just as things might move along in that direction (with the “carnivorous” Rakitin looking on and taunting him), Alyosha bursts forth:

 “Rakitin,” he said loudly and firmly, “don’t taunt me with having rebelled against my God.  I don’t want to hold any anger against you, and therefore you be kinder, too.  I’ve lost such a treasure as you never had, and you cannot judge me now.  You’d do better to look here, at her: did you see how she spared me?  I came her looking for a wicked soul—I was drawn to that, because I was low and wicked myself, but I found a true sister, I found a treasure—a loving soul… She spared me just now… I’m speaking you, Agrafena Alexandrovna [Grushenka].  You restored my soul just now.”

Rather than temptation, then Alyosha finds redemption in seeing something better in Grushenka that his friend (or his father or his brother) cannot.  Grushenka thus begins to explain that her original plan had been to seduce Alyosha (because she thought he had such contempt for her, she wanted to “break” him as revenge).  But instead, she now sees an ally in faith, unlike the petty Rakitin, whom she mercilessly abuses through the scene.  She breaks into a long folktale story about “An Onion” (the enigmatic chapter title).  It’s about a selfish, greedy woman who once lent a poor person an onion.  When she died, she still went to Hell, but was dragged forth by an angel who pulled her by this very onion.  Then, other souls saw, and tried to grab on, to which she snapped that it was “her onion” and then the angel dropped her back into Hell.  The chapter ends with her discovering that the man from Mokroye has arrived; she hastily and nervously flees the room, asking Alyosha to let Dmitri know she’s no longer interested.

The last chapter of the book (“Cana of Galilee”) describes Alyosha’s return to the monastery.  He returns to hear Paissy still reading the gospel.  Now it is the story of the Marriage at Cana (where Jesus turns water to wine).  Alyosha is moved and frenzied to such a point that he has a vision of dead Zosima rising up to speak with him.  There’s an interesting stream-of-consciousness style to this section, one that reminded me of the epilepsy sequences from The Idiot.  It alternates between Alyosha’s vision and Paissy’s gospel reading.  Alyosha tells Zosima that all he ever gave was an onion.  He feels a sort of mystical cosmic unity that Frank says has been discussed from many angles.  He talks more about nature’s unity than Jesus Christ, which has led some to see it more as an affirmation of mysticism than Christianity per se.  It ends on a puzzling note, one that I think, though parts of this chapter might not seem to support it, affirms my reading of Alyosha’s expectations in Christian other-worldly validation being so strong that nothing could ultimately shake them:

 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.  He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddently, in that very moment of his ecstasy.  Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment.  “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say aftewards, with firm belief in his words…

Three days later he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to “sojourn in the world” (363).

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