Father Zossima is dying, yet he is still talking to those gathered around him. Alyosha comes back to the monastery after his other visits, and he goes to Father Zossima’s side. Father Zossima is happy to see him, and he explains to Alyosha the meaning of his bow to Dmitri during their interview. He says that he bowed to Dmitri because he prophesied great misfortune for him, a fate he does not believe that Alyosha will share. He urges Alyosha to go back to his brothers and help them, for helping them with their difficulties will show Alyosha how to embrace all of humanity and show those in anguish how to appreciate life. Father Zossima then begins talking about his older brother. Father Zossima says that he looked up to his brother. He then tells Alyosha that he reminds him of his dear brother, which is part of the reason why Zossima has taken such a liking to Alyosha.
Father Zossima’s brother, who was some eight years older than he, fell into the company of an intellectual with liberal ideas. He disagreed with his religious mother, and she became very saddened by his beliefs. One day, he fell ill with tuberculosis, and the doctors told him that he had only several months to live. He began acting very loving, and he handled his incapacitation very bravely. He became very interested in every living being around him. He talked incessantly about the need to love all of nature and humanity. He had a great effect on those around him in his last days, and his younger brother never forgot the lesson he learned from his teachings. Father Zossima calls his late brother “a message from above.”
Father Zossima pauses to tell those around him how greatly the Bible has affected him. It captured his imagination as a young boy, and he never lost his fascination with it. He wishes that all men could find the meaning he found in the book as a boy. He says, “it is like a sculpted model of the world, of mankind, and of the characters of men; everything is there and it contains guidance for us for all ages. How many mysteries are solved in it, how many revealed!”
Father Zossima then talks about his wayward life as a young man. He says of his youth, “drunkenness, debauchery, and rowdyism were almost matters of pride.” When he graduated from military school, he was a free spirit. He spent money “with the total recklessness and abandon of youth.” He became quite enamored of a girl, but he did not ask to marry her because he was having too much fun as a bachelor. Then, after being gone for several months, he found out that the girl had married another man. Hot-blooded Zossima was incensed, losing “all sense of reality.” He decided to challenge her new husband to a duel. The morning of the duel, however, Zossima was musing on his brother’s last wishes. He realized that his hot-headedness was not consistent with the message of love his brother had advocated. He went to the duel anyway, revived by his new outlook on life. He let the other man shoot, bravely facing his opponent, looking at him “with love.” The other man shot, but the bullet just nicked Zossima, who turned and tossed his pistol away before asking the man’s forgiveness. After the duel, he decided to retire from military service and go to a monastery.
When he told his fellow officers about his resignation, they teased him, but they did not reproach him. In fact, they admired his bravery and liked his honesty. He talked about the duel with people from around the community, and he became quite famous for his duel. News about Zossima’s actions reached many people, and one night Zossima received a visitor. The man was a famous philanthropist who was respected throughout the town. The man said he had heard Zossima’s story and was rather impressed. He asked about what had prompted Zossima’s change of heart, and Zossima told him about it, his decision to strike out in a new direction in life, and the exhilaration of that realization. The two continued talking, and they met and talked for nights on end. After many of these meetings, the man told Zossima that he had killed someone but another man had been blamed for the crime. Even though the man died before his trial, Zossima’s visitor always felt the need to confess, despite becoming a good citizen and an essential member of his community. One day, overcome by guilt, he confessed to his crime in the open, but everyone chalked it up to temporary insanity. They could not believe that such a good man was capable of committing such a terrible act. Zossima’s visitor became sick after his many talks with Zossima, arguably because he felt so guilty. Father Zossima visited him, and he never told anyone of the man’s crimes. Before the man died, he told Father Zossima he was at peace with the world for the first time in years.
Zossima then tells Alyosha his theory about the importance of monks in Russia. He knows that often, monks are derided in society for being “shameless beggars living off other people’s labor.” Zossima feels that monks and the true Russian folks are the key to the salvation of the Russian people. The regular folks are ultimately the most important agents of change, but the monks lead them by example. He feels that the monk is actually very near to the common people, and he believes that all men should be equal; the hierarchy among masters and servants should not exist. If hierarchy between a master and a servant can be abolished, they can become true “brothers in spirit.” Zossima goes on to tell all those around him that all men are intertwined, so man should love all those around him, and he should also feel that he is culpable for the sins of others. God is mysterious. Man should not judge his brethren; only God can judge. There is no Hell; there is only man’s conscience to torment him. This is a “spiritual Hell.” Suddenly, in the middle of his speech, Father Zossima lowers himself to the ground, spreads his arms, and embraces the Earth. In a state of “ecstasy,” he dies. Those in the monastery quickly find out about his death. By morning, even the townspeople know. Father Zossima, the famous elder, is no longer.
Father Zossima is the sole focus of Book Six. In very plain terms he tells those around him his beliefs and gives them spiritual advice. This section of the novel reads like a theological text or a piece of apologetics, and it is perhaps the most didactic installment of The Brothers Karamazov. In many novels, extracting characters’ true beliefs from their words and actions can take a great deal of analysis and inference. In this novel, however, many characters speak their minds plainly and clearly. At one point in a discussion with Alyosha, Ivan explains that all “good Russians” are most concerned about their relationship to God and country. Why should a man shy away from these grand issues if they are so close to every Russian’s heart? Zossima’s words from his bed, for his part, are not simply his views. They are the views that he believes all men should share. He is not content to love humanity; he wants others to feel the same way about humanity that he does, for he believes it to be morally, psychologically, and spiritually healthy to do so. Father Zossima is the character whose words and deeds influence Alyosha, the hero of the novel, the most. Thus, his sage words are central to the theme of the book. It is almost as if Dostoevsky is speaking directly to the reader—not that this is Dostoevsky’s final word on these matters, but it is a perspective he wants readers to take seriously.
A common trope in The Brothers Karamazov is that each character has a foil or doppelganger in some respect. Ivan’s atheism is very much defined against Alyosha’s piousness, Dmitri’s sensualism is a reflection of his father’s. In keeping with this pattern of doubling, Father Zossima tells Alyosha how much he reminds the old man of his late brother. Unlike the story about the Grand Inquisitor that Ivan told, the story of Zossima’s brother is based on fact. Alyosha is very much like Zossima’s brother, as he is like Christ in The Grand Inquisitor.
Alyosha is thus being established as the successor protagonist in a couple of dramatic religious traditions. He is likened both to Christ and the brother who Zossima saw as a role model. Alyosha is still a young man, but high expectations are set for him. Dostoevsky lends him storied weight by associating him with almost mythical characters. Zossima’s brother, however, is not perfect like Christ, nor is he unwavering in his beliefs. In fact, he undergoes a complete change during Zossima’s description of him, going from liberal intellectual to reverent mentor. This implies that Alyosha too has an internal conflict with which he struggles. Alyosha does not seem to have the wayward streak of Dmitri or the skepticism of his brother Ivan, however, so what is his struggle? It seems that Alyosha feels very concerned about his father and brothers, and he does not know how to help them most. He also wants to stay in the monastery with Father Zossima but knows he must go into the world. This is a key moral struggle for people of faith, who feel responsible both to the Church and to the world.
Alyosha is not the only character with an internal struggle. Father Zossima describes his younger days as an army officer. He was not always the paragon of love and understanding that he is now. He was a hot-headed profligate. The almost saintly Zossima now seems incapable of any feelings outside of love and charity. The idea that he once recklessly challenged a man to a duel may seem impossible, but this is the standard material of testimonial apologetics.
Until now, Alyosha and Zossima have seemed insufficiently three-dimensional. Knowing that they have struggles and weaknesses helps us see them as more human. Just because Father Zossima has gained a bit of humanity, however, his status as an acclaimed icon is not shaken. Zossima’s spiritual conversion before the duel gained him fame, and people from all around heard about him. Even now, he is famous for his religious fervor. Fame does not require singularity of purpose and character; the more interesting protagonists overcome conflicts and serve as examples to others.
Conflict is not necessarily weakness in a world of uncertainty; it can lead to realization, understanding, and prudent action. Just because Dmitri is deeply conflicted, for instance, on that basis alone he is not necessarily worse morally than Alyosha and Zossima. Dmitri means well, at least, and he is struggling with conflicting impulses. He is capable of a deep understanding of the complexity of an issue, and this is why he tends to be ambivalent. Feeling conflicted is more honest than having a steadfast opinion and sticking to it uncritically. A strong, unwavering opinion can be stubbornness, yet for Alyosha and Zossima, it is integrity.