Father Zossima’s body is prepared for burial. Alyosha is stricken with grief, and Father Paisii tries to comfort him. He assures Alyosha that Father Zossima is in Heaven and that this day is Zossima’s most glorious day. Father Zossima is given a customary requiem service, and by dawn, people have come to see his body. They bring sick children with them because they are certain that great healing powers are being released upon his death. It is widely held that Father Zossima was a saint. People gather around the corpse, waiting for a miracle to happen.
Instead, his body begins to decompose, and those around fear that the decomposition belies a flaw in his holy constitution. This disproves the hypothesis that Father Zossima was a saint. Alyosha does not understand how such a holy man could be degraded in such a way. The monastery is polarized by differing opinions about the fate of Zossima’s body. The camp against Zossima is headed by Father Ferapont, who rushes around trying to exorcise demons from Zossima’s room. He ridicules the late Father for demanding that men “worship [him] like an idol.” Father Paisii confronts him, angry that he is disrupting the peace. He asks Ferapont to leave, and Ferapont makes a dramatic exit, screaming, “this is an unholy, unholy place!”
Alyosha leaves. He does not understand why God has allowed Father Zossima to be shamed in this way. He meets Rakitin who, in his characteristic fashion, sneers at Alyosha’s anguish and Father Zossima’s humiliation. With a glint in his eye, Rakitin asks Alyosha if he wants some vodka or some sausage. Even though he should not accept them because it is Lent, Alyosha takes them. Aimless and broken down, Alyosha also accepts Rakitin’s offer to visit Grushenka with him. Rakitin is taken aback at Alyosha’s indifference and quick acceptance of the offers, but he is delighted at the idea of watching Alyosha compromise himself.
When they arrive at Grushenka’s place, she is waiting for a message from a former lover who has returned for her. She is excited that Alyosha has come. She is ebullient and loud, but Alyosha believes she is actually happy to see him. Grushenka flirts with Alyosha and teases him, asking why he looks so glum. She sits on his lap, and he does not ask her to get up; in his state, he is “immune” to such attempts at seduction—but he is also “paralyzed” by his grief. When Grushenka learns that Alyosha is sad because Father Zossima has died, she feels remorseful for flirting with Alyosha and acting so disrespectful. Alyosha is grateful for her pity and her respect, and he thanks her for it, pleading with Rakitin to do the same instead of mocking him.
Overcome with self-reproach, Grushenka castigates herself for being an amoral wretch. She tells Alyosha she has not done any good deeds in her life, and she adds that she bribed Rakitin to bring him to her. She had the intention of “ruining” Alyosha. She had become fascinated with him because he seemed so pure, yet he never seemed to notice her. She then tells Alyosha about a young captain in the military who once seduced her and left her. Recently, this captain became a widower and sent for her again. She admits that she has been seeing Dmitri purely as a distraction from this man. She also asks if Alyosha can tell Katerina not to be angry with her. Rakitin occasionally interrupts her to say rude things to her. Alyosha finally yells back that Grushenka is a caring girl with a great capacity for forgiveness. He says her soul could “have treasure in it.” She kneels at his feet, saying she feels that he has taken pity on her and forgiven her for her many sins, and she is thankful. They both burst into tears. Talking to someone so forthright and compassionate lifts Alyosha’s spirits. Before he can respond, Grushenka receives the message for which she has been waiting. She is ambivalent about seeing the man who treated her so badly long ago; she fears for her dignity. Regardless, she decides to see the man, so she says her farewell. Rakitin is upset, and he cannot seem to get a rise out of Alyosha. He suddenly exclaims that Alyosha should not be angry because of the bribe Rakitin took, for, he says, “you are no Christ and I am no Judas.” Alyosha stays fairly calm, but Rakitin storms off in frustration, clearly annoyed at the events of the night.
Alyosha goes back to pray in Father Zossima’s old cell, feeling that his experience with Grushenka has corroborated the value of Zossima’s teachings. He experiences fulfillment from responding to others with love and sympathy, and he feels that he can make a positive difference in their lives. Grushenka has revitalized him, has saved him from “walking toward [his] perdition.” He did not expect to find such a noble and loving person; he thought he would find a “wicked soul.” Realizing that even those who appear wicked can be loving, caring people gives Alyosha new strength. He overhears one of the monks recounting a verse from John about the wedding at Cana.
Exhausted from his day, Alyosha falls asleep. He dreams of being in the wedding at Cana, and Father Zossima is there. He tells Alyosha not to despair; even on this gloomy day, Alyosha has helped Grushenka find redemption. There is good that comes out of every situation, and Alyosha should be cheerful. Alyosha realizes that no miracle can be as important as the necessity of loving all of humanity. Alyosha wakes and leaves the monastery, refreshed and filled with hope.
This section seems like a grand turning point in the novel. Father Zossima represents all that Alyosha loves and aspires to be. He has dedicated his life to following this man, but when Father Zossima’s body decays, it feels as if Alyosha’s adulation has been nullified. The man he has emulated and admired may not be a saint but just another person. If Alyosha has been wrong about Father Zossima’s sainthood, his entire life’s purpose is thrown into question. To this point, Alyosha has been the most steadfast, consistent character in the novel. He is calm and straightforward, helping those who need help and selflessly taking on responsibility. When Zossima dies, however, he seems a bit lost. Without the guiding hand of a mentor, Alyosha’s stability is shaken. Without the assurance of his divine purpose, Alyosha’s momentum is temporarily stalled, and he falters. He becomes quiet and sullen; he agrees to immoral behavior such as visiting a woman of questionable character, eating sausage, and drinking vodka. The hero of the novel seems to have lost hope.
At this point, the story could move in a new direction. Alyosha could withdraw, leaving all the characters to their own vices. Without Alyosha’s helpful hand, these characters would hardly communicate peacefully with each other, tempers would not be calmed, and everything could fall apart.
But Alyosha finds faith again. He regains hope and embraces the world anew. His interaction with Grushenka reminds him that his spiritual strength comes from within, from his tradition, and from God, not merely from Father Zossima. This realization is a testament to Alyosha’s strong character, and it becomes a saving grace for all the characters in the novel.
One could argue that things do not turn out so well for many of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan has a nervous breakdown, Dmitri goes to jail, and Smerdyakov commits suicide. Alyosha’s help does not significantly improve anyone’s situation, it seems; he does not focus his effort on improving the material conditions of those around him. Instead, he focuses on showing everyone love, which does improve their situations. His continued love helps characters such as Dmitri and Grushenka find peace and direction, and though they have not avoided tragedy, their lives are more meaningful because of Alyosha.
Grushenka does undergo quite a change in this book. To this point, she has been something of a discursive presence. Fyodor and Dmitri are in love with her, and everyone seems to know gossip about her. The reader has met her once before in person, but this meeting is more telling of her character. Her coy, flirtatious side gives way to a more sensitive impulse toward Alyosha. Like Dmitri’s, Grushenka’s character is pulled in opposite directions by competing desires. She is sweet and good-natured, but she can be hot-tempered. She can be loving and cruel. Alyosha draws out the good in her, and she saves him, for all intents and purposes, from spiraling into despondency. Though she can seem manipulative and calculating, playing men off each other for fun, she is actually quite sad. She feels trapped by her situation and is considering turning to a man who left her years ago, humiliating her, because her will has grown weak from her life’s strife. She has had a difficult life and does not hope to gain respect, only money and power over men. She tells Alyosha she thinks she is wicked. Her contrition reminds the reader of Dmitri’s guilty confessions. Perhaps the two are a good match for each other, for both try to do good but are sometimes swayed from the righteous course by their impulsive natures.
Grushenka asked Alyosha to come to her because she wanted to “ruin” him. She desired to conquer a pious, good person. In reality, she ended up conquering him in a different way. She conquered his despair and gave him new life, simply by offering him sympathy and honesty. It is she, not Father Zossima, who confirmed Alyosha’s desire to embrace humanity.
After years of being taught the importance of love and compassion, the first thing Zossima’s gathered followers look for after Father Zossima’s death is a miracle. Zossima taught practical love of one’s fellow man, but once he passes away, the emphasis immediately shifts to mysticism. His sainthood is discussed in terms of how fast his body is decomposing. Sadly, his years of compassion and patience are not much discussed. Even Alyosha feels distraught. He knows that Father Zossima is a great man because of what he believes, but he yearns for some divine confirmation of Zossima’s greatness. As practical-minded as Alyosha is, he is still a Christian who believes in a reality beyond the physical world.
The fact that Zossima’s death is surrounded by so much superstition is not necessarily a sign that people do not understand his teachings (for even Alyosha, his greatest disciple, does not mind the talk of miracles and sainthood). Rather, it shows that the Russian people have a strong desire to experience something greater than their everyday experience of life. Theirs is a standard expression of a spiritualized hope among people living in strife. The church not only represents a way of living on earth but also offers an account of the afterlife, a second chance to be at peace, free from misery and the struggle for survival.
Some express this hope for a better life with piety. Others, like Ivan, wish merely for changes in this world. Ivan criticizes religious institutions, political institutions, and even human nature, but this is because he hopes for a better life, just as the most superstitious, God-fearing Russian peasant does. The difference is in what they ground their hopes on. Father Zossima was a physical embodiment of this hope, and the lack of a miracle following his death threatens that hope. Their spiritual beliefs are not challenged just because the physical world turned out to be different from what they expected, yet Ivan does not need to face such challenges. The craze after Zossima’s death is less about religion that about desperate persons longing for something remarkable.