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1. Free will - the idea that everyone has the choice to believe in God or not, and to do good or evil - is a central theme of the novel. Many characters struggle with the choices that spring from free will. Alyosha, however, appears not to struggle with these choices in the same way; he simply has faith, and always does good. Does the concept of free will still apply to Alyosha?
Early in the novel (Book I, Chapter 5), Alyosha makes a decision to enter the monastery, as "I want to live for immortality, and I reject any halfway compromise." His decision is inspired by his close connection to his mother, whom he remembers holding him up to an icon, and his devotion to the elder Zosima. Both factors involve his love for another person who has inspired him with love for God. His love is strong, and so it is hard to resist, in the same way that other characters find sensuality hard to resist (Fyodor Pavlovich, Dmitri). All these characters are making choices based on free will, and go towards the path that holds most charm for them. Alyosha is no exception: he too is making a choice in the direction of most charm.
In a world governed by free will, choices are not one-offs; people make them constantly. We are, perhaps, more aware of the choices of other characters than Alyosha. This is because they are more under the sway of their emotions and passions than is Alyosha, and emotions and passions are by their very nature unstable since they depend upon changing situations and feelings. The driving forces in Alyosha's life, in contrast, are his love for God, mankind, and his elder, and these are fairly settled states based on eternal realities rather than on the changing world. Alyosha's intellect and passions are not so powerful that they constantly pull him off his decided course with doubts and bodily lusts.
Alyosha is, however, challenged by the episode in which Zosima's body starts to smell quickly after his death, leading to conflict among the monks and lay people. Alyosha is plunged into grief and despair, as is evidenced by the fact that he is easily influenced by the cynical Rakitin to eat forbidden foods and visit the supposedly promiscuous Grushenka. Alyosha is placing himself in the way of temptation away from his chosen path of purity. At this point in the novel, he is very vulnerable to making a choice other than religious faith. However, far from being corrupted by Grushenka, so clear is his vision that he sees into her soul - and what he sees is that "She is higher in love than we are." He finds himself so inspired by the wave of love that passes between himself and her that he returns to the monastery not caring about Zosima's bodily corruption, and feels that all weakness has passed from him. He leaves the monastery ready to do good in the world.
There could easily have been a different outcome from Alyosha's meeting with Grushenka. He, like Rakitin, could have focused on her "loose" reputation and sensuous charms. He could have been corrupted or he could have corrupted Grushenka further. But his elevated consciousness means that he generally chooses to focus on the deeper elements of people's natures. Because of his refined perception, he brings out the more spiritual qualities in others and raises them to his own natural element, which is love and forgiveness. This is not just a one-way process of giving: the love that Alyosha sees in Grushenka reawakens his love for God and humanity.
This episode, and Alyosha's later decision to get involved with the schoolboys, illustrates that Alyosha, like the other characters, does make choices. But, driven by a powerful faith in God and love for humanity, these choices are consistently for the good of his fellow creatures. This practice of active love, in a kind of virtuous circle, feeds his faith in God and man. In other words, he loves to love - in contrast with the other characters, whose choices often do not bring them joy and so find themselves pulled in different directions in an attempt to find fulfillment.
2. In Book VI, Chapter 3, Zosima defines hell as "The suffering of being no longer able to love." How is this idea illustrated in the novel?
Fyodor Pavlovich is the character who most closely illustrates this idea. Zosima gives an accurate diagnosis of his degeneracy. Zosima says he should not give himself up to drunkenness, sensuality and greed, and should not lie to himself. A man who lies to himself does not see any truth in himself or in others, and ceases to respect everyone. Because he does not respect anyone, he cannot love anyone. Thus he lives his life in fear, isolation and mistrust, with Alyosha the only person he feels any love for at all. This is an extraordinary situation for a man with four sons to find himself in, but Fyodor Pavlovich began the process of alienating himself from his family very early: as soon as his sons were born, he ignored them, preferring to spend time on drunken orgies and accumulating money. That Fyodor Pavlovich is murdered by his (unloved) illegitimate son and unmourned by his other sons is the logical conclusion of his inability to love.
Other characters also suffer by means of their inability to love or to express their love. Lise, Katerina, and Ivan are examples. Though Lise loves Alyosha, she chooses to create suffering for herself, first by denying her love and then by deciding that she wants to marry someone who will torture her. Katerina and Ivan love each other but do not act on their love until the novel's end. Katerina is held back by a notion that she loves Dmitri, though it would be more accurate to say that she chooses to bind herself to Dmitri and abase herself before him in order to draw attention to his shortcomings and show herself as a martyr. This is, as Alyosha notes, a process driven by her pride, which she chooses over love. When her pride finally shatters in the courtroom scene, she is able to give in to her love for Ivan. Ivan's inability to give in to his love for Katerina seems to spring from his adopted stance of logical detachment and doubt. To the frustration of other less logical but more intuitive characters like Alyosha and Madame Khokhlakov, Ivan believes that Katerina still loves Dmitri, and so gives up on her, which can be seen as a failure in love. A bleak future faces both Ivan and Katerina until his mental breakdown and her courtroom crisis shatter their self-created obstacles to love and open their hearts to one another.
3. How is Grushenka's development presented, and what significance does this have in terms of the novel as a whole?
The reader does not meet Grushenka until Book III, Chapter 10, when we see her through the eyes of Alyosha, for whom this is also a first meeting. Before this point, however, she is constantly talked about by other characters, always in negative terms - she is a "loose woman," "one of the local seductresses," a "low woman." Even Alyosha believes her to be a "terrible woman." When Alyosha meets her at Katerina's, his initial impression is of a kind woman, though Grushenka goes on to insult Katerina by refusing to kiss her hand, and to warn her that she may not leave Dmitri, as Katerina has asked. The episode does not explain Grushenka's motives clearly, but continues the impression that we have received from gossip, that she plays with people and is not straightforward.
It is not until Alyosha's second meeting with Grushenka that the narrator tells her story, and reveals that contrary to her promiscuous reputation, she is "hard to get." When she meets Alyosha for the second time, in the presence of Rakitin, he inspires a change in her. She had bribed Rakitin to bring Alyosha to her, as she wanted to corrupt him, to "pull his little cassock off." Alyosha, full of grief after Zosima's death and the humiliation of the stinking corpse, is ready to be corrupted. But what actually happens is quite different. Alyosha is again struck by her kindness, and realizes he is no longer afraid of her. Then she tells him that she is waiting for a message from the lover who abandoned her five years previously, and that as soon as she hears from him, she will go to join him. Alyosha is moved by her ability to love and forgive, and rebukes Rakitin for his cynical comments, saying, "She is higher in love than we are." On hearing that Alyosha's elder has died, Grushenka is overcome with remorse and sympathy, and leaps from her perch on Alyosha's lap out of respect for his grief. She says that though she had planned to corrupt Alyosha, she has come to love him from her soul and to view him as her conscience. Alyosha says that he came expecting a wicked soul, but "found a true sister."
Because the reader initially views Grushenka first through the gossip of other characters, he is likely to view her at this point as a frivolous and loose woman. He will then share Alyosha's surprise in finding a kind woman who has remained emotionally faithful to her first lover and is prepared to forgive him at his first kind word. This element of pleasant surprise parallels the reader's delayed discovery of Dmitri's innocence, and has the same effect of enabling the reader to share in a sense of the character's redemption. It also reinforces one of the themes of the novel, that it is not possible for one person rightly to judge another, and that therefore people should focus on loving and forgiving others.
Grushenka's redemption continues when she realizes that she loves Dmitri and confesses that her flirtatious behavior contributed to the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich. After Dmitri's trial, she falls ill - a common metaphor in this novel for spiritual purification - and loses all traces of her former frivolity. She only wishes to accompany Dmitri into exile after his escape and till the soil by his side. This is reminiscent of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve after the fall, when they must till the soil to glean a living, and shows that Grushenka, like Dmitri, embraces redemption through hard work and suffering. The fact that, at the novel's end, she refuses to forgive Katerina shows that she still has some distance to go in her redemption, but it is clear that she is on the right path.
4. Compare and contrast Zosima's and Ivan's philosophies.
Zosima loves both God and man. He believes that all of mankind shares an intimate connection, and that each person is responsible for everyone else's sins. Thus no one should judge anyone else; everyone should love and forgive everyone else. This applies even to criminals, as a criminal who is judged and punished harshly is likely to alienate himself further from humanity, whereas a criminal who is loved and shown mercy is likely to feel remorse as a result of this kind treatment and face his own conscience. Zosima believes that one's own conscience is the only effective judge and redemptive force.
Where Zosima emphasizes love and forgiveness, Ivan emphasizes doubt. He rejects God, religion and the immortality of the soul. He believes that moral categories of good and evil are products of people's concern with the afterlife, and as he does not accept the afterlife, he advocates an amoral philosophy whereby "everything is permitted." Whereas Zosima tries to help people and alleviate suffering whenever he can (a habit also embraced by Alyosha), Ivan remains at a distance from his fellow man, on the grounds that he is not his brother's keeper. In fact, though Ivan feels love and compassion for humanity in the abstract, he finds that he cannot love individuals. Unlike Zosima, who relies predominantly on the 'heart' values that connect him with others, Ivan relies upon the intellectual values that divide him from others. Zosima lives happily, helps people and inspires others to do likewise, whereas Ivan succumbs to despair and, by passing his philosophy to Smerdyakov, helps facilitate a murder.
Dostoevsky is not an impartial observer of these two philosophies. By showing the difference in the two men's lives and in their effects on others, he is a strong advocate for the life of faith and love over doubt.
5. Discuss the significance of the schoolboys in the novel.
The schoolboys represent the future of Russia and show symbolically that the country has a choice: to progress towards strife and destruction, or towards harmony and love. When Alyosha first comes across the schoolboys, they are throwing stones at a smaller, weaker boy, Ilyusha. The boys tell Alyosha that Ilyusha started the quarrel by attacking another boy with a penknife. Consistent with his tendency not to judge others, Alyosha determines to find out more about Ilyusha. He discovers that Ilyusha witnessed his father being beaten up by Dmitri - making plain that neither the stone-throwing boys, nor Ilyusha are solely responsible for the discord, and that Alyosha's own brother is partly responsible. It is later revealed that Ilyusha's friend and protector, Kolya, had acted coolly towards the affectionate Ilyusha, and that Ilyusha had then befriended Smerdyakov, who had taught him a cruel trick, to feed a pin hidden in bread to a dog. When Ilyusha had carried out the trick, Kolya had punished him further by withdrawing his friendship. Around this time, Ilyusha had fallen very sick.
It is clear that many people are involved in, and partly responsible for, the discord between the boys. This is proof of Zosima's maxim that everyone is responsible for everyone else's sins. Alyosha takes on the responsibility of bringing the boys back into harmony. Soon, they are visiting the sick Ilyusha every day, making him feel loved once more. Alyosha reconciles Ilyusha with Kolya, and Kolya brings the dog, which Ilyusha believed he had killed, to see him. To Ilyusha, the reappearance of the dog is tantamount to Christ's miracle of resurrecting the dead, and it restores peace to his soul.
At Ilyusha's funeral, Alyosha makes a speech in which he asks the boys always to hold fast to the love and kindness of this time. The boys have come to love Alyosha. They promise to do as he asks, and then cheer him, using his family name, Karamazov. This is significant because for much of the novel, the Karamazov name has been a byword for unregenerate sensualism; the suggestion has been that the family is doomed always to repeat its selfish and destructive behavior. Alyosha's intervention and tireless practice of active love has brought love and harmony to a group of boys who had been divided in hatred. Just as Zosima was taught active love by his brother, and in turn taught Alyosha, Alyosha has now passed on the positive message to the boys. He has also redeemed his family, transforming the dark Karamazov legacy into a cause for optimism. The symbolic implication is that Russia itself can be transformed by the practice of active love.
Chris Huntington: The Last Book I Loved, The Brothers Karamazov
We were in the “international bookstore” of Xiamen, China, which is really a Chinese junk and bookstore but has half a dozen shelves of English books (such as Gossip Girland 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). My wife found a Signet Classics edition of The Brothers Karamazov. “Do you want that?” she asked. “You do, don’t you? It looks boring.”
“I’ve already read it,” I said.
I put it back on the shelf, and we left. My wife likes the novels of Ann Patchett and Joan Silber. According to her, I only like boring books, like the work of middle-aged white men like Jim Harrison or Frank O’Hara. Or Dostoyevsky. Part of marriage is trying to continually surprise your partner, so I tried to forget about the Dostoyevsky. Half an hour later, however, while my wife sat with a bowl of noodles, I ran back down the street and found The Brothers Karamazov where I’d hidden it behind a paperback of The Federalist Papers. I paid my 60 R.M.B. and I carried it against my chest, like a baby, back to the restaurant. “I love this book,” I said.
When I was twenty-three, I loved Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That entire summer, I would open my copy after dinner and find a passage that related to an event that day. It was like my Bible. But now, at forty-three, I find that nothing is more true than the melodramatic, quasi-hysterical, murder mystery of The Brothers Karamazov.
For most of my life, I had avoided The Brothers Karamazov because I was afraid it would somehow encourage all my neuroses. It seemed obvious that reading Dostoyevsky hadn’t made Woody Allen any happier. Henry Miller and Anais Nin seemed to idolize Dostoyevsky while they were emotionally self-immolating. But then, at just the right moment–right before moving to China with my wife and little boy–I read The Brothers Karamazov. It was like making a basket at the buzzer. It was just what I needed, exactly when I needed it.
I’m half-Chinese, half-Hoosier. The summer I read On the Road I was living in Africa, exploring the world like I thought Kerouac would have. I was in the Peace Corps, but with a teacher’s strike and a long summer, it seemed like I was spending a lot of time riding on the back of trucks watching the rain forest snap past my head.
I was in love with an American girl who was back in the States living with a law student. I was in love with a Gabonese girl who washed her clothes in the river and covered her face with mud when her grandfather died. I had always been book-smart, not much for dirty hands, but that summer a friend and I got a grant and hand-built a six-sink concrete washhouse so a neighborhood could do their laundry without walking to the river. The mayor reneged on connecting it to the water supply and eventually someone stole all the pipe out of it, but I had many great afternoons working on it. A teenage boy who had worked beside me all summer was thrown from a truck and killed while I was riding a train in Mali. His father held my hand and showed me the grave in the rain. I exchanged long glances with a crippled girl, but when she finally came to my house, she admitted she was only fifteen and I felt how impossible everything was. I was friends with a Nigerian taxi driver who apparently had almost as many kids as I had students, but they were all back in his home country. My French friend started an affair with the Cameroonian mother of one of his students. Her French husband was not amused and later drove his Land Rover into the side of my friend’s jeep.
That year I was as much an Alyosha as I am ever going to be. That year I listened to everyone. I wanted to look every single person I met in the eyes and hear his or her story. I was incapable of judging people with any meaningful consequence. Intruders broke into a friend’s house, cutting his fence and pulling the bars off his windows. They piled everything in his house onto the center of his bed, then tied the sheets and stole it all. They stole the payroll for his woodshop by dragging the safe out to a truck and driving off. A couple weeks later, my friend and I were sitting in a neighborhood bar and a stranger walked in wearing one of my friend’s T-shirts. We jumped to our feet but, in the end, we let him walk away. Nothing seemed worth fighting over.
But then I got married and divorced. I stopped being so happy and curious. I spent a year in Paris staring at the sidewalk beneath my fifth floor window. I read Big Sur and Desolation Angels, but I wasn’t an alcoholic and my sadness was not quite the same. I wound up working for ten years in the American prison system. I met a lot of unhappy people. Kerouac was 35 when On the Road was published. I met a lot of people older than 35. I discovered that Dostoyevsky had himself spent four years in prison, that all his great books were written afterward. The year I left the prison system, I read The Brothers Karamazov.
I read it like the only child I was. No brothers. I saw myself on every page. I knew what it was like to talk earnestly with other people’s children the way Alyosha did. In Paris, I had wandered feverish like Ivan in the cold night. I, too, sweat with my forehead against the cold window of my room and hissed that I had no use for any God who did such terrible things. I loved Dmitri and the scenes of doomed pursuit when he loses money in the snow and all the spilled champagne turns into mud. I thought of the year in Paris I’d spent trying to win my first wife back. I hadn’t run away from women the way Kerouac had. I had chased them foolishly, stubbornly, madly, and ruined everything, like Dimitri. I felt that I had forfeited a happiness I had always expected to inherit. I didn’t believe in God and I found the Grand Inquisitor chapter completely unconvincing. And yet, like Alyosha, I felt it all seemed mysterious and wonderful and worth living.
My second wife had been hurt by her first husband and I swore to protect her, but then we were unable to have a child and I felt like a failure in every way. She retreated into unhappiness as I watched. I wanted desperately to be a father and this desire was without echoes in my Kerouac. I still loved the world, but it was no longer the love of a young man who had just left a monastery or a mill town–or, in my case, the cornfields of the Midwest. It was the love of a man who had spent years in a prison locked up with unhappy people and watching the open horizon from a distance–the love of Dostoyevsky, in fact.
The fact that the book ends with such life-affirming power–that the book makes me glad to be alive despite the fact that we are bound by “lacerations,” despite the fact that innocent children die, despite the fact that I find the eldest Karamazov (the father) completely believable. This book makes me happy to be a man full of crowded thoughts. I’m glad I didn’t discover this book when I was too young to accept that Father Zossima’s body would rot. Of course it would rot! I’m glad I didn’t read it at twenty when I would have innocently and timidly been confused in the lines of guilt that fall around Dmitri. Now it makes perfect sense to me that Dmitri is guilty and innocent at the same time. I understand now that the boy who throws rocks at Alyosha can become his friend. My wife and I adopted a little boy from Ethiopia. He has been a great joy for us, but all that joy begins with the tragedy of his birth parents. Everything in our lives is a mixture of bright and dark. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a good father. Of course I love this book.
My wife and boy and I moved to China because we were starting everything again. What did I need from the old world? Nothing.
Nothing? That’s what I thought until we got here. And then I wanted to Skype with my mother and father. And buy a new copy of The Brothers Karamazov.