I keep thinking about Alyosha’s test of faith in The Brothers Karamazov when his mentor, Father Zosima dies. This monk is considered an elder in his monastery—the word staret is used for him in the Avsey translation—with special powers of healing, prophesy and spiritual guidance. People flock from all around for the privilege of approaching this monk, similar in my mind to worshippers visiting the god Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi; they seek healing—-one woman brings her crippled daughter, they ask advice—-another woman questions whether or not she should hope that her son, a soldier, is still alive, and they look for spiritual guidance—a mother worries about the soul of her deceased child. All of these people, some of the other monks included, who so highly praised Father Zosima during his life of service, are bitterly disappointed when, only a few hours after his death, his body begins to rot and putrefy in his coffin. This entire episode displays Dostoevsky’s brilliance in creating a religious dilemma that shines a light on those who are truly spiritual versus those who are merely superstitious.
Those who believed in Father Zosima’s powers as a staret gather around the monastery expecting miracles to happen after his death but instead that get a rotting corpse. They become angry and question his entire religious life as that of a highly respected elder. Some of the other monks who were jealous of Zosima’s elevated status among them are secretly happy that the dead monk’s body is starting to stink. Alyosha, too, was hoping for miracles and awe inspiring events to occur when his mentor died because this holy man truly deserved to recognized as a great religious leader. But Alyosha’s anger is different than the other onlookers because his is one of indignation at the insults being thrown around about his dead mentor. The decaying and fetid corpse is the perfect metaphor for Dostoevsky to deal with the darker sides of the human soul; in this central piece of the story, after lingering for many chapters on the extraordinary religious journey of this holy man, he uses the end of his physical life to expose the rot in the spirits of these so-called believers. The very minute these worshippers are disappointed and don’t get what they want, their opinion of someone they revered turns bitter and ugly.
One of my favorite narrative techniques is when Dostoevsky uses the first person to address his audience and this is employed at great length to describe Alyosha’s spiritual turning point in the novel. Dostoevsky feels a great need to explain that his hero’s crisis of faith and reaction to Zosima’s rotting body is very different from everyone else’s This is Dostoevsky, I think, at the pinnacle of his writing:
You see, even though I stated earlier (all too hastily, perhaps) that I would not offer any explanations, excuses or justifications on behalf of my hero, nevertheless I realize that some clarification is called for in order to understand properly the story that is to follow. Let me put it this way: it was not just a question of miracles. It was by no means a case of frivolous expectation of the miraculous. Alyosha needed miracles neither to confirm any particular convictions of his (that least of all) nor to bolster the triumph of any deep-seated, preconceived theory over other theories—not that either; in his case I was first and foremost a question of love and veneration of one individual person, that and nothing else—the person of his beloved starets, his mentor. The point to bear in mind is that at that particular time and throughout the whole of the preceding year, all the love that he had borne in his pure young heart towards ‘all and sundry’ had appeared on occasion and particularly at times of spiritual crisis to be concentrated, however mistakenly, on one single individual, that is on his beloved starets, who was now dead. In fact, this being had been an unquestionable paragon for him for so long that all his youthful energy and all his aspirations were channeled perforce towards that same paragon, on occasion even to the exclusion of ‘all and sundry.’
And Dostoevsky continues:
But again it was not miracles he needed; rather, some ‘supreme justice’ that he believed had been violated, and as a consequence of which violation his heart had been so cruelly and unexpectedly wounded. Is it any wonder, therefore, that by the very nature of things Alyosha should expect this ‘justice’ to take the form of the instant miracle expected from the bodily remains of his beloved erstwhile teacher? After all, this was just what everyone at the monastery thought and expected, even those whose intellect Ayosha venerated—Father Paisy, for instance—and hence Alyosha, untroubled by the least doubt, had begun to nurture the same dreams. He had long since accepted in his heart, a year’s life at the monastery had accustomed him to such expectations. But it was justice he yearned for, justice, and not just miracles!
What will Alyosha learn from this wounded heart and will he lower his expectations? How will Alyosha apply all of these lessons outside of the monastery when his faith and his morals are truly tested? Dostoevsky seems to be hinting that, unlike others, his hero will come out stronger and perhaps even get the justice he is seeking.
One response to “Zosima’s Rotting Corpse: More Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov”
Thanks for the post, Melissa, and your perceptive analysis. It has been years since I read the novel, and the overriding impression I have is the sympathy I felt for Alyosha throughout. Your thoughtful comments are convincing me that I need to reread The Brothers K.