Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 60

The Brothers Karamazov : Books 7–12

Ivan's Legend and Zosima's zhitie have established the polarities of the conflict between reason and faith, and each of the main characters will be confronted by a crisis that requires choosing between them. Faith of some kind will prevail in all of these climactic moments—not necessarily faith in a specifically moralreligious form, as will occur with Alyosha, but a faith that incarnates some aspect of the morality of love and the self-transcendence of egoism represented and preached by Zosima. Alyosha is the first of the three brothers whose life experiences have been foreshadowed by those of Zosima, and there is a structural parallel between the unrolling of the crisis situations and the order of the linkage of the brothers with Zosima's life. It is thus with Alyosha that the first conflict between reason and faith is posed and resolved.

Alyosha's disaccord occurs on the moral-religious level and arises as a result of Zosima's death and the accompanying expectation throughout the monastic community and the town that God would provide some external reward for the sanctity of his life. The monks were filled with excitement and expectation to such a degree that the learned Father Paissy, versed in Church doctrine and history, considered it “unseemly” and “an evil temptation.” And so it was: a version of the second temptation of Christ, who had refused to demonstrate his immunity to the laws of nature by leaping unharmed from the pinnacle of the temple. Yet even Paissy “secretly, at the bottom of his heart, cherished almost the same hopes and could not but be aware of it” (14: 296).

At the very least, the sanctity of Zosima's life might have guaranteed a respite from the normal laws of earthly decay; and so the unexpected “odor of corruption” emitted by the corpse was immediately seized on by those unfriendly to him as a sign of heavenly disapproval, unleashing a malevolent chorus of criticism. “I feel it almost repulsive to recall that event,” says the narrator, and he would not have done so “if it had not exerted a very strong influence on the heart and soul of the chief, though future, hero of my story” (14: 297). Ivan's powerful attack on God for having created a world of suffering and injustice had continued to undermine Alyosha's faith; and the death of Zosima, coupled with this seeming disgrace, had dealt a staggering blow to the tranquil stability of Alyosha's convictions. But his faith will reemerge strengthened from the trial

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