The Brothers Karamazov By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part 1: Book II: Chapters 1-4

Summary

On the day scheduled for the meeting between the Karamazovs and the elder, Zossima, Fyodor and Ivan arrive accompanied by a former guardian of Dmitri, Miusov, and a relative of Miusov, Kalganov. Dmitri Karamazov, however, is not at the monastery, and all wonder, naturally, whether he will come; he was certainly notified only the previous day. The meeting takes on an air of mystery.


A very old monk emerges, greets the guests, and then leads them to Father Zossima's cell. All are invited to have lunch with the Father Superior following the interview, he says. First, however, they must wait for Zossima.

The wait, though not long, seems interminable to Miusov. Uncontrollably, he finds himself growing increasingly irritated at the crude jokes that Fyodor Karamazov unleashes concerning the monastic life.

Father Zossima at last arrives, accompanied by Alyosha, two other monks, and Rakitin, a divinity student living under the protection of the monastery. The monks bow and kiss Zossima's hand and receive his blessings; the guests, however, merely bow politely to the elder. Deeply embarrassed by his family's austerity, Alyosha trembles. Now, more than ever, he fears that the meeting will be calamitous.

Karamazov apologizes for Dmitri's absence, and then nervously begins a nonstop monolog of coarse anecdotes. At this, Alyosha is even more deeply embarrassed; in fact, everyone except the elder is distressed. The tension mounts, and when Karamazov falls climactically to his knees and begs the elder, "What must I do to gain eternal life?" it is difficult to tell whether or not he is still playing the loudmouth clown. No one but Zossima dares to speak. The elder tells Karamazov that he must cease lying and, above all, he must cease lying to himself. At first, Fyodor is impressed by the advice but then resumes his joking and clowning until Zossima excuses himself. He must meet with an assembly of people outside the monastery.

The group outside are all peasant women — all but two. At one side, in a section reserved for the wealthy, are Madame Hohlakov and her partially paralyzed daughter, Lise, waiting to be blessed by the elder and to receive his advice on their problems. Zossima moves among the peasant women listening to their problems and offering them advice, emphasizing always the healing effect of the love of God. "Love is such a priceless treasure," he says, "that you can redeem the world by it and expiate not only your own sins but the sins of others."

Madame Hohlakov confesses to Zossima that, for her part, she suffers from a lack of faith; she can grasp neither the Christian idea of immortality nor any type of life beyond the grave. She says furthermore that if she does a charitable act, she wants to receive thanks and praise for it. Zossima tells her that if she practices active, honest love, she will grow to understand the reality of God and the immortality of her soul. "Attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor," he counsels her, "then you will believe without doubt." Ending the interview, he promises her that he will send Alyosha to visit Lise.

Analysis

Book II is largely devoted to a study of Zossima and his teachings. This saintly ascetic influences all of Alyosha's actions, and to thoroughly understand this youngest member of the Karamazov clan, one must understand the man to whom he zealously attaches himself.

Zossima seems to have come to terms with life; he lives with perfect contentment and understanding — basically, a quiet and reserved man. He is not, for instance, visibly disturbed by Fyodor Karamazov's buffoonery; his quiet mien allows him to see deeply into the personality of Karamazov — of any person with whom he speaks. With Karamazov, he knows that the old man is intentionally trying to overact, to clown, and, later, with Madame Hohlakov, he knows that she makes her confession in order to gain his personal approbation for her frankness. A large part of Father Zossima's greatness, therefore, is this perceptive understanding of mankind, his comprehension of the psychological factors and motivations that prompt human actions; his advice is therefore unusually sound.

Zossima's dignity is unique and, coupled with his extreme humility, most readily impresses a visitor. Alyosha, in contrast, is embarrassed when the Karamazovs do not ask for the elder's blessing, but Zossima shows no outward concern. He merely asks his guests to conduct themselves naturally and to be comfortable; their lack of reverence and discretion in no way offends him. His wisdom encompasses all aspects of life.

In general, Zossima's philosophy is based on the positive rather than on the negative. This is not immediately evident, however, for he tells Karamazov, in terms of negatives, to avoid drunkenness and incontinence, to defy sensual lust, and to realistically value the ruble. But Zossima also offers Karamazov a thoroughly positive view of living, the very simplicity of which should not mislead the reader into thinking that Dostoevsky is being oversimple. Extreme simplicity, in fact, is the key to Zossima's way of life. His is a philosophy founded on a simplicity so basic that it consists of only two concepts: the value of loving and the value of being honest and respecting oneself.

Zossima tells Fyodor, "Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie eventually comes to such a pass that he neither distinguishes the truth within him nor around him and so loses all respect for himself and for others." Later, he tells Madame Hohlakov that she cannot be helped so long as she speaks only to impress. "Above all," he says to her, "avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially to yourself." Zossima is convinced that if man is completely honest with himself, he can evaluate the evils within himself and overcome all such propensities, but when a person is dishonest, he is unable to detect good and righteous impulses; as a consequence, such a man ceases to have any respect for himself and begins, like Karamazov, to play the part of a ridiculous clown. In time, such a man will lose all dignity. He will be of no value to himself or to others.

The high premium Zossima places on love is at the heart of this philosophy concerning honesty. When a person ceases to respect himself, he also ceases to love; he "sinks to bestiality in passions and coarse pleasures." Only through love, Zossima believes, can man gain the much-sought-after peace that makes life vibrant. This is essentially Zossima's message to the peasant women. He sends them home with the admonition that "love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it and expiate not only your own sins but the sins of others." To Madame Hohlakov, who has trouble understanding the concept of immortality, he says, "by the experience of active love" man can be convinced of an afterlife — "strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul." If a person, he concludes, devotes himself completely to love — love of God, love of the individual — then that man can learn to believe in immortality without doubts.

While such summary statements of Zossima's views seem, on the surface, to be simple, they echo in large degree the teachings of Jesus and the concepts by which Alyosha tries to live. Throughout the remainder of the novel, Alyosha attempts to practice Zossima's concept of love; he responds lovingly to every character and possesses no animosity for any — not for the small children who ridicule him or even for Lise, who delights in tormenting him. Moreover, Zossima knows that Alyosha is the one person who can put into practice all of his teachings. And, as the elder sees that Katerina has sent a note for Alyosha and that Lise needs him to come visit her, it is such requests as these that support his decision to send Alyosha to live in the world rather than in the cloister.

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