As soon as Father Zossima's body is prepared for burial, it is placed in a large room. News traveling fast, the room is quickly filled. As soon as they hear of the elder's death, large numbers of people gather, expecting a miracle. There is no miracle, however, only this: Zossima's corpse begins to putrefy almost immediately, and the odor of decay is soon sickening to all of the mourners. All present become nauseated and begin to grow fearful because they believe that the decay of a body is related to its spiritual character. It seems an evil omen that Zossima's corpse would rot so soon after death, for the elder was popularly believed to be on the verge of sainthood.
Discontented monks and enemies of Father Zossima are not long to act. Quickly they announce that the decaying body is proof that the elder was no saint; at last the doctrine he preached is proved to be incorrect. The townspeople are confused. Tradition and superstition are embedded in their nerves. They have expected something awesome but certainly not a portent that points to Zossima's being a possible disciple of Satan. Not even Alyosha escapes the fear that grips the community. He cannot understand why God has allowed such disgrace to accompany the elder's death.
Father Ferapont, the fanatical ascetic, rushes to Zossima's cell and begins to exorcise devils out of all the corners. Elsewhere there is also madness — the entire monastery is torn by confused loyalties and uncertainties. Finally, the extreme Ferapont is ordered to leave. But shortly thereafter, there is another departure from the monastery. Alyosha leaves also; he wishes to find solitude to grieve and ponder.
Alone, he again questions the justice of all that has happened. Instead of receiving the glory that Alyosha believed was Zossima's due, his mentor is now "degraded and dishonored." Alyosha cannot doubt God, but he must question why He has allowed such a dreadful thing to occur.
Alyosha is interrupted in his thoughts as the seminarian, Rakitin, who earlier mocked Alyosha, ridicules his grief and makes contemptuous remarks about Zossima's decaying body. He tempts Alyosha with sausage and vodka, both of which are denied a monk during Lent, and Alyosha suddenly accepts both. Rakitin then goes a step further and suggests that they visit Grushenka, and again Alyosha agrees.
Grushenka is astonished at her visitors but regains her composure and explains that she is waiting for an important message to arrive. They are curious about the message, and she tells them that it comes from an army officer whom she loved five years ago and who deserted her. Now he has returned to the province and is sending for her.
Grushenka notices Alyosha's dejection and tries to cheer him by sitting on his knee and teasing him, but when she learns that Father Zossima died only a few hours earlier, she too becomes remorseful. She upbraids herself and denounces her life as that of a wicked sinner. Alyosha stops her, speaking with great kindness and understanding, and the two suddenly exchange glimpses into each other's souls. Love and trust are given, one to the other, and Grushenka unabashedly speaks to Alyosha of her problems; she no longer feels ashamed of her life. As for Alyosha, Grushenka's genuine expressions of sympathy lift him out of the deep depression he has felt since Zossima's death. Rakitin cannot understand this sudden compassion between them and is spiteful and vindictive, especially after Grushenka confesses that she had paid Rakitin to bring Alyosha to her. The message arrives from Grushenka's lover, and she excuses herself and leaves, asking Alyosha to tell Dmitri that she did love him — once, for an hour.
Very late, Alyosha returns to the monastery and goes to Zossima's cell. He kneels and prays, still troubled by many things, and then hears Father Paissy reading the account of the wedding at Cana in the Gospel of St. John. Because he is exhausted and because of the sweet lull of the Father's voice, Alyosha dozes. He dreams that he is at the marriage in Cana, along with Christ and the other guests. Zossima appears and calls to Alyosha; he tells him to come forth and join the crowd, reminding him that man should be joyful. Even today, he says, Alyosha has helped Grushenka find her path toward salvation.
Alyosha wakes, and his eyes are filled with tears of joy. He goes outside and flings himself on the earth, kissing and embracing it. His heart is filled with ecstasy over his new knowledge and his new understanding of the joy of life.
Dostoevsky has been preparing the reader throughout the novel for this single crisis in Alyosha's life. There have been many hints that a miracle is expected to accompany Zossima's death, but one of the central points of Ivan's Grand Inquisitor tale is that man must believe freely in the teachings of a person without the benefit of either divine manifestations or miracles. A person's beliefs, furthermore, can be greatly strengthened by emerging triumphantly from a period of great doubt. In this chapter, Dostoevsky presents Alyosha's tests — corollaries of Christ's tests in the wilderness. If Alyosha emerges successfully, then he will be qualified to move within society and to influence it.
Alyosha, of course, does not need miracles for himself. But he recognizes the need of others for them, and with no miracle and because the body is decaying, he knows that spiteful rumors will rise around Zossima's memory. He cannot endure the holiest of holy men being exposed to jeering and mockery. Such indignity and humiliation of premature decay are unnecessary.
Alyosha's questionings align him closely with his brother Ivan. Ivan also asked about God's justice, and, like his brother, Alyosha does not question God; he is concerned only about His justice. When the seminarian appears, Alyosha even echoes Ivan's arguments by saying, "I am not rebelling against my God; I simply don't accept His world." But Karamazovs are concerned with justice, not God Himself.
Alyosha, of course, realizes that Christ went through such jeering and mockery. But for a moment, he gives way to temptation, and in this way he becomes human and not semi-divine; he becomes believably mortal. He can later be more deeply admired for his courage in resisting temptation. Alyosha questions, and by his questions one realizes the value of doubting. A serene acceptance of all — with no questioning — is neither courageous nor admirable; it is merely shallow, immature. Alyosha, when he defies his vows, accepts the sausage and vodka, and goes to see Grushenka, has a temporary spiritual revolt but emerges a much stronger adherent of faith.
In terms of a larger perspective within the action of the novel, one should remember that Ivan leaves town on the day that Zossima dies. Ivan catches the train at about the same time that Alyosha arrives at Grushenka's. Also, it is later this evening that Fyodor's murder takes place, and it is also later this evening that Alyosha rediscovers his faith and rededicates himself to the principles advocated by Father Zossima.
Ironically, Alyosha's transformation initially results from his encounter with Grushenka. He goes there in defiance of his monastic orders. Grushenka, for her part, hopes to seduce Alyosha's innocence; his purity is threatening. But when they meet, Alyosha sees in Grushenka a woman he cannot condemn; he sees "a loving heart" that can compassionately respond to the suffering that Alyosha is undergoing. In his confession to her, he admits that he came hoping only to find an evil woman. Such honesty is infectious and transforming. Grushenka says, "He is the first, the only one who has pitied me . . . I've been waiting all my life for some one like you. I knew that someone like you would come and forgive me." And, unlikely as it seems, perhaps in a way like the miracle that all expected, carnality and purity create new love and compassion. The explanation, however, is far from being that of a miracle. Alyosha has only followed Zossima's teachings. He has loved Grushenka; he has not damned her; and he, and she, suddenly rediscover themselves.
At the end of this scene, Rakitin, who could not understand the attraction between Alyosha and Grushenka, feels that Alyosha dislikes him for taking twenty-five rubles from Grushenka. But the point is this: Alyosha does not judge him; Rakitin leaves because he judges himself and finds himself guilty.
When Alyosha returns to the monastery, he feels such mixed emotions that there is a "sweetness in his heart." By this single experience with Grushenka, he has found the value of much that Zossima preached. He has seen how responding to even such a person as Grushenka has changed his entire view of life. Suddenly, he feels himself at peace with the entire world.
Alyosha listens to the monk read of the marriage in Cana and realizes that Christ came to give people pleasure in this world; he came to preach a message of joy and love. This is exactly what Father Zossima advocated. In his dream, he sees his beloved elder in the presence of Christ and knows that the message they both preached is far more important than any "miracle." With love, he embraces the earth and is quietly filled with new understanding of all that Zossima said. He leaves the monastery with new conviction. He is ready at last to take his place in the world as Zossima said that he must.