Summary and Analysis
Nearing death, Father Zossima rallies a bit and gathers his friends and disciples around him. He speaks to them of the necessity of loving one another and all men and urges them to remember that each human being shares responsibility for the sins of all others.
Alyosha leaves the cell, aware of the tense sorrow that hovers over the monastery. All members of the holy community, he is sure, anticipate some sort of miracle, one occurring immediately after the elder's death. There are, in fact, already rumors of Father Zossima's being responsible for a recent miracle. Not quite all, however, share Alyosha's idealization of Zossima. Living in the monastery is another very old monk, Father Ferapont, "antagonistic to Father Zossima and the whole institution of elders." Ferapont believes in a religion based on severe fasting and on fear of Satan, a belief totally opposite to the doctrine of love advocated by Father Zossima. Ferapont sees the devil at work in all things and frequently has visions of lurking devils waiting to ensnare innocent souls. He is admired by only a few people because of such severity, but he does have a coterie of staunch followers.
After Father Zossima has retired to his cell, he calls for Alyosha and reminds the boy that he hopes Alyosha will return to the town in order to fulfill his responsibilities to his father and to his brothers. Alyosha acquiesces.
On his return, Alyosha finds his father alone. The old man insists that he plans to live a long time but that he needs much money to attract young "wenches" to come to him in his later years, when he has lost much of his vigor. He vehemently proclaims that above all other things, he will remain a sensualist until he is forced to bed down with death.
Alyosha listens and then leaves his father's house. Outside he encounters a group of schoolboys throwing rocks at an outcast young lad, a frail young child about nine years old. Despite his frailty, the boy returns the violence and flings back sharp rocks at the squadron of young hoodlums. Then suddenly he breaks and runs. Alyosha dashes after the boy, eager to discover what lies under such antagonism. But when he catches him, the youngster is sullen and defiant. He hits Alyosha with a rock and lunges at him, biting his hand. He escapes once more and leaves Alyosha perplexed as to the meaning of such corrosive bitterness.
Alyosha's next stop is at the home of Madame Hohlakov. There he is surprised to learn that Ivan is also a visitor, upstairs at the moment with Katerina. Dmitri's presence might have been in order, but certainly Ivan's is unexpected to the young Karamazov. He asks for some cloth to bandage his hand, and when Madame Hohlakov goes in search of medication, he is immediately set upon by Lise. She implores him to return her letter; it was a bad joke, she says. But Alyosha refuses to part with the letter. He believed its contents, he says, but he cannot return it; he does not have it with him. Alyosha then leaves Lise and goes to talk with Ivan and Katerina.
Katerina repeats to Alyosha what she has just told Ivan — that she will never abandon Dmitri, even if he marries Grushenka. Furthermore, she intends to help and protect him even though he does not appreciate it. Ivan agrees with her, though he admits that in another woman such behavior would be considered neurotic. Alyosha can no longer retain himself. He tries to convince them that they love each other; they are only torturing themselves by their theorizings. Ivan admits that he does love Katerina but says that she needs someone like Dmitri because of her excessive self-esteem. Then he says that he is leaving the next day for Moscow and excuses himself.
After Ivan leaves, Katerina tells Alyosha of a poor captain, a Mr. Snegiryov, who was once brutally beaten by Dmitri while the captain's young son stood by and begged for mercy. She has never forgotten the incident and asks Alyosha to take 200 rubles to the captain as a token of her deep sympathy. Alyosha says that he will do as she asks and leaves.
The captain in question lives in a ramshackle old house with a mentally deranged wife, two daughters (one of whom is a crippled hunchback), and his young son, Ilusha. Coincidentally, Ilusha turns out to be the outcast who earlier bit Alyosha's hand. Before Alyosha can explain why he has come, the boy cries out that the young Karamazov has come to complain about the hand-biting. And it is then that Alyosha understands why the boy attacked him so savagely: he was defending his father's honor against a Karamazov.
The captain takes Alyosha outside and tells him the story of his encounter with Dmitri and how terribly the episode affected his young son. He further emphasizes the family's poverty, and Alyosha — overjoyed that he can relieve the old man's poverty — explains that he has come to give him 200 rubles. The captain is delighted by such unexpected good luck and speaks of the many things he can now do for his sick and hungry family. But suddenly he changes his mind. With a proud gesture, he throws the money to the ground, saying that if he accepts the sum he can never gain his son's love and respect. Alyosha retrieves the money and starts back to Katerina to report his failure.
At the end of Book III, Alyosha wonders why Father Zossima has asked him to leave the monastery. Book IV is Dostoevsky's explanation. From chapter to chapter, Alyosha moves among the characters as they grapple with their assorted problems. He fast becomes the living embodiment of the elder's teachings. Each chapter illustrates Alyosha's influences. In Chapter 2 he travels to his father's house and listens to the frustrations that plague the old man. Then he goes to Madame Hohlakov's and tries to pacify young Lise by calmly accepting her hysterical outcries. While there he makes an effort to bring Ivan and Katerina together as lovers. Next, he goes to the cottage of the destitute Captain Snegiryov. Obviously Dostoevsky intends us to see that Alyosha is meant for a life of activity, not for the quiet passivity of the monastery.
The message of Father Zossima is of particular importance in this book. Earlier he emphasized the value of love and admonished his adherents to love one another, to love all of God's people. Now he reminds his followers that simply because they have assumed a monastic life does not imply that they are more blessed than other people. In fact, "from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others." He also reminds his listeners that each man is responsible for every other man and that "he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual." This speech alone contains all the reasons for Alyosha's leaving the monastery. A life of seclusion does not test one's strength if he is to be a representative of Zossima's theories. The elder's ideas can be tested only in the midst of busy society.
Father Zossima's ideas concerning the responsibility of one man for another take on added weight in the conversations that Alyosha has with Ivan. Ivan refuses to take responsibility for Dmitri's sins and tells Alyosha that he is not his brother's keeper. Later, Zossima's concept of responsibility triggers Alyosha into considering his own responsibility for Karamazov's murder.
At the end of Zossima's talk, rumors spread of a forthcoming miracle, one that will coincide with the elder's death. Alyosha is intrigued by the rumors, especially since he believes Zossima to be saint-like, but he is sorely tested when his beloved elder's body rapidly decomposes.
As Alyosha begins his journey through the complex world of society, he goes first to his father's house and listens to all kinds of vulgar and disgusting stories. His father tells him that he will need much money in later years to tempt young "wenches" to sleep with him and suggests that Ivan is trying to marry Katerina so that Dmitri will have to marry Grushenka; thus old Karamazov will be prevented from remarrying and leaving his fortune to a new wife — in other words, to Grushenka. All these wild accusations color more darkly Dostoevsky's portrait of Karamazov as a repulsive and bestial type. Throughout the confession, Alyosha is able to retain his peaceful mien and never compromises his inner nature of dignity and love.
In the scene with young Ilusha, Alyosha still remains a perfectly self-contained individual. He does not even use violence when Ilusha bites him so viciously. It is a bitter entrance into the world — stoned and bitten only because one is a Karamazov; none of this, of course, would have happened if Alyosha had remained in seclusion at the monastery.
But Alyosha has made his choice according to Zossima's wishes and according to the dictates of the elder who told him that he must marry and become one with the world. He, therefore, tells the young invalid Lise that when she comes of age they will marry.
As for another marriage — one between Ivan and Katerina — the solution is not quite so simple. They are apparently in love with each other, but both are so arrogant that they cannot come to an understanding. Part of the difficulty lies in Katerina's fantastic personality. She feels the need to suffer or to be humiliated by Dmitri, and her statement that she will never abandon Dmitri, even if he marries Grushenka, indicates the fanatical degree to which she plans to carry her suffering and martyrdom. Ivan sums up her peculiar nature well when he says that she needs Dmitri "so as to contemplate continually your heroic fidelity and to reproach him for infidelity."
For the present, then, Katerina's declaration results in an impasse; her views of the two brothers will not be resolved until the trial, and even then real objectivity will be impossible. Nevertheless, it is true that she feels the need to be humiliated by Dmitri. Proof of this lies in her deep sympathy with Captain Snegiryov, a man whom Dmitri has humiliated. She asks Alyosha to take him 200 rubles "as a token of sympathy," but her sympathy is of far greater than token value.
Alyosha fast becomes involved in social intrigues. But one should be aware that there is no rancor or bitterness in his new role. Alyosha has no resentment, even following the Ilusha incident. Quite the contrary, he has great compassion for a young boy who will try to defend his father's honor. Book IV then places the neophyte Alyosha in a variety of new situations, and the boy's skill in dealing with them suggests the future potential that Father Zossima sensed in him. Looking ahead, however, one might note that success is not total. Further along, it will become apparent that Alyosha often fails with adults. It is with children that he most succeeds; with the younger generation his qualities of quiet love and devotion find the most fertile sympathy. This, of course, is part of Dostoevsky's vision — children represent the future of all hope and salvation. In this novel Alyosha entrusts Zossima's ideal of love and honor to the new generation.