HomeLiterature Study GuidesThe Brothers KaramazovPart 1 Book 2 Chapters 34 Summary

The Brothers Karamazov | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brothers Karamazov | Part 1, Book 2, Chapters 3–4 : An Inappropriate Gathering | Summary

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Summary

Zosima goes out to the wooden porch that has been attached to the outside wall of the hermitage so that he can receive female visitors (Chapter 3). Madame Khokhlakov, a wealthy widow in her thirties who is visiting her estate in town, has come with her 14-year-old daughter, Lise, recently suffering from leg paralysis. Also on the porch are several sick or troubled women, including a "shrieker," suffering from a particular form of Russian hysteria. The elder is able to temporarily calm the shrieker. He also gives comfort to a woman who has left her home on pilgrimage. All four of her children have died—the last one a three-year-old. This death of Alexei, the last son, has broken her. He tells the woman not to be comforted, but to remember, every time she weeps, that the child is with God. He also counsels her to return to her husband, so that the child's soul will find her at home. He speaks to a few other troubled women and then blesses and bows to them.

Zosima turns to Madame Khokhlakov, who claims the elder has cured Lise's night fevers (Chapter 4). Alyosha knows the Khokhlakovs from when he was a child, and Lise likes to tease him. She gives him a letter from Katerina, Dmitri's fiancée, which urgently asks him to come see her. Madame Khokhlakov then confides in the elder her lack of faith and shortcomings in charity. He counsels her to practice active love with others, which will strengthen her belief in immortality and God, and also tells her not to lie, especially to herself. "[A]ctive love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love of dreams," he says. Toward the end of the conversation, Lise chides Alyosha for ignoring her when they used to be such good friends. She also makes fun of his cassock, calling them "skirts." The elder promises to send Alyosha to see her at home.

Analysis

In these chapters, readers see Zosima at work, offering comfort and advice, blessing people, and preaching his gospel of love and forgiveness. The cases brought before him are of the most piteous kind, such as the woman who loses all her children, culminating with three-year-old Alexei. While writing this novel, the author lost his son Alexei at the same age, and Dostoevsky puts some of his own grief into this characterization—which will be followed in subsequent chapters by a fuller description of the torment a parent feels in surviving a child, especially one that dies at a young age. It is one thing to hear about a man's pious reputation; it is another to see it in action.

When Zosima turns to Madame Khokhlakov, he explains to her that it is very difficult to love people up close and personal, and much easier to do so theoretically or at a distance. This is a fact the reader has just seen with Fyodor Karamazov, and one that Alyosha and his other children have yet to learn. Yet it is in the act of taking on the burden of other people—who impinge upon an individual's rights, desires, and needs—that one meets God. Active love is the best way to cure doubt in God and immortality, he says. Another of Zosima's teachings is truthfulness, with the worst lies being those people tell themselves. As he told old Karamazov, he also tells Madame Khokhlakov: avoid all forms of lying. This idea of lying to oneself will come up again, as the reader sees how self-deception creates terrible problems for the main characters.

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