Tears for the Hopeless, Hope for the Shameful:
How Alyosha Redeems His Novel
This is a story about brothers—The Brothers Karamazov—and Alyosha, the “third son of…Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov,” is its hero. The Karamazovs appear doomed to the evils of their race—to “the force of the Karamazov baseness,” “to drown in depravity.” A murder is anticipated, a culprit suspected, and a court condemns. Only one thing is lacking: this apparent murder mystery lacks a sleuth. Either Alyosha is unsuited to his role, or Dostoevsky’s purpose surpasses judgment. Indeed, Alyosha never judges. On the contrary, he accepts sin, forgives the criminal, weeps for his soul. What would otherwise resemble a court scene is transformed by Alyosha into an image of Eden before the Fall. Alyosha releases the sinner from shame and inspires new hope in redemption; his compassionate tears reawaken the sinner’s soul to an order that transcends condemnation. It is precisely this condemnation that ruins man’s soul. The soul must recall itself before the Fall—before it was weighed down by shame. Man’s greatest temptation is to see his shame as indistinguishable from himself and to condemn himself to evil. Alyosha’s heroism lies in his refusal to condemn a world that threatens to condemn itself.
Shame, condemnation, and isolation perpetuate sin, while love, forgiveness, and brotherhood redeem. Fr. Zosima commands Fyodor Pavlovich, “above all do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is the cause of everything.” Ever since that first sin of Adam, shame has threatened to redefine man—to condemn him to an essentially shameful nature. In this condemnation, we despair. Mankind’s only hope is in the love that forgives and embraces the sinner: “there is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men.” Let our kinship to Adam be, not only the cause of our shame, but also the means to our redemption. My shame is your shame, so also my forgiveness is yours. When I condemn, I am condemned, and when I forgive, I am forgiven. Condemnation condemns mankind to its sins, but forgiveness removes that shame and forms new, restored brotherhood. This story—a story about brothers—is Dostoevsky’s interpretation of mankind, a story we each choose either to condemn or to forgive.
The crime of Fyodor Pavlovich’s murder is an act of self-condemnation against the criminal. In killing another, the criminal destroys himself. This is most evident in the case of patricide, for the one who kills his father curses the life that gave him life. Only utter self-despair can rouse one to such a crime against oneself. A sense of honor saves Dmitri—“a faulty one,…but he has it, has it to the point of passion, and he has proved it.” He senses within himself something stronger than his shame, something noble and upright. Therefore, he cannot condemn himself in killing his father. Of the two brothers, Ivan appears the nobler, yet Ivan is more tempted to despair. He sees his father and brother as essentially shameful and wishes “viper will eat viper,” but Ivan realizes the profound consequence of condemnation. Like the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan yearns to condemn Christ. Christ forgives the criminal—he grants freedom to evil. Yet, Ivan cannot condemn Christ, for then he himself should become the ultimate source of evil. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7 NAB) If Ivan condemns his race, he shall condemn himself. This is why Ivan preserves his father’s life, and this is why Ivan’s own soul is preserved from destruction.
Smerdyakov “hated his origin, was ashamed of it, and gnashed his teeth when he recalled that he was ‘descended from Stinking Lizaveta,’” Little can be said of him. He repulses us, and yet, do we suspect him of the crime? What reason does he have to commit this murder? Where is the rash rage that would rouse him to this crime? Smerdyakov, who, by his illegitimacy, is estranged from his own race, cares too little for humanity to take part in it. The murder is committed through the coldness of his keen intellect. There is no self-righteousness in it, no revenge, only the stark, methodical, movements of one who has despaired. This act of despair against the human race is followed by its natural conclusion: suicide. Condemnation turns a faceless servant into the ultimate source of evil. “I for one know that he can’t stand me, or anybody else…Still less Alyoshka, he despises Alyoshka.” Fyodor Pavlovich’s words foreshadow the deed of his murderer, exposing in Smerdyakov a hatred for mankind that condemns even the innocent man, the “man of God,” Alyosha.
Dostoevsky presents his “future hero…from the first scene of his novel dressed in the cassock of a novice.” This is the paradox: the hero is absent from his novel. Alyosha’s appearance bears no relevance to the scene of murder, but this is precisely why Alyosha is the savior: he never condemns. Where is the hero to judge and rectify? Alyosha is silent when he ought to condemn, still when he ought to save, and absent when he ought to prevent. He wordlessly accepts the debaucheries of his father and brother. He is asleep within the monastery at the time of the murder. In court, he neither defends Dmitri nor condemns Smerdyakov. The crowds expect from him “extraordinary proof in favor of his brother and of the lackey’s guilt, and now—nothing, no proof, except for certain moral convictions quite natural in him as the defendant’s brother.” The reader also clamors for condemnation. Instead, Alyosha compassionately weeps for the criminal. He responds to our call with the same, imponderable kiss given the Grand Inquisitor by Christ. Crime threatens to transform his novel into a court scene, yet Alyosha will not condemn. Precisely by bowing down and offering forgiveness, Alyosha saves the criminal. Alyosha is that Christ-like figure whose love for mankind redeems his novel.
Alyosha weeps for the criminal. Tears, which purge and purify, are the expression of that perfect forgiveness that grants total freedom from shame and restores hope in redemption. The elder sends Alyosha out of the monastery with the following words: “You will behold great sorrow, and in this sorrow you will be happy. Here is a commandment for you: seek happiness in sorrow.” This sorrow is to be Alyosha’s weapon against the shame that threatens mankind; grief is to keep Alyosha from despairing. The one who weeps for the shame of his race has already dreamt of a shameless, redeemed humanity. This hope begins with the full acknowledgement of evil, and then, through this acknowledgement, new faith in the good that alone illuminates evil. Alyosha, as the character who never condemns, is the character most in tune with the good. He, most of all, trusts in the good of humanity. Consequently, he is the least concerned with condemnation and the most moved by sorrow. “Alyosha walked out all in tears…All of this suddenly opened up before Alyosha such an abyss of ineluctable grief and despair in the soul of his unfortunate brother.” His brother faces condemnation, but Alyosha only weeps. He loses himself to the moment’s grief. The world’s convictions are always false, but sorrow reunites us to the truth of forgiveness. Only the criminal can condemn himself.
Alyosha’s novel begins by a tombstone: “after finding his mother’s grave, Alyosha suddenly announced…that he wanted to enter the monastery” Sorrow for his mother establishes within Alyosha a world parallel to the world of shame. One world is marked by tombstones, the other resembles a court. Alyosha mediates between the two, saving the one by uniting it to the other. First it is the monastery that forms this parallel world. Later, it is the community of school boys, and, finally, Alyosha establishes this world by the grave of a second innocent victim, Illyusha. Here, Alyosha declares that “a good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home” is enough to save a man’s soul. His words recall his single childhood memory—that of his mother weeping, holding him before an icon, consecrating him to Our Lady. There is joy in the remembrance of his mother, yet sorrow at her tragic loss. Alyosha is himself a childhood memory. Through him, fallen man weeps for the parallel world of innocence he lost to shame. “It is enough for me that you are here somewhere, and I shall not stop wanting to live,” says Ivan, for Alyosha is the binding thread joining hope to despair, innocence to shame. His tears restore to man an image of himself before he fell. Lise entreats, “And will you weep for me? Will you?” “I will” replies Alyosha.
Alyosha rekindles hope for mankind. To every soul, he offers the grief that releases shame and reunites the soul with the truth of its being. The soul awakens to a new fervency in the forgiveness and love that overcome its condemnation to sin. The ending of his novel confirms Alyosha as a hero who surpasses judgment. Dmitri is about to embark on a new life as an escaped convict. Ivan totters between life and death. Smerdyakov lies dead by his own hand, and Alyosha’s own future is misty at best. Where are the signs of redemption? Where are the deeds of our hero? Once again, the reader attempts to restrict Alyosha within a world of shame and despair. Alyosha cannot be judged by the world, nor can his novel. Redemption is awaited, “God will judge.” To trust in God’s judgment is to believe in forgiveness. This is the redemption that Alyosha points us towards: the Justice that forgives “us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” (Luke 11:4 NAB) This novel reveals in Alyosha a man who truly combats evil. Forgiveness justifies the “man of God.”
I wrote this essay last semester. I hope you enjoy it, and I'd love to hear any comments or thoughts!