The Brothers Karamazov
A Critical Moment
FATHER PAISSY, of course, was not wrong when he decided that his “dear boy” would come back again. Perhaps indeed, to some extent, he penetrated with insight into the true meaning of Alyosha’s spiritual condition. Yet I must frankly own that it would be very difficult for me to give a clear account of that strange, vague moment in the life of the young hero I love so much. To Father Paissy’s sorrowful question, “Are you too with those of little faith?” I could, of course, confidently answer for Alyosha, “No, he is not with those of little faith. Quite the contrary.” Indeed, all his trouble came from the fact that he was of great faith. But still the trouble was there and was so agonising that even long afterwards Alyosha thought of that sorrowful day as one of the bitterest and most fatal days of his life. If the question is asked: “Could all his grief and disturbance have been only due to the fact that his elder’s body had shown signs of premature decomposition instead of at once performing miracles?” I must answer without beating about the bush, “Yes, it certainly was.” I would only beg the reader not to be in too great a hurry to laugh at my young hero’s pure heart. I am far from intending to apologise for him or to justify his innocent faith on the ground of his youth, or the little progress he had made in his studies, or any such reason. I must declare, on the contrary, that I have genuine respect for the qualities of his heart. No doubt a youth who received impressions cautiously, whose love was lukewarm, and whose mind was too prudent for his age and so of little value, such a young man might, I admit, have avoided what happened to my hero. But in some cases it is really more creditable to be carried away by an emotion, however unreasonable, which springs from a great love, than to be unmoved. And this is even truer in youth, for a young man who is always sensible is to be suspected and is of little worth — that’s my opinion!
“But,” reasonable people will exclaim perhaps, “every young man cannot believe in such a superstition and your hero is no model for others.”
To this I reply again, “Yes! my hero had faith, a faith holy and steadfast, but still I am not going to apologise for him.”
Though I declared above, and perhaps too hastily, that I should not explain or justify my hero, I see that some explanation is necessary for the understanding of the rest of my story. Let me say then, it was not a question of miracles. There was no frivolous and impatient expectation of miracles in his mind. And Alyosha needed no miracles at the time, for the triumph of some preconceived idea — oh no, not at all — what he saw before all was one figure — the figure of his beloved elder, the figure of that holy man whom he revered with such adoration. The fact is that all the love that lay concealed in his pure young heart for everyone and everything had, for the past year, been concentrated — and perhaps wrongly so — on one being, his beloved elder. It is true that being had for so long been accepted by him as his ideal, that all his young strength and energy could not but turn towards that ideal, even to the forgetting at the moment “of everyone and everything.” He remembered afterwards how, on that terrible day, he had entirely forgotten his brother Dmitri, about whom he had been so anxious and troubled the day before; he had forgotten, too, to take the two hundred roubles to Ilusha’s father, though he had so warmly intended to do so the preceding evening. But again it was not miracles he needed but only “the higher justice” which had been in his belief outraged by the blow that had so suddenly and cruelly wounded his heart. And what does it signify that this “justice” looked for by Alyosha inevitably took the shape of miracles to be wrought immediately by the ashes of his adored teacher? Why, everyone in the monastery cherished the same thought and the same hope, even those whose intellects Alyosha revered, Father Paissy himself, for instance. And so Alyosha, untroubled by doubts, clothed his dreams too in the same form as all the rest. And a whole year of life in the monastery had formed the habit of this expectation in his heart. But it was justice, justice, he thirsted for, not simply miracles.
And now the man who should, he believed, have been exalted above everyone in the whole world, that man, instead of receiving the glory that was his due, was suddenly degraded and dishonoured! What for? Who had judged him? Who could have decreed this? Those were the questions that wrung his inexperienced and virginal heart. He could not endure without mortification, without resentment even, that the holiest of holy men should have been exposed to the jeering and spiteful mockery of the frivolous crowd so inferior to him. Even had there been no miracles, had there been nothing marvellous to justify his hopes, why this indignity, why this humiliation, why this premature decay, “in excess of nature,” as the spiteful monks said? Why this “sign from heaven,” which they so triumphantly acclaimed in company with Father Ferapont, and why did they believe they had gained the right to acclaim it? Where is the finger of Providence? Why did Providence hide its face “at the most critical moment” (so Alyosha thought it), as though voluntarily submitting to the blind, dumb, pitiless laws of nature?
That was why Alyosha’s heart was bleeding, and, of course, as I have said already, the sting of it all was that the man he loved above everything on earth should be put to shame and humiliated! This murmuring may have been shallow and unreasonable in my hero, but I repeat again for the third time — and am prepared to admit that it might be difficult to defend my feeling — I am glad that my hero showed himself not too reasonable at that moment, for any man of sense will always come back to reason in time, but, if love does not gain the upper hand in a boy’s heart at such an exceptional moment, when will it? I will not, however, omit to mention something strange, which came for a time to the surface of Alyosha’s mind at this fatal and obscure moment. This new something was the harassing impression left by the conversation with Ivan, which now persistently haunted Alyosha’s mind. At this moment it haunted him. Oh, it was not that something of the fundamental, elemental, so to speak, faith of his soul had been shaken. He loved his God and believed in Him steadfastly, though he was suddenly murmuring against Him. Yet a vague but tormenting and evil impression left by his conversation with Ivan the day before, suddenly revived again now in his soul and seemed forcing its way to the surface of his consciousness.
It had begun to get dusk when Rakitin, crossing the pine copse from the hermitage to the monastery, suddenly noticed Alyosha, lying face downwards on the ground under a tree, not moving and apparently asleep. He went up and called him by his name.
“You here, Alexey? Can you have — “ he began wondering but broke off. He had meant to say, “Can you have come to this?”
Alyosha did not look at him, but from a slight movement Rakitin at once saw that he heard and understood him.
“What’s the matter?” he went on; but the surprise in his face gradually passed into a smile that became more and more ironical.
“I say, I’ve been looking for you for the last two hours. You suddenly disappeared. What are you about? What foolery is this? You might just look at me...”
Alyosha raised his head, sat up and leaned his back against the tree. He was not crying, but there was a look of suffering and irritability in his face. He did not look at Rakitin, however, but looked away to one side of him.
“Do you know your face is quite changed? There’s none of your famous mildness to be seen in it. Are you angry with someone? Have they been ill-treating you?”
“Let me alone,” said Alyosha suddenly, with a weary gesture of his hand, still looking away from him.
“Oho! So that’s how we are feeling! So you can shout at people like other mortals. That is a come-down from the angels. I say, Alyosha, you have surprised me, do you hear? I mean it. It’s long since I’ve been surprised at anything here. I always took you for an educated man.
Alyosha at last looked at him, but vaguely, as though scarcely understanding what he said.
“Can you really be so upset simply because your old man has begun to stink? You don’t mean to say you seriously believed that he was going to work miracles?” exclaimed Rakitin, genuinely surprised again.
“I believed, I believe, I want to believe, and I will believe, what more do you want?” cried Alyosha irritably.
“Nothing at all, my boy. Damn it all! why, no schoolboy of thirteen believes in that now. But there... So now you are in a temper with your God, you are rebelling against Him; He hasn’t given promotion, He hasn’t bestowed the order of merit! Eh, you are a set!”
Alyosha gazed a long while with his eyes half closed at Rakitin, and there was a sudden gleam in his eyes... but not of anger with Rakitin.
“I am not rebelling against my God; I simply ‘don’t accept His world.’” Alyosha suddenly smiled a forced smile.
“How do you mean, you don’t accept the world?” Rakitin thought a moment over his answer. “What idiocy is this?”
Alyosha did not answer.
“Come, enough nonsense, now to business. Have you had anything to eat to-day?”
“I don’t remember.... I think I have.”
“You need keeping up, to judge by your face. It makes one sorry to look at you. You didn’t sleep all night either, I hear; you had a meeting in there. And then all this bobbery afterwards. Most likely you’ve had nothing to eat but a mouthful of holy bread. I’ve got some sausage in my pocket; I’ve brought it from the town in case of need, only you won’t eat sausage....”
“Give me some.”
“I say! You are going it! Why, it’s a regular mutiny, with barricades! Well, my boy, we must make the most of it. Come to my place... shouldn’t mind a drop of vodka myself, I am tired to death. Vodka is going too far for you, I suppose... or would you like some?”
“Give me some vodka too.”
“Hullo! You surprise me, brother!” Rakitin looked at him in amazement. “Well, one way or another, vodka or sausage, this is a jolly fine chance and mustn’t be missed. Come along.”
Alyosha got up in silence and followed Rakitin.
“If your little brother Ivan could see this wouldn’t he be surprised! By the way, your brother Ivan set off to Moscow this morning, did you know?”
“Yes,” answered Alyosha listlessly, and suddenly the image of his brother Dmitri rose before his mind. But only for a minute, and though it reminded him of something that must not be put off for a moment, some duty, some terrible obligation, even that reminder made no impression on him, did not reach his heart and instantly faded out of his mind and was forgotten. But, a long while afterwards, Alyosha remembered this.
“Your brother Ivan declared once that I was a ‘liberal booby with no talents whatsoever.’ Once you, too, could not resist letting me know I was ‘dishonourable.’ Well! I should like to see what your talents and sense of honour will do for you now.” This phrase Rakitin finished to himself in a whisper.
“Listen!” he said aloud, “Let’s go by the path beyond the monastery straight to the town. H’m! I ought to go to Madame Hohlakov’s by the way. Only fancy, I’ve written to tell her everything that happened, and would you believe it, she answered me instantly in pencil (the lady has a passion for writing notes) that ‘she would never have expected such conduct from a man of such a reverend character as Father Zossima.’ That was her very word: ‘conduct.’ She is angry too. Eh, you are a set! Stay!” he cried suddenly again. He suddenly stopped and taking Alyosha by the shoulder made him stop too.
“Do you know, Alyosha,” he peeped inquisitively into his eyes, absorbed in a sudden new thought which had dawned on him, and though he was laughing outwardly he was evidently afraid to utter that new idea aloud, so difficult he still found it to believe in the strange and unexpected mood in which he now saw Alyosha. “Alyosha, do you know where we had better go?” he brought out at last timidly, and insinuatingly.
“I don’t care... where you like.”
“Let’s go to Grushenka, eh? Will you come?” pronounced Rakitin at last, trembling with timid suspense.
“Let’s go to Grushenka,” Alyosha answered calmly, at once, and this prompt and calm agreement was such a surprise to Rakitin that he almost started back.
“Well! I say!” he cried in amazement, but seizing Alyosha firmly by the arm be led him along the path, still dreading that he would change his mind.
They walked along in silence; Rakitin was positively afraid to talk.
“And how glad she will be, how delighted!” he muttered, but lapsed into silence again. And indeed it was not to please Grushenka he was taking Alyosha to her. He was a practical person and never undertook anything without a prospect of gain for himself. His object in this case was twofold, first a revengeful desire to see “the downfall of the righteous,” and Alyosha’s fall “from the saints to the sinners,” over which he was already gloating in his imagination, and in the second place he had in view a certain material gain for himself, of which more will be said later.
“So the critical moment has come,” he thought to himself with spiteful glee, “and we shall catch it on the hop, for it’s just what we want.”