Part III Book VII - Alyosha (Chapters 1-4)
Chapter 1: The odor of corruption
The day after Zosima's death, monks and townspeople visit his corpse in expectation of a miracle, in keeping with his saintly reputation.
Father Paissy finds Alyosha weeping bitterly on the grave of a famous monk whose body had not corrupted after death. Alyosha is suffering a crisis in his soul because contrary to expectation, Zosima's body has already begun to decay and stink. While in the past, some righteous monks had corrupted just as ordinary people do after death, others had not, even giving off a beautiful fragrance from their bodies. The narrator suspects that Zosima's corruption became such a source of contention in the monastery because of the hostility of many monks to the institution of elders, and because of envy of Zosima's holiness. Thus, some monks are pleased at the development.
One of the townspeople pronounces that evidently, God does not think Zosima as holy as men thought him. A monk, a follower of Zosima, points out that there is nothing in Orthodox doctrine which says that the bodies of righteous men are incorruptible. But Zosima's detractors begin to point out supposed faults in his life and practices.
Father Paissy is reading scriptures over the coffin when Father Ferapont, Zosima's adversary, bursts in, followed by a crowd of monks and townspeople. Father Ferapont begins to perform an exorcism, yelling at supposed unclean spirits to depart. When challenged by Father Paissy, Father Ferapont accuses Zosima of allowing devils to multiply, of failing to fast properly, of arrogant thoughts, and even of eating sweets. Father Paissy commands him to leave. Father Ferapont does so, but denounces the monastery and, in front of the crowd, falls to the ground crying that Christ has conquered. The crowd goes into a frenzy and some people shout that it is Father Ferapont who is holy.
Father Paissy is saddened by the fact that among the excited crowd following Father Ferapont was Alyosha. Father Paissy asks Alyosha if he is one of those of little faith. Then he asks him if he is leaving the monastery without permission. Alyosha only smiles, waves and walks out of the monastery gates.
Chapter 2: An opportune moment
Alyosha feels wounded and dismayed at the apparent failure of higher justice in allowing such a disgraceful fate to befall his beloved elder.
Rakitin notices Alyosha lying under a tree. Rakitin mocks him for getting upset at such a trivial thing as Zosima's bodily corruption and for believing in miracles. Quoting Ivan, Alyosha replies that he does not rebel against God, but he simply cannot accept his world.
Rakitin offers Alyosha some sausage and vodka, expecting him to refuse because monks generally restrict themselves to plain bread. He is surprised when Alyosha accepts them.
In a flash, Alyosha recalls Dmitri and has a sense of some urgent business regarding him, but instantly forgets the impression.
Rakitin invites Alyosha to visit Grushenka with him, and to Rakitin's amazement, Alyosha readily agrees. Rakitin is secretly planning to see Alyosha corrupted by being seduced by Grushenka.
Chapter 3: An onion
The narrator tells Grushenka's story. Grushenka rents a small cottage from a widow. She was brought to the town by the merchant Samsonov when she was eighteen. There were rumors that she had been loved and then abandoned by a military officer before being rescued from poverty by Samsonov, who became her patron. Grushenka had grown into a beautiful young woman who knew the value of money. By engaging in business deals, she had amassed a small fortune of her own.
Grushenka has become an object of desire among the men of the town, but she is hard to get, and apart from Samsonov, no one can boast of her sexual favors. Samsonov looks on all Grushenka's suitors with amusement, except for Dmitri. He advises her that she would be better off marrying Fyodor Pavlovich, but only if he marries her and makes over some of his money to her in advance.
Alyosha and Rakitin find Grushenka impatiently expecting a message from someone. Grushenka is delighted to meet Alyosha, and he is struck by her kind expression, which comes as a surprise after his unpleasant encounter with her at Katerina Ivanovna's. She good-naturedly teases Alyosha for his piety and Rakitin for his touchiness. Noticing that Alyosha looks sad, she jumps onto his lap and embraces him. Alyosha realizes he no longer feels afraid of her.
Grushenka reveals that the message she is waiting for is from her former lover, who is at the nearby town of Mokroye. His wife has died, and he wants Grushenka back. The minute she receives his instructions, she will leave to join him.
Grushenka confesses that she loves Alyosha with all her soul, and thinks of him as her conscience. When Rakitin tauntingly tells her that Alyosha is sad because he has rebelled against God since his elder died, she jumps off his lap at once. Alyosha rebukes Rakitin for his taunts, and tells him he should look to Grushenka for an example. Alyosha came expecting a wicked soul, but "found a true sister." Grushenka confesses that she bribed Rakitin to bring Alyosha to her so that she could seduce him, but now she feels differently.
Rakitin is annoyed at the growing love and understanding between Grushenka and Alyosha. Grushenka tells Rakitin, "Just know one thing, Rakitka, I may be wicked, but still I gave an onion." She explains her meaning by telling the parable of the onion, to make the point that she has a seed of good in her.
Grushenka tells Alyosha that she has forgotten her vengeful feelings towards her former lover and now forgives him everything, though she adds that she may take a knife to kill him. Then she collapses in tears. Alyosha goes to Rakitin and says that Grushenka is better than him (Alyosha) because he was fainthearted enough to be cast into doubt by events following Zosima's death, and came to her seeking his own ruin. But he found a woman who forgives five years of torment as soon as her lover speaks a sincere word to her. Alyosha adds that she will not take a knife: "She is higher in love than we are." Grushenka falls on her knees before Alyosha, happy that someone has forgiven her and loved her for herself. Alyosha replies that he only gave her a "little onion" - that is, he saw the seed of good in her.
They are interrupted by a maid, who brings Grushenka a letter and tells her that a carriage has come for her from Mokroye. In great excitement, Grushenka prepares to leave. She asks Alyosha to tell Dmitri that she loved him for just one hour, and that he should remember that hour all his life.
As Alyosha and Rakitin leave, Rakitin sneers that Grushenka's lover is after her money, and laughs that Alyosha has converted a sinful woman. When Alyosha asks him to stop, Rakitin furiously tells him he never wants to see him again. Alyosha returns to the monastery.
Alyosha goes to pray near Zosima's coffin in a state of peaceful joy. He is no longer troubled by the odor of corruption from the corpse. As he listens to Father Paissy reading the Bible, he falls asleep and has a dream in which he is at the wedding in Cana with Christ. Zosima is also at the wedding. Zosima tells Alyosha not to be surprised to see him there, as "I gave a little onion, and so I am here." Zosima says that Alyosha also gave an onion today to a woman who was hungry. He tells Alyosha once more to leave the monastery so that he can do good work.
Alyosha wakes up, goes outside, and falls to the earth, kissing it and weeping. He feels full of love and forgiveness. When he gets up, he knows that all weakness has gone from him and that from now on he will be steadfast, and a fighter. Three days later, he leaves the monastery.
This Book is dominated by the story of Zosima's corpse, which shocks the monks and townspeople by corrupting very quickly. In medieval times (and the Orthodox Church in the Russia of Dostoevsky's time had survived mostly unchanged since medieval times), people believed that the inner goodness or evil of a being or substance could be judged partly by its smell. It was believed that many saints' bodies miraculously did not corrupt or give off a bad smell after death, and that sometimes they even gave off a heavenly fragrance. The lack of corruption and the heavenly smell were signs of the person's holiness and of their favor with God.
Hence it was a serious matter that Zosima's body smelled bad, and could be taken by some as a sign that he was not holy and in favor with God. The physical reality of corruption was at odds with religious faith. However, this story illustrates an important theme of the novel: that faith is not and cannot be validated by miracles, but is a choice made from one's free will. This is also the theme of Ivan's poem, "The Grand Inquisitor." Christ refuses the temptation of Satan to force people to believe in him by performing miracles. By choosing not to perform the miracles, he leaves people free to believe or not. This presents people with a difficult task: to keep faith when they are free to doubt. The Inquisitor has decided that free will is too difficult and an intolerable burden for humanity to carry. The Inquisitor's church, out of love for mankind, succumbs to Satan's temptation of removing people's free will and forcing them to believe by using miracle and mystery.
Like Christ being tempted by Satan, Zosima's corpse does not produce the miracle to win over the doubters. On the contrary, it speaks of earthly limitation and corruption. Far from confirming the presence of God, it confirms Father Ferapont, Zosima's adversary, in his obsession with devils lurking about sinners. Even Alyosha is plunged into a crisis of faith. First, he is found weeping on the grave of a monk whose body did not corrupt after death; then, he accepts Rakitin's un-monkish food and drink; and finally, he agrees to visit Grushenka because in his despair, he seeks his own ruin and wants to be corrupted by her.
What Alyosha actually finds in Grushenka works a transformation in his soul and resolves his crisis of faith. He is moved by her kindness, her compassionate response to the news of Zosima's death, and then by her innocent ability to forgive her former lover five years of torment when he offers a few sincere words to her. The process is reciprocal: Grushenka, who cynically bribed Rakitin to bring Alyosha to her so that she could corrupt him, is surprised to find that she loves Alyosha with her soul. She is filled with joy that at last someone has forgiven her and loves her for herself and finally falls at his feet in gratitude.
Why do Rakitin and Grushenka conspire to corrupt Alyosha? The answer must be that they feel threatened by Alyosha's faith and goodness and wish to confirm their cynical, debased view of humanity. Alyosha is not brought down to Grushenka's and Rakitin's level, but on the contrary, acts as Grushenka's conscience (in her words) and raises her up to realize her own goodness. This is testament to the power of active love that Zosima teaches and that Alyosha practices.
Alyosha's experience with Grushenka restores his faith in humanity to the extent that on his return to the monastery, he is no longer concerned about the smell of corruption emitted by Zosima's corpse. He now feels strong and ready to face the world and to carry out Zosima's instruction to do good for mankind. It could be said that in his meeting with Grushenka, Alyosha has faced corruption, learned not to fear it, and learned instead to love the kernel of goodness that resides within every 'sinner.' It is worth noting the gap between Alyosha's prejudices about Grushenka and how much he likes and appreciates her when he gets to know her. The message is that it is worth taking the trouble to understand the sinner and grow to love him, for only through love will he be redeemed. In Book VI, Chapter 3, Zosima explains that the judge should love the criminal, not condemn him; in Book II, Chapter 5, he explains that only one's own conscience can effectively make a sinner reform. In loving Grushenka and acting as her conscience merely by force of his own goodness, Alyosha redeems her. Rakitin's disgust at the inspiring turn events have taken confirms the weakness and fatalistic limitations of his (and Ivan's) cynical world view.
The parable of the onion that Grushenka tells confirms Zosima's and Alyosha's philosophy that love, compassion, and a commitment to the salvation of all beings is a necessary precondition for peace and happiness. The parable also shows that no 'sinner' should despair of God's grace: the wicked woman in the burning lake in hell had only done one good thing in her entire life - she had given an onion to a beggar - yet it gave her a chance of redemption. It was her choice and free will to throw away this chance by clinging to her habit of selfishness. Grushenka's pointed comment to Rakitin, "Just know one thing, Rakitka, I may be wicked, but still I gave an onion," shows that Alyosha's influence has woken her to her own essential goodness, a fact confirmed by Alyosha's later self-deprecating remark that he only gave her a "little onion." Rakitin, on the contrary, had wished to magnify and exploit Grushenka's destructive side, to push her further into the fiery lake. It is no wonder that Grushenka ends the meeting affirming her love for Alyosha and drawing away from Rakitin.
Zosima, appearing to Alyosha in a dream, takes up the onion metaphor. Zosima, who is with Christ at the wedding at Cana, tells Alyosha not to be surprised to see him there, as "I gave a little onion, and so I am here." Zosima says that Alyosha also gave an onion to a woman who was hungry, meaning his kindness to Grushenka. Zosima's use of the image has at least two effects: it modestly downplays his own achievements, but it also gives a message of hope that it is easier than one might think to attain closeness to God. Certainly, it is within the capability of everyone to give an onion to someone who is hungry, so it is equally possible for everyone to start along the path of active love.