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Foregrounded as the hero of the text, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s epic novel The Brothers Karamazov follows Alyosha as he attempts to reconcile his belief in God. One of the grandest dialectics in the novel is between Alyosha and his brother, Ivan, who cannot accept a God if that God can allow suffering to befall children. Alyosha’s spiritual leader, Father Zosima, taught him that he was responsible for the sins of all men. The scene described in the chapter, “The Onion”, works to reinstate Alyosha’s faith in humanity, after the death of his most beloved leader, Zosima.
After the death of Zosima, Alyosha falls into a depression. He is comforted neither by the words of Father Paissy nor Rakitin, who both wish to see him ashamed or humbled. However, Alyosha is unaware of this. Book VII begins with a ritual as to how one buries a monk. This is followed by Father Paissy’s comments about Zosima as having desecrated his position. Because Zosima’s body had begun decaying, Paissy argues, Zosima must have done something in his lifetime that kept him from attaining sainthood. Alyosha, a man of God, struggles to understand the teachings of his master in the light of Paissy’s claims. Book VII chapter 2 ends with Rakitin leading Alyosha to Grushenka’s house, promising vodka.
Grushenka ultimately comes to represent a second coming of Zosima for Alyosha. The chapter begins with a description of her home, in a busy part of town. The narrator then details Grushenka’s life story. Upon seeing Alyosha, Grushenka is immediately filled with excitement and joy. She had been in a state nervousness and anticipation, waiting for a letter from her “officer”, whom had left her at seventeen years old to marry another woman. Noticing Alyosha’s sadness, she “sprang up suddenly” and “leaped onto his knees like an affectionate cat”(348). Surprising even to Alyosha, Grushenka’s physical connection does not bother him. Instead, it fills him with a “pure-hearted curiosity” that he could not help but marvel at (349). Since the Reader knows Alyosha as one who is profoundly uncomfortable with talks or implications of sensuality, this scene highlights a kind of Volta for Alyosha. The revelation follows Grushenka learning of Zosima’s death as the reason for Alyosha’s grief. Immediately, she “jumped off his knees” and “sat down on the sofa”(351). Alyosha claims that she had “restored [his] soul just now”(351). Grushenka then delves into the fable of the onion. The fable describes a wicked woman in hell, who is offered an onion by her guardian angel to pull her out of the fire. Other sinners begin clutching onto the woman’s feet in an attempt to escape. However, as she attempts to kick them off, the onion breaks.
Grushenka aligns herself with the wicked woman. She admits that in her entire life, she has only gifted one onion. Grushenka tells Alyosha that no longer attempting to seduce him is her “little onion”(353). Alyosha had already understood her gift, the second she leapt off his lap. However, Grushenka also provides Alyosha with a second onion. The parable she recites to Alyosha acts as its own onion. The fable focuses on mankind’s imperative to share his gifts with others. The wicked woman first gave the onion to a beggar. Later, that onion was offered by her guardian angel as salvation. Spiritual divinity was first grounded in the actions of the wicked woman. The salvation offered to her was through the medium of her works on earth. Also, it was only once the woman attempted to keep the onion for herself when it broke and left her in the fire. Ultimately, the onion fable mirrors Zosima’s claims about man’s responsibility to others. He taught that the monks are “guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved”(164). The lesson embedded in the onion fable re-affirms Zosima’s teachings.
For, the wicked woman with the onion was not only responsible for her own salvation, but also the salvation of those who attempted to use her onion to save themselves.
The fable is a story of both failure and fall. It highlights the wicked woman’s inability to recognize her gift as salvation for all. However, the fable also reveals the possibility of salvation through selfless actions. When the woman selfishly attempts to keep the onion for herself, it breaks, dropping the woman and all those clutching to her legs back to hell. The wicked woman’s ignorance and inability to imagine sharing her gift also mirror the lack of love she felt in her heart. This is in stark contrast to Alyosha, who Grushenka describes as one who “loves for no reason”(353). Grushenka lists this trait as the onion that Alyosha first gave to her. She then describes how she had initially intended to “ruin” Alyosha and “eat him up” (354). She then details the “torment” felt towards her officer, and the confusing desire to both love him and mutilate him. Alyosha, excited and enlightened by Grushenka speaking truthfully, re-affirms her forgiveness of the officer. At the end of the chapter, Alyosha and Grushenka had given each other their respective onions. Grushenka stopped trying to seduce and ruin Alyosha. She also instilled him with the parable that echoed his beloved masters’ teachings. Alyosha, by being his naturally clairvoyant and charming self, gave Grushenka the onion of forgiveness. The sinner in the fable is re-damned because she clings to her own onion without sharing it with others. Contrarily, Alyosha and Grushenka are saved because they each receive the other’s onion.
Seeking forgiveness in the face of those one had wronged was a major part of Zosima’s teachings. In the chapters where Alyosha is reciting the life story of Zosima, the tale of the duel resonates powerfully with this section in the novel. In his story, Zosima remembers being jealous of a man who was with a woman he wanted. He challenged the man to a duel. After realizing how selfish and foolish he had been acting, Zosima risked his life to seek forgiveness from the other man. Self-reflexivity and the subsequent search for forgiveness are highlighted as two of Zosima’s most imperative teachings. He believed in taking self-reflexivity even further, considering the self to be worse than the sum of all mankind or any individual. This way, the spiritual leaders should not let pride or vanity interfere with creating an “infinite love” on earth (164). Similarly, Grushenka sought forgiveness from Alyosha. After revealing her initial intent to “seduce” and “ruin” Alyosha, Grushenka admits to having felt wronged by her officer. The pain she internalized was meant to be cast on another. However, the unconditional love that Alyosha showed to Grushenka, calling her “my sister”, resonated with her as she considered what she wanted to do with him. Ultimately, she asks Alyosha whether or not she should forgive the officer Kuzma.
This argument can also be understood by Alyosha’s designation of ‘treasure’ in this chapter. In the beginning of the chapter, Alyosha laments that he has lost a great treasure. Contextually, the reader can understand this to be the death of the elder Zosima. He again references the treasure. This time, however, it is the treasure of Grushenka’s kind heart (355). This treasure can be juxtaposed to the 25 rouples Rakitin received for delivering Alyosha to Grushenka. Rakitin accepts his payment, even though Grushenka’s initial intent was to seduce Alyosha upon his arrival. This physical monetary note can be juxtaposed with the spiritual treasure Alyosha has found in Grushenka, mending his faith in mankind. Rakitin begrudgingly takes the money, whereas Alyosha is overcome with
In his great Theological conversation with his brother Ivan, Alyosha struggles to accept the world God has made after Ivan argues that he cannot love any God who allows for the suffering of innocent children. In his recitation of the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan challenges the systemic and institutional applications of Christianity through the church. He could buy into the notion of God and eternal life. However, the state of the world keeps him ethically unable to praise God. Alyosha, on the other hand, has a much more pragmatic application of Christianity. He believes that an individual’s actions and efforts towards selflessness can create a type of utopian heaven on earth. The importance of an onion aligns with its simplicity. The story would take on a different meaning if the wicked woman were given something more precious or valuable, like gold. The onion comes to represent the everyday actions that show kindness to others. These are not grand displays. Instead, they are small, like Grushenka removing herself from Alyosha’s lap or Alyosha listening to Grushenka’s lamentation. The key is to understand the every day, existential ways in which an individual can aid another.
I believe that one of the reasons that Alyosha was so devastated after the death of Zosima was because he wanted to believe Zosima was something more than human. Alyosha wanted to see Zosima as a great spiritual leader, who had practically transcended the world of man. Zosima, however, believed himself to be the lowest of all men. After talking with Grushenka, Alyosha recognized the imperatives and themes of his message embedded in the onion fable. Recognizing the work and beliefs of Zosima from an outside source restored Alyosha’s faith in humanity. This faith would become necessary with the coming trial. I also believe it is substantive that Grushenka is the one relaying this information to Alyosha, and ultimately restoring his faith and ‘soul’. Grushenka had, so far, been represented as an agent of separation. The scene between she and Katarina served to distance Ivan and Dmitri. Also, her status as being courted by both Fyodor and Dmitri serves to create another level of separation and strife between the father and son. Using Grushenka as the agent of restoring Alyosha’s faith is significant, because it resounds with the teachings of Zosima. Zosima taught that all mankind has the capacity for good and evil, and that al mankind should look to one another for support. Choosing a character that has caused so much strife and division in the Karamazov family effectively challenges Alyosha’s disenfranchisement with mankind. For, even a lowly, self-affirming ‘wicked’ woman can offer her aid to one in need and seek forgiveness for past wrongs.
The onion also offers an interesting metaphor for the novel. For one, the onion may be remarking on the multiple voices and ideologies presented in this book. Like an onion, the individual characters’ arguments are layered on top of one another. They are similar, and possibly stem from the same branch of thought, but they are not identical. Just like the onion, the Brothers Karamazov is simultaneously one completed piece, as well as a collection of layered and unique parts. Another possible explanation is that the onion is representative of the church. In this sense, there is even more emphasis on raising up individuals by the community. Also, there is an increased sense of inclusion and love considering the individual is willing to share their onion with the public.
Ultimately, Alyosha needed this conversation with Grushenka to fully understand the teachings of his master. In the following chapter, “Cana of Galilee”, Alyosha experiences a trance-like dream at the monastery. He considers what the elder Zosima had taught him and how Grushenka had altered his mind, when he feels the hand of the deceased elder Zosima reaching out for his own hand. The image of Zosima leaves Alyosha with the need to “sojourn the world”(363). He describes the moment of divine intervention as forever life altering, and as one which “never in all his life would Alyosha forget”(363). I believe that the meeting with Grushenka was a necessary pre-condition to Alyosha’s revelation at the monastery. For, Grushenka proved to Alyosha that the words of his elder did not exist only in stories or abstract reality. Instead of hearing a second hand account of intense self-examination followed by a desire for forgiveness, Alyosha could fully understand what his master Zosima wanted to instill in him. Grushenka also represented a person who was not intimately connected with the church, but could still seek forgiveness and retribution through admission of their mistakes. This is an important distinction, as Alyosha becomes increasingly weary of the institution of Christianity in Russia and the fences constructed to separate the ‘sanctified’ monks with the mass public. He wants to believe Zosima’s claim that people are people, and everyone has a duty to his fellow man. Alyosha’s experience at the monastery after Zosima’s death forced him to question Christianity and his master’s teachings. However, the episode with Grushenka showed him that even the woman who is currently tearing his family apart could seek forgiveness and atonement.
Ultimately, the scene with the onion represents a key theme carried throughout the novel. There are some examples of ambiguity. For example, Alyosha never explicitly states the onion he gave to Grushenka. It may be the kindness and love he shows everyone. Regardless, Grushenka’s conversation with Alyosha and Rakitin proved to Alyosha that humans are complex creatures. She affirmed her own wicked past, while also attempting to seek forgiveness for her actions. The fable of the onion leaves the reader with a clear directive. Firstly, the road to salvation is made of small good deeds, given selflessly to others. Secondly, attempting to conceal or keep one’s gifts for oneself only leads to personal destruction and the fiery lake. Finally, only by both receiving and giving away onions may a person be sanctified or justified by another human.
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