My Reaction to The Brothers Karamazov–Part 6: The Mysterious Visitor

I will now turn my attention to a part of the story which a lot of readers, I am willing to bet, just blow right by. This portion appears at first glance to be completely irrelevant, but I believe that it is anything but irrelevant.

In the middle of the story, Father Zossima is dying. All of the monks who were closest to him during his life at the monastery are gathered around him to hear his final words. Father Zossima gives a full account of his growing-up years, his calling into the monastic life and life as a monk, and final reflections on the role of the monk in Russian society.

In the course of all this, Father Zossima gives an account of how a mysterious stranger came to visit him, became friends with him, and ultimately confessed his deepest, darkest secret–that several years before he had murdered a woman whom he loved very much but who did not love him. He had never been suspected in this murder. Under the guidance of Father Zossima, this stranger finally gains the courage to confess his secret to those who are closest to him. Within a few days after his confession, he dies. All of the people in the stranger’s village blame Father Zossima, saying that following his advice caused him so much trouble that it pushed him to his death. But what they do not understand is that their friend had been troubled by the burden of his secret for several years, and at the time of his death he finally had a clear conscience.

It is easy to dismiss this as an irrelevant aside, and I would bet that a lot of readers do. But I believe that this is a mistake. I doubt seriously that a novelist of Dostoyevsky’s caliber would insert a passage this long into his story if it were merely an irrelevant aside.

I believe that Dostoyevsky’s intent in including the account of the mysterious visitor is to foreshadow the murder of Fyodor Karamazov by providing an account of a similar murder. For if you will notice, the murder which the mysterious visitor confesses to is similar to the murder of Fyodor Karamazov in many ways.

First of all, the murder takes place at night, when the woman is in her house all by herself. Both of her maidservants had left the day before–as if on purpose. The murder of Fyodor Karamazov took place at night, one day after Ivan had left–on purpose. Second, her other servants were asleep in the servants’ quarters. Fyodor Karamazov’s servants were asleep in the servants’ quarters at the time of his murder. Third, he contrived that suspicion for the murder should fall upon the servants by taking some of her valuables in the way that an ignorant servant would. In the same way, Smerdyakov contrived that suspicion should fall upon Dmitri by stealing Fyodor Karamazov’s three thousand roubles and leaving the ripped-open envelope right there on the floor.

Fourth, one of her serfs was immediately suspected, and every circumstance appeared to confirm this suspicion. This serf had been sent away as a recruit because he had no family and his conduct had been unsatisfactory. As a result, he was very angry with his master and had threatened to murder her while drunk at a local tavern one night. Likewise, when Fyodor Karamazov was murdered, suspicion immediately fell upon Dmitri because he had been angrily threatening to murder his father while drunk at the Metropolis tavern in the days and weeks leading up to the murder. Fifth, the unfortunate serf was found the day after the murder on the road leading out of town, dead drunk, with a knife in his pocket and his hand stained with blood. In the same way, Dmitri was seen running away from Fyodor Karamazov’s with blood all over his hand. The next morning he was found drunk at the inn in Mokroe, some twenty miles out of town.

Sixth, the unfortunate servant was to be tried for murder but died of a fever the week before the trial. So everyone let the matter rest convinced that the servant was guilty. When Father Zossima’s visitor tried to confess to the murder several years later, no one believed him. Everyone believed that his confession had been brought on by insanity. The proofs which he produced were not believed to be authentic, and the authorities quickly dropped the case. In the same way, Ivan tried to confess at Dmitri’s trial that Smerdyakov had murdered Fyodor Karamazov under his acquiescence, but no one believed him. Everyone believed that Ivan’s confession was due to insanity. He produced as proof the three thousand roubles which Smerdyakov had stolen from Fyodor Karamazov and given to him the night before, but no one believed them to be authentic.

Finally, Father Zossima’s visitor, after making his confession, said, “I cut myself off from men as a monster. God has visited me….I want to suffer for my sin!” In the same way Dmitri, though innocent of his father’s murder, acknowledged that he was guilty because he had hated his father and intended to kill him. When he was taken away after his questioning at Mokroe, he said, “I accept the torture of accusation, and my public shame. I want to suffer because by suffering I shall be purified. Perhaps I shall be purified, gentlemen? But listen, for the last time, I am not guilty of my father’s blood. I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I meant to kill him, and perhaps I really might have killed him.”

The account of Father Zossima’s mysterious visitor is a strong parallel to the murder of Fyodor Karamazov which foreshadows this murder. Also, it resonates with me because I know what it is like to carry a dark secret around for a long time. I can relate to what Father Zossima’s visitor must have felt all those years, the reluctance and inner conflict that he felt as Father Zossima pushed him to confess, and the release which he felt when he finally did confess.

(By the way, thanks to all of you who responded to the post in which I revealed my secret. I greatly appreciate your encouraging responses, and I appreciate your willingness to offer this encouragement.)