Book VII: A nasty smell and an onion.
In which Alyosha has his faith both shaken and stirred, and the narrator is more intrusive than ever.
So, Father Zosima has finally died, and the strangest thing happens. His body starts to smell! The very next day!!! (which, if you think about it - we're not talking about a tropical country here - is a bit strange) The thing is though, he's supposed to be a saint, and saints' bodies are supposed to smell like violets (ask Malory - he was careful to tell us that Lancelot's body gave off a sweet odour when he died, despite all his sins). The narrator advises us, however, that he wouldn't have bothered telling us about this except that it has an noteworthy effect on his hero, whom he's reluctant to call a hero yet, mind you, but will be a hero sometime soon, we hope.
As I'm writing this, I am reminded of how effective the narrative is, because we move forward in time, encompassing the days after Zosima's death and some time afterwards, where we see the way the townspeople are immediately upset by this occurence, then settle down again and return to normal some time later. In the same way, on that single day, Alyosha is very upset, seems to turn briefly into doubting Ivan, and even into debauched Dmitri, when he goes for a drink with Rakitin and Grushenka, but then has his faith restored and made stronger than ever.
Storytelling is once more foregrounded. The whole affair of the smelly body becomes in itself a little parable. Then, Grushenka tells Alyosha a little story about one onion: An old lady who had been mean and nasty all her life is burning in hell and whinging about it. An angel asks her if she ever did anything good, and she remembers having given someone an onion once. So the angel says, okay, I'll hold out an onion to you and pull you up with it and if it doesn't break, you get out of hell. Well, it's working, and then a bunch of other people see her and grab her legs, hoping to get pulled out as well. She kicks them, and tells them to let go because it's her onion, and of course the onion breaks.
Please note that of course the implication is that if she had not kicked them and told them to get lost, probably they all would have been saved. Another example, then, of how we are all responsible for everyone else and all interconnected.
There's a whole lot of business with Grushenka being hysterical, that I will pass over, but the upshot is that Grushenka decides to leave town to be with the man who seduced her (thus forgiving him) and Alyosha finds himself feeling a lot better.
The section ends with a rather effective dream sequence, where Alyosha, back at the monastery, falls asleep while those keeping a vigil over Zosima's grave are reading out the story of Cana of Galilee (which is the one where Jesus turns water into wine - his first miracle). He dreams that he's at a party, where everyone is drinking this wine, and Zosima is there and talks to him, and he gets this sense of the infiniteness of God's love and life the universe and everything and ends the book in a state of rapture.
All this is maybe just a wee bit heavy-handed. Like, Fyodor, dude - we get it, okay? But it's also interesting the way the structure of the book works to keep giving us theme and variations and turning back in on itself. We move in an out from the individual to the society and back again, backwards and forwards in time. There's a lot of _very_ intrusive narration, as if to highlight the theatricality of all this, self-consciously presenting a message.
I'm also thinking about the whole doubt and faith thing - the three things that Christ rejects in Ivan's story (miracle, mystery and authority) are both undermined yet reinforced in this section. Zosima ought to be demonstrating his sainthood by smelling sweet, by giving everyone some visible sign of his ascension to heaven and doesn't, but... in the end, we see him in Alyosha's dream, freed from death, partaking of a miracle in which water is turned into wine, in a room where God demonstrates his infinite dominion. It's as if we can't expect God to keep _advertising_ how powerful he is, but that doesn't mean he isn't powerful... I think. It all turns my head inside-out.