Alexei enters the monastery a healthy, “red-cheeked,” and “clear-eyed” young man. He’s even a realist, though he believes in miracles. Realists, when they come to admit to the existence of miracles, will admit them as facts of nature that were previously unknown to them. Alexei enters the monastery because he is seeking truth and wishes to participate in it. If he didn’t believe in God, he would have joined the atheists and socialists, for socialism is the desire “to bring heaven down to earth.”
The description of Alexei as “clear-eyed” suggests that he has no delusions about the world and didn’t enter the monastery to escape from reality. On the contrary, he entered it to bring himself closer to reality. His faith is rooted in a desire to understand mysteries, whereas Ivan will later express a wish not to bother with what he cannot see.
Alexei may have preserved some early childhood memories from the local monastery, “where his mother may have taken him to the Sunday liturgy.” There, he would have met his elder, Zosima, who’s now “dying from weakness and disease.” It’s unclear whom they are going to replace him with.
Alexei’s desire to enter the monastery is likely connected to his wish to identify more strongly with his mother’s memory. His early memories of his mother are more positive than his experience of neglect at the hands of his father.
The replacement of the elder Zosima is an important issue because the local monastery offers nothing but its elders. An elder is someone who takes another’s soul and will “into his soul and into his will.” By choosing an elder, one renounces one’s will and gives it to the elder under total obedience and with self-renunciation. The purpose of doing this is to achieve “self-conquest” to avoid the fate of never understanding who one is. Only the elder who imposes obedience on a disciple can release him from obedience. Elders have “a boundless and inconceivable” power that first led to their persecution. Soon thereafter, they “found great respect among the people.” Commoners, as well as the highest nobility, flock to them to confess their doubts, sins, and sufferings. They ask for advice and admonition.
In the culture of the Orthodox Church, elders can also be nuns (“eldresses”). Elders can sometimes also be married priests or bishops. What makes a member of the clergy an elder is their spiritual purity, which, believers say, gives them the power of clairvoyance. This extraordinary power is largely bestowed to the institution by the people, however. An elder cannot assume responsibility for another’s soul without the consent of the believer. Giving another mortal such responsibility reveals the extent of the community’s faith in the institution and its immense respect for those willing to suffer.
Alexei lives in a cell, and Zosima loves the young man very much and allows him to stay near him. There are some among the monks who hate and envy Zosima, but they are a silent few. Still, they consist of some of the most important members of the monastery. One of them is one of the most aged monk, Father Ferapont, “famous for his great silence and remarkable fasting.” The majority, however, love Zosima ardently. Some are even so fanatically attached to him that they revere him as a saint.
Zosima probably loves Alexei for his innocence and the ease of his devotion. The envy toward Zosima among the other monks shows that even those who have dedicated themselves to holiness are prone to petty human foibles, as Dostoevsky frequently shows. Reactions to Zosima are extreme, it seems. People either loathe him or are deeply devoted to him.
While Dmitri and Fyodor are arguing over the inheritance and property accounts, Alexei suggests that they all get together in Zosima’s cell, figuring that the elder’s presence might be “influential and conciliatory.” This gives Alexei the chance to get to know his brothers. He becomes friends intimately and quickly with Dmitri, but Alexei and Ivan are still not close. Alexei even wonders if Ivan, “the learned atheist,” might not feel some contempt for him. Pyotr Alexandrovich also agrees to participate in the visit. He figures that it’ll help him settle his lawsuit with the monastery over the boundaries of their land, wood-cutting rights, and fishing in the river.
The visit to Zosima’s cell turns into a family affair, bringing together those who are stuck in a circle of discord, fostered largely by material interests. However, Fyodor and Pyotr show up not out of interest in the institution or any particular respect for the elder, but only to address their selfish desires. Alexei knows that Fyodor and Dmitri don’t really share in his faith, but he believes that they can still reap the benefits of Zosima’s boundless goodness. He worries, though, that Ivan will find it all ridiculous.
Alexei worries that Dmitri will be the only one who will take the council with Zosima seriously, and that the rest will come “with frivolous purposes” and might even offend the elder. Ivan and Pyotr Alexandrovich, he figures, are only agreeing out of curiosity. Fyodor, he thinks, is only coming to engage in “some buffoonery and theatrics.” He fears any insult to Zosima, especially Pyotr’s “refined, polite jibes” and Ivan’s “haughty innuendos.”
Alexei is embarrassed by his family, knowing that they’re neither devout nor truly interested in the monastery. It’s possible that he thinks Dmitri will be the only one to be respectful because Dmitri already belongs to an institution that requires devotion—the military. He also lacks Fyodor’s farcical pretentiousness and Pyotr and Ivan’s haughtiness.