There are about twenty women near the wooden porch “built onto the outside wall.” The widowed Madame Khokhlakov and her paralyzed fourteen-year-old daughter, Lise, are also on the porch. Zosima the elder appears on the porch and stands on the top step. The crowd presses toward the steps that connect “the low porch with the field.” A “shrieker” is “pulled up to him by both hands.” She begins to shriek, hiccup, and shake all over “as if in convulsions.” Zosima covers her head with his stole and reads her a prayer, which calms her.
The “shrieker” near the porch is reminiscent of Fyodor’s tendency to call Ivan and Alexei’s mother “the shrieker” due to her similarly hysterical reactions in response to holy rapture. In the novel, women express more religious devotion than men, except for those in the monastery, who have less control over their lives and rely more on the Church to deliver them from their circumstances.
Many of the women who move toward Zosima are crying “tears of tenderness and rapture.” Others try to kiss the hem of his clothes. The elder points to a woman named Nastasia who comes from two hundred miles away. She’s in mourning for her three-year-old son, the last of her children to die. Her husband, Nikitushka, has taken to drinking, and she has abandoned him and her home. Zosima encourages her to think that her child “stands before the throne of the Lord, rejoicing and being glad, and praying to God” on her behalf. He tells her to weep and then to rejoice. The woman, however, can’t stop thinking about how she’ll never see or hear her son, whose name was Alexei, ever again.
The women react to Zosima as though he is a saint or a Christ-like savior. Their faith in him is partly borne out of religious instruction, as well as desperation to appeal to someone who can relieve their suffering. Nastasia is obsessed with the death of her youngest child. Zosima comforts her by distracting her from the earthly reality of his decomposing body and reimagining him in a heaven in which he enjoys a happiness and nobility that he couldn’t realize in life.
Zosima tells Nastasia that he’ll remember her in his prayers. He then tells her to go back to her husband, because it is a sin for her to abandon him. She agrees to return home and tells the elder that he’s “touched [her] heart.” Zosima then shifts his attention to “a very little old lady” who is “the widow of a noncommissioned officer.” This is Madame Prokhorovna. She worries that her son, Vasenka, is dead because he has stopped writing to her. Zosima assures her that the boy is alive and that she should go and “be at peace.”
Zosima reminds Nastasia that her grief doesn’t exempt her from her responsibility to her husband, who may need her more now so that he doesn’t dissipate himself in alcohol. Their marriage unites them in their suffering. Prokhorovna has a different obsession—that of being overprotective of her son, who may have stopped writing to be relieved of her excessive concern.
Zosima then focuses on a “still young, peasant woman” who looks “consumptive.” She’s a widow whose husband used to beat her. She nearly confesses to having killed her husband while he was on his sickbed. Zosima tells her not to let repentance “slacken” in her. She will then be forgiven. He blesses her three times, takes an icon from around his neck, and puts it around hers. After taking a donation of sixty kopecks from a woman who wants to provide for “some woman who’s poorer” than she is, Zosima blesses all of the women and bows “deeply” to them.
What Zosima seems to mean about not letting repentance “slacken” in the widow is that she must not forget that she has committed the sin of murder. The icon that he gives her is similar to the one that he later gives to Madame Khokhlakov, which she thinks imbues her with special powers of foresight. Zosima’s icons seem to give the women who visit him a feeling of empowerment that they otherwise lack.