As soon as Alexei crosses the town square, he sees “a small gang of schoolboys” at the foot of the tiny bridge. The six boys range in age from nine to twelve. They’re going home and “talking animatedly about something.” Alexei, who likes children, feels like going over and talking to them. When he comes closer, he sees that each boy has a stone or two in his hand. Another boy, a pale and sickly one, is standing near the fence across the ditch.
Alexei’s fondness for children is influenced by Zosima, who teaches that children are of a purer spirit (like Jesus himself taught). However, the sight of stones in the boys’ hands dispels this notion of children’s perfect innocence. They seem now like predators hunting weak prey.
The boys throw stones at the boy across the ditch, who throws one back at them. One of them, Smurov, retaliates. The cornered boy throws a stone directly at Alexei and hits him in the shoulder. The boys notice that he hit Alexei on purpose, alerting them to the fact that Alexei is a Karamazov. When six more stones shoot out of the group, Alexei steps forward to shield the lone boy from the flying stones. The boys explain that they’re attacking the boy because he’s “a scoundrel” who “stabbed Kolya Krasotkin in class with a penknife.” Krasotkin didn’t want to tell on the boy, but they’ve all agreed that he needs to be beaten up.
The children know that the boy, Ilyusha, is angry at the Karamazovs because of Dmitri’s abusive treatment of his father. Alexei shields the boy because it’s unfair for six to gang up on one and because he has a tendency to identify with those who are underdogs. The boys, however, have a code of honor that isn’t dissimilar from that of adult men, who would also be likely to retaliate. Their code is also aligned with the Biblical Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” standard.
Another exchange of fire begins, this one “very savage.” The boy across the ditch is hit in the chest, prompting him to cry and run toward the street. The remaining boys call him a “coward” and a “whiskbroom.” The boys notice that the boy has stopped and is looking at Alexei from the hill. Alexei decides to find out from the boy why the others were attacking him. Coming closer, Alexei sees that the boy is pale and malnourished. He stares back at Alexei with large, dark, and angry eyes.
The “savage” nature of the rock fight contrasts with the presumed innocence of the boys, as well as the relative helplessness of their prey. The other children call the boy “whiskbroom” to mock his father, who was beaten up by Dmitri and dragged by his beard. The boy’s suffering seems inseparable from that of his family.
Alexei asks the boy if they know each other. The boy cries out to be left alone. Alexei agrees, but then the boy follows him and teases him. The boy then hits him in the back with a stone. When Alexei turns to face the boy and chastise him for attacking people from behind, the boy throws another stone into Alexei’s face. Alexei shields himself and it hits his elbow. The boy is certain that Alexei will retaliate. When he doesn’t, the boy seizes Alexei’s left hand and bites down on his middle finger. When Alexei pulls the finger away, he sees that it’s been bitten down to the bone. Alexei demands to know what he’s done to the boy, who doesn’t answer but bursts into “loud sobs.” He then runs away. Alexei decides that he’ll look for the boy again later, when he has time.
The boy cries out as though Alexei is victimizing him. The boy wants to engage with Alexei to get revenge for his father, but he also wants to assert the feeling that his family has been wronged. The boy’s willingness to hit Alexei in the back is revenge for Dmitri beating up on someone much weaker than himself. When the boy hits Alexei in the face and bites his finger, it’s a demonstration of the courage that he thinks the Karamazovs take for granted. Because Alexei serves as his brothers’ ambassador so often, it makes sense for him to be a stand-in for Dmitri.