The elder Zosima starts his narrative by saying that he was born in a northern province. His father was noble, but not high-ranking. He died when Zosima, then named Zinovy, was two, and left his mother with “a small wooden house” and a bit of money. Zinovy’s older brother’s name was Markel, who was eight years older, “hot-tempered and irritable by nature.” Otherwise, he was kind, silent, and a good student. Markel had no friends among his schoolmates but visited “a certain solitary man” in town known for being a freethinker. He was also “a great scholar and distinguished philosopher at the university.” Markel spent his evenings with him until the man was called back to government service in Petersburg.
Zosima was born into a life of some privilege. Like Alexei, he comes from a family of some nobility—in title only, not character or reputation—and some wealth. Also, like Alexei, he had a hot-tempered older brother. The similarities between them make it easier for Zosima to relate to Alexei and to sympathize with the discord in his family.
When Lent came around, Markel refused to fast and then announced that there was no God. This horrified the family and the servants. In the sixth week of Lent, Markel became ill. They found out that he had consumption so bad that he wouldn’t live through spring. Their mother became fearful for the fate of his soul and begged Markel to observe Lent. Markel had known for a year that he was sick. To please his mother, he agreed to keep the fast and go to church for a little while before taking to his bed.
Markel’s atheism concerns the family, which now worries about the fate of his soul, with death looming over him. One aspect of Lent is fasting to atone for one’s sins. Markel’s lack of belief could be a result of the professor’s influence, or it could his rebellion against God for his illness, or both.
Though he was very ill, Zinovy (Zosima) saw that his older brother still got out of bed, dressed, and tried to sit in his armchair. Markel seemed glad and discouraged his mother from weeping. He said that, if he were to live, he would serve his mother, for everyone must serve everyone. His mother insisted that it was his illness talking because, in her view, it’s impossible not to have masters and servants. He went on to say that everyone is guilty of something before everyone. Therefore, it’s unnecessary to quarrel or to remember offenses.
Markel’s example remains with the elder Zosima to date and probably influences his insistence on sitting up in his armchair as though he’s well, despite his suffering. Markel’s message that everyone should be of service to everyone is also uttered later by Zosima when he first enters the monastery. He goes to parties and encourages the guests and hosts to reconsider their standard of having servants.
One day, Zinovy (Zosima) went into Markel’s room alone. The evening was bright, and the sun was setting. Markel told his younger brother to go out and play for him—to live! Zinovy obeyed. Markel died in the third week after Easter.
The setting sun marks the end of Markel’s life. He encourages Zosima to enjoy the remnants of the day because he won’t even live to see the night.
Acquaintances advised his mother to send Zinovy (Zosima) to Petersburg to the Cadet Corps. The purpose was for him to later enter the Imperial Guard. Zinovy was in the Cadet Corps for nearly eight years. While there, he suppressed many of his childhood memories and took up new habits, which turned him “into an almost wild, cruel, and absurd creature.” He acquired some polish, due to learning manners and the French language, but he also learned to engage in “drunkenness, debauchery, and bravado.” Soon, he came into some money and used it to engage in “a life of pleasure.” Zinovy read books then, but never the Bible, though he always carried it with him.
Zinovy’s dissipation mirrors that of Dmitri, who also went to military school, and then learned to become self-indulgent and greedy. Zosima’s story suggests that he, too, could have ended up as depraved and selfish as Dmitri if certain events had not occurred to convince him to take another path. His early choices influence the elder’s belief that being cultured and educated isn’t enough to encourage moral behavior.
After serving for four years, Zinovy (Zosima) ended up in a nameless town starting with the letter “K.” His regiment was stationed there for a while. Zinovy was well-received in the community and soon met an attractive young woman with “reputable parents.” He became infatuated with her and assumed that she felt the same way. He was not in love with her, however, and was too selfish to propose marriage. Zinovy then went away and returned two months later to discover that the girl was married to a wealthy older man who was a local landowner. Zinovy realized that this man had been the girl’s fiancé for some time and that he had met the other man “many times in [her] house” but was too “blinded by [his] own merits” to realize that they were involved.
A minor motif in the novel is love triangles. Dmitri, Fyodor, and Grushenka are all a part of a love triangle. Katerina, Ivan, and Dmitri are in another, though it’s unlikely that Katerina and Dmitri were ever truly in love. Here, Zosima reveals his competition with another man for the affection of a woman. However, Zosima admits that he didn’t really care for the woman but only wanted to claim her as a prize. His ego demanded that he not lose something to another man.
Zinovy (Zosima) was embarrassed by his obliviousness, and then became him angry. He decided that the girl must have been laughing at him. She had not really been, but usually broke off his amorous conversations in jest and changed the subject. Zinovy didn’t realize this at the time and continued to burn with revenge, thinking that he had been made to look like a fool.
Zinovy’s embarrassment is typical of a young man whose pride has been wounded. He didn’t consider how embarrassed the girl may have been to hear such words from him, knowing that she wasn’t interested while also worried about his reaction to rejection.
At a gathering, Zinovy (Zosima) confronted the girl’s fiancé and insulted him, “wittily and cleverly,” according to other guests. He challenged his “rival” to a duel and the other man accepted, having felt some jealousy toward his fiancée’s relationship with Zinovy. It was the end of June and the men were scheduled to meet the next day, “outside town, at seven o’clock in the morning.”
Zinovy believed that he could both mend his wounded ego and claim the girl for himself if he killed her fiancé. Both men agreed to the duel, less out of love for the girl than as attempts to prove to the other who the superior man was.
Zinovy (Zosima) returned home that evening and got angry with his orderly, Afanasy. He struck the servant twice in the face, causing blood to pour. Forty years later, the elder recalls the assault with “shame and anguish.” That night, Zinovy went to bed, “slept for about three hours,” and woke up at daybreak. He went to the window, opened it, and watched the sun rise over his garden. He felt something “mean and shameful” in his soul. It wasn’t because of the impending duel, but because he hurt Afanasy.
Zosima takes out his anger on the one person who can’t fight back. He was unable to sleep because of his guilty conscience. This places him in contrast to someone like Dmitri, who beat up Grigory seemingly without regret. It took this impulsive act of cruelty against someone weaker than himself to make Zosima truly rethink his life.
Zinovy (Zosima) then remembered his brother Markel’s last words to the servants before he died. He asked them why they were serving him and if he was worthy of being served. He also remembered how his older brother said that everyone is guilty “before everyone and for everyone.” Suddenly, Zinovy understood what he was about to do: he was going to kill another man. Just then, his comrade, the lieutenant, came in with the pistols to take him to the site of the duel. They walked out to the carriage, then Zinovy went back in, pretending to have forgotten his purse. He went to Afanasy’s room and asked for forgiveness. Afanasy looked afraid, so Zinovy threw himself on the floor at his feet and, again, begged for forgiveness. Afanasy was astounded and also wept.
Markel’s memory saves Zinovy, serving as inspiration for him to find the better part of his nature and cancel the duel. He realizes the gravity of what he is preparing to do, but then risks dishonoring the regiment to prove his new understanding that nothing is more precious than human life. He is guilty for having made the error of thinking that he had the right to judge who deserves to live and die.
Zinovy (Zosima) went back outside and jumped into the carriage, commanding it to drive. Suddenly, he was excited. When they got to the site of the duel, his rival was already waiting. The men were set “twelve paces apart” and the rival took the first shot, which only grazed Zinovy’s cheek. When it was his turn, he threw his pistol up into the trees. He then asked his adversary for forgiveness, apologizing for his foolishness and for causing offense. His adversary and the seconds got angry. The lieutenant, who served as Zinovy’s second, accused him of dishonoring the regiment. Zinovy knew that he’d be regarded as a coward, but he was too enraptured by “the divine gifts” all around them to care. His opponent was convinced by his sincerity and shook his hand. Zinovy returned home with the lieutenant, who scolded him, while Zinovy kissed him.
Zinovy is excited because he’s eager to demonstrate his new awareness, which will become the seed of his religious faith. His plea for forgiveness and expression of humility contradicts the image of a stoic and ruthless military man, which is what Zinovy is supposed to be. This is why the lieutenant scolds him for dishonoring the regiment; he has revealed what could be perceived as weakness. Zinovy is blithely unaware of his transgression and kisses the lieutenant to express love and, perhaps, to forgive the lieutenant for being willing to conspire in taking another man’s life.
When his comrades heard the news, they accused Zinovy (Zosima) of dishonoring the regiment and demanded that he “resign his commission.” Some defended him, noting that Zinovy couldn’t be a coward because he stood up against a shot from his adversary. Zinovy announced that he had already resigned and intended to join the monastery. They all laughed, saying that he should have told them that straight away; for, they never would have passed judgment on a monk. Even his detractors were soon won over. The same happened in local society, which had received him cordially before, but now vied for his attention.
Those who accused Zinovy of being a coward took offense with his unwillingness to shoot his adversary, again contradicting the image of a soldier. When he announces that he’s becoming a monk, however, he quickly regains the respect of his detractors, and develops a reputation within local society. It’s almost humorous how quickly the opinions of other change based on what role he is supposed to fill.
Most of those who sought his attention were ladies. One evening, Zinovy (Zosima) saw the woman over whom he had started the duel. She stood up, went over to him, and offered her hand. She thanked him and expressed her respect for what he did. Then, her husband—Zinovy’s former rival—also came over and “all but kissed [him].” Their love filled Zinovy with joy. Then, an older gentleman came up to him. He knew the man by name, though they had never officially met nor “exchanged a word” until that party.
Zinovy attracts the attention of women who, in the context of the novel, are often the most devout. Alexei will also have a reputation for appealing most to women, including Madame Khokhlakov. The monks are probably sources of comfort because there is little threat of romantic relations developing.
The man was an official with a prominent position. He was a wealthy, fifty-year-old philanthropist, married to a young wife with whom he had three small children. The next evening, the man visited Zinovy (Zosima) at his home. By then, Zinovy had moved to a place that he rented from “the old widow of an official.” The man said that he had been going to various houses, listening to him talk, and had wanted to make his acquaintance for some time. He told Zinovy that he was impressed by his “great strength of character,” which led him to risk “suffering general contempt” in favor of the truth. The man tactfully asked if Zinovy could describe to him what he felt at the moment when he asked for forgiveness at the duel.
The visitor, who will later reveal himself to have been a murderer, is a successful man who lives in great comfort. His philanthropy is an attempt to atone for his past action, however. His family, wealth, and social privilege are mentioned to express that, by confessing to murder, he would be compromising a great deal. The visitor looks at Zinovy as someone of a similar social station who chose honesty and goodness over not doing anything to risk his reputation. The man finds this willingness to suffer courageous.
Zinovy (Zosima) started from the beginning, which involved the story of what happened between him and Afanasy. The man was interested and soon paid Zinovy regular visits nearly every evening. He said “hardly a word about himself,” but kept asking about Zinovy. Zinovy developed love for the man and confided in him. He was impressed that someone so much older wouldn’t “disdain [his] youth.” As a result of these visits, Zinovy stopped going out. He had become less popular anyway.
Zinovy’s change of heart began when he realized that his unjust society had taught him to be callous and indifferent toward others’ rights to existence. He’s pleasantly surprised that the visitor is listening to him, as someone as young as Zinovy wouldn’t normally be consulted for guidance.
Zinovy (Zosima) soon noticed that his new friend wanted to tell him something important. He then revealed that he once killed someone. Over the course of three days, the man told Zinovy the story of how he had committed the crime fourteen years earlier over the “young and beautiful” widow of a landowner. He tried to persuade her to marry him, but she was already engaged to “an officer of noble birth and high rank, who was then away on campaign.” She then asked the man to stop visiting her. He obliged but, one night, broke into her apartments and “plunged a knife straight into her heart.” He arranged things so that the servants would be blamed: he took money and large baubles, neglecting the smaller ones that were worth more.
The visitor actually commits the crime for which Dmitri will later be accused and sentenced, as his jealousy and entitlement led him to murder. Instead of respecting the lady’s engagement as well as her wish to cease all relations, Zinovy’s visitor decided to destroy what he could not have. Like Smerdyakov does later, the visitor makes it look like someone else robbed his victim.
The lady’s serf, Pyotr, became the main suspect. The lady had intended to send him into the army and he had already been overheard, during a drunken night in a tavern, threatening to kill her. Two days before her death, he left her home and was living somewhere in town. The day after her murder, someone found him on a road outside of town, drunk, “with a knife in his pocket,” and his hand stained with blood. He said that his nose had been bleeding, but no one believed that. He was arrested, but a week later, he succumbed to fever and died in the hospital. Still, everyone was convinced that the serf had committed murder.
Ivan would consider these details to be “mathematical proof” of the serf’s guilt, just as everyone in this town did. The evidence, which is rather arbitrary, worked against Pyotr partly because the town wanted to believe that he was guilty. It made sense to think that a resentful serf would kill his mistress out of contempt for her control over his life. Like Dmitri later in the novel, he is condemned without anyone knowing the truth.
Zinovy’s (Zosima) “mysterious visitor” admitted that he felt no remorse for the lady’s murder. He only regretted that “he had killed the woman he loved,” not a fellow human being. The stolen articles and money “troubled him little” because he had only taken them to divert attention away from himself. Moreover, the value of what he had taken was small. He donated “the entire sum and even much more for the almshouse that was being established in [their] town.”
The story about the mysterious visitor reveals the toxic nature of jealousy, which can propel a person not only to threaten or kill a romantic rival, but even the object of their passion. The visitor also seemed to have an extreme indifference to human life and its value.
Zinovy’s (Zosima) visitor then told him how he got married to “a wonderful and sensible girl” shortly thereafter. He figured that marriage and, eventually, children would help him to forget about his past crimes. He then began to worry about his wife finding out that he committed murder. He began to have dreams about his victim, in which he saw her blood. He endured this torment and continued with his philanthropic activities, for which he became well-known. The visitor tells Zinovy that he thought about committing suicide. Then, he decided that he would confess his crime to the public. For three years, he fantasized about doing so. Then, inspired by Zinovy’s courage at the duel, he decided to do it.
The visitor talks about how his evil deed didn’t mar his good fortune. Instead, the fact that he continued to lead such a blessed life, despite his crime, causes him to feel guilty (and also proves how unjust his society is). However, there’s also the possibility that he didn’t really feel guilty but only wanted to avoid facing any consequences for what he did, as he mostly fears his wife finding out. He decides that it’s better to confess so that he can stop suffering and maintain some honor.
Zinovy (Zosima) mentioned that no one would believe the visitor. He had no proof of his crime. The visitor worried about the fate of his wife and children, but Zinovy assured him that his children would later praise the “magnanimity” of his decision. Though the man claimed to have made up his mind, he continued to go to Zinovy for two weeks thereafter, as though he were still unable to make up his mind.
The visitor worries about the consequences of his revelation on his family, and of the possibility that they could become outcasts because of him—guilty by proxy. Zinovy assures him that his children will honor him for his willingness to suffer to do what is right.
On his birthday, the visitor gave a big party. The whole town was there. After dinner, he walked into the middle of the room with a paper in his hand, which was to be “a formal statement to the authorities.” He read it—a complete account of his crime. He then placed on the table the gold objects that he had taken from his victim, along with a letter from the woman’s fiancé and her unfinished reply to him. Everyone was “astonished and horrified.” The authorities were unsure of how to proceed because the objects could have been gifts from the woman, since they were acquainted.
The visitor’s choice to announce his crime to the entire town expresses that his feeling of guilt is more excruciating than any concern over what others will think of him, especially given that murder contrasts with his philanthropic reputation. It seems strange that the authorities do not believe a man who has confessed to a crime, but this is likely related to his high social standing.
Five days later, the visitor succumbed to madness. The man’s wife accused Zinovy (Zosima) of upsetting him and bringing on his anguish. Zinovy went to see the man, who told him that he felt “joy and peace for the first time after so many years.” The man then whispered to Zinovy that he visited him once at midnight with the intention of killing him—hating Zinovy for expecting the man to turn himself in, while he was ambivalent about doing so. A week later, the man died. The whole town attended his funeral and “the archpriest made a heartfelt speech.” Once he was buried, the whole town turned against Zinovy. Then, people began to believe the truth of the man’s confession and agreed to receive Zinovy again.
On his deathbed, the man feels peace because he has relieved his conscience and probably believes that he can now go to heaven. The man’s confession about considering murder again strongly suggests that he’s a wrathful person who strikes out when he no longer feels in control of himself or others. This aspect of the man’s nature is only known to Zinovy, however. Others do not want to believe that the man with the generous reputation would kill because to do so would be admitting, in some way, of having been fooled.