The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov


Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Onion Symbol Icon

The onion is a symbol of redemption that helps both Grushenka and Alexei Fyodorovich to recognize the complexity of human character, which is neither strictly good nor entirely evil. Grushenka tells Alexei the parable of the onion, in which a wicked woman ruins her chance of being saved from hell by failing to remember an instance in which she unselfishly gave a beggar woman an onion. The woman’s guardian angel makes a wager with God: if the angel can take “that same onion” and pull the woman out of the lake of fire, she can go to heaven; but, if it breaks, she will remain in hell. The angel holds the onion out to the woman and beckons her to pull. She takes hold of it and nearly pulls herself out. However, when other sinners hold on to her, hoping to be pulled up with her, she kicks them away and tries to keep the onion for herself. With this, the onion breaks, and she falls back into the lake of fire.

Grushenka tells the tale of the onion to exemplify her own wickedness, though it ends up becoming an indication of her decency. She confesses that she promised Mikhail Osipovich Rakitin twenty-five roubles in exchange for bringing Alexei Fyodorovich to her residence, where she hoped to seduce and corrupt the young monk, in revenge for what she perceived as his self-righteous judgment of her. Alexei, in turn, allowed Rakitin to take him to Grushenka’s to be corrupted, due to his recent disillusionment over failing to witness a miracle after Zosima, the Elder’s death. After Grushenka learns about the elder’s death, she has a change of heart, prompted by her empathy for Alexei’s loss. In turn, Alexei is pleasantly surprised by her empathy and feels that the woman whom he had once considered “a wicked soul” is now “a loving soul” and “a true sister.” Grushenka’s empathy was “the onion” that Alexei needed in order to nourish his weak faith in the world and to restore the strength of his belief in goodness. Similarly, Alexei’s faith in Grushenka’s good nature is “the onion” that she needed in order to rescue her from her belief that she could never overcome her wickedness. With these simple acts of empathy, Alexei and Grushenka save each other from the hell of hopelessness and illustrate the complexity of human nature.

The Onion Quotes in The Brothers Karamazov

The The Brothers Karamazov quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Onion. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Faith vs. Reason Theme Icon
Part 2: Book 5, Chapter 4 Quotes

“In my opinion, Christ’s love for people is in its kind a miracle impossible on earth. True, he was God. But we are not gods. Let’s say that I, for example, am capable of profound suffering, but another man will never be able to know the degree of my suffering, because he is another and not me, and besides, a man is rarely willing to acknowledge someone else as a sufferer […] And why won’t he acknowledge it, do you think? Because I, for example, have a bad smell, or a foolish face, or once stepped on his foot […] Beggars, especially noble beggars, should never show themselves in the street; they should ask for alms through the newspapers. It’s still possible to love one’s neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close.”

Related Characters: Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov (speaker), Alexei “Alyosha” Fyodorovich Karamazov
Related Symbols: The Onion
Page Number: 237
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Onion Symbol Timeline in The Brothers Karamazov

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Onion appears in The Brothers Karamazov. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 3: Book 7, Chapter 3: An Onion
Jealousy and Envy Theme Icon
Suffering Theme Icon
...declares that she’ll tell the truth. She says that, though she’s wicked, she gave an onion. She tells Alexei the fable about the woman who ended up condemned to hell because... (full context)
Suffering Theme Icon
...for her wickedness. He reminds her that all he did was to give her an onion. Then, he starts weeping. Fenya enters, announcing that a carriage has come from Mokroye. Grushenka... (full context)
Part 3: Book 7, Chapter 4: Cana of Galilee
Faith vs. Reason Theme Icon
...who appears as a “little wizened man,” says that he’s there because he gave an onion and that there are many others who gave only “one little onion.” Zosima tells Alexei... (full context)