Dostoevsky's The Meek One Crime and Punishment The Brothers Karamazov

The Hero of Cana: Alyosha’s Ode to Joy

Published: April 15, 2015

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov opens with a particularly unsatisfying note. The fictional narrator declares in his “From the Author” that the hero of the book is Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov. Quickly following this declaration is a confession: “To me he is noteworthy, but I decidedly doubt that I shall succeed in proving it to the reader” (Dostoevsky 3). He has set the reader up with the expectation that Alexei (henceforth “Alyosha”) will be the hero, but the reason why he is the hero will be obscured and perhaps unintelligible. The question “why” is a fair one. Despite the fact that the narrator declares The Brothers Karamazov a “biography,” the name of the book indicates that, if it is a biography, it is so for more than one character (3). What distinguishes Alyosha from his brothers, Ivan and Dmitri, that he should be the hero? Dmitri is more central to the action, and Ivan to the philosophy, of the novel. Yet Dostoevsky does provide a clue to the reader. The inclusion in the book of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” highlights the distinction that will separate the brothers: the distinction between joy and wisdom. At their best, Dmitri and Ivan each value and even model one of these two virtues, but Dostoevsky leads us to believe that neither joy nor wisdom is sustainable without the other. Alyosha is the one who in the end emerges victorious over the dichotomizing tension between the two, emerging into fullness of both joy and wisdom in tandem.

An die Freude (“Ode to Joy”) is one of very few poems in the entirety of The Brothers Karamazov, and, because of this, its text and context demand careful attention. Dostoevsky puts the verse in the mouth of Dmitri, the most corporeal and least academic or poetic of the brothers. Based on everything that has been seen of him so far, it is shocking that he has read Schiller (a German aesthetic philosopher), let alone remembered enough to quote him. This poem bubbles out of him while he is in a mental state in which he ought to be even less likely than usual to quote poetry. This is the great wonder of the “Ode to Joy” as it is quoted here: Dmitri is “falling [into the abyss] in a humiliating position,” and he recites a poem about the beauty of joy (Dostoevsky 107). It is in his shame, and only then, that he “suddenly [begins] a hymn” (107). The absurdity of this situation is not only indicative of Dmitri’s paradoxical character, but also of the significance of the poem for understanding the novel.

The way that Dostoevsky presents the poem highlights a distinction not clearly stated anywhere else in the novel: that between joy and wisdom. Dmitri quotes only two stanzas out of Schiller’s original nine. He does not quote them in the same order as in the original text, nor does he choose two particularly outstanding or unusual stanzas. Dmitri only discusses the second stanza that he quotes, which is the third in the original. From this stanza flows his discussion of beauty and sensuality, since here Schiller describes how joy gives men “love’s loyalty” and, to those life forms which are too low to accept love, sensuality (Dostoevsky 107). Meanwhile, the first stanza is left untreated. It is left solely up to the reader to make any sense or use of it. Since it is not integrated into Dmitri’s discussion, it seems that it must be sensible and useful in a different or larger context than his confession. In this stanza, Schiller describes joy as the giver and mover of all things. Its last lines go so far as to make a comparison: “Joy moves the spheres in realms afar, / Ne’er to thy glass, dim wisdom, given!” (Dostoevsky 107). Thus, for Dmitri at least, if not for the narrator or Dostoevsky himself, joy is of a higher order than wisdom. It has agency to change what wisdom cannot even understand.

It is Dmitri who most of all is characterized by the inclusion of the “Ode to Joy,” since he is the one who delivers it. His delivery is just as important, if not more so, than the text itself for revealing his relationship to joy. He recites the poem in a moment of ecstasy, a whirl of emotion that wavers on the very edges of lucidity. He is impassioned, completely unaware of and oblivious to the importance of anything beside the reality within his own heart: joy. Thus, while this text is pure in its joy and the second layer  of performance imposed over it is also purely joyful, the fact that there are two layers muddles the interpretation of Dmitri’s motives. Is this a hymn to joy itself? Is it a hymn to God, sprung out of or even comprising the joy in Dmitri’s heart? Or are both true, and joy is Dmitri’s god? His tirade gives no indication. This confusion labels Dmitri as an unsteady character, somehow pure but indistinct at the same time. His mind is united behind one thing, but that one thing is ecstatic and effervescent in nature. His interpretation of joy, both in the text of the hymn and in his later references to it, must therefore be understood as arising from a heart overwhelmed by (or maybe merely addicted to) it. The “hymn” represents the sum total of his joy and its implications.

Primary among the implications of Dmitri’s joy is his reliance on it. Because it is so overwhelming and addictive, especially to an impulsive, impassioned nature like Dmitri’s, joy has become the fundamental goal and central reference point of his life. Just before the hymn, he declares his feeling to be “joy without which the world cannot stand and be” (107). More specifically, it is joy “without which it’s not possible for man to live, or for God to be” (592). This is an astonishing assertion on his part: he has tapped into the foundational virtue, not only of his own happiness and meaning in existence, but also of the entire world and even God. He has identified it and identified with it, feeling it personally. For Dmitri, when the existence or feeling of joy is so necessary, the expression of it is also necessary—joy necessitates its effusion; it requires a hymn. Dmitri is so convinced of this that he even uses joy as an argument for the existence of God, noting that, if God were not present, “to whom will [man] be thankful, to whom will he sing the hymn?” (592). Joy is real enough to him to be a first assumption in other debates. He loves this joy, and he needs it, together with its outpouring in a hymn.

Dmitri’s need for joy, the joy that comprises his life, turns out to be devastating. It is true that for him joy must exist and that “it’s not possible for [him] to live” without it—but it is also true that joy is not constant enough to support his life on its own (592). Dmitri is prone to extremes of ecstasy, and joy is also by nature ecstatic and tends toward instability and fickleness. By placing such a high value (that is, his life) on something so unstable, he is compounding the agony that already comes with a lack of joy. When he is in prison at the end of the novel, he has indeed lost joy. He is “suffering” and in “misery” (765). The words that Dostoevsky uses do not point to something so simple as a lack of happiness, but to the essential lack of joy that leads to despair. On top of the horror that anyone would feel at being without joy, Dmitri sees life as no longer sustainable or good.

When Dmitri’s joy fails him, so does his hymn. Rather than sing from the bottom of the abyss where he has fallen, he now turns silent. The hymn, the symbol of the full-flourishing life, is itself mortal. Dmitri explains to Alyosha that he is “not strong enough to take it! [He] wanted to sing a ‘hymn,’ yet [he] can’t stand the guards’ talking down to [him]!” (763). There is no more joy for him, and thus there is no more song. He cannot endure, because Grushenka was the aim of his hope, and she has been taken away. With her goes his joy. With her goes not only his reason to sing, but also his ability to do so. While in his first exclamation of the hymn, Dmitri seems to set up a circular relationship between joy and the hymn, never committing to one being the cause or effect of the other, here it is clear that the hymn is insufficient to sustain joy. If there is a causal relationship between the two, the feeling of joy must come before its expression. The hymn offers no stability, only beauty. As Dmitri says, “beauty is a fearful and terrible thing!” (108). Yet without it, the product of a hymn of joy, his life loses much of its driving purpose and all of its prior meaning.

Ivan, on the other hand, does not appear to place weight on any of the things that Dmitri loves. The tension between the two brothers is palpable throughout the novel, despite the fact that Alyosha considers them to have a “wonderful and close bond” (31). In the first introduction to their relationship, he also notes that “the two placed side by side would seem to present so striking a contrast, in personality as well as in character, that it would perhaps be impossible to imagine two men more unlike each other” (31). From here to the end, where tensions surrounding Katerina Ivanovna, their father’s murder, and money become insurmountable, Dmitri and Ivan are at odds with each other at a fundamental level. An essential part of that contrast is their divergent conceptions of joy, particularly as embodied by the hymn.

Dmitri’s hymn seems closely connected to Ivan’s idea of “harmony.” The hymn is an outcry of inexpressible joy that comes not only from Dmitri’s heart, but also from the world at large. Part of its ecstasy is its transcendental connection with the whole of creation. Ivan agrees that such a song exists: he too “[believes] in eternal harmony” (235). This harmony means that “the universe will tremble when all in heaven and under the earth merge in one voice of praise” (244). It is nothing if not a hymn, a tremulous but certain communal expression of love and joy. This is the ecstasy that Dmitri experiences. However, Ivan, while believing in this harmony and understanding its core, rejects it. He tells Alyosha that he “absolutely [renounces] all higher harmony” (245). He refuses it and does not want any part in it, despite believing that it exists.

This is the key to Ivan’s relationship with the hymn: he knows it, but he does not sing. After Dmitri’s arrest, he and Ivan discuss the hymn. Relating the story to Alyosha later, Dmitri says that “Ivan, too, understands about the hymn, oof, he understands—only he doesn’t respond to it, he’s silent. He doesn’t believe in the hymn” (596). There is a disconnect between what Ivan says (i.e., that he believes in the harmony) and what Dmitri expresses to Alyosha. Yet it is not exactly a contradiction: in the context of Ivan’s conversation with Alyosha, he is making a statement of existence. The hymn, the harmony, exists; but what Dmitri conveys is that Ivan does not love the hymn. This statement is shocking. For someone to understand it, to believe that it truly exists, and also to refuse it is unfathomable. The hymn is a thing of such beauty that to know it and reject it means that Ivan must have something greater that necessarily excludes joy.

What Ivan has is not joy, but wisdom, the other side of Schiller’s dichotomy. He has “a Euclidean mind, an earthly mind,” and the sort of ecstatic transcendence that Dmitri experiences is foreign to him (235). His experience is fully on the side of logic, rationality, and the immediate material reality. However, these things alone are not sufficient for life. There must be something driving his understanding of the meaning in life. Thus, while he rejects the hymn and joy with it, he says, “I accept [God’s] wisdom and purpose” (235). The wisdom of God, although not as ephemeral as the joy of God, is sufficient to provide Ivan with the direction and meaning that he craves. This is what he latches onto. From his acceptance of wisdom comes his ability to reason through life, as he does in “Rebellion.” He believes and assumes that there must be integrity and wholeness in one’s understanding of the world. From his elevation of wisdom comes his conviction that there must be reason in life: he refuses to accept a life philosophy that would not provide a cohesive explanation for why there is suffering in the world. He treats wisdom in much the same way that Dmitri treats joy. It is a first assumption in all things, and the idea that life would go on without it is nonsensical and unacceptable to him.

Like Dmitri with his joy, Ivan must learn to understand life where wisdom fails him. Because he so loves reason, by the end of the book it ends up possessing him. He falls prey to the thing that he worshipped. The devil that oppresses Ivan may in fact be the incarnation of his reason, a fragment of his own system of wisdom which has put on flesh and dwelt with him. Ivan calls this devil “stupid and banal … terribly stupid,” and yet the arguments of this figment are ones that Ivan recognizes as coming out of his own head (638). The devil is there as an image of rationality, even “truth,” but that truth is evil and harasses Ivan beyond what he can endure (640). Dostoevsky never attempts to paint this devil as ridiculous or false, only malicious. Here wisdom is truthful but not bound to express the whole truth; it is capable of hiding from the eyes of the wise the presence of beauty in the world, leaving only the stark reality of suffering and every argument against the existence or power of goodness. Ivan’s own wisdom has taken control of his mind and tortured him with his own thoughts (644).

The way that Ivan’s wisdom treats him is evidence of a more fundamental problem—wisdom is as insufficient to life as joy is, and just as uncertain. Dmitri relies on joy, but it deserts him and leaves him in a bleaker barrenness and deeper despair than he would have had with a different worldview. Ivan relies not on tremulous joy, but on stable wisdom, and it overwhelms him until it drowns him, wresting from him the freedom he had so loved. Thus, just as Dmitri must question the capability of joy to sustain his life, Ivan must question his wisdom. Ivan’s ongoing wrestling match with the devil asks him to decide whether or not his wisdom is actually good. Would something worth dedicating his life to create this kind of chaos within him? For that matter, if what he has been calling reason, rationality, or wisdom forces him out of stability and into an uncertain questioning of his own faculties, was it ever really wisdom to begin with? There is neither peace nor life to be found in his pursuit. Rather, it leads him to fear and nearly to death, as he succumbs to “brain fever.” It is fitting that the center of Ivan’s rationality becomes the thing that destroys him in the end. He, like Dmitri, is betrayed by that which he trusted most.

Despite the fates of Dmitri and Ivan, there is still hope for redemption in the Karamazov family: Alyosha. The youngest of the three, true to fairy-tale form, is the narrator’s hero, the one who is supposed to be the savior of the family. Yet if Alyosha is meant to rescue his brothers or his father from their ruin, he fails. His exceptional nature does not consist in fixing other people’s problems or effecting great change in the world; for most of the story, the beauty of his character is still only a seed that has not yet borne much fruit. His role as hero and savior is in the hope that he offers for full-flourishing life and peace, proving that mankind has a choice other than the two bleak roads his brothers have taken. To accomplish this, he must deal with the false dichotomy to provide a better reading of Schiller. He must offer a better interpretation with even more integrity and stability than joy alone or wisdom alone.

How can Alyosha helpfully engage with Dmitri’s hymn? In order to respond to his brothers’ false ideas about the motivation for and core of life, he must learn the text to which his brothers are responding. He must, as both of them do, understand the hymn. Yet it is not enough for him to simply know what it is or what it is about. Even Ivan does that much, and it does not help him at all. In knowing it, Alyosha must recognize the joy that is at the heart of the hymn, realize that the joy is beautiful, and commit to love it because it is beautiful. In a sense, Alyosha cannot grapple with the hymn until he agrees to sing it for the love of joy; for while joy is insufficient to life, it is good. He must also recognize, appreciate, and love wisdom; for while wisdom is also insufficient to life, and while joy does “[move] the spheres in realms afar, / Ne’er to thy glass, dim wisdom, given,” wisdom is also good (107).

In the chapter “Cana of Galilee,” Alyosha does accept both joy and wisdom, both hymn and logic. Dostoevsky affirms this balance through the words (hopeless in their context, but hopeful in Alyosha’s) of Ivan’s vision.  The devil tells Ivan, “Hosannah alone is not enough for life, it is necessary that this Hosannah pass through the crucible of doubt” (642). This rings true for Dmitri and Ivan—Dmitri’s hymn is never tried and found steady, and Ivan, lacking a hymn, runs himself through the crucible. The devil’s ultimatum at first seems a difficult task for Alyosha, who has the faith of a child. His Hosannah is the driving force behind his words and actions, and he has built his whole life on praise to God, never doubting the rightness of it. After Zosima dies, he is thrown into uncertainty. All of his beliefs about God, sainthood, goodness, and righteousness can no longer be trusted with his former simplicity, as he confronts the reality of Zosima’s death and decomposition. He doubts, even running to Grushenka “looking for a wicked soul […] because [he] was low and wicked [himself],” in order to test other options than Hosannah (351). Yet having been thrust into wisdom, he finds that he must also cling to joy. Thus he comes out of the crucible purified, such that he can confront the “putrid odor” of Zosima’s corpse without disturbing the “joy […] shining in his mind and in his heart” (359). His Hosannah emerges not just whole, but more substantial than it was previously: the hymn has been bolstered by the support structure of wisdom.

Dostoevsky’s language and Alyosha’s thoughts in the chapter “Cana of Galilee” point directly back to Dmitri’s hymn. At the most basic level, Alyosha’s emotional state now echoes that of Dmitri’s when he first spoke of his hymn. Alyosha is in ecstasy, as Dmitri was in ecstasy. The heightened emotions even turn his speech patterns to resemble those of Dmitri. He muses, “[God] loves men, loves their joy … One cannot live without joy” (360). This is Dmitri’s sentiment! Alyosha is coming to know fully the necessity and beauty of joy. In order to fully connect this scene with that of Dmitri’s hymn, Dostoevsky continues to describe Alyosha’s experience in the same terms as Dmitri’s. Alyosha remembers Zosima’s words, “water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears,” and then “in his rapture he [weeps] even for the stars that shine on him from the abyss” (362). The juxtaposition of joy, tears, and the abyss is characteristic of Dmitri’s “Confession: in Verse.” The two scenes are parallel.

While Alyosha’s ecstasy and Dmitri’s may be parallel, the cores of their experiences are at odds with each other. Counter to Dmitri’s rapturous dealings with the abyss, Alyosha finds peace in his ecstasy, not chaos. Because his hymn has been purified and solidified through the crucible of doubt in the wake of Zosima’s death, he has a stability that Dmitri lacks. The small turn in the way he talks about the abyss points to the crucial difference between the two. Dmitri “falls into the abyss” (107). Alyosha sees that “the stars … shine on him from the abyss” (362). The abyss is just as real to Alyosha as to his brother, and he does recognize the vast distance between heaven and himself. Yet unlike his brother, he is not at the bottom of the abyss or even falling toward it: rather, the stars are in the abyss. He, Alyosha, is firmly grounded and secure. There is no sense of baseness or lack of security in his ecstasy; for while ecstasy implies a lack of control, he easily maintains peace within it.

Dostoevsky connects and contrasts Alyosha in this scene not only with Dmitri, but also with Ivan. Since Ivan generally seems less erratic or effusive, the appearance of “Cana of Galilee” does not associate as clearly with Ivan’s experiences as it does with Dmitri’s confession. Yet the core of what is happening to Alyosha is parallel to the core of Ivan’s drama: possession. Alyosha will say afterward, “Someone visited my soul in that hour” (363). It is an “idea, as it were … coming to reign in his mind” (363). The only other instance of a possession, of someone taking hold of someone else’s soul and ruling it, is Ivan’s devil. As Alyosha’s ecstasy relates directly to Dmitri’s obsessive experience of joy, it also relates directly to Ivan’s oppressive experience of reason incarnate.

What happens to Alyosha in “Cana of Galilee” is neither obsessive nor oppressive: his possession is not at all like that of Ivan. Across the moments of his indwelling, “he [feels] clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immoveable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul” (363). The force that fills him is immeasurably stable, something so grounded and peaceful that he feels extraordinary security with his joy. Unlike Ivan, who finds in his possession only agony and death, Alyosha’s moment on the ground of the monastery brings him to peace and life. The thing that “[visits] his soul” recreates him and does not destroy him. It raises him up to be a “fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life,” rather than “frenzied” and “wild” like his brother (363, 650). He has something that Ivan lacks, something that keeps him alive (and makes him yet more alive) through the experience of being possessed.

What sets Alyosha apart from his brothers is that he has indeed sung the hymn, after passing it through the crucible of doubt. His joy is made stable by wisdom; his wisdom is made alive by joy. Thus, as the narrator says in his note, “it is precisely he, perhaps, who bears within himself the heart of the whole” (3). There is integrity and fullness in the way that Alyosha looks at the world and the way he thinks about himself. The two virtues around which the novel seems to rotate—joy and wisdom—are firmly rooted in Alyosha. He has within himself the “heart of the whole:” he is, in a way, the fulfillment of what the novel proposes is necessary for full-flourishing life and peace. Further, he offers redemption in the face of philosophies that fail to sustain this life and peace, providing in himself salvation, not for those philosophies, but from them.


Works Cited

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts with Epilogue. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.

Schiller, Friedrich. “Ode To Joy.” Ode To Joy. Raptus Association for Music Appreciation, 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.


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About the author

Katie Bascom

Katie Bascom is a senior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in Russian with a Medieval Studies minor. Upon graduation, she hopes to work in Russia as an English teacher and later to pursue a career in school administration at the high school level.

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