What does it say about Dostoyevsky that, after the roller coaster of the last three parts, he switches gears and writes a whole section about – schoolboys?
Let me just say: any remaining reservations I had about his writing skills disappeared in this part. I mean that seriously. As with “The Russian Monk” (VI), this part left me very impressed.
Most of us who have ever thought of being writers know about the Character Arc. We tend to think the Character Arc is a long journey (it is). But the most difficult part is actually writing it. It can become a laborious process, and in the middle of that process we writers tend to lose the subtlety of good writing that the rest of our novel may possess. We usually sacrifice the subtlety because the Character Arc appears to us like the milestones of life – big, earth-shattering, and loudly delineated. Plot twist: it doesn’t have to be.
Dostoyevsky uses the conflict and dynamics between Ilyusha and the other schoolboys for two purposes. One is to include social commentary, such as thirteen-year-old Kolya’s rant against medicine (reminiscent of Bazarov from Fathers and Sons). Kolya is very outspoken and claims to be a socialist, later admitting some of his ideas are copied verbatim from books he has read. He argues with Alyosha only to realize he doesn’t have any foundation to stand on. The endnotes to the P&V edition suggest Dostoyevsky wrote Kolya this way as a critique of such perspectives, with the implication that those ideas are “schoolboyish.” Whether an effective argument or not, it’s plausible enough in the insecure, confused, yet good-intentioned Kolya.
The second purpose of going “off-topic” in part 10 is the aforementioned Character Arc. We see Alyosha again, but now he is not wearing his monastic attire. He is acting as a mediator between the proud Kolya and Kolya’s former friend Ilyusha, who has now fallen ill and fears that Kolya holds a grudge against him. The fact that Alyosha has, for the time, left the Karamazov scandal behind him to come and help Ilyusha and his family is quite extraordinary. This is the same Alyosha who was so intent on being the communicator in his own family; the same Aloysha who, in his own moral struggle, went to talk to Grushenka for Dmitri’s sake. And he is the one who felt confusion and grief over his personal loss that nobody else really understood.
He followed God’s Will while living in the monastery. Now he’s found his calling, which is to have the heart of a monk while living within society, with all its flaws and suffering. In answer to my question from book two, I think Alyosha will be all right. If there’s any justice by the end of this book – I think he’ll be all right.