Dostoyevsky states quite clearly at the very start that Alyosha is the hero, the principal protagonist of the novel, but I doubt too many readers can qute see it this way. It is not of course the first time that Dostoyevsky had attempted to depict a perfectly good, even saintly, person: there had been Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. But Myshkin had been mentally ill. Here, Dostoyevsky attempts to depict another figure embodying the Christian concept of goodness, but this time, without the mental illness to account for it. I can’t say that the result is convincing.
In terms of the plotting and structure, it is Alyosha who holds the novel together. It is he who knots together the various disparate elements – Dmitri and Ivan, his father, Grushenka, Katerina Ivanovna, the Snegiryovs, the children, Mrs Khokhlakova and her daughter Liza. Often, for long sections of the novel, we follow Alyosha “doing the rounds”, as it were, visiting each of the people in turn. But is Alyosha more than merely a form of structural glue? What sort of figure emrges?
For most of the novel, Alyosha is but a witness to the passions of others. The only time his own passion takes centre-stage is in that sequence after the death of Zosima, in which Alyosha goes through a period of disillusion (though not loss of faith), but which nonetheless culminates in his receiving a sort of mystic vision. I find much of this sequence frankly incomprehensible, although, for reasons I cannot account for, impressive. But, important though these chapters no doubt are in thematic terms, they play no part in the central drama: in this central drama, Alyosha is never more than an observer, and never a participant.
In keeping with the idea of the state of childhood resembling the state of prelapsarian innocence, there is something childlike about Alyosha. In The Idiot, also, Dostoyevsky had given similar childlike qualities to Myshkin. For that matter, when Melville had set out to depict innocence, he too had made this innocent figure child-like. But both Myshkin and Billy Budd are flawed – one with epilepsy, the other with a stammer that renders him inarticulate; and both are doomed. Dostoyevsky here attempts to depict a figure possessing a childlike innocence, and, indeed, a goodness that may be described as saintly, but not to present him in a tragic light. I cannot see the result being in any way successful: apart from those chapters following Zosima’s death, Alyosha emerges as, frankly, bland.
One can, I suppose, make too much of this. From a dramatic viewpoint, Hell is always more interesting than Heaven: Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso are nowhere near as frequently cited as is his Inferno; and while Milton’s Satan is among the most powerful of literary creations, Milton’s God is really a bit of a bore. If Dostoyevsky can be seen to have failed in making Good appear as interesting as Evil, then, at the very least, he is in good company.