115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Metanoia and Orthodox Personalism in Alyosha's Vision of the Wedding at Cana in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

Peter Winsky, UCLA

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Alyosha’s vision of the Wedding at Cana marks a sudden change in his character. This moment of metanoia breaks with the literary tradition of Romantic Western European epiphany due to Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christian perspective. When viewed through the lens of Orthodox Personalism this moment reveals a new paradigm in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. 


Throughout the late novels of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre there are numerous instances of characters repenting and turning from their egocentric ways towards a better life, even in the face of certain suffering. In The Brothers Karamazov Alyosha’s moment of metanoia (not merely repentance but a change of heart which turns the person toward the face of God) is initiated by the sudden vision of his deceased Elder Zosima at the Wedding at Cana. This is the only instance in Dostoevsky’s work in which the moment of repentance is accompanied by a personal experience of the Divine through the synthesis of all the senses. This vision of his Elder and Christ is the impetus to place his foot firmly on the ladder toward salvation to which Zosima had shown him.

            In this moment Dostoevsky creates a unique instance of literary epiphany, one dependent on the relational aspects of being that are unique to an Orthodox Christian perspective. Martin Bidney describes traditional literary epiphanies “as aesthetically privileged […] moments of imaginative or poetic intensity, comparable in imaginative power to traditional theophanies or appearances of the divine”.[1] Dostoevsky has deviated from this literary norm by introducing the divine directly into the experience.

            This paper investigates the importance of the personal aspect of metanoia and its significance to the narrative and character arc of Alyosha. The change that occurs in Alyosha is sudden, but it does not entail a total metamorphosis into a deified person. Unlike other moments of epiphany in Russian and world literature of the 19th century, Alyosha is not magically changed and unwavering. This is vital to Dostoevsky’s construction of Alyosha not only as a protagonist, but also as a hero. “What is notable about your Alexei Fyodorovich that you should choose him for your hero? […] The thing is that he does make a figure, but a figure of an indefinite, indeterminate sort”.[2] This paper will also explore the potency of a hero of ‘indefinite’ and ‘indeterminate’ being, which is emblematic of the Orthodox Personalist perspective.

            The importance of the word ‘suddenly’ in Dostoevsky’s work through the lens of Orthodox Personalism is also critical in the analysis of this scene. “Something burned in Alyosha’s heart, something suddenly filled him almost painfully, tears of rapture nearly burst from his soul”.[3] Just as the vision appears suddenly so too does the instant of metanoia. In Alyosha’s vision of the Wedding at Cana and his subsequent change of heart is coded a foundational understanding of Dostoevsky’s poetics and understanding of human being.

[1] Bindey, Martin, Patterns of Epiphany: From Wordsworth to Tolstoy, Pater, and Barrett Browning (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press), 1.

[2] Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 3.

[3] Dostoevsky, 362.