Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The fundamental goodness, patience, meekness, and altruism of Alyosha highlight in satiric contrast the moral defects of the story’s other characters. The impatience and ungentleness of Alyosha’s mother are stressed by the opening picture of her thrashing of her son for dropping the pot, though later in the story Alyosha fleetingly recalls moments of maternal kindness or pity. Alyosha’s father is depicted as self-interested and materialistic, concerned only with how much work and money he can get out of his son.

Similarly, the merchant and his wife care only about how much labor they can be spared as a result of Alyosha’s toils, at the least possible expense. The rest of the household, with similar lack of compassion, take advantage of Alyosha, even (in the beginning) the sympathetically portrayed Ustinya, whose acceptance of Alyosha’s proposal by striking him on the back with a towel (or a ladle, depending on the particular translation of the story) seems to symbolize her partial affiliation with the world of force and self-assertiveness for which Alyosha is a foil.

Alyosha’s noteworthy special definition of love as not only being affectionate or tender but also serving or looking after another emphasizes altruism. Another inner value from the “heart” (a key word in the story) is the simple uneducated piety of the peasant class, a theme in several of Leo Tolstoy’s works. Like the three hermits (the title characters of Tolstoy’s story “The Three Old Men”) who show their inner holiness by running on top of the sea after an educated bishop because they have forgotten the formal prayer that he has taught them, Alyosha merely folds his hands in prayer twice a day, and finally at his death, and lets his heart speak, having long forgotten the words his mother taught him.

Alyosha’s meekness, or not talking back, is repeatedly emphasized in the story. The prevention of his marriage and his sadly premature death cut Alyosha off from the pleasures of earthly life, but the story implies that Alyosha will gain entry into Heaven (which he thinks of only as “the world beyond” or “there”). All of Alyosha’s attributes enable him to accept death peacefully, an encounter that preoccupies Tolstoy in many of his stories.