The Brothers Karamazov
What’s Up With the Ending?
Given the sensational events of the novel – murder! theft! scandal! – the ending seems a bit anti-climactic, even sappy, right? For the closing scene, Dostoevsky sends us to Ilyusha's funeral. By this point in the novel, you're like, who? Ilyusha is the young son of Captain Snegiryov, who was humiliated by Dmitri at a local tavern. Roughly two hundred pages and three books earlier, we learned that Ilyusha, after having gotten into a few fights at school over his father, had fallen very ill. This illness prompted a reconciliation with the other boys, who were encouraged to visit him after Alyosha took an interest in his case. There is much tear-jerking here at the ending, as Dostoevsky offers image after pathetic image of the Snegiryovs and the children mourning poor waifish Ilyusha's death.
Meanwhile, the novel has left a lot of plot strings unresolved. Will Dmitri escape exile and emigrate to America with Grushenka? Will Ivan recover from his illness and marry Katerina? Will Alyosha return to the monastery, or will he marry Lise?
The answers to these questions are embedded precisely in this seemingly unrelated scene at Ilyusha's funeral. The funeral echoes back to the epigraph, which cites a passage from the New Testament about how a grain of wheat may "die," but once planted in the soil, "bringeth forth much fruit" (see "What's Up With the Epigraph?"). Ilyusha's death is the "seed" that will bear the fruit of goodness in those who survive him. In his earnest and loving defense of his father, Ilyusha is the model son that none of the Karamazovs ever were. Even in death, he reminds all those around him of the essential goodness of life. As Alyosha reminds his young friends, "even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve one day for our salvation" (Epilogue.3.49).