The very first paragraph of The Brothers Karamazov, the introduction “From the Author” which is really from the book’s narrator:
Starting out on the biography of my hero, Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, I find myself in some perplexity. Namely, that while I do call Alexei Fyodorovich my hero, still, I myself know that he is by no means a great man, so that I can foresee the inevitable questions, such as: What is notable about your Alexei Fyodorovich that you should choose him for your hero? What has he really done? To whom is he known, and for what? Why should I, the reader, spend my time studying the facts of his life?
The first time I read this, I mistakened this as a statement that Alexei (“Alyosha”) was the hero of the novel, not as just the narrator’s personal hero. I’m realizing now that that’s not exactly the case–that clearly isn’t what’s intended by the narrator here. Which is why he, the narrator, asks these questions. But should I answer these questions as the narrator or as myself?
Let me just address the narrator’s idea that Alyosha is a hero (not the hero) with this simple question: what heroics does Alyosha perform in this novel? What great, inspired act does he perform that bends the arc of the novel’s plot in any new direction? Let’s see, he helps Grushenka become a nicer person, I guess. And he does befriend Ilyusha and his father, the Captain, just before Ilyusha gets sick and dies. And he does deliver a speech at the end that makes the kids forget about Ilyusha’s funeral. But does he keep Dmitri from being found guilty? Does he help keep Ivan from going crazy? Does he protect his father or bring his true murderer to justice? No, no, and no-no. From a secularist or humanist point of view, Alyosha is just a dude going around and making people feel bad for themselves.
And what about from the point of view of those who profess faith in, I don’t know, things. Tell me: what has Alyosha done to make him a hero? Kept faith in God while all the world was crumbling around him? But…where is the heroism in not changing one’s mind? In not taking in new data, not mulling it over, not turning over old assumptions in the face of new realities, not growing as a person? Dmitri changed: he transformed into a Christ figure. Ivan changed: he went insane. Grushenka changed: she realized this whole mess was her fault. Hell, even Fyodor changed: he straight-up died. But Alyosha: he had a brief crisis of faith right after Zosima died, and then he went right back to believing.
No, sorry, Mr. Narrator Dostoyevsky, I’m not buying that introduction at all.