The Brothers Karamazov Story of the Onion

I've been reading through Dorthy Day's Selected Writings and this little story from Dostoevsky's novel stood out. It makes me wonder a bit about our society. 

Do you remember that little story that Grushenka tells in The Brothers Karamazov? 

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; 'She once pulled up an onion in her garden,' said he, 'and gave it to a beggar woman.' And God answered: 'You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.' The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. 'Come,' said he, 'catch hold and I'll pull you out.' He began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. 'I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.' As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

It's not about perfection or whitewashed holiness: that is the assumption that the woman carries here--that her good deed will be enough to save her from destruction. The irony is that it was her own good deed that ultimately became undone and contributed to her own self-destruction. She preferred to remain wicked even over against her one-time good deed. It is not that the deed was not good; it was, as the angel himself testified and God himself allowed. It was that the good deed never was allowed to change her at her own core. 

 


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