The Onion

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.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky(1821-1881)

The Brothers Karamazov (Chapter 3)

You may know Fyodor Dostoevsky best from his widely read novel Crime and Punishment. As one of the greatest of all novelists he was Russian whose career was disastrously interrupted in 1849 when he joined a group of young intellectuals who read and debated French Socialist theories forbidden to be openly talked about in Russian societies.

Dostoevsky, at 28 years old was sentenced to hard labor spending four years in Siberia then served as a common soldier afterward. So stressful was this period of his life that it brought on epilepsy from which he suffered for the rest of his life. His reading, limited to the Bible, led him to reject the Western inspired atheistic socialism of his youth and Christ's teachings became for him a supreme affirmation of the ethical ideal and of the possibility of redemption through suffering. Profoundly affected by the prison brutality of hardened criminals alternating with displays of courage, sensitivity and generosity awakened Dostoevsky to insights into the deepest complexities of human behavior.

Resuming his literary career after imprisonment, Dostoevsky wrote several novels whereby he created symbolic worlds of heroes infused with a tragic sense of life, a search for truth and self fulfillment. Anticipating modern psychology he explored the hidden motives and intuitive understanding of the unconscious through his characters preparing the way for the subjective approach of much 20the century literature and for surrealitic and existentialist writing.

The Onion is a good example of how he used three protagonists --metaphysical symbols of body, mind and spirit of the modern human being and engaged these in passionate debate, revolving around his earlier works by using the expiation of sin through suffering, the need for a moral force in an irrational universe, the struggle between good and evil, and the enduring value of freedom and individual. With compelling images and a meagerness of words, this great storyteller layers a striking portrayal of greed and poverty, hope and grace, and the fallenness of humanity. The rich woman of the story, protecting the material while she yearns for the spiritual, mired in a need for control and a hope for redemption. The ultimate question is poised to the reader as to how to live and what one is to live by--to which Dostoevsky provides only fragmentary answers.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Public domain text taken from Book VII: 3. An Onion Page 4: Karamazov/Karamazov_VII03_4.htm