After a brief examination of Dostoyevsky’s knowledge of the Bible, this article will show how he introduced biblical texts into his own novels, often at crucial moments in the lives of the protagonists. Finally, we shall see that Dostoyevsky also used biblical themes to shape the overall “argument” of some of his greatest novels.
Dostoyevsky’s Knowledge of the Bible.
In the “Life” of the saintly Elder Zosima, a hagiographical interlude in The Brothers Karamazov, we are told how, as a child, Zosima loved reading a children’s illustrated Bible titled A Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testament. In fact, he says, it was from this book that he learned to read. He also recalls going to church and being captivated by the story of Job—perhaps, he seems to imply, as much by the cadence of the words as the actual content.
It seems likely that Dostoyevsky himself would have had similar childhood experiences of reading the Bible and hearing it read in church. Nevertheless, the most important direct source for his knowledge and use of the Bible in his literary work is the copy of the New Testament given to him as he began his four-year prison sentence in Siberia by a group of women, wives of an earlier generation of dissidents (the “Decembrists”), whose mission was to assist prisoners arriving in Tobolsk, where Dostoyevsky was imprisoned. Only the Bible and other pious works were allowed in prison, and it seems likely that, during this next four years, this was the only book Dostoyevsky was able to read. After his release, he kept it constantly on his desk, consulting it regularly, and read from it on his deathbed. It is one of only three surviving books with Dostoyevsky’s own underlinings and marginal marks, the others being two of his novels. Some of these are crude fingernail indentations, which may reflect the circumstances of prison life when he did not have access to writing materials. When correlated with allusions, references, and quotations to the Bible in his novels, this material evidence enables us to establish a clear picture of the ways in which the Bible was directly significant for his work as an author and how it informed the religious vision of his novels.
Geir Kjetsaa (1984) has pointed out that Dostoyevsky seems to have had a special interest in passages “which stress that the just are persecuted, that the Day of Judgement shall really come, that we must obey the authorities, work diligently, and pay our takes, and that we must beware of carnal pleasure and fight against our greed and avarice. [He] had altogether a clear liking for the chastening and admonishing passages in the Gospel” (p. 7). However, as Kjetsaa goes on to say, Dostoyevsky also drew on passages of a more theological nature, with the Gospel of John playing an especially important role. Doubtless reinforced by the Orthodox Church’s self-consciousness as being a distinctively Johannine church, Dostoyevsky developed themes in this connection that include the divinity of Christ, the theme of light as a manifestation of the divine, and the centrality of love (Kjetsaa, 1984, pp. 7–10; see also Kirillova, 2001). Given that he would have shared the general contemporary view that the book of Revelation was also written by the fourth Evangelist, his use of this text is also noteworthy, throwing a bridge between the above-mentioned themes and the prospect of eschatological judgment. However, as we shall see, Dostoyevsky’s view of such judgment was importantly moderated by the centrality of his understanding of Christ as the revelation of God as incarnate love.
Bible Reader and Novel Writer.
Dostoyevsky is, of course, not the only modern writer to refer to the Bible in his literary work and to do so in a variety of ways. The Bible is present in his work in passing references, allusions to well-known stories, figures, and sayings, and turns of phrase. All of this can be accommodated within a view of the Bible as having been simply a part of the culture of his time, a text with which all of his readers would have been in some measure familiar. But Dostoyevsky’s use of the Bible goes beyond this, since both a number of minor works and each of his major novels (although in different ways and degrees) can plausibly be read as setting out a biblically inspired Christian view of life. And even if, as some critics have claimed, his religious vision is not entirely Christian, perhaps post-Christian or heterodox, it is still the case that this vision is shaped by the language and imaginary of the biblical word.
This, however, constitutes a significant challenge for a writer who aspires to be a genuinely modern writer, accepting the literary framework, inclusive of the relationship between author and reader, of a culture in which values of autonomy and creative freedom are fundamental. Why? Because in a time such as Dostoyevsky’s, the Bible was still regarded as a sacred text, the authority of which was held to be beyond question, an authority that, in an officially Christian country such as Russia, was underwritten by law. How, then, might a novelist make a place for such an authoritative word in a text written under the presuppositions of literary autonomy? If the novel is to persuade its readers that its action and characters really live in the same real world that they themselves inhabit, in which psychological motivation and social possibilities are woven together into a seamless whole, how can it introduce a kind of truth, a kind of motivation, and a kind of social vision (the eschatological communion of saints, for example) that go beyond the everyday experience of the world? Won’t the biblical text almost inevitably come to seem like an alien and heteronomic intrusion into our common world, and won’t the novelist start to sound more like a preacher? Clearly, this is what has happened in the case of some “Christian” novelists.
Yet although there have been readers who have felt that Dostoyevsky is not immune from an irritating enthusiasm for assuming the mantle of the prophet, the majority response of nearly a century-and-a-half of reception seems to suggest that this is not mostly the case. In fact, a decisively Christian reading of Dostoyevsky is, in many ways, a relatively recent trend. And it is not only the atheism of Soviet literary criticism that has concealed this element but also the assumptions of many of those who first mediated Dostoyevsky to the West. John Middleton Murry, for example, clearly states that the religion of The Brothers Karamazov is post-Christian (Middleton Murry, 1923), and more recently Malcolm Jones has spoken of it as “minimal religion” (Jones, 2005). Likewise, Bakhtin’s paradigmatic reading of Dostoyevsky as a polyphonic or multi-voiced, dialogical writer implies that there is no final authoritative voice—not even that of the Bible—in his work (Bakhtin, 1984). However, this last approach does not exclude the possibility that the Bible is among the significant voices to which Dostoyevsky is inviting his readers to make their own, unforced response. This, then, could be seen as how he, in fact, squares the circle of introducing this heteronomous, other-worldly text into the autonomous, this-worldly universe of a modern realist novel.
How, more specifically, does Dostoyevsky achieve this?
One important tactic is the way in which he has characters read aloud from scripture. The word of scripture thus becomes a living word in the mouths of the protagonists and is made immediately present within the body of the novelistic text. As such it may be cited word for word and, in several cases, at length (Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov). Yet, at the same time, the words flow from the particular situation or personality depicted in the novel. The reader is thus free either to attend to the purely novelistic elements or, in addition or alternatively, to hear the word being read as a word of scripture. This effect would be even more pronounced in contexts where, as would not have been unusual for Dostoyevsky’s early readers, the novel itself was being read aloud (Ziolkowski, 2001).
Dostoyevsky himself draws our attention to the importance of reading aloud from scripture. In the previously mentioned life of the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, Zosima is presented urging the parish clergy to give more time to reading the Bible to their parishioners, especially the children.
"Let him open that book and begin reading it without grand words or superciliousness, without condescension to them, but gently and kindly, being glad that he is reading to them and that they are listening with attention, loving the words himself, only stopping from time to time to explain words that are not understood by the peasants. Don’t be anxious, they will understand everything, the orthodox heart will understand all!" (Dostoyevsky, 1912, p. 302/Karamazov, Book 6, ch. 1 [b])
Zosima further recommends that the passages to be read should be chosen from among the most humanly affecting and lists such examples as the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Laban, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Esther and Vashti, the story of Jonah, the conversion of Paul, and the Gospel of Luke. What is important, however, is the stress laid not just on reading the Bible, but on reading it aloud—as his own memories of hearing Job read aloud attest.
Scenes in which the Bible is thus read aloud—whether in ecclesiastical or domestic, secular contexts—often play a crucial role in the novels in question. In several cases they provide perhaps the clearest indication of the organizing principle of the novel as a whole—without, however, breaking through the incognito of realist secularity. This organizing role will be discussed further in the next section. Here we note and describe only the general action of these scenes in three of the major novels.
Perhaps the best known example is the scene from Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov compels Sonia to read aloud the narrative of the raising of Lazarus, the “New Testament in the Russian translation … bound in leather, old and worn” being a possible reference to the copy he himself had received from the Decembrists’ wives (Dostoyevsky, 1914a, p. 295/Crime and Punishment, Part 4, ch. 4).
We are at the heart of the novel’s action. Raskolnikov has murdered the malevolent elderly pawnbroker and, unintentionally, her innocent, mentally backward sister Lizaveta. He has met Sonia Marmeladova, a prostitute, through her drunken father, whom he encountered in a pub. Despite her trade, we are encouraged to believe that she does what she does in order to support her otherwise destitute family. Raskolnikov notices her New Testament and is shocked to learn that it had belonged to Lizaveta, whom Sonia had befriended and whom he had murdered. Suddenly, and seemingly arbitrarily, he demands that Sonia read aloud the raising of Lazarus. After significant resistance she does so, and despite the constant interruption of Raskolnikov’s own thoughts and interjections, a significant part of John 11:1–46 is quoted verbatim. What becomes clear is that, spiritually, Raskolnikov himself is the one who is dead and who, as he later acknowledges, killed himself when he carried out the murders. And perhaps Sonia, too, despite her altruism, is on a path leading to self-destruction, as Raskolnikov suggests—which, he suggests, is why their fates are bound together.
The theme of reading the Bible aloud is also found in a decisive section of the novel The Possessed. But whereas the scene between Raskolnikov and Sonia evokes a mood of almost hysterical intensity, this time—even though the action takes place during the main protagonist’s final illness—the narrative verges on the comic. Its importance can readily be discerned in the fact that it culminates in a reading of the exorcism described in Luke 8:26–39 (the Gadarene swine), which gives the novel its title.
The principal character here is Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, whose pose as a liberal intellectual, banished from St. Petersburg for his political views, has been overturned by a series of nihilist outrages in the provincial town where the action takes place. The leader of the nihilist cell is in fact his own son Pyotr, whose views are gradually revealed to be the fruit of his father’s empty idealism and existential disengagement from the real responsibilities of fatherhood.
In the aftermath of these catastrophic events, the confused and slightly mad Stepan Trofimovich hits upon the idea of heading off into the Russian countryside, without aim or purpose, like a new Quixote. He falls in with a simple but honest young widow Sofya Matveyevna, a traveling Bible seller. This leads him to comment self-revealingly:
"“Et … mais je crois que c’est l’Évangile [And … but I believe it’s the Gospel], with the greatest pleasure. … Ah, now I understand. … Vous êtes ce qu’on appelle [you are what one calls] a gospel-woman; I’ve read more than once … Half a rouble?”"
“Thirty-five kopecks,” answered the gospel-woman.
“With the greatest pleasure. Je n’ai rien contre l’Évangile [I’ve nothing against the Gospel], and I’ve been wanting to re-read it for a long time… .”(Dostoyevsky 1914b, p. 581/Possessed, Part 3, ch. 7:1)
However, as the narrator immediately comments, he had not in fact read the gospel for more than 30 years and then it was probably not the gospel itself but Renan’s sentimental and secularized biography, La Vie de Jésus. Nevertheless, he declares that he will travel with Sofya Matveyevna and, together, they will preach the message of the Gospels to the people—but, as his constant recourse to French indicates, he epitomizes the separation of the westernized Russian from the life of the people and is self-deluding when he believes that he understands the gospel better than they do—he does not have the “Orthodox heart” that, according to Zosima, will enable the peasants to understand it all.
Shortly afterward, as the two of them are waiting for a ferry to a town called Spasov, carrying the metaphorical meaning of “Salvation,” Stepan Trofimovich falls ill and, in his sickness, asks Marya Matveyevna to read aloud to him—this time admitting that it has been a long time since he has read the original text.
She starts with the Sermon on the Mount, which elicits an immediate confession from the patient that his whole life has been built on a lie. Next follows Revelation 3:14–17, which again startles him, perhaps because of his own constant prevarications and vacillations. Finally, he asks her to read the story “ ‘About the pigs … that’s there too … ces cochons [these pigs]’ ” (Dostoyevsky, 1914b, p. 595/Possessed, Part 3, ch. 7:2), i.e., the story of an exorcism of a man possessed of many devils, which culminates in the devils entering a herd of swine that then plunges into the lake and drowns. The narrator, mentioning that he has chosen just this passage for the motto of his book, quotes the entirety of Luke 8:32–36. Commenting on it, Stepan Trofimovich realizes that this is the story of Russia itself and that not only the violent nihilists represented by his son but he himself must be cast out into the lake before they can come to “Salvation.” “ ‘But the sick man will be healed,’ he concludes, ‘and will sit at the feet of Jesus’ ” (Dostoyevsky, 1914b, p. 596/Possessed, Part 3, ch. 7:1). Suddenly, looking out of the window, he realizes where they are: “ ‘Tiens, un lac! ’ he said. ‘Good heavens, I had not seen it before!’ ” (Dostoyevsky, 1914b, p. 596/Possessed, Part 3, ch. 7:1). The time has come for him to plunge into the water of death through which he must pass to find salvation and eternal life.
Where Crime and Punishment presents the Bible being read in a scene between a murderer and a prostitute and The Possessed in the absurd black comedy of Stepan Trofimovich’s final illness, The Brothers Karamazov takes us to the more expected context of liturgy.
We have heard the impact of the liturgical reading in Zosima’s own childhood memories, and, after his death, Dostoyevsky takes us to the cell where the Gospel of John is being read over his body as it awaits burial. The fact that his body has started to rot has convinced many of his enemies in the monastery that his sanctity was merely fraudulent. Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov brother, described by Dostoyevsky as his “hero” and a faithful disciple of the Elder, shares in the vigil but, exhausted, falls asleep. The text being read is the miracle at Cana in Galilee, and passages from the text gradually become interwoven with Alyosha’s dreams. These culminate when he dreams himself to be among the guests at the wedding, as is another, familiar friend, Zosima himself: “There was no coffin now, and he was wearing the same dress as he had worn yesterday, when the visitors had gathered about him. His face was uncovered, his eyes were shining. How was this then, he too, had been called to the feast. He too, at the marriage of Cana in Galilee” (Dostoyevsky, 1912, p. 377/Karamazov, Book 6, ch. 4).
At this point, the dream-Zosima speaks to Alyosha, inviting him to join him and pointing him toward “our Sun,” i.e., the divine Light, Christ himself, present in all his radiance in this heavenly transformation of the biblical story. Alyosha is afraid to look and wakes up, whereupon he rushes out and falls to the ground, “watering the earth with his tears,” longing “to forgive everyone and for everything and to beg forgiveness,” and experiencing the sense that something as “firm and unshakeable as [the] vault of heaven had entered into his soul” (Dostoyevsky, 1912, p. 379/Karamazov, Book 6, ch. 4). Whether this is a true mystical experience or a case of minimal religion, it comes as the climax of a chapter that Diane Thompson has called “a high point in Dostoyevsky’s art” (Thompson, 1991, p. 293). Through the reading of the Bible, Alyosha has been brought to his salvation, as Sonia’s reading perhaps marked the start of Raskolnikov’s long journey to salvation and Sofya Matveyevna’s reading prepared Stepan Trofimovich for the death that would bring him, too, to salvation.
The Bible as Organizing Principle of Dostoyevsky’s Novels.
The examples we have been considering not only provide particularly dramatic moments in the lives of their respective characters but, as should already be clear, go a long way toward establishing the basic religious trajectory of each novel. Crime and Punishment is not only a story of crime and punishment, it is also a story of salvation from the cycle of crime and punishment. The Possessed is not only a story of the destruction of Russia’s social cohesion by demonically possessed nihilists, it is also a story of how, even on the brink of destruction, salvation is still possible if, collectively and individually, those who have been afflicted by this possession are prepared to purge themselves—through death if necessary. Likewise, The Brothers Karamazov is not just the story of a malfunctional family whose story culminates in murder, suicide, and madness, it also offers an alternative way, grounded in the vision and values of Zosima but to be lived in the world by Alyosha. In each case it is the Bible, present as part of the thought-world and experience of the characters, that opens up the alternative reading. Yet at the same time, and precisely because it is thus interwoven into the personalities of the characters and the complex of events in which they are involved, what the Bible offers is not simply an “answer” to or a panacea for the problems of the age. Nor is it a set of dogmas that are to be accepted without question. Instead, it is what we might call an “existential possibility,” and in each case this is something that can only be realized at significant cost and as a path that can only be taken by each individual for him- or herself.
In other aspects of some of the works already discussed as well as in other novels, Dostoyevsky goes further in showing what we might call the ambiguity or vulnerability of the scriptural word as it enters into the difficult flesh of actual existence. Early on in Crime and Punishment, for example, Raskolnikov meets the drunkard Marmeladov, Sonia’s father, who, in an extraordinary melange of biblical texts, proclaims that when Christ comes again it will also be to save those, like him, who are “swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark” (Dostoyevsky, 1914a, p. 21/Crime and Punishment, Part 1, ch. 2). At one level, the speech is grotesque, arguably even blasphemous: yet, through it, Dostoyevsky challenges us to think through what it might really mean to take seriously the gospel message that Christ came precisely for sinners, i.e., for those who need saving and are incapable of saving themselves.
A similarly absurd treatment of the Bible is found in The Idiot. One of the characters, Lebedev, described as a compulsive gossip, hanger-on, liar, and buffoon, is also known as an interpreter of the book of Revelation. As he himself says,
"I am a great hand at interpreting the Apocalypse; I’ve been interpreting it for the last fifteen years. She [one of the female protagonists] agreed with me that we are living in the age of the third horse, the black one, and the rider who has the balance in his hand, seeing everything in the present age is weighed in the scales and by agreement, and people are seeking for nothing but their rights—“a measure of wheat for a penny and three measures of barley for a penny”; and yet they want to keep a free spirit and a pure heart, and a sound body, and all the gifts of God. But by rights alone they won’t keep them, and afterwards will follow the pale horse and he whose name was Death, and with whom hell followed." (Dostoyevsky, 1913, p. 195/Idiot, Part 2, ch. 2)
Later, under mocking pressure from his friends, Lebedev will defend his thesis that the star wormwood that, according to Revelation, poisons the waters of the earth refers to the railway system springing up across Europe, although, as he tries to explain, it is the whole scientific and industrial system of which the railways are an expression that is the issue (Dostoyevsky, 1913, p. 367/Idiot, Part 3, ch. 4).
As in the case of Marmeladov’s speech, such passages mix black comedy, absurdity, and the grotesque. Yet here, too, the biblical word—even as interpreted by a Lebedev—points us toward the ideological thrust of the novel (perhaps Dostoyevsky’s darkest) as a whole. For here we see little of salvation. This is a world under judgment and, in another verse from Revelation cited in the novel, a world in which “there is no more time” (Dostoyevsky, 1913, p. 220/Idiot, Part 2, ch. 4). A recurrent image in the novel is Holbein’s painting of the dead Christ, a painting so brutally realistic that, as Prince Myshkin, the eponymous “idiot” exclaims, a man could lose his faith looking at it. This is a world under the power of death, into which, if at all, only the most obscure and paradoxical possibility of salvation shines.
In such a world, the saving word of the Bible is likely to appear in distorted forms, if it is to appear at all. And worse, perhaps, than the grotesque applications of biblical themes by Marmeladov and Lebedev are the deliberately mocking misquotations and perverse applications of, for example, Fyodor Karamazov and the Grand Inquisitor, the latter of whom expressly accuses Christ of having failed the test offered by the temptations in the wilderness. But his unfaithfulness to the Bible (he is, after all, a prelate of the Catholic Church) is precisely a sign that he no longer serves God but Satan. Yet these negative modes of presence only underline the possibilities offered in the luminous and joyous biblical images associated with Zosima and Alyosha.
Further examples could be given of how the Bible provides Dostoyevsky with some of his defining themes—the short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, for example, is effectively a retelling of the story of the Fall—and even in the novels we have been considering there is more to say of the function of the biblical word. Yet we have seen enough to know that this word is much more than part of the cultural background of Dostoyevsky’s literary world. As it affects the lives of his protagonists, it is a word that reveals human life as fallen into a world of death and madness but still open to possibilities of redemption, above all as these are presented in the figure of Christ and the acceptance and practice of a love capable of casting out all the demons that are at work in the world as it is.
It is fitting to end with a concrete example of how, in a lightly fictionalized passage from Dostoyevsky’s prison memoir The House of the Dead, the Bible can also serve to open a way to a shared humanity across the divisions of race and religion. Here the narrator recounts how he taught a young Chechen prisoner, Ali, to read Russian by reading the Bible together—the only book available to them. He notices that Ali reads the Sermon on the Mount with special feeling. When asked which part he likes best, Ali replies that it is when Jesus says “forgive, love, don’t hurt others, love even your enemies” (Dostoyevsky, 1915, p. 61/House of the Dead, Part 1, ch. 4). When Ali leaves prison, he declares that it was this experience of reading the Bible together that made a man of him. There is no question here of a conversion or even attempted conversion. Dostoyevsky’s Bible does not call us to a narrow confessional or national kind of religion but to the possibilities we have for a more truly human and compassionate life in this world and, Dostoyevsky constantly implies, the next.
[See also MODERN LITERATURE.]
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1912.
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Translated by Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1913.
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1914a.
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Possessed. Translated by Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1914b.
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead. Translated by Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1915.
- Jones, Malcolm. Dostoevsky and the Dynamics of Religious Experience. London: Anthem, 2005.
- Kirillova, Irina. “Dostoevsky’s Markings in the Gospel according to St. John.” In Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, edited by George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson, pp. 41–50. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Kjetsaa, Geir. Dostoevsky and His New Testament. Oslo, Norway: Solum Forlag, 1984.
- Middleton Murry, John. Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Critical Study. London: Martin Secker, 1923.
- Thompson, Diane Oenning. The Brothers Karamazov and the Poetics of Memory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Ziolkowski, Eric J. “Reading and Incarnation in Dostoevsky.” In Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, edited by George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson, pp. 156–170. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson and Wayne C. Booth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
- Salvestroni, Simonetta. Dostoevski et la Bible. Paris: Lethielleux, 2004.
- Thompson, Diane. “Problems of the Biblical Word in Dostoevsky’s Poetics.” In Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, edited by George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson, pp. 69–99. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction. London: Continuum, 2008.