Eliot Rosewater_ a character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse by malj


									                                                       Liam Haggerty
                                                          AP English
                                                     December 3, 2001

Christianity in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

                   Christianity in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

        Eliot Rosewater, a character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, stated that,

"Everything there [is] to know about life [is] in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor

Dostoevsky." (Vonnegut 101) When taken at face value, this statement appears to be

hyperbolic in nature. However, when evaluating the contents of The Brothers

Karamazov, and considering the ideology of the author, perhaps this statement can

accurately express Dostoevsky’s appraisal of his own prose. Through conversion,

Dostoevsky had come to a devout faith in the teachings of Christianity, and this belief is

the main strand that holds The Brothers Karamazov together. Although not always

directly stated, the teachings of Christianity, the teachings that Dostoevsky saw as

fundamental, are evident throughout this literary work. One can then conclude that

Dostoevsky would have viewed Rosewater's commentary with concordance. During the

process of writing this, his last novel, he stated that, "I'd die happy if I could finish this

last novel, for I would have expressed myself completely."() This further evidences that

fact that the author feels the essentials to life are contained within the pages of this novel.

        With that said we must now determine what it is we most know in order to know

about life. To do so, we must only turn to the opening page of the novel. Centered above

the heading of the author's preface is a quote from the Gospel according to John,

                       Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat
                fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it
                bringith forth much fruit.
                                                        -John 12:24

        These lines contain the fundamental paradox of the Christian faith; only through

death can there be life. This applies to the Christian belief that Jesus was crucified and

then rose from the dead, conquering death and granting life eternal to all those who

followed Him. Just as this is the primary message of Christianity, it is also the foundation

upon which Dostoevsky constructs this novel.

        One must remember that this is a novel and not a dissertation on the beliefs of

Christianity, and therefore the Christian message, although quite evident, is told through

a variety of literary techniques. The primary method, and the method that we shall focus

on, is the use of characters to portray elements of human nature, spiritual beings, and

religious ideologies. The characters in this colossal book are boundless, yet it is only

necessary to focus on the Karamazov family, primarily the brothers Ivan, Alyosha, and

Smerdyakov. In doing so we find the heart of the "complete expression" that Dostoevsky

has offered us, and come to realize the importance of the author's introductory quote.

        The eldest son of Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov (Mr. Karamazov), and Sofia is

Ivan Karamazov. Ivan is an intellectual and is only able to perceive things from a logical

perspective. Terras calls Ivan, "a professed atheist and socialist." (218) Yet, Ivan's

portrayal as an atheist is rather peculiar because Ivan states, "that it is not it is not God

that I refuse to accept." However, Ivan follows this declaration with a contradictory

statement, saying, "But [I refuse to accept] the world that He has created." Ivan's inability

to comprehend things that are not of this world makes him unable to understand the

teachings of Christianity. The paradoxes of Christianity, the belief of loving your

enemies, being merciful to all, the forgiveness of all sins, and the formation of life from

death are meaningless to the straightforward mind of Ivan. He is able to understand the

theories of Christian thought, but Ivan cannot believe in something he does not see. In the

chapter entitled "Rebellion" Ivan enumerates various occasions in which mankind has

acted in horrific, wicked ways towards other humans. Ivan, in his logical mind, does not

see any evidence of the Christian ideology visible on earth, and logically comes to the

conclusion that it is impossible to believe in the promises of Christianity when there are

nonexistent on this earth.

       On another occasion, in the chapter entitled "The Grand Inquisitor", Ivan relates a

poem to Alyosha that he has written about Christ's return to the world during the Spanish

Inquisition. The Inquisitor represents the views of Ivan, and is unable to understand the

religion that Christ has formed. Ivan cannot understand a religion that wants follower, but

at the same time offers free will to choose otherwise. In Ivan's logical mind he believes

that the church should offer itself as the only choice therefore leaving no room for


       Through these traits Ivan has be presented to us as the figurative non-believer in

the teachings of Christianity. He lacks any faith in God, and instead uses logic and

intelligence to attack the fundamental aspects of human shortcomings and human

behavior. He is not able to comprehend the abstract and paradoxical ideas presented by

Christianity, and instead of delving deeper into what he does not know, Ivan rejects

religion and instead searches for secular answers to his problems.

       The second son of Mr. Karamazov and Sofia is Alexei Karamazov (Alyosha). It is

important to point the family lineage shared by Ivan and Alyosha, because although they

share the same blood they are representations of opposites on the theological ladder.

Alyosha is the opposite extreme of Ivan. In Alyosha we find two beings being portrayed

in one. Alyosha is literally a follower of Christ, and at the same time represents Christ.

This not only can be viewed as a literary technique in which Alyosha is a human

representation of Christ, but it also coincides with the Christian belief that through belief

in Christ, believers join in the Body of Christ.

        Alyosha as Christ can be seen throughout the book, and one common trend is the

sympathy that he shows towards those who have been deemed as undeserving of

sympathy by the outside world. The first instance of this is when Alyosha comes upon a

group of boys who are hurtling stones at a small boy. The boy, Ilyusha, has been

ridiculed at school for being a "back scrubber" or so the ruthless gang of youths has

called him. Though the boys are not morally acting correctly, their actions are

understandable, because Ilyusha is guilty of stabbing of one the boys (Koyla). Yet,

Alyosha, reminiscent of the biblical scene in which Jesus stops the stoning of Mary

Magdalene, comes between the boys and protects the young Ilyusha, who would have

undoubtedly been seriously injured had it not been for Alyosha's intercession.

        Jesus was also known for his sympathy towards women, especially those on the

outskirts of society. Alyosha is described in very much the same way on two separate

occasions. First, in his dealing's with Lise, the crippled daughter of Mrs. Khokhlakov

Alyosha is kinder then ever imaginable. Lise approaches him as a girl embarrassed for

writing a frivolous love letter to him. Instead of reprimanding her for seeking a man who

holds membership in a monastery, Alyosha befriends her and reveals to her that he cares

for her as well.

        Alyosha also reveals his Christ-like demeanor in a meeting with Grushenka in

Part Three, Book Seven, in the chapter entitled, "One Onion." This story again brings to

mind the story of Mary Magdalene. Grushenka is not a prostitute, but she has not lived a

pure life in terms of her relationships. Through her manipulation, she has torn the father

and son relationship of Dmitry and Mr. Karamazov apart. Yet when Grushenka pleads for

mercy it is Alyosha who offers it, just as Christ did to Mary Magdalene.

       The final child of Mr. Karamazov is his bastard son Smerdyakov. Born of

Reeking Lizaveta this child's name translates to "the stinker" (Morson 235). Morson

describes Smerdyakov as, "more puzzling" than any of the Karamazov brothers (234). It

is this stinking puzzle that describes Smerdyakov who represents Satan in this story.

Morson also offers Smerdyakov's birth as a "counter-nativity" (236). His mother was a

virgin, for it was "quite unthinkable" to see her as a woman, and his father was, as Fyodor

Karamazov called himself, "the father of lies." (Morson 236) Christianity regards Satan

as the father of lies and therefore Smerdyakov would be the son of Satan, or as Jesus was

the Son of God as well as God, Smerdyakov is the Son of Satan and Satan.

       His actual birth also resembles the idea of Satan. His birth resulted in the death of

his mother, Lizaveta. This is the antithesis of Christ. Through Christ's death we are given

life, whereas, through Smerdyakov's (Satan's) birth, death results.

       Returning to the concept of the father of lies, Satan has always been considered

the great deceiver, and Jesus taught that men should beware the temptations and

manipulations of Satan. Smerdyakov, on several instances, is able to deceive large

numbers of people, while appearing to have positive motives, or no motives at all.

       The primary occurrence of this trickery, and the main mystery of this story, is

Smerdyakov's ability to murder his father and avoid all suspicion. He is able to murder

his father, rob him of three thousand rubles, and successfully place the blame on his

brother Dmitry. He is able to do this by building a persona that is both trustworthy, and

harmless. The people of the town cannot believe that the bumbling idiot that Smerdyakov

is could be capable of accomplishing anything. It is this deception that lines up with the

idea of Satan as the father of lies and the great deceiver.

        The second occasion is regarding Smerdyakov's relationship to his father. The

turning point in their relationship is when Smerdyakov returns the money that Mr.

Karamazov dropped without spending any of. Mr. Karamazov, "Had showed very little

concern for the boy", even by calling him Balaam's Ass instead of his given name, prior

to this incident. However, after Smerdyakov returned the money, Mr. Karamazov's

attitude towards Smerdyakov changed greatly. It was this change in attitude, and this trust

that eventually led to Mr. Karamazov's death. Had he not entrusted Smerdyakov as his

guardian he would have never have been killed.

        Through this deception and eventual patricide, Dostoevsky presents a

representation of Satan's destructive powers. Smerdyakov, much like Satan in his

dealings with mankind, tempts Mr. Karamazov into trusting him, and, in essence putting

his life in Smerdyakov's hands. Once Smerdyakov has control of someone's life, he is

free to destroy it at will.

           Even to the omnipresent mind, Smerdyakov's actions defy all explanations.

The reader is not confused as to what Smerdyakov's actions were because Smerdyakov

tells us what he has done in his third meeting with Ivan. However, it is impossible to

decipher why he acted in such a way. Morson sums up our understanding,

                        Smerdyakov outwits all the novel's intellectuals and
                detectives; and critics have been no more successful in
                clarifying his motives or the complex symbolism of his
                behavior. If he robs and kills his father for money; why
                does he return it? Why does he kill himself, and more
                important, why the day before the trial? Is he aware in
                advance that the conspiracy will also destroy Ivan?" (234)

         All that can be concluded concretely about Smerdyakov's actions is that they are

pure and absolute evil. Even when his actions appear truthful and friendly, he secretly has

ulterior motives that lead to the destruction of human lives; the perfect definition of


         When the three brothers are evaluated in regards to their relationships with each

other, it becomes even more evident that they are representations of larger ideas, and we

are also shown much of Dostoevsky's moral teachings that are woven through the novel.

The first of these interactions is located in part one book three in a chapter named "The

Debate." This story closely parallels the story from the Gospels in which Satan tempt

Jesus in the dessert. In that story, as well as this one, Satan (Smerdyakov) quotes from

The Bible, and uses theological logic in order to prove a point that isn't theologically true.

In this case, as in the story of Jesus in the desert, the devil is attempting to persuade Jesus

(Alyosha) into believing that it would be wiser to denounce one's faith in god, instead of

being killed for one's beliefs. Just as in the Biblical story, Alyosha does not succumb to

the temptation, and when asked what he believes about Smerdyakov's theory, he merely

replies that it is not in any way a Christian belief.

         Alyosha is able to resist Smerdyakov's logic because of the fact that he is a

believer in Christ and therefore does not doubt his faith. If he were a man such as Mr.

Karamazov, who was greatly entranced by Smerdyakov's argument, then Alyosha may

have also fallen victim to Smerdyakov's fallacies. It is also important to note that this is

not the only time when Alyosha stood behind his beliefs. When the elder Zosima died,

and his body began to decompose quickly, thus making it impossible for him to become a

saint, many of his original believers began to lose faith. Alyosha did not. This is part of

Dostoevsky main moral teaching throughout this book. Dostoevsky was preaching the

belief that those who are faithful towards God will be able to resist Satan's temptations

and will not have their lives destroyed by Satan. This is evident in the ending of the story

as we find Alyosha being cheered by the same group of boys he reprimanded, because he

has shown them love.

       The direct opposite of Alyosha's fate can be seen in Ivan's doom, and it is because

Ivan is one without a faith in god. Smerdyakov is able to logically convince Ivan that it

was Ivan, who caused Mr. Karamazov's murder, when, in reality, Ivan had nothing to do

with it. However, Dostoevsky shows us that those who do not have faith in God, like

Alyosha does, are capable of being corrupted by the devil. Ivan life is destroyed by the

lies of Smerdyakov, while Alyosha is in a better state at the end of the novel than at the


       All of these things return back to the quote from John that Dostoevsky used as a

type a prologue to his book. The quote serves a double purpose in this story. First it

directly applies to several instances in the book where ones death, although being a

terrible thing, in the end brings about happiness. The first example of this is the murder of

Fyodor Karamazov. Dmitry was a wild man who lived in debt and could not control his

relationships with his family and his female counterparts. He was charged, falsely, with

the murder of his father, and after being found guilty in court, is shipped off to a labor

camp in Siberia. On the surface it appears as a gloomy end for a man. Yet, the

transformation that Dmitry has undergone throughout his ideal is noticeable and he has

learned how to live a more controlled and loving life. Without the false charges brought

up against him, Dmitry would have continued to live his selfish and greedy lifestyle that

he had readily enjoyed beforehand.

       The second occasion on which this story deals with its opening quote is the death

of the child Ilyusha. This child has been the focus of Alyosha's attention for most of the

story, and the boys who originally had the despised the child have now also taken close

attention in the boys health. The state of Ilyusha's family before his sickness was in

disarray, and no member of the family truly loved another. Through the death of their

son, the family grew close, as did the boys and Alyosha.

       These stories are similar in the fact that they both back up the quote Dostoevsky

chose to begin his greatest work, and that is significant in itself. However, there are

differences in them that further advance Dostoevsky's theological thesis. Dmitry,

although he did have his life slowed to a safer pace, was still required to live in a prison

camp. Alyosha is free to live the life that he chooses, and from his closing speech we see

that he has a positive outlook on life. They both were affected positively indirectly

through someone's death, but it was Alyosha who received a rewards, while Dmitry

merely got what was best for him, in order to save his life. The major difference between

the characters of Alyosha and Dmitry was their spiritually. Alyosha was a devout

follower of Jesus, while Dmitry lacked a religion and instead worshipped the desires of

the flesh. Dostoevsky again reminds us that those who have a faith in Christ will not be

deserted even in death. Although Dmitry was not deserted he does not share in the joy

that Alyosha and the group of boys experiences after the funeral of Ilyusha.

       The funeral scene at the close of the novel is very much like the quote from the

Gospel of John. It is through the death of Ilyusha that the boys and Alyosha find new life

in the fact that whenever they are despairing, they must "remember" Ilyusha, and the time

they spent with him. It is through this remembrance of the love that they shared that they

will find new strength.

       Dostoevsky uses this example, along with the episode surrounding Dmitry's

salvation from a life of indulgence to a life of reservation, for the primary reason of

giving credence to the fact that the opening quote from John's gospel applies to human

life. However, this is not Dostoevsky's only objective. He has a much larger theological

purpose, but he must use these two examples to prove the quote's application to physical

life. By doing so, he is then able to open the mind of the reader to the quote's

ramifications on the spiritual world.

       The opening quote to this epic novel is taken from the Gospel of John, and is

powerful standing alone. Yet it does not truly explain everything when it is taken out of

context. The words from the quote are the words of Jesus, and are taken from a section of

John's gospel that discusses the death and resurrection of Jesus, and of the fate of the

followers of Jesus. It also contains the lines, "If anyone serves me, my Father will honor

him" (John 12:26).

       Dostoevsky's purpose for writing this novel was to tell the reader that it is through

Jesus' death that we receive life, and that in order to receive that life we most follow Him.

He does through the lives of his characters and the ideas that they represent. Ivan was not

a follower of Jesus and he did not receive the gift of life, because he was held back by the

power of Smerdyakov, just as all non-believers who do not have a faith in God to revert

back to are also easily manipulated by the devil. Alyosha was with Jesus, and honored

His Father in his daily life, and as promised in John's Gospel, through Jesus he was given


                                      Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Bantam, 1981.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell, 1969.

Oates, Joyce Carol. "Tragic and Comic Visions in The Brothers Karamazov" Updated 7
        August 1999. http://storm.usfca.edu/~southerr/karamazov.html. Cited 13
        September 2001

Terras, Victor. "Narrative Structure in The Brothers Karamazov." Critical Essays on
        Dostoevsky. 1st ed. Ed. Robert Lecker. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986

Morson, Gary Saul. "Verbal Pollution in The Brothers Karamazov." Critical Essays on
      Dostoevsky. 1st ed. Ed. Robert Lecker. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986

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