First response: ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and religion

I read The Brothers Karamzov over a seven month period, from November 2016 to June 2017. Sigmund Freud described the novel as ‘the most magnificent novel ever written’, which is hardly an overstatement.  Unfortunately, it also renders it extremely difficult to condense into such a small space what makes this novel so brilliant. I am not going to attempt to give a full academic reading of it or compose a coherent overarching argument here; even in the months that have passed since finishing it, I am still overwhelmed and disorientated by the scope and volume of potentially interesting areas to pin down and explore: from the characters and their psychological shifts and traumas; the various plots; and its tragicomic abyssal relationship with time as the novel sceptically celebrates old Russia whilst also sceptically acknowledging its own inherent and deeply restless modernity. Mikhail Bakhtin referenced Dostoevsky as the writer of the ‘polyphonic novel’; whilst I have not yet read all of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, this is the noisiest book I have ever read and I am still piecing together the various fragments that stood out to me during this reading.

I want to share some thoughts about moments in The Brothers Karamazov that were particularly arresting and interesting. I will begin with some thoughts on religion in the novel, and in particular the movement downwards that I observed in the Elder Zosima and subsequently Alyosha. John Donne also made his way into this piece for comparative purposes after an insightful conversation with my wonderful friend and early modernist, Annie Dickinson. Whilst the speaker of Donne’s Sonnet 14 from the Divine Meditations does not throw himself physically downwards, there is a metaphysical topographical movement downwards as he calls for the disintegration of his multiple and fragmented self. In both texts, this passionate movement downwards, whilst motivated in part by religion, is an act that I argue can provide inspiration and insight beyond religion’s dogmatic trappings.

One of the most important spaces in The Brothers Karamazov is the monastery where Alyosha lives and works as a novice before being sent off into the world by the Elder Zosima. It is one of the first settings the novel introduces us to as Alyosha sits with his father Fyodor, his brother Ivan, the Elder Zosima and a collection of other monks and family acquaintances who want to observe the settlement of the inheritance dispute between Fyodor and his eldest son Dmitri, who is running late. Over the course of the novel’s earliest stages, Alyosha spends a lot of time running backwards and forwards around the town, which in part constructs the unsettling restlessness of the novel, but always returns to the monastery; it is like a fixed point of safety for him from the sensual, emotionally hyperactive and jealous aggression that consumes the Karamazov family.

Whilst the Russian Orthodox Church is discussed and played with at length at various points throughout the novel (Fyodor Karamazov mocking the monks in the monastery;  the  soap operas of various pilgrims who believe in and visit Elders; Ivan Karamazov mocking Alyosha by telling him to eat fish soup; the Elder Zosima’s corpse beginning to rot thereby inciting denouncement from the fickle mystical monks at the monastery etc.), the moment that chimed most powerfully with me throughout all of these episodes was during the digression into the Elder Zosima’s history and personal doctrine. The novel’s third person speaker warns us that the homilies are jotted down by Alyosha during Zosima’s final hours and so are full of potentially unreliable information; indeed Alyosha is said to have expanded upon and added his own memories and philosophies to the homilies. In spite of this, however, what is described is an incredibly moving section that uses the doctrine of Russian Orthodox Christianity as its bedrock, but is a call for affiliation that goes beyond the confines of religion alone. This means that even for someone who is not a strict religious, God-believing Christian, Zosima’s language and ideas can bring connection and revelation.

There are a number of moments that I would like to draw on in particular. Primarily, the act Zosima talks about and performs a number of times:

                ‘Love to throw yourself down on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it, tirelessly, insatiably, love all men, love all things, seek this rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears’.[1]

  The first observation I made with this is Zosima’s insistence on moving down towards the Earth and kissing it. It is an action that appears at other times in the novel; notably when Zosima bows down to supplicate his servant Afansy whom he wronged when he was young (p.298) and when Alyosha, in Zosima’s stead, beholds the Milky Way and bows down to kiss the Earth in his rapture (p.362). Whilst institutional Christianity has always favoured an upward motion, with arches, high ceilings and spires all dominating Christian architecture, it may seem odd that Zosima chooses to move in the opposite direction. The movement downwards is perhaps a nod to Russian folk culture, which privileges a relationship to the Earth and, in so doing, the communal relationship that exists between human beings. This is something discussed by Russian critic Bakhtin with regard to carnival-esque folk life in Rabelais and His World:

                ‘To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into a void of non-existence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and womb. It is always conceiving’.[2]

Bakhtin argues that a movement downwards metaphysically privileges the areas of the body that are considered ‘grotesque’ compared to the superior, divine rational capabilities of the thinking head. Yet, he argues, these lowly, oftentimes bawdy organs, depicted as engorged in carnival-esque texts, for example in Gargantua and Pantagruel  and The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Bruegel  the Elder, or emphasised in the squatting choreography of traditional Slavic folk dances, are the most important part of the body’s sexual, reproductive capability. This is because a movement downwards, a movement towards the Earth, also indicates a movement towards rejuvenation and the bringing forth of all life.

Zosima’s aforementioned feverish appeal to his followers appears similarly engaged in this joyful embracing of all of Earth’s grotesquely born life. ‘Love’, ‘all’ and ‘kiss’ are repeated, followed by a quick succession of adverbs, verbs and adjectives that are familiarly sibilant, like ‘tirelessly’, ‘insatiably’, ‘seek’ and ‘ecstasy’. The overall effect is a panted, sexual, frantic and joyful admonition for human beings to take care of one another and revel in the wonder of life. As Bakhtin refers to ‘the fruitful earth and warm’, Zosima encourages his followers to ‘water the earth’, so as to bring forth the fruit. It is a collective, positive, hopeful vision for human beings that brims with excitement. Zosima encourages followers like Alyosha to show selflessness in their love for one another and the Earth, making use of the body’s movement downwards and the emission of emotional bodily fluids in their worship and in the display of that love. The traditional Biblical command to ‘love thy neighbour’ seems so stale and uninspiring in comparison.

This passage reminded me of some of the religious poetry of John Donne that, whilst entreating unambiguously to a Christian God, conveys an energy and passion that is intriguing whether we believe in the God being addressed or not. More specifically, I would like to draw comparison with Sonnet 14 from Donne’s Divine Meditations, originally published in 1633. Donne wrote these devotional sonnets a couple of hundred years before Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamzov; however, there are similarities that can be observed in the almost pulsating sexual energy of the language used. The same frantic pace is present in Donne’s poem through the fast staccato rhythm that bursts forth from the very beginning:

                ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you

                As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

                That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

                Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new’.[3]

 The use of commas here to break up the quick successive actions of knocking, breathing, shining, rising, overthrowing, bending, breaking, blowing and burning, work in a similar way to the ones in Zosima’s passage; the commas create a quick rhythm that sounds equally panted and rapturous. Whilst Zosima uses sibilance to convey the sexual watering of the Earth with tears and love, the speaker in Donne builds the ideas to a noisy almost violent climax; a heavy ‘b’ opens the poem, paving the way for a crescendo  of ‘b’ sounds at the end of the fourth line to describe personal annihilation at the hands of God. The sound reflects the power and force behind this destruction, but also the speaker’s yearning and desirous anticipation of them. This employment of commas throughout all of the lines continues throughout the rest of the sonnet and culminates in the following lines:

                ‘Take me to you, imprison me, for I

                Except you enthral me, never shall be free,

                Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me’.[4]

A quick succession of ideas, separated by commas, brings the poem to an end, with the speaker’s desire to be ‘ravished’ by God. ‘Ravish’ has a twofold meaning here: it suggests an almost violent sexual experience: ‘ravished’ in the Oxford English Dictionary reads both, ‘to drag off or carry away (a woman) by force or with violence (occasionally also implying subsequent rape)’, and, ‘to transport (a person, the mind, etc.) with the strength of some emotion; to fill with ecstasy, intense delight, or sensuous pleasure; to entrance, captivate, or enrapture’.[5] The speaker is in a traditionally feminised position, to be sexually overwhelmed and overpowered here; the significant difference being that he consents and desires force to be exerted on him. Additionally, the adjectives used to describe ‘ravished’ in the OED could all be employed to describe the emotional outpouring of Donne’s speaker, whose fast-paced, broken language echoes the rapture and sexual ecstasy at the prospect of being overcome by God.  The emotion of the speaker rises to an almost fury through the pace and final idea of ravishment. It suggests that engaging with God and the Christian faith on such an intimate and personal level can be euphoric and exciting.

Furthermore, what is significant in both Zosima’s speech and in Donne’s Sonnet 14 is that the rapturous construction of the language points more specifically to each speakers’ desire to have their subjectivity removed or disintegrated. It is, in effect, a movement downwards. Whilst Zosima physically throws himself to the ground in his selfless love and devotion to the world and the people in it, and entreats others to do the same, Donne’s speaker wants to be broken down, reduced and disintegrated by God’s influence. This is because he recognises that without God’s divine influence, his constructed sense of self is impossibly fractured. This is evident in the aforementioned quotation when he declares ‘for I except you enthral me’. There is a separation between the speaker’s ‘I’ and ‘me’ and he suggests that although God enthrals and empowers him, he is also enthralled and empowered by himself. This is not something he wants to continue, instead he wants his split self to broken down into one God-ful singularity. This is hinted at earlier on in the poem:

                ‘I, like an usurped town, to another due,

                Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy within me, me should defend,

                But is captive, and prove weak and untrue’[6]

Here, again, we see that the speaker sees his self as split and confused; the comparison made is with a town being overtaken and supplanted by those who are external or rivals in some capacity. In a similar vein, Donne’s speaker sees his subjecthood as split and confused, which makes it difficult for him to fully admit God into his life.

Additionally, Donne’s speaker feels that his ability to reason and be reasonable is something given to him by God; however, he suggests that he is not currently governed by reason. There are two potential arguments for why this is the case, and both potential readings hinge on the ambiguous statement ‘me, me should defend’. Here, Donne creates a distinction between ‘me’ and ‘me’ through the comma that physically and rhythmically breaks them apart. He suggests both that God-given reason should defend ‘me’ from ‘me’, but also that ‘me’ should defend God-given reason from ‘me’. As a result, the line ‘but is captive, and prove weak and untrue’, refers to both reason and the speaker himself. This is because the tugging between the contrasting ‘me’ and ‘me’ leaves the speaker impotent and lacking reason, but also that reason within him is dimmed and unfulfilled. This seems to contrast with the way in which the speaker describes God as ‘three-personed’, perhaps giving reference to the holy trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I, however, would argue that the speaker acknowledges that although God is split into three separate but entwined entities, this is impossible for himself. Multiplicity within his own self cannot be successful because the constant tugging between ‘me’, ‘me’, ‘I’ and ‘reason’ prevents him from living up to the standards that he believes God requires. For the speaker, I argue, the only way forward for his fractured self is to be broken down, disintegrated and then melded together in a singular new whole, something he anticipates with a sexual fervour.

The physical and metaphysical movement downwards discussed by Zosima and Donne’s speaker can be read as a supplicatory act, bowing down to the limitless power of a Christian God. I, however, would argue that moving downwards in this way is a passionate act of self-disintegration. They are not simply humbled by God: they are invigorated by their love for others and with their hope for self-improvement.  Whilst God has, inevitably, inspired these responses in Zosima and Donne’s speaker, the presentation of these emotional, excitable characters is such that the texts are not bogged down and laden heavy with Christian dogma. The sexual, desirous reverie conveyed in the brisk, energetic language suggests a bacchanal devotion to the idea of helping people, loving all and freely and looking beyond the trappings of ourselves to be of service to a greater idea or project. I think this extends beyond religion: there are many moments in The Brothers Karamazov where Zosima appears to subscribe to a form of both socialism and vegetarianism, which I want to discuss at length in future with the help of Gerard Manley Hopkins (another poet whose work provides inspiration and joy beyond the potentially  arbitrary boundaries of religion).  Because Dostoevsky and Donne present characters that are loud, emotional and conflicted that conceive beyond themselves, as opposed to characters that are strict, composed and self-righteous, they have written about religion in a way that does away with religious dogma, with heavy, performative language that reveals their ‘modern’ potential. These characters are enabled by their passion and their love, joyful in their disintegration and rich in the goodness of throwing themselves to the ground, whether physically or metaphysically. It is in this presentation of religion that I think both Dostoevsky and Donne can inspire those for whom Christianity may have no relevance.


[1] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 322.

[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World trans. Helene Iswolsky (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 21.

[3] ‘Sonnet 14’ lines 12-14, John Donne: The Complete English Poems ed. A. J. Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1996) p.314.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary

[6] Ibid lines 7-8.

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