Unbelief and Dostoevsky

For a writer universally considered one of the greatest Christian novelists of our age, Fyodor Dostoevsky actually spent as much time in his post-Siberia novels writing about unbelief as he did about faith. If you read Crime and Punishment attentively, for instance, you will see that nowhere in the novel – even in its famous epilogue that some critics have found to be artistically inconsistent and tacked on – does Rodion Raskolnikov actually ever repent of his double murder or profess a renewed faith in God. Despite the efforts of the novel’s greatest believer, the angelic and self-sacrificing Sonya, faith does not emerge triumphant by the closing pages of the book. Even in the moment when Raskolnikov throws himself at the feet of Sonya, who has followed him to Siberia, and “the dawn of a renewed future, of a complete resurrection into a new life” shine in his and Sonya’s expressions, we never witness a fully articulated repentance or genuine Christian conversion on Raskolnikov’s part. Instead, we are told that a gradual renewal and regeneration are to “make the subject of a new story,” one that we, of course, will never be privy to.1 Knowing how many times Raskolnikov has stepped back from repentance and self-judgment previously, just when he seemed poised to perform both actions, it is easy for readers not to trust that he will indeed ever change.

The faith narrative that Dostoevsky seemed determined to write all of his life seems to fail in his next novel as well. According to the author in a January 1868 letter to his niece (PSS 28 pt 2:251), the hero of The Idiot (1868), Prince Myshkin, was to be “a positively beautiful person” modeled on the “only positively beautiful person in the world – Christ.”2 Myshkin’s sudden arrival from abroad was to allow Dostoevsky the chance to explore how a truly Christ-like person would be received in the mercantile, materialist St. Petersburg of his day. The answer is foreordained: a society obsessed with money and prestige has no interest in the good and the meek, no matter how Christ-like. While many consider Myshkin a failed Christ figure (a reading I have disputed),3 it is true that his actions in the novel are powerless to prevent the very act of murder he has so assiduously labored to avert almost from the moment he arrives in Saint Petersburg. His failure emphasizes the inadequacy of belief as both an abstract and a practical philosophy, an outcome all the more lamentable since, as Sarah Young argues, “The Idiot ends with fewer hints of spiritual regeneration or the possibility of new life than Dostoevsky’s other novels.”4 In Demons (1871-72), written about nihilist revolutionaries, Dostoevsky’s faith narrative disappears almost entirely in a work that constitutes the author’s deepest dive into the depths of unbelief yet, with heroes either professing a non-divine Christ (Shatov, who believes in a “Christ outside the truth”) or committing suicide to spite God and to declare the advent of the Man-God (Kirillov, who declares “If there is no God, then I am God”). It is a novel haunted by death and destruction and marked by arson, five murders, two suicides, and two untimely deaths, thereby striking an even bleaker note than The Idiot. Even Dostoevsky’s most faith-filled novel – Brothers Karamazov, 1879-80 – is dominated by the specter of unbelief in the claims and provocations of Ivan Karamazov that comprise much of the novel’s theological preoccupations. From his thesis that there is no immorality if there is no immortality, to his catalogue of crimes against innocent children in a supposedly God-ruled universe, to his poem of the Grand Inquisitor and his new godless religion meant to bring earthly bread and comfort to the masses, Ivan makes persuasive arguments for the non-existence of God while criticizing the teachings of Christ as overly demanding and unfulfillable.

The more we look for faith in Dostoevsky’s works, the more we encounter a pronounced and formidable unbelief. Doubt, of course, has long been a companion to people striving to believe, from the disciple Thomas to Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis and Mother Theresa. Indeed, it is the test that all faith must pass. God is by definition ineffable and incomprehensible. At the same time, what we cannot know about the existence of God can actually bring us closer to faith. Such is the premise of negative theology, prominent in Dostoevsky’s native Eastern Orthodoxy and a notable part of the prayer life of the monasteries he visited. Originating in the writings of the fifth-century theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, apophaticism requires that we empty ourselves of all conceptual thinking by saying to ourselves what God is not, in the hope that we can attain what Vladimir Lossky called “the darkness of absolute ignorance”5 and what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,”6 both states that can create the condition of utmost selfless and self-denying receptivity to God that makes possible an ecstatic transrational union with the divinity.

This is the nature of Dostoevsky’s doubt. With Dostoevsky, the darkness of doubt was not something he overcame in his life but rather something he acknowledged as an essential condition of his quest to believe. As early as his famous March 1854 letter to the Decembrist wife Natalia Fonvizina, he declared, “I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I have been and shall ever be (that I know), until they close the lid of my coffin. What a terrible torment this thirst to believe has cost me and is still costing me, and the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it.”7

To understand how he came to this state of mind we must remind ourselves of the forces at work in European culture in Dostoevsky’s day. Born in 1821 into what he described as “a family that was Russian and pious” where he and his brother “knew the Gospels virtually from our earliest childhood,”8 Dostoevsky grew up in the decades of Romanticism’s height in Russia, which replaced Neoclassicism and the reign of Enlightenment ideas with a cult of feelings and the reassertion of religious sensibilities. The advent of realism in Russia in the 1840s, just when Dostoevsky was taking his first formative steps as a writer, together with a rising secularism, however, soon changed the intellectual landscape in Russia. The publication in 1835 of David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined commenced the most serious assault on faith since the Enlightenment. It circulated in Russia over the next several years, creating a sensation among Russian intellectuals. While Strauss was not the first scholar of the historical critical school, he was one of the most influential. Together with Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus was published in 1863 and translated into Russian a year later, Strauss championed a more academic approach to understanding Jesus, distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Strauss rejected the divinity of Jesus as implausible and unnecessary. What Jesus revealed was the divinity not of himself but of humankind. “In an individual, a God-Man,” he writes, “the properties and functions which the Church ascribes to Christ contradict themselves; in the idea of the race, they perfectly agree. Humanity is the union of the two natures – God become man, the infinite manifesting itself in the finite.”9

Dostoevsky recalls that Strauss “was spoken of very reverently” by Russia’s most prominent literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, who is largely credited with launching Dostoevsky as a writer. Belinsky, himself an atheist, would tease the young Dostoevsky mercilessly about his love of Christ. “It’s touching just to look at him,” Dostoevsky recalls Belinsky saying, pointing at him during one of the literary evenings he hosted that also passed as a forum for promoting radical ideas. “I no sooner mention the name of Christ than his whole face changes, just as if he were going to cry. . . But believe me, you naïve fellow, believe me, that your Christ, were he born in our time, would be the most undistinguished and ordinary of men; he would be utterly eclipsed by today’s science and by those forces that now advance humanity.”10

Belinsky’s influence on the young Dostoevsky was enormous. In later recollections, Dostoevsky admits that the nascent socialism Belinsky championed in 1846 with its doctrines of the immorality of the family, religion, private property, and nationalism struck him as “sacred and moral in the highest degree” and “captured our hearts and minds in the name of something very noble.”11 Dostoevsky’s growing contacts with ever more radical intellectual circles over the next two years can be traced to that influence and further eroded the religious faith of his childhood. These meetings eroded his faith, but never, it seems, dislodged it: not when Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 for meeting in those same radical socialist circles; not when he was kept in solitary confinement for eight months and interrogated, and was then later condemned to death by firing squad. Nor was it eroded when he stood at the execution grounds, in the first group of three tied to posts to be shot, as he did so with his faith in an afterlife intact, telling one of his fellow condemned “conspirators” that he would soon “be with Christ.”12 And when, at the last moment, the execution was halted and the prisoners were informed that their sentences had been commuted to hard labor in Siberia, Dostoevsky felt reborn.

After four years of incarceration during which time the only book he could possess was the Bible, Dostoevsky emerged with his faith preserved but tempered by the trauma of his prison term and the persistent “doubt and disbelief” that he mentions in his letter to Fonvizina in 1854 – the year of his release. Contrary to the narrative adopted by many, Dostoevsky did not experience a dramatic renewal of his faith in prison. Rather, he returned to civilian life believing the way other writers and intellectuals of his day believed, if their faith had managed to survive the growing arguments against belief. In an age of growing secularism, Dostoevsky believed self-consciously and polemically, well aware of his own doubts and the wrathful critique of religion the new materialism of the 1860s brought to bear. As it turned out, this state of affairs suited his novelistic purposes just fine.

For Dostoevsky, arguments against belief became the necessary “crucible of doubt” through which every “Hosanna!” must pass, a thought he lets the ultimate agent of negation – none other than the Devil himself – articulate in Ivan’s hallucinatory interview with him in Brothers Karamazov.13 In his post-Siberia novels, Dostoevsky proceeds on his own via negativa as an author, often making unbelief the apophatic articulation of what faith is not in the hope that faith described negatively might make possible a sudden revelation or reversal away from doubt and toward belief. Dostoevsky articulated this idea most directly in the censored chapter from Demons where Stavrogin visits the Orthodox bishop Tikhon to talk about belief and ultimately confess that he once raped a child (hence the objections of the Russian censor at the time). Learning from Stavrogin that he believes in demons but not God, Tikhon informs him that it would be better if he professed a total atheism rather than such an incomplete belief in the supernatural. “Total atheism is more respectable than worldly indifference,” he explains. “A complete atheist stands on the next-to-last step to the most complete faith (he may or may not take that step), while the indifferent one has no faith, apart from a bad fear.”14

Stavrogin correctly sees in this sentiment the lines from Revelation, 3:15-16, which Tikhon then recites for him: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” In the censored version of the novel, this passage is moved to the penultimate chapter of the book, where a traveling peddler of the Gospels reads it aloud at the deathbed of the man whose son leads the gang of revolutionary radicals bringing murder and mayhem to a Russian provincial town. We readers are meant to see in God’s paradoxical preference for polarity in matters of good and evil and faith and unbelief the biblical support for Tikhon’s claim, which itself reads like an elaboration of the scriptural passage. As Pascal puts it in his Pensées, “les extrêmes se touchent” – the extremes meet, hence the short distance of a mere step from complete atheism to ardent belief in Tikhon’s assertion.

Such paradox intrigued Dostoevsky and is at the heart of his own engagement with faith. Indeed, much of Dostoevsky’s fictional universe depends on such paradoxes and the possibility of sudden turnabouts, including even the reversal of Tikhon’s own formula, for in Dostoevsky, the opposite outcome of what is foreseen or intended is always possible, especially in the realm of belief, where, according to Dostoevsky’s law of polar opposites, complete faith can also unexpectedly give way to total atheism. If what we know about Dostoevsky’s plans for the sequel to Brothers Karamazov through reminiscences and secondhand accounts can be trusted, such was precisely to be Alyosha’s fate. The former acolyte and true believer was to lose his faith, become a revolutionary and make an attempt on the tsar’s life. As shocking as this sounds, we must remember what Dostoevsky writes in his preface to the novel: “. . . the trouble is that while I have just one biography , I have two novels. The main novel is the second one – about the activities of my hero in our time, that is, in our present, current moment.”15 The “current moment” to which Dostoevsky refers, as James Rice has pointed out, was dominated by seemingly endless attempts on the life of Tsar Alexander II, who had already survived some half dozen previous assassination attempts (in 1866, 1867, 1879, 1880), three of them while Dostoevsky was composing Brothers Karamazov.16 The final successful attack occurred on March 1, a little over a month after Dostoevsky died. Given Dostoevsky’s proclivity for the scandalous and unexpected, it is not at all unbelievable to think that the writer might have subjected his hero to just such a controversial fate.

When we talk about Dostoevsky and belief, it is important to note, as I have argued elsewhere, that his faith could not avoid being affected by the atheism he spoke out against.17 At the same time, in an age of skepticism and militant materialism, he could not defend belief in an earnest and straightforward fashion in his novels without laying himself open to charges that he was a mere apologist for the Orthodox Church, perceived by progressive thinkers to be an arm of the oppressive government. Thus, Dostoevsky found himself in an impossible position: affirm God too directly and your argument will be dismissed by the very people you are trying to convince – the materialists and atheists. Affirmation of belief had to be made indirectly or by negative means, such as in the arguments of Ivan Karamazov, whose rebellion against God tells us much about the nature of belief or whose Grand Inquisitor ironically reveals Christ’s beauty in his attempt to tear him and his teachings down.

When Dostoevsky did attempt a straightforward defense of faith, his rhetoric sometimes led him to unexpected conclusions. In his 1854 letter to Fonvizina, for instance, he confesses that he has tempered his doubt with a “symbol of faith in which all is clear and sacred.” This symbol, he declares,

is very simple and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ; and there not only isn’t, but I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be. More than that – if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth.18

The problem with this seemingly ardent profession of faith is that in the end, Dostoevsky has actually pledged to be faithful, if necessary, to a Christ outside the truth, just as his Shatov does in Demons some seventeen years later. In other words, like Shatov, and like actual Russian revolutionaries such as Vera Figner, Vera Zasulich, and Andrei Zheliabov (the latter of whom helped plot the assassination of Alexander II), Dostoevsky has (wittingly? unwittingly?) vowed to be true to the teachings of a non-divine Jesus of history even over belief in “the truth” (God). The fact that Dostoevsky should transfer his problematic declaration to the lips of one of the doomed revolutionaries in Demons indicates that he was well aware that he had strayed rhetorically into problematic theological territory.

This 1854 letter, however, is a crucial document for understanding Dostoevsky. In its hyperbolic style and contradictory assertions, it marks the advent of the mature writer, the Dostoevsky of paradox whose sometimes ambiguous and highly complex attitude toward faith has been underappreciated in criticism of the author. Written just after emerging from four years of hard labor in appalling conditions and among the most brutal and depraved of thieves, rapists, and murderers, it is hardly surprising that the writer struggled to articulate a coherent credo. And it is not surprising that the work that would describe his prison experience – the thinly fictionalized Notes from the House of the Dead (1861-62) – should also be the most reticent of all of the works that followed it on matters of faith and the question of good and evil. Far from providing clarity on these questions, Notes from the House of the Dead complicates and challenges our assumptions about faith in God and the nature of good and evil. As such, it is an essential foundation for all that Dostoevsky would say on these subjects over the next two decades of his unfortunately truncated life (he died at 59 of a lung hemorrhage, caused by emphysema).

In the House of the Dead

If there is ever a test of our notions of what is good, true, noble, and just, it is time spent in prison. “Compulsory life in common,” the narrator reports, was a torment “almost more terrible than any other,”19 where life was a hell of “noise, uproar, laughter, swearing, the clank of chains, smoke and grime, shaven heads, branded faces, ragged clothes, everything defiled and degraded.”20 Political prisoners bunked side-by-side with serial killers and men convicted of luring and murdering children “for pleasure.”21 Everybody stole from everyone else. (Dostoevsky’s Bible was stolen from him “by a convict who was sincerely attached to me,” he reports.)22 Never did our narrator ever see “one sign of repentance” or “a trace of despondent brooding over their crimes.” On the contrary, “the majority of them inwardly considered themselves absolutely in the right.”23 Three times in the opening pages of his notes he emphasizes this point: “Their consciences never reproached them,” he reports; “There was no sign of shame or repentance.”24

The people guarding the prisoners were hardly better than the inmates and lorded their authority over them. Worst of all were the “executioners” – those who administered floggings, which was how order was maintained in prison and, depending on the severity of the beating, could and did result in the death of those being flogged. Some of the executioners were condemned convicts who commuted their sentences by agreeing to flog their fellow inmates. But others were officers who were “good natured, even honest and even respected by society” but who “could not with equanimity let a man go until he screamed out under the lash, till he prayed and implored for mercy.” One officer whom the narrator knew personally gave his victim fifty extra lashes until he heard him scream “your honor, father, have mercy, I’ll pray to God for you all my life.” “It couldn’t be helped,” the officer reported later, “the man was rude.”25

Dostoevsky’s descriptions of men being forced to run the gauntlet are particularly gruesome. Worse are the portraits he paints of two officers who oversee this punishment. One – Lieutenant Zherbyatnikov – is considered “a monster” by the narrator and the convicts themselves. Zherebyatnikov made a theater of the gauntlet, talking up the convict beforehand in front of the assembled inmates, promising to be merciful, even making deals with him, then screaming at his soldiers to “Flay him! Scorch him! Lay it on!” as he ran along the line laughing “peals of laughter” till the convict was more dead than alive.26 Another, Lieutenant Smakalov, was remembered more fondly by the convicts for his sense of humor. Every time a convict was to run the gauntlet, Smekalov would talk him up good-naturedly but then always conclude by asking him to lie down between the soldiers and recite the Lord’s Prayer. The convict, Smekalov, and all in attendance knew in advance that as soon as the victim reaches “Thy kingdom come,” Smekalov would scream “Now give him some!” and the beating would begin, vicious and prolonged, after which Smekalov would go away “perfectly satisfied with himself” and, indeed, even the man who had been flogged would leave “almost satisfied with himself and with Smekalov.”27

“The characteristics of the torturer exist in embryo in almost every man of today,” the narrator concludes, now broadening his critique of human nature well beyond the confines of the prison environment. “Tyranny is a habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them.”28 These are devastating insights into the human condition. What begins as an exposé of the most chilling characteristics of hardened criminals and the awful circumstances of their confinement and punishment, has now become an indictment of the human condition in society more universally, where belief in God, like the Lord’s Prayer in Smekalov’s stunt, no longer exerts a moral force. Here, for the first time, the writer of the mature novels makes his presence known, the writer who questions how human beings can torment children and how God can allow such a thing.

Nowhere in House of the Dead does Dostoevsky make this point more effectively than in the inserted narrative, “Akulka’s Husband.” Though we learn that the inmates almost never discuss the crimes that landed them in prison, one night, while the narrator is convalescing in the prison hospital, he overhears an inmate named Shishkov talk about his crime, the same crime that the narrator – Alexander Goryanchikov, Dostoevsky’s fictionalized alter-ego in the book – had also committed: uxoricide, the murder of one’s wife. This whispered story in the middle of the night is easily the most gripping tale we read in the entire book.

The story is of a love triangle, but with a twist. Shishkov, a “cowardly, mawkish youth” whom everyone held in contempt, tells it well, withholding crucial information from his interlocutor, Cherevin (“a sullen pedant” and “conceited fool”), to exploit its disclosure later for maximum dramatic effect.29,30 Nearly every time Cherevin interrupts Shishkov with a question or comment, he is put off: “Wait a bit;” “Stop, wait a bit;” “You listen, old man;” “No, old chap, you hold your tongue;” “Come, listen.”31 Why? Because the story of Akulka is no ordinary narrative, as critics have noted. It occupies a special place in Dostoevsky’s prison narrative or rather, outside of it, in the world of God, religion and laws, which is one reason for its centrality. Of all of the inserted narratives in the book, it stands alone as an independent work that anticipates Dostoevsky’s future themes, for it conveys the perfect image of the imperfect human condition and its ability to generate a superhuman response: selfless love, self-abnegating forgiveness, and self-indictment, all in the service of irrational love.

Akulka’s father is the rich peasant Ankudim, respected by everyone in the village. He has plans to marry her off to personal advantage to an elderly business associate, Mikita Grigoritch. One day, Filka, whose father had set up business with Ankudim before he died and who now works with Ankudim, demands that Ankudim pay out his share of the business so he can drink up the money and sell himself a soldier – that is, be paid to take the place of a village conscript to the army. He declares he’ll come back a field marshal. In the meantime, he wants to live large, unlike Ankudim, whom he accuses of pinching every penny. To add relish to his denunciation, Filka also declares that he’s been sleeping with Akulka, adding that Ankudim might as well forget his plans of marrying her off to Mikita. An uproar ensues in the village at the news, as Filka hires two horses with bells and sets “the town ringing with his noise,” drinking, sowing his wild oats and cutting a dashing figure, with all of the village women running after him. For his part, Shishkov, who hero worships Filka, attaches himself to his company, beating his mother till she gives him money so he, too, can go on a spree. Together they paint Akulka’s gate with pitch while Filka sings songs in the marketplace about being her lover.

As a result, Akulka is mercilessly beaten by her parents day and night until one day Shishkov’s mother convinces him to marry Akulka for the dowry he’d likely get for taking the disgraced girl off of Ankudim’s hands. Reluctantly, Shishkov agrees, and even more reluctantly (for Shishkov is low on the village social ladder) so do Akulka’s parents. Shishkov is dead drunk all the way to the wedding only to discover on the wedding night that Akulka is a virgin. The first of several significant bows occurs here, with Shikhkov bowing before Akulka and asking her forgiveness. Soon the whole village knows that Akulka was “proved innocent.” But Filka does not let up. He accuses Shishkov of being too drunk on his wedding night to know whether she was innocent or not, and then he grabs Shishkov’s hair and makes him dance. He then threatens to come to Shishkov’s house to thrash Akulka himself.

Humiliated and now fearful, Shishkov takes out his anger on Akulka, whom he starts beating regularly, at times out of habit and boredom. He beats her so much that Akulka’s mother comes to beg him to stop, even bowing before Shishkov himself in humility. But then the day arrives when Filka has finally drunk his way through all of his money and is being led through the village in a cart to enlist, with Filka bowing low in humility in all directions as he goes. When the cart pulls up to Shishkov’s gate, however, something remarkable happens. Filka sees Akulka in the garden and leaps out of the cart, bowing down before the woman he has wronged. The whole story turns on what happens next. “My darling,” he declares, “I’ve loved you for two years, and now they are taking me for a soldier with music. Forgive me, honest daughter of an honest father, for I’ve been a scoundrel to you and it’s all been my fault.” And he bows to the ground once more. Akulka returns his low bow and responds, “You forgive me too, good youth. I have no thought of any evil you have done.” To her husband’s angry exclamation at this development, she declares, “I love him now more than all the world.”32 That night, a murderous Shishkov takes Akulka out into the countryside and slits her throat, but botches the job – he only partially severs the carotid artery. The two struggle on the ground covered in her gushing blood, both screaming in horror, as if playing out a ghastly travesty of their wedding night. Shishkov flees and Akulka staggers almost all the way back home, where she collapses and finally dies.

No summary can do justice to this story’s visceral depiction of the darkness and brutality of the Russian village where women are viciously beaten and treated like chattel. But a sociological explanation for Akulka’s treatment is insufficient to explain everything that is going on here. There are deeper undercurrents that have to do with psychology and theology – Dostoevsky’s favorite two topics. Shishkov mentions the icons in Akulka’s house and how Ankudim likes to read the Bible and instruct his wife in it but the whole thrust of the story is that no one but Akulka, who forgives the man who wronged her, seems to follow the dictates of the Christian religion, despite the icons and icon lamps that hung in every village house. But here, we have to be careful. Does Akulka forgive Filka out of Christian compassion or does she do so because she has been in love with him all along herself, no matter how cruel his allegations have been or how damaging to her, both physically and psychically? Maybe Dostoevsky’s point is that psychology trumps theology here, or at least as far as House of the Dead is concerned.

In many ways, after all, “Akulka’s Story” is driven not by theological concerns but by psychological ones, being a story of two rivals for the same love: Akulka and Shishkov, both of whom love Filka in secret and both of whom suffer at his hands. Shishkov idolizes Filka and craves his approval. Akulka is in love with Filka but knows that he is too poor for her father to allow him to marry her. In the first instance, Shishkov suffers from the inadequacy of his own personality, his inability to match Filka’s dashing character (hence, Filka’s humiliating treatment of him). In the second instance, it is Filka who is inadequate – someone too poor and socially disadvantaged to claim Akulka’s hand. Both Filka and Shishkov, however, express their inadequacy through cruelty toward Akulka not only because of a preexisting misogyny hard-wired into 19th century village life, but through the perverted turns of human psychology that Dostoevsky has been describing throughout his prison narrative.

Though Akulka is proven innocent, Shishkov is cruel to her precisely because he discovers that marrying her has not made him the equal of his idol, the dashing Filka. His anger and violence are displaced from its proper target: Filka. As for Filka, he may have slandered Akulka in order to save her from marrying someone else (Mikita Grigoritch, Shishkov), but how are we to understand his continued cruelty once she is already wed to Shishkov, especially if he still loves her? And, in any case, ruining Akulka’s reputation in the village and causing her misery and physical harm is a perverted way to show his love in the first place. As for Akulka’s forgiveness of him, while it is surely an example of the kind of selfless love and self-abnegating forgiveness described in Dostoevsky’s later novels, it is also a cruel love, for in forgiving Filka and declaring her love for him so publicly, she is crowning Filka’s humiliation of Shishkov. Even more perversely, her act is also an incitement to her wife-beating husband to do violence against her person. Thus, the irrational love Dostoevsky showcases in this story is not that of Christ – that is, love of enemies. It is, instead, love that causes harm: a hurtful, self-destructive love, the love practiced, it turns out, by all three of our central protagonists.

“Akulka’s Husband” is the ultimate articulation of all of the paradoxes of human behavior that Dostoevsky has been chronicling in House of the Dead. Instead of clarity about what is good (Akulka) and what is evil (Shishkov, Filka, misogyny), Dostoevsky gives us a last-minute assertion of will by the otherwise meek Akulka, who finally has her say about the men who have harmed her but whose utterance leads to her demise. In this way, her act distinctly evokes the sudden and irrational acts of self-assertion that the narrator chronicles among the inmates: acts by otherwise meek or peaceable inmates who have reached their breaking point and must lash out, even if the blow redounds to their own head. That Akulka can thus suddenly remind us of Dostoevsky’s Dead House residents is perhaps his most shocking sleight of hand, for it erases the boundaries separating the prison from that of the world outside it.

Gary Rosenshield calls Akulka “arguably the greatest realization of Christian ideal,”33 but Christianity seems to have little to do with her behavior. Akulka does not act on any discernible Christian motives and she is generally as cowed and inarticulate as one would expect any 19th century Russian village girl to be. Nor is it clear whether, as Robert Louis Jackson argues, Dostoevsky endowed Akulka “with the lofty attributes of a heroine,”34 since, in the only words she says in the story, she exonerates one scoundrel and provokes another to kill her.

In other words, there is no firm moral ground here, or anywhere, in Dostoevsky’s Dead House. Rather, the story “Akulka’s Husband,” like Notes from the House of the Dead overall, is a kind of Ground Zero for Dostoevsky’s further exploration of the dark recesses of human psychology. Ground Zero in Dostoevsky is comprised of irrational actors acting irrationally, that is, not in their own interests – a situation that Dostoevsky sees as more the norm of human behavior than many would care to admit. Thus, in House of the Dead and elsewhere, it is psychology, not theology, with which he is primarily grappling. Dostoevsky would soon explore the clash of psychology and theology in Crime and Punishment, where the question he poses is not only one related to psychology (why did Raskolnikov murder the pawnbroker?) but one bound up with theology (what is God and how does God allow evil to be done?). But while psychology precedes theology in Dostoevsky, it does not exclude it. Rather, it paves the way for it. That the irrational love that motivates Akulka has inspired discerning readers to seek in her behavior the faint outlines of a Christian ideal is already indication that faith can be illuminated in unexpected, even negative ways in Dostoevsky’s works.


1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage, 1993) 549.

2 Fedor Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-1990) vol. 28 pt 2:251.

3 See John Givens, The Image of Christ in Russian Literature: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pasternak (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2018), 59-82.

4 Sarah Young, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting (London: Anthem, 2004), 1-2.

5 Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 25.

6 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/157984/the-dark-night-of-the-soul

7 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. Andrew MacAndrew, ed. Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 68.

8 Fyodor Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, 1873-76, trans. Kenneth Lantz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993) 289.

9 David Friedrich Strauss, Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. George Eliot (New York: Gloger Family Books, 1993), 780.

10 Writers Diary, vol. 1, 129.

11 Writers Diary, vol. 1, 285-86

12 Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 196.

13 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990) 642 (Book 11, Chapter 9 of the novel).

14 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage, 1995), 688.

15 Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, 3. See James L. Rice, “Dostoevsky’s Endgame: The Projected Sequel to The Brothers Karamazov,” Russian History/Histoire Russe, 33: 1 (Spring 2006), 45-62; and Igor Volgin, “Alyosha’s Destiny,” The New Russian Dostoevsky, ed. and trans. Carol Apollonio (Bloomington, In., 2010) 271-86.

16 Rice, “Dostoevsky’s Endgame,” 46.

17 See the Introduction and Chapter 2 of my Image of Christ in Russian Literature.

18 Dostoevsky, Selected Letters, 68.

19 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead and Poor Folk, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004) 27

20 Ibid., 14.

21 Ibid., 51, 53.

22 Ibid., 23.

23 Ibid., 19.

24 Ibid., 15, 17.

25 Ibid., 203.

26 Ibid., 192, 194.

27 Ibid., 197.

28 Ibid., 202.

29 Ibid., 217.

30 Ibid., 216.

31 Ibid., 218, 219, 220, 221, 222.

32 Ibid., 224.

33 Gary Rosenshield, “Akul’ka: The Incarnation of the Ideal in Dostoevskij’s Notes from the House of the Dead,” Slavic and East European Journal, 31:1 (Spring, 1987) 18.

34 Robert Louis Jackson, The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981) 92.