Dostoevsky and the Doctrinal Imagination

Editor’s note: This article by ITIA Lecturer Rebekah Lamb begins our series on ‘Dostoevsky and Christian Doctrine’. Dr. Lamb explains the genesis of the series after the essay’s conclusion.

‘[B]eing sent to prison was the best thing that ever happened to Fyodor Dostoevsky’, Harlow Robinson once quipped in a review for The New York Times. [1] He was echoing Ernest Hemingway, who asserted ‘Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia’. [2] Sentenced in 1849 to four years of hard labour in a Siberian camp for political prisoners, and to compulsory military service thereafter, Dostoevsky developed a ‘remarkable breadth of … vision’ during his exile, born out of the sufferings he saw and personally endured. [3] He himself often acknowledged as much, saying in A Writer’s Diary and elsewhere that the witnesses of faith he encountered in Siberia helped him persevere in the face of his own unbearable circumstances, which he described in the following way: ‘[i]n summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors [of our barracks] were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall […] There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs’. [4] In addition to these horrific living conditions, Dostoevsky was officially banned from reading anything other than a copy of the New Testament he was given en route to Siberia. (He occasionally managed to access other material, including newspapers and serialised Dickens stories, etc.). Poring over scripture aided his renewal of faith in Christ while in exile, although he was careful to stress his faith was, and always remained, a violent struggle between belief and unbelief: a ‘Hosanna’ spoken out of the ‘furnace of doubt’. [5]

The exorcism of demons, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Christ’s own cry to his Father from the cross, the unpredictable surprise of the resurrection. These and other biblical events illumined his imagination and appear and reappear throughout his post-exile writings. The raising of Lazarus, as we may recall, is a central intertext in Crime and Punishment; the horror of Christ’s entombment is felt with mounting palpability as we reach The Idiot’s disturbing denouement; Christ’s exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac is a governing motif throughout The Possessed. And the list goes on. As he would later note, Christianity is a school in suffering, specifically redemptive suffering. Learning this lesson in exile often led him to characterise Siberia in his later writings as hope’s last outpost—the only place that might perhaps transform some of his most hardened or despairing characters. For instance, at the close of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is sent to Siberia to pay for his calculating murder of a miserly pawn broker, and the sacrificing Sonya follows after him, hoping to give him encouragement and support. In The Idiot, Rogozhin is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour in Siberia for murdering Nastasya Fillippovna, the woman he obsessively pursued and could not possess. In the brutal conditions of Siberian life, Dostoevsky knew it was possible to be shocked out of one’s self and drawn towards Christ as the only solace.

As Rowan Williams and others have reminded us, Dostoevsky’s Siberian encounter with Christ’s mercy did not translate into practices of ‘regular Orthodox worship’, and his writings don’t typically treat of faith, scripture and Christian doctrine in a manner that could be called theologically precise or systematic. [6] Instead, his novels explore the personal and psychological effects of Christian doctrine on the wide-ranging assortment of characters who populate his imagined Russian scenes, who represent the common human condition. Atheists, monks, prostitutes, children, prisoners, scholars, civil servants, aristocrats, the homeless, widowed and orphaned, soldiers and generals are all confronted with the question of God. By the end of his novels, if his characters have not renewed or discovered personal faith convictions, most of them have at least become ‘Christ-haunted’—to use an expression of Flannery O’Connor’s—in one way or another. [7]

For Dostoevsky, it is very often those on the margins of orthodox Christianity or who flaunt the idea of faith altogether who end up saying the most important things about Christ.

For Dostoevsky, it is very often those on the margins of orthodox Christianity or who flaunt the idea of faith altogether who end up saying the most important things about Christ. This is because he understood the human person to be an innately religious being, often standing in closer relation to the suffering Christ when feeling farthest from him—as is suggested in his character Ippolit, the adolescent atheist, from The Idiot, who is more willing to gaze on a picture of Christ entombed (and consider its difficult message) than are many of the professed Christians, like Prince Myshkin, with whom he typically debates. [8]

Dostoevsky’s mode of literary theologising is fitting given that literature expresses the philosophic. It instructs, questions, consoles or warns in a processual manner—that is, it maps out various twistings and turnings of individual characters in their pursuit or denial of meaning. [9] As Glenn Arbery observes, literature tells ourselves about ourselves, drawing from the resources of tradition, culture, and conviction to see how they impact the human person in her situatedness. [10] The authentic ‘dogmatic imagination’, as Timothy Radcliffe terms it, explores the articles of Christian faith in order to teach, to heal, to expand the horizons of what can be thought of, and hoped from, history in light of Christ’s saving work. [11]

Given this, novels presenting Christianity as only a series of systematized formulations reveal the author’s misapprehension of the doctrinal and dogmatic. Doctrine articulates the mysteries of divine revelation, thereby bringing the believer into intimate, personal relation with the triune God. Joseph Ratzinger explains that, first and foremost, Christian doctrine invites a ‘turning back’ or ‘con-version’ of the person towards God through concrete formulations of belief that account for the workings of divine revelation. [12] Christian doctrine, he continues, is ‘concerned with God in history, with God as man’ who entered into the depths of human experience so as to renew all things. As a result, any honest engagement with the articles of Christian faith and their exposition in Christian doctrine is, as Ratzinger explains, the ‘entering into that “I” of the creed formula [which] transform[s] that schematic “I” of the formula into the flesh and blood of the personal “I”’. [13]

Dostoevsky’s novels explore the searching of the ‘I’ for ‘flesh and blood’ encounters with goodness, truth, and beauty. In short, they are very often concerned with those very ‘depths of human experience’ which Ratzinger discuses, and how these depths are affected by Christ’s incarnation and redemptive work, in and beyond history. Dostoevsky accomplishes this through the content of dialogue, debate, and description, to be sure. However, he also accomplishes this in a unique way through the means which the novel as a genre supplies. That is to say, the formal structures and organisations of his novels testify to not only the religious impulse in the human person but her dogmatic one, too. At the level of aesthetic form, the dogmatic impulse (broadly conceived) appears in the arts through its necessary commitment to a way of seeing, to the ‘adhering to a system of belief’, as Terry Eagleton explains it. [14] Moreover, it relies on the conviction that how one says something is part of the very thing said: the ‘medium is the message’, to adapt one of Marshall McLuhan’s famous adages for our purposes. [15] Michael D. Hurley points out that writing in a particular literary mode such as poetry proclaims that this very mode can ‘say and do things that could not otherwise be said or done’. [16]

Dostoevsky persistently revealed the novel was more than up to the task of probing the metaphysical and religious dimensions of the human person and the everyday.

Concerned with fundamental categories defining the human condition—such as place, space, time, and encounter—the novel is able to attend to the existential and spiritual dimensions of everyday life. What Dostoevsky did for the novel is akin to what Dante did for stil novisti poetry. Both innovated with literary forms and conventions so as to communicate the self in relation to God and others and, in so doing, give incarnational accounts of the ‘drama of the soul’s choice[s]’, as Dorothy L. Sayers once put it. [17] Early critics of Dostoevsky’s novels, like Andre Gidé, argued that Dostoevsky’s penetrating insights into the spiritual depths of human experience transformed what could be done with, and hoped from, the novel as a genre. ‘[T]he novel’, he says, ‘with very few exceptions, deals only with the relations between man and man, relations of the passions or the intellect, family, social or class relations—but never, practically never, does it trouble itself about the relations of the individual with himself or with God—which, in … [Dostoevsky] come before all the others’. [18] While this is an exaggerated claim, especially given the hints of the spiritual that subtly shape Dickens, Flaubert, (George) Eliot and others, there is an important kernel of truth here: Dostoevsky persistently revealed the novel was more than up to the task of probing the metaphysical and religious dimensions of the human person and the everyday.

Dostoevsky’s personal credo, his tumultuous assent to the Christian dogmatic tradition, gave rise to the architectonics of his novels. His uses of Christian symbology are usually far less obvious or systematic than are many other religious writers, like Dante, for example. There are, however, key exceptions to this rule, such as his division of The Brothers Karamazov into twelve books, thereby suggesting the work’s close association with the epic schematisation of Milton’s Paradise Lost but also, as Jessica Hooten Wilson rightly reminds us, alluding to the sacred significance of the number twelve in the Christian tradition. [19] Moreover, his novels frequently (and subtly) respond to the debates about doctrine or theological formulations at the level of aesthetic form. For instance, the dialogical structures of his novels witness to the ‘processual’ nature of faith. In short, faith is confirmed through, with, and in daily living, not in tidy syllogisms (even though they can be helpful signposts on the pilgrim’s way). [20] Indeed, this is partly what gives Dostoevsky’s writings their ‘polyphonic’ quality, as described by Mikhail Bahktin. The many-voiced questionings of his characters show that faith is a life-long wrestling, one which can be fed by suffering doubts as much as by resting in certitude. [21]


Series Introduction: Dostoevsky and Christian Doctrine

This brief consideration of what could be called Dostoevsky’s doctrinal imagination is, in part, an effort to emphasise the mutually illuminating relationship between literature and Christian doctrine. It also serves as the first instance of a larger conversation that will take place here at Transpositions on the special topic of Dostoevsky and Christian Doctrine. This conversation grows out of a collaboration between Transpositions and MLitt students who have just completed my module on Christian Doctrine and the Arts. In the coming weeks, the students’ articles on some aspect of Christian doctrine in relation to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1868) will be featured here at Transpositions.

Christian Doctrine and the Arts is one of the core modules of the MLitt programme at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) based at the University of St Andrews, within the School of Divinity. This module grounds students in Christian Doctrine as well as the elements of the Christian art tradition (broadly conceived). It cultivates their attention to the unique possibilities of exchange which the complexity and depth of Christian ideas and doctrines give to the arts.

During the final weeks of the term, we explored how our survey of Christian doctrine, and the key articles of the Christian faith as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, can be put into fruitful dialogue with Dostoevsky’s early exploration of the fundamental question, ‘Who is Christ?’, as presented in The Idiot. Dostoevsky was not satisfied with the novel’s end result but considered it a noble failure. Many of his fundamental questions about faith, forgiveness, and the imitation of Christ are more fully met in The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880). Nonetheless, his boldness in wishing to plumb the depths of key articles of Christian belief in the light of various emerging modern contexts makes The Idiot a rich text for examining the relationship and tensions between theology and literature. The novel follows the struggles and ideals of a young man, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, who has recently returned to Russia after four years abroad in Switzerland, seeking treatment for his epilepsy (which ends up unsuccessful). He strives to perfectly model Christ’s compassion to all he meets but, in so doing, often ends up contributing to a wide range of disasters and tragedies.

In the coming weeks, you will have the chance to read a wide-ranging set of articles presented from an equally wide-ranging series of vantage points which cover some of the novel’s most pressing and profound topics, including spiritual childlikeness, strange sympathies and differences between atheism and belief, the ethics of communication, and the imitation of Christ in daily life.

This collaborative special issue grew out of the online conversations happening in our module as we finished the end of the term in lockdown. Indeed, ‘Dostoevsky during lockdown’ could be a sub-theme for this special issue, especially as it aims to serve as a way to reach out to fellow fans of literature, theology, and the arts during these difficult times. In so doing, it testifies to the fact that the ideas theology and the humanities present to us are always already both timely and timeless, inviting us to be responsive, attentive readers, ready to receive, to be transformed, by the beauty that can save. We hope this special issue offers you the chance to think with us and Dostoevsky about some of the questions of perennial value.



Image Credits

Banner image: Niccolò dell’Arca, The Mourning over the Dead Christ. Photograph by Paolo Villa, CC BY-SA 4.0,


[1] Harlow Robinson, ‘How Siberia Concentrated His Mind’, New York Times, 31 August, 1986,

[2] Erik Nakjavani, ‘Hemingway on War and Peace’, in Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), 134.

[3] Robinson, ‘How Siberia Concentrated His Mind’.

[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Pis’ma, ed. A.S. Dolinin, (Moscow and Leningrad: Gosizdat, 1929-58), 1:135-137.

[5] Avril Pyman, ‘Dostoevsky in the Prism of the Orthodox Semiosphere’, in Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, eds. George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 103-104.

[6] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum Press, 2009), 16.

[7] Flannery O’Connor, ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Mystery and Manners, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 44.

[8] Jacques Maritain held that ‘atheism starts in a reversed act of faith and is a full-blown religious commitment’, showing the ‘internal inconsistency of contemporary atheism’ which ‘proclaims the necessary vanishing away of all religion’ and, in its ardent assertions, becomes itself a ‘religious phenomenon’. See Maritain’s ‘The Meaning of Contemporary Atheism’ in The Range of Reason, available at Maritain’s view sums up Dostoevsky’s position on the matter to a significant extent.

[9] Gary Saul Morson, introduction to A Writer’s Diary, Volume 1: 1873-1876, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. Kenneth Lantz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009), xlvii.

[10] Glenn Arbery, Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001), Introduction.

[11] Timothy Radcliffe, Alive in God: A Christian Imagination (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), 141-143.

[12] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 51.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 89.

[15] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964; repr., New York: Routledge, 2001), 7.

[16] Michael D. Hurley, Faith in Poetry: Verse Style as a Mode of Religious Belief (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 1.

[17] Dorothy L. Sayers, introduction to The Divine Comedy: Hell, by Dante Alighieri, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (London: Penguin, 1949), 11.

[18] Quoted in Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 274.

[19] The twelve tribes of Judah in the Old Testament are represented by the twelve apostles Christ appoints in the New Testament. For an overview of the overall structure and method of The Brothers Karamazov, see Jessica Hooten Wilson’s helpful video introduction.

[20] Morson, ‘Introduction’, xlvii.

[21] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 6-7.


  • Dr Rebekah Lamb is Lecturer in Theology and the Arts in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) and a Trustee of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst.

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