You Have Not Spoken of Me What Is Right: The Brothers Karamazov and the Book of Job

“The Bible,” according to Marilynne Robinson, “is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live without its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.”1

This is true even of writers who deny the basic tenets of the Bible—Robert Alter has recently published an examination of the influence of the King James Version on such authors as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy.2 How much more, then, it is of those who stand consciously in the stream of Christian thought! The language, stories, and themes of Christianity’s canonical literature, the literature commonly called the Bible, have profoundly influenced the western literary tradition.

Of all the Scriptural texts, the Book of Job enjoys perhaps the most prestigious literary legacy: it is in the bones of the greatest tragedies of Shakespeare, Lear and Hamlet; it casts its shadow over Moby-Dick; and it is the essential backdrop of Milton’s Paradise Regained. Chesterton considered it the single highest creative achievement of ancient Jewish culture, a “colossal cornerstone of the world,”3 and Milton identified it as the chief example of the “brief epic.”4 With due deference to Milton’s genius, however, Job is probably not best classified as an epic—rather, it bears closest resemblance to the verse-dramas of classical Greece. Like them, Job is principally a conversation, in which (unlike the epics) the core events of the plot are heard of second-hand rather than narrated (only think of Oedipus’s self-mutilation in Oedipus Rex!), and of which the artistic merit lies more in the elegance and profundity of the characters’ speech than in the narrative sweep.

It is no wonder, then, that Job figures large in the imaginative world of Dostoevsky, “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.”5 He told his wife that Job was one of the earliest books to make a “deep impression in [his] life,”6 and its influence on his work is far-reaching. Its influence on his work is indeed farreaching but felt most keenly in his crowning achievement, The Brothers Karamazov.

Much has been made, in Dostoevsky scholarship, of the “polyphonic form of the novel,” a concept introduced by the Soviet-era critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Polyphony, in Bakhtin’s theory, entails that rather than “a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness… a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.”7 Stated more simply, the polyphonic novel is the novel animated by the spirit of drama: characters speak for themselves and represent their own ideas and ideals without the support or censure of a narratorial voice. Far from simply being a formal model, however, the polyphonic  nature of Dostoevsky’s novels is intimately bound up  with his ideology:

What unfolds in Dostoevsky is not a world of objects, illuminated and ordered by his monologic thought, but a world of consciousnesses mutually illuminating one  another… Dostoevsky seeks the highest  and most authoritative orientation, and he  perceives it not in his own thought, but as  another authentic human being and his discourse.  The image of the ideal human being or the image of Christ represents for him the  resolution of ideological quests. This image or this highest voice must crown the world  of voices, must organize and subdue it.

The search for a definitive voice, a divine voice that will answer—and perhaps silence— the futile thoughts of  human beings is central to much of Dostoevsky’s work,  The Brothers Karamazov especially.

Such a search is central also to the Book of Job. The enduring image of the book is that of Job busily protesting his innocence to his friends, who insist  that he suffers because of some misdeed. It is all too easy, therefore, to overlook another recurrent theme:  Job’s desire to enter into a dispute with God and to  hear God explain his misfortune. In part, Job’s demands for such a trial are bitter, expressive of his sense of injustice and wronged innocence. In part, however, they are earnest, the product of a genuine desire to understand the ways of God:

Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
would know what he would answer me
and understand what he would say to me.

It is as though Job stands divided against himself—on the one hand, he longs to protest his own rightness and  find fault with God; on the other, he seems to believe  implicitly that God is just and that there is an answer to  his questions, if he could only hear it. For this reason, he is impatient with the answers offered by his “miserable comforters,”10 Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar: their answers are facile and small-minded, even if they  are true in a limited sense. They are human, though correct, answers and therefore unsatisfying for Job, who asks divine questions needing divine answers.

Ivan Karamazov is in this regard Job’s fellow, another asker of hard questions and despiser of trite answers.  He, together with his brothers, plays the part of Job in Dostoevsky’s theodicy. More particularly, he stands for Job’s doubt, his bitterness, his rejection of pious wisdom. Like Job, he is convinced that the innocent suffer, being fixated on the seeming meaninglessness of the mistreatment of children—“for the human heart here on earth it is incomprehensible.”11 And, like Job, he believes that evil goes unpunished. (It is for this reason that he—half-ironically, half-sincerely—posits that “the Church should contain in itself the whole state,” not out of pious enthusiasm, but so that the criminal will not have the Church as a refuge. Rather,  “by his crime he would have rebelled not only against men but also against Christ’s Church”).12 Indeed, he  is convinced that evil cannot be adequately punished,  that the logic of redemption is in itself nonsensical—in  his terms, it is not “Euclidean,” and he is possessed  of “a Euclidean mind,”13 which cannot understand  how the parallel lines of evil and forgiveness can ever  meet. Ultimately, he will refuse even to acquiesce when shown to be wrong:

I don’t want harmony, for love of mankind I don’t want it. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation,  even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we  can’t afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket.14

Ivan, like Job in certain moments, entertains the notion that God might not be just, might not be righteous.  He differs only in that, where Job hinted, he asserts.

But if Ivan is Job in his doubt—Dostoevsky’s theomachy, the challenge to God’s righteousness that every theodicy must assume and answer—Alyosha Karamazov is Job in his faith and resignation. His faith is shaken by the death of his mentor, Elder Zosima, but he remains committed to Zosima’s vision of the world,  a vibrantly and intensely Christocentric one, characterized by an emphasis on solidarity and redemption in suffering. His philosophy of life corresponds to Job’s initial response to his misfortunes: “Shall we receive good from God and not receive evil?”15 In the closing pages of the novel, having seen the death and humiliation of his spiritual father, the murder of his true father, the illness of one brother and the sentencing of  the other to exile for a crime of which he is innocent, and the death of a very young friend, Alyosha nevertheless  remains convinced of the goodness of God and  the possibility of redeemed suffering: “Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell  one another all that has been.”16

Finally, Dmitri Karamazov, the eldest brother and the brother who suffers most, represents Job in his perplexed fidelity to God—neither despairing of God’s  goodness nor understanding the things that befall  him, he simply endures, and, like Job, refuses to “curse  God and die.”17 He flirts with the nihilistic worldview espoused by Ivan as well as the redemptive vision of Alyosha—“I want to suffer and be purified by suffering!  And perhaps I will be purified, eh, gentlemen?”18—  but ultimately favors the latter. Though he doubts whether he is able to endure it, Dmitri attains his highest point  of moral vision and spiritual aspiration in submitting to wrongful exile:

It’s impossible for a convict to be without God, even more impossible than for a nonconvict!  And then from the depths of the earth, we, the men underground, will start  singing a tragic hymn to God, in whom there  is joy! Hail to God and his joy! I love him!19 

Here is Job’s own determination, his submission to God, his acquiescence to the inscrutable divine even in the face of overwhelming grief. “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him.”20 

It bears remembering, however, that though Job himself may be the protagonist of his namesake book, he is not its “hero of ideas,” to borrow a phrase from  Vladislav Krasnov.21 To the extent that the Book of  Job has a human hero at all, as distinct from a protagonist, it is Elihu, the son of Barachel, who neither doubts God’s goodness as Job does nor offers facile explanations  like Eliphaz and his companions. Likewise, though the titular brothers are the protagonists of The Brothers Karamazov, and though Alyosha is designated by the narrator as its “hero,”22 none of them is the hero of ideas, the ideological champion of the novel. While the external events do indeed revolve around the three brothers, the battle of ideas is fought by others.

In the role of Elihu is Zosima, the elder of Alyosha’s monastery; in that of Eliphaz—blended, however, with  the worse moments of Job—is the figure of the Grand  Inquisitor. The Inquisitor, it is true, is a fictitious creation of Ivan; nevertheless, he is a remarkably realized character in his own right, being, in fact, the logical extrapolation of a particular thread of Ivan’s thought.  (Alyosha correctly notes that the Inquisitor’s “whole secret” is that he “doesn’t believe in God”23—he is Ivan’s nihilism given flesh, but without those humanizing elements in Ivan’s own personality.)

For the Inquisitor, God—more particularly, Christ—is not the “lover of mankind”24 but a hard and  lonely voice in the desert, summoning human beings  to the impossible and the inhuman. (Bonhoeffer calls the Inquisitor’s Christ “a radical Jesus,”25 a misconception of him as an irreconcilable enemy to the world and an absolute revolutionary). He is not on the side of the lowly and the broken but on the side of a few thousand  “gods,” superior human beings who can endure the destroying of the law and live autonomously.26 He has, therefore, no grace, no mercy, no pity for the weak and the wicked. Thus, the Inquisitor and his church believe themselves to be serving mankind by opposing God. They aspire to end suffering by ending human moral freedom, such that “There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil.”27 The Inquisitor believes that human beings must be sheltered from suffering, that suffering is beyond human capacity to bear.  Zosima, by contrast, expresses confidence in the ordinary Christian: “Whoever does not believe in God will not believe in the people of God. But he who believes in the people of God will also see their holiness.”28 For him, human suffering, far from an irreconcilable objection to God, is an opportunity to be an instrument  of divine grace, to be “guilty on behalf of all and for  all.”29 Those who are willing to accept suffering, according to Zosima, may preserve others from it, as all  creatures stand in solidarity with one another:

My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still  it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you.30

Where Ivan cannot see the possibility of redemptive suffering at all, even on the part of Christ, Zosima sees all suffering, great and small, as a chance to imitate Christ in bearing guilt and evil.

It is in keeping with Dostoevsky’s polyphonic form that Zosima and the Inquisitor never speak to each other, never directly answer each other’s objections. However close Zosima’s vision may be to Dostoevsky’s own, and however far from it the Inquisitor’s may be— Dostoevsky elsewhere portrays the Grand Inquisitor’s arrogant nihilism in an unflattering light, for instance in Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and in Stavrogin in Demons—they are human voices, nothing more. As in the Book of Job, Elihu’s voice is not the voice of God, so, in The Brothers Karamazov, Zosima’s is not the voice of Christ. Jesus does appear in the story of the Inquisitor, but he remains silent. While on the one hand this is indicative of Ivan’s inability to conceive of Christ and his lack of regard for him, it is also an intentional decision on Dostoevsky’s part not to speak for God. He does not presume, like Milton in Paradise Lost, to put words in the divine mouth but allows the discourse to remain at the human level, consciously in the presence but nevertheless also under the judgment of God. In Zosima, Elihu has his say, but Dostoevsky, like Job, will wait for God to speak, not from the lips of a man, but out of the whirlwind.


1. Marilynne Robinson, “The Book of Books,” New York Times, December 25, 2011, Sunday Book Review.

2. Robert Alter, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010).

3. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) 98.

4. C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961) 4.

5. George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1996) 347.

6. Vladimir Kantor, “The Problem of Temptation,” in Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, ed. George

Pattinson and Diane Oenning Thompson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 196.

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

8. Ibid. 96-97.

9. Job 23:3-7.

10. Job 16:2.

11. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) 237.

12. Ibid. 60, 63.

13. Ibid. 235.

14. Ibid. 245, emphasis original.

15. Job 2:10.

16. Dostoevsky 776.

17. Job 2:9.

18. Dostoevsky 509.

19. Ibid. 591-2.

20. Job 13:15.

21. Vladislav Krasnov, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky: A Study in the Polyphonic Novel (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1980) 17.

22. Dostoevsky 3.

23. Ibid. 261.

24. Ibid. 743.

25. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 155.

26. Dostoevsky 256.

27. Ibid. 259.

28. Ibid. 294.

29. Ibid. 320.

30. Ibid. 321.



David Truschel is a senior at Biola University from Beverly, MA. He is a Biblical Studies and Theology major.

Image: Wide Ocean, from

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,