Christianity in Literary Creation: Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky, a descendant of the lower nobility, was brought up modestly in Moscow. He grew up under the shadow of the Decembrist Insurrection of 1825, which prompted Tsar Nicholas I to rule with severe military and bureaucratic discipline. In contrast to Chateaubriand, Dostoevsky had an energetic temperament and a "nervous, self-illuminating pride" (Jackson, p.29). Instead of trying to escape the despair of this world like Chateaubriand, Dostoevsky attempted to understand it through a profound examination of himself, those around him, and their environment. As a result, Dostoevsky developed as a post-Romantic or Romantic-Realist writer.
These authors do, however, share a common thread: their spiritual and religious developments follow similar paths. Each was brought up in a religious tradition; Chateaubriand was a Roman Catholic and Dostoevsky a Russian Orthodox. Their mothers served as the faithful, devout, religious role models of the family, and it was their faith that planted seeds of faith in the hearts of the young writers.
Yet as young adults, both Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky experienced periods of doubt. Instead of holding strong to their Christian traditions, they became ardent dreamers who quested after ideal notions such as beauty and justice. Their longings to find truth drew them to learn about the current ideologies of their age. For example, Chateaubriand embraced some of the ideas of Rousseau and Dostoevsky became involved in a Utopian-Socialist group. Their romantic quests, however, left both Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky feeling disappointed and disillusioned when they realized these current ideologies did not bring them to the truth.
Both men then experienced humiliating poverty and mental suffering when they were exiled from their countries, As an aristocrat, Chateaubriand was an enemy to the French Revolution and to save his life he became en emigré in England in the early 1790's. Tsar Nicholas I exiled Dostoevsky in 1849 for his political involvement. As a result of extreme suffering, both writers had conversion experiences which led them to embrace the Christian faith. When Chateaubriand's mother died, the grief caused him to accept the faith of his mother, Similarly, Dostoevsky, facing the horrors of prison life, experienced a rebirth of his soul."
Though both underwent similar transformations of their hearts through their faith in Christ, Chateoubriand and Dostoevsky developed different Christian world-views. Chateaubriand developed a dualistic view of Christianity. The fallen world, which is ruled by Satan, remains separated from God's spiritual world, the kingdom of heaven. Thus life in this sinful world is utterly painful, despairing and meaningless. The ideals of Christianity, including love, peace and joy, will only be realized in heaven. Chateaubriand believed that "the Christian always looks upon himself as no more than a pilgrim travelling here below through a vale of tears and finding no repose till he reaches the tomb" (Chateaubriand, 1976, p.297). Only Christians can be hopeful that they will die soon and enter into heaven, where they will experience redemption and the eternal bliss of communing With God.
Dostoevsky, in contrast to Chateaubriand, developed a reconciled view of Christianity. This world is fallen and Christians will ultimately experience the full abundance of the kingdom of heaven when they die. However, a Christian can begin to experience communion with God even while living in a sinful world. For Dostoevsky, Christ's statement, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17) meant that a reconciliation with God began once a person repented and accepted Christ's sacrificial death for their sins. Dostoevsky believed Christians could begin to experience the kingdom of heaven within their hearts. God's spirit, love and power can begin to sanctity and transform the hearts of those who have faith.
While both men embraced the Christian faith, questions of doubt continually challenged heir convictions, P. L. Jackson writes that Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky shared "a paradoxical affirmation of faith " (Jackson, p.30). At the end of his life Chateaubriand stated, "As it grew, my religious conviction has devoured my other convictions, (but) in this world there is no more believing Christian and no more doubting man than I" (ibid.). In a similar fashion, Dostoevsky wrote in 1854: "If somebody proved to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it really were so that the truth was outside Christ, then I would rather remain with Christ than with the truth l am a child of the age, a child of lack of faith and doubt till now and (this I know) this will be true till the coffin closes over... " (ibid.). Since Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky understood the dynamics of being both a strong believer and a wavering doubter, they were able to vividly portray this inner baftie which their characters experience when they are faced with the Christian faith (e.g. Chactas, Rene and Raskolnikov).
Dostoevsky and Chateaubriand's own spiritual struggles consequently helped them debate the ideologies of their respective times which were undermining Christianity. Since Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky believed that their countries were facing spiritual crises, they saw their mission as apologists of the Christian faith.
Chateaubriand grew up during the rise of religious doubt and atheism of the Enlightenment, as he described in Le Genie du Christianisme: "Religion was attacked with every kind of weapon, from the pamphlet to the folio, from the epigram to the sophism. No sooner did a religious book appear than the author was overwhelmed with ridicule, while works which Voltaire was the first to laugh at among his friends were extolled to the skies" (Chateaubriand, 1899, p.124). Many philosophes, such as Denis Diderot, Jean le Pond d'Alembert and Voltaire, were skeptical of the Christian faith because they believed it was based on superstition and irrationality. Enlightenment thinkers assumed that the problems of humanity and society could be solved simply through the application of laws and reforms based on human reason. Many during the "Age of Reason aspired to positivism and scientism, and not to faith in God, as the hope for humanity. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, angry revolutionaries destroyed stained glass windows, religious statues and entire cathedrals to make the statement that the Catholic Church must be extirpated since it represented the oppression and corruption of the fallen monarchy.
Chateaubriand debated against the notion of the Enlightenment that humanity is by nature rational, as he said, "Man's heart is the toy of everything, and no one can tell what frivolous circumstance may cause its joys and its sorrows (Chateaubriand, 1899, p.124). He vehemently disagreed with the idea that rational reforms would solve humanity's problems because he saw the inhuman violence of the French Revolution, Chateaubriand believed it was his mission to show that Chris- tianity was a divinely inspired religion. He argued that the aesthetic beauty of Christianity including the mystical rituals and the ornate cathedrals proved that only God could have inspired Christianity. Through his writings Chateaubriand called France to return to its Christian faith, values and traditions.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the skepticism of the Enlightenment had also permeated the ideologies of the Russian intelligentsia. Atheistic thought became prevalent among the forefathers of Russian socialism (who also founded Russian literary criticism), including Vissarion Belinsky. Alexander Herzen, Nicolay Chernyshevsky and Nicolay Dobrolyubov. They believed in the Western European ideals of positivism, scientism, materialism and utilitarianism.
Through his works, such as Notes from fhe Underground and Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky argued against the Enlightenment ideal that humanity is rational and perfectible, and that all knowledge can be ascertained through science. For Dostoevsky, humanity's only salvation is through the Christian faith; he saw the rejection of God and Christ as dangerous since it caused people to "engage in the impossible and self- destructive to transcend" their condition (Frank, 1986, p.198). Dostoevsky claimed that the spiritual crisis in Western Europe would eventually lead to its decline and self-destruction, and that the Russian Orthodox faith would be Europe's saving grace. Like Chateaubriand, Dostoevsky argued that the aesthetic beauty and moral perfection of Christianity proved that God divinely inspired it, Thus, Dostoevsky's evangelistic mission was to call his country to return and stay true to its Orthodox heritage.
Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky incarnated their defense of Christianity through their women characters, Atala and Amelia in Chateaubriand's stories Ataia and Rene, and Sonia in Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment embody the Christian faith. Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky's symbolization of women as redemptive figures can be explained partially because women played a major role in their own conversion to Christianity. Their mothers were the guardians of religious faith since they passed the faith on to their children. In addition, the feminine soul has been traditionally depicted in literature as embodying the Christian virtues of compassion, self- sacrifice, gentleness, faithfulness, devotion and love.
Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky used these characters to defend the idea that God's transcendental truths are not revealed through human reason, Atala, Amelia, and Sonia are women whose passionate faith dominates their reason, yet they have God's wisdom. Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky depict the faith of these women as divinely beautiful, which coincides with their view of the aesthetic perfection of Christianity as the basis for its divine inspiration.
Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky's portrayal of these women does, however, differ because of their contrasting Christian world-views. Atala and Amelia long for their death so that they can leave the despair of this world and enter into heaven. Atala and Amelia's carnal desires, especially the desire to love a man, torture them because they believe they are evil and inferior to a spiritual longing for God. They hope for the day when they will be freed from the yearnings of their flesh. Only their spiritual reunion with God in heaven will alleviate the ache in their hearts to be deeply loved.
Sonia, on the other hand, sees that her eternal life has begun on earth, so her faith in God gives her inspiration and hope amidst the pain and sorrow she faces. Her communion with God gives her the strength to carry on, even though she faces the humiliation of poverty and prostitution. Sonia is aware of her sinful nature, yet her acceptance of God's redemption allows her to experience His unconditional love and compassion while in a fallen world.
Atala, Amelia and Sonia all serve as messengers of God's truth for the unbelieving male characters, Chactus, Rene and Paskolnikov. While Atala and Amelia communicate their relentless faith to Chactus and Rene, their testimonies do not have a transforming effect upon them. Chactus and Rene are bound in an earthly world which prevents them from experiencing God's spiritual and eternal realm.
In contrast, Sonia, as the messenger of God's salvation, leads Raskolnikov to faith and salvation. Her words, prayers and actions reflect God's love and forgiveness, and it is her testimony that helps engender a change in Raskolnikov's heart. According to Dostoevsky's Christian world-view, God's spirit can transform the human heart in a fallen world. Thus, Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky respond to the spiritual crises in their countries through their literary creations. These two writers used feminine voices of faith in the hope of combating the growing skepticism of their times.
Francois R. Chateaubriand, Les Memoires d'Outre Tombe. Paris: Garnier Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs, 1899.
Francois P. Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity, Charles White, translator New York Howard Fertig. 1976.
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Robert Louis Jackson, "Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky: A Posing Problem," Scando- Slovico, Tomus xii. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1966.