Dostoevskii’s Ivan Karamazov: Inspiration to Albert Camus

Written by: Ronald Batchelor


The Russians and the French

R. E. Batchelor, the author of A Reference Grammar of French, explores the way Dostoevskii's celebrated Russian classic The Brothers Karamozov influenced the writings and philosophy of Albert Camus.


The rapid diffusion of Dostoevskii’s novels, and the revolutionary, apocalyptic vision they express have emerged as major literary and philosophical preoccupations since his death in 1881. This entirely new force in creative activity is recognized throughout the Western world, and nowhere is this more marked than in France. Proust, Bernanos, Mauriac, Sartre and Julien Green are just a few of the legion of authors who look up to him as an original, dynamic presence in the modern creative process. However, when the literary scholar is brought to consider the close affinity existing between Dostoevskii and French literature, one name springs more readily to mind than any other. That name is Albert Camus.

It can be safely asserted that no French writer has dwelt so lengthily upon the novels of Dostoevskii or pondered their significance as Camus who, throughout his short life (1913-1960), discovered a powerful and vital source of inspiration in two novels in particular, The Devils (Les possédés) and The Brothers Karamazov.

Camus discovered in Dostoevskii a profoundly kindred spirit who helped to crystallize and sharpen his own thoughts and theories. Many of the major recurrent concepts  harassing the Dostoevskii hero, such as evil, suffering, the absurd and revolt are all central themes in Camus’s creative impulse, while the characters of both authors share vividly in their desires for moral legitimacy and insight, emphasizing their primeval innocence.

The kernel of Camus’s affinity with Dostoevskii brings us to the fiercely combative, atheistic spirit of Ivan Karamazov. “If God is dead, then all is permitted” rings through all Ivan’s thinking, which leads Camus to tussle, like the Russian character, with the logic of totalitarian atheism.

Camus joins Dostoevskii in his denunciation of totalitarianism. The most relevant implication here is that not only does Camus draw upon Dostoevskii’s characters in order to create in his novel La peste the narrator Dr Rieux and his assistant friend Tarrou, but that the comprehensive idea underpinning the novel is of an unmistakably Dostoievskian origin. Given that the source of the novel lies in Camus’s wish to “give a meaning to suffering, were it only to see it as unacceptable”, the only conclusion that may be formed regardng its genesis is that the author most certainly had Ivan Karamazov in mind when he elaborated the ideas it contains. If La peste illustrates the individual’s rebellious stance against the abstract and inhuman authority of world (dis)order, then The Brothers Karamazov is its supreme prototype, and  that individual, above all others, must be Ivan Karamazov.

The kernel of Camus’s affinity with Dostoevskii brings us to the fiercely combative, atheistic spirit of Ivan Karamazov. “If God is dead, then all is permitted” rings through all Ivan’s thinking, which leads Camus to tussle, like the Russian character, with the logic of totalitarian atheism. Camus emerges towards some form of humanism while Ivan slides into insanity. But, Ivan remains with Camus to the end of his days. He proved for Camus the most attractive, fascinating of all Dostoevskii’s characters. The facts are eloquent enough in themselves. Not only did Camus direct the theatrical adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov in March 1938, in Algiers, for the Théâtre de l’Équipe, but also and most significantly, he chose to play the part of Ivan, as opposed to that of the other brothers, the sensual, earthy Dimitry, and the spiritually-minded, non-earthly Alyosha, psychological dynamos in themselves. (Camus could hardly have played the part of the epileptic, parricidal. half-brother Smerdyakov,) No mere coincidence that Camus at the age of 25 chose to interpret Ivan, almost the same age, 24. The early Camus felt a deep-seated and natural sympathy for the learned, young intellectual grappling with mankind’s eternal, unsolved problems. Camus associated his personality with Ivan’s, from the earliest years of his philosophical development. It may be argued that nearly all Camus’s major concepts arose from a direct contact with Ivan’s thought, witness Camus’ words: Ivan Karamazov’s “All is permitted” is the perfect expression of a coherent freedom”.

The number of references made by Camus to Ivan are innumerable, and a catalogue of these references serves no purpose here. The most pertinent remarks made by the French author in respect of Ivan recur in L’homme révolté, underscoring an irresistible affinity. Camus is clearly at pains to exploit Ivan’s theories as the most trenchant expression of revolt. Ivan’s Euclidean logic brings him to the ultimate posture of revolt, providing the key to Camus’s interpretation of the only possible stance that may be adopted by the individual confronted by the irreducible chaos and injustice of world order. At its deepest level, man’s true identity, maintain both Ivan and Camus, lies in the metaphysical act of revolt, at least in the modern context. The genesis of contemporary Western culture springs from the defiant attitude towards authority, notably that of God, rather than a denial of his existence.

The compelling element in Ivan’s and Camus’s posture is frequently misunderstood. Neither suggests that atheism is the conclusion to man’ existential predicament. In some tortuous, paradoxical way, Ivan does not deny God’s existence. He simply argues that if he does exist, he challenges the way in which he has devised the world order, witness his words to his brother Alyosha: “It is not God I do not accept, Alyosha, I merely most respectfully return Him the ticket”. Ivan’s onslaught on God (if he exists) rests on his belief that mankind suffers from a flagrant, perverse violation of man’s innocence. And this is especially true of the suffering of children.

The unjustified, unrelenting suffering undergone by defenceless children brings Ivan and Camus into perfect harmony. The supreme argument in Camus’s La peste for a refusal to accept man’s fragile condition rests on the scene where the child Philippe Othon undergoes the horrors of the plague, to die in the most excruciating circumstances, described in agonizing detail. Philippe Othon’s deathbed scene reflects Dostoevskii’s and Ivan’s obsessive preoccupation with the physical torment of children. Compare Ivan’s comments to Alyosha, in the chapter Rebellion : “And can you admit that the people for whom you are building it (the ideal, religious edifice of human destiny) would agree to accept their happiness at the price of the unjustly shed blood of a little tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?” and: Dr Rieux’s comments to the priest Père Paneloux, after the protracted  death scene of Philippe Othon: “I shall refuse unto death to love this creation where children are tortured.” Need it be stressed that the point of contact between Dostoevskii and Camus is more keenly focussed by the image of physically tormented children than by any other in the whole range of their writings, and is therefore the culminating aspect of their relationship? What is more, both authors were brothers in affliction. Dostoevskii’s epilepsy was all the more sharply felt by a Camus who frequented the wards of a sanatorium with three protracted bouts of tuberculosis.

Camus’s own philosophical and ethical outlook was immeasurably enriched by his life-long meditations upon the personality and works of Dostoevskii, and by the morally based logic of Ivan Karamazov.

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About the Author: Ronald Batchelor

Dr Ronald Batchelor is the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011). He taught French and Spanish for forty years in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Nottingham. He has published many books on French and Spanish language, often with sec...

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