Note: This article was originally published in the hard copy Journal of Camus Studies in 2010, pp. 61-71.


The creatures of Dostoevsky, we now know well, are neither strange nor absurd. They are like us, we have the same heart.—Albert Camus, qtd. in Davison, 7

Dostoevsky’s themes, characters, and issues are prevalently treated in Camus’s own works. In particular, the character Ivan Karamazov from The Brothers Karamazov is extensively and explicitly analyzed in The Rebel. Secondary commentators have also thoroughly analyzed Dostoevsky’s influence on Camus (for example, see Davison’s Camus: The Challenge of Dostoevsky). However, much of this analysis has been directed towards Ivan, the representative of secularist intellectualism in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Much less attention has been paid by commentators to Ivan’s younger brother Alyosha. I have only been able to identify one passage in one article that makes a brief mention of the connection between Alyosha and the Plague:

Camus—who admired Dostoevsky as Dostoevsky admired Dickens—echoes and opposes the argument of The Brothers Karamazov when, in The Plague, he describes the death of the son of the city magistrate. In earlier fiction the actual dying of children is discreetly veiled or wholly omitted; here the physical process is recorded in agonizing, almost clinical detail. The effect of this suffering is devastating to both Dr. Rieux and Father Paneloux. Rieux's response is existential revolt: like Dostoevsky's Ivan, he cannot accept a "scheme of things in which children are put to torture." And Paneloux, who struggles to retain his faith, must finally argue that if God wills a child's suffering and death, he and other Christians must will it too. Thus Camus subverts the religious overtones associated with a child's death in The Brothers Karamazov as well as in so many other nineteenth-century novels. We have moved into the twentieth century: the death of children that creates faith in Dostoevsky destroys it in Camus. (Hawkins viii)

While there is little or no material that explicitly focuses on the figure of Alyosha within the context of Camus, and while little explicit attention was paid to Alyosha by Camus himself in his commentaries on The Brothers Karamazov, I will argue that the figure of Alyosha is subtly and intertextually commented on through the person of Father Paneloux in The Plague, and that this character writes back into Dostoevsky’s characters and themes.

In this essay I will first trace the correspondence between these two characters and establish their intertextual relationship through a discussion of four correspondence points between Camus’s Father Paneloux and Dostoevsky’s Alyosha: the recognition of the problematic theological questions raised by the suffering of children, the demand for a coherent mechanism for reconciling the suffering of children, the invocation of Christian symbolism in their attempt to provide such a justification, and the rejection of a form of afterlife utilitarianism as a means of justification. While I have not been able to find an explicit statement from Camus himself connecting these two characters, the abovementioned similarities, along with Camus’s well-documented concern for the issues and characters of Dosteovsky, strongly suggest a literary relationship.

After establishing this relationship, I will examine the implications of Father Paneloux for Alyosha. Father Paneloux provides a detailed account of his thought processes and rationale involved in his decisions, while Alyosha provides some clues, but is vague enough to leave his own thoughts open to interpretation. Through Father Paneloux’s record, we are allowed a glimpse an interpretation of Alyosha that, while granting legitimacy to some of his existential premises, ultimately attempts to  discredit the final outcome of Dostoevsky’s Christian existentialism. Specifically, I address three themes. The first is the identification of Alyosha’s faith as a pragmatically-based one which, although it is hinted at in Brothers Karamazov, is not conclusive. This is related to the second point, which is that such a view naturally includes a degree of epistemological angst. This is more controversial, as Dostoevsky himself explicitly denies this at times. However, his ambiguity on the issue allows for an alternative interpretation manifested in the person of Father Paneloux, thus questioning the validity of an honest, non-skeptical faith. Finally, the fate of Father Paneloux, diametrically opposite of that found in Brothers Karamazov, provides a commentary on the end result of a Dostoevskian existentialist faith.

Establishing the Intertextual Relationship
First, both characters recognize the problem of children’s suffering as uniquely singular, categorically set apart from the traditional problem of suffering. Ivan Karamazov succinctly states that “I’m not talking about the suffering of grownups; they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!” (Dostoevsky 242) The Edenic metaphor indicates a degree of complicity on the part of the adults that is lacking in the children. Adults have fallen due to their own agency; they both receive and administer suffering, and consequently receive less empathy from Ivan, forcing him to “narrow [his] theme” (Dostoevsky 243). Children maintain a state of innocence that makes any suffering directed towards them absurd, putting into question the kindness of Alyosha’s God.

Similarly, Father Paneloux recognizes the particular status of children’s suffering within the broader context of general suffering. In the initial stages of the plague, he gives a sermon wherein he identifies the plague as a divine punishment for their sins (Camus, The Plague 99). However, in a later sermon he is forced to directly confront the problem of the suffering of children.

The difficulty began when we looked into the nature of evil, and among things evil he included human suffering. This we had apparently needful pain, and apparently needless pain; we had Don Juan cast into hell, and a child’s death. For while it is right that a libertine should be struck down, we see no reason for a child’s suffering. And, truth to tell, nothing was more important on earth than a child’s suffering, the horror it inspires in us, and the reasons we must find to account for it. In other manifestations of life God made things easy for us and, thus far, our religion had no merit. (Camus, The Plague, 223)

Once again, Father Paneloux does not concern himself with “Don Juan,” clearly one of Ivan’s “Adults.” He rationalizes it as a quid pro quo for their own decadence, thus making it a logical consummation of the natural principle of justice. The suffering found in punishment had an underlying cause and rationale that justified it. For children, however, no such justification existed, and Father Paneloux, Ivan, and Alyosha find themselves forced to confront this grim reality. The theme of juvenile suffering was a preoccupation of Camus’s, and was found in other writings of his (Just Assassins), and in a speech he gave to Dominican monks in 1946 (“I share with you Christians the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die” [Sprintzen 97]).  As such, it was very natural to directly respond to the issue raised in Brothers Karamazov.

In regards to the second intertextual point, both Father Paneloux and Alyosha differ from Ivan on how to confront the suffering of children, and are both agreed on the necessity of finding a way to do so. Father Paneloux states that “true, the agony of a child was humiliating to the heart and mind, but that was why we had to come to terms with it” (Dostoevsky 225, italics are mine). Alyosha’s constant struggle to come to terms with it is indicative of a deeper drive, a belief in the necessity of coming to terms with it. Both characters see this reconciliation as an existential necessity. Ivan does not. He wants to “return his ticket” (Dostoevsky 245), and “consciously accepts his dilemma” (Camus, The Rebel 53). Far from coming to terms and reconciling the suffering children with some higher order, he desires to “remain with unrequited suffering and unquenched indignation even if [he’s] wrong” (Dostoevsky 245). 

The third connecting point is made in the eschatological examinations made by both of the characters in their attempt to find this crucial, needed ingredient for “coming to terms” with the suffering of children. In particular, the argument that, in the final hereafter, all will be directly compensated for in what essentially amounts to utilitarian justification is not given much credence by either Alyosha or Father Paneloux. For Alyosha, it is his acquiescence to Ivan’s leading inquiry.

‘Imagine that you yourself are building an edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them rest and peace at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect of such conditions? Tell me the truth.’

‘No, I would not agree,’ Alyosha said softly. (Dostoevsky 245)

Father Paneloux arrives at a similar conclusion:

Thus he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give the assurance when, to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s suffering? He who asserted that would not be a true Christian, a follower of the Master who knew all the pangs of suffering in his body and his soul. (Camus, The Plague 224)

In both cases, a utilitarian resolution is considered insufficient. The “unrequited suffering” must not be simply compensated for, but be completely extirpated. Since doing so physically is impossible, they must fall back on their Christian symbolism, the fourth relational point.

Both Father Paneloux and Alyosha also invoke the sacrifice of Christ as a way to reconcile suffering with some sense of purpose. Alyosha’s laconic replies to his brother’s near-monologue in the chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” leave much room for interpretation. However, his response of near the end of “Rebellion” gives an insight into his perspective on the issue:

You asked just now if there is in the whole world a being who could and would have the right to forgive. But there is such a being, and he can forgive everything, forgive all and for all, because he himself gave his innocent blood for all and for everything. You’ve forgotten about him, but it is on him that the structure is being built, and it is to him that they will cry out: ‘Just art thou, O Lord, for thy ways have been revealed!’ (Dostoevsky 246)

This reliance on the sacrifice of Christ as a justification is shared by Father Paneloux. “No, he, Father Paneloux, would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the cross; he would stand fast, with his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of children’s agony” (Camus, The Plague 244).

Later on Father Paneloux is more specific about what the Christian symbolism means for the particular case of the suffering of children:

The love of God is a hard love…yet it alone can reconcile us to the suffering and deaths of children, it alone can justify them, since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God’s will ours. That is the hard lesson I would share with you today. That is faith, cruel in men’s eyes, and crucial in God’s…We must aspire beyond ourselves toward that high and fearful vision. And on that lofty plain all will fall into place, all discords be resolved, and truth flash forth from the seeming cloud of injustice. (Camus, The Plague 228)
Critique of Alyosha’s Faith
The inevitable question, and the one that marks the point where Camus begins to fill the gaps left by Dostoevsky, is the underlying why behind the belief. Why do they maintain a faith in the face of the difficulties of reconciling the benevolent God with the circumstances around them? As previously mentioned, a reading of Alyosha through Father Paneloux suggests that this belief is pragmatically-based; it is adopted because the alternative is not bearable. There is some direct evidence of this within The Brothers Karamazov.

“As I told you: I just want to drag on until I’m thirty and then—smash the cup on the floor!”

“And the sticky little leaves, and the precious graves, and the blue sky, and the woman you love! How will you live, what will you love them with?” Alyosha exclaimed ruefully. “Is it possible, with such hell in your heart and in your head? No, you’re precisely going in order to join them… and if not, you’ll kill yourself, you won’t endure it!” (Dostoevsky 263)

The reference to suicide—an important theme for Camus—is explicit (“this theme of suicide in Dostoevsky, then, is indeed an absurd theme,” Camus, Myth of Sisyphus 109). For Alyosha, the pointlessness and absurdity of a universe without purpose is unacceptable (in contrast to Ivan, for whom “absurdities are all too necessary on this earth” [Dostoevsky 243]). Therefore, humankind requires some sense of higher meaning and purpose, which Alyosha finds in his Christian God. This perspective is also supported by the second half of The Brothers Karamazov, in which the Godless Ivan goes insane from guilt for the murderous consequences of his atheistic ideology.  These thematic elements strongly hint at pragmatic reasons for belief in God but, once again, Dostoevsky’s dearth of detail leaves this up to interpretation. The ramifications of the nonexistence of God seems to be given more attention in The Brothers Karamazov than the existence of God per se.

Camus allows more access to Father Paneloux’s thought processes. As the plague progresses, Father Paneloux adopts the all-or-nothing dichotomy presented by Camus in The Rebel (52), even going so far as to describing it as one of God’s most important virtues (Camus, The Plague 225). In this sense, he reflects Camus’s affinity for Ivan, whom Camus also represents as having an all-or-nothing attitude. “Having previously been willing to compromise, the slave suddenly adopts an attitude of All or Nothing. Knowledge is born and conscience awakened” (Camus, The Rebel 20). In comparing Ivan to the romantics, he writes that “the essential difference is that the romantics allowed themselves to be complacent, while Ivan compelled himself to do evil so as to be coherent” (Camus, The Rebel 52). Father Paneloux’s all-or-nothing perspective dichotomizes his decisions: to either believe in everything or deny everything (Camus, The Plague 223), or to hate God or to love God (225). He responds to this decision like a true religious pragmatist. “Who, among you, I ask, would dare deny everything?”(223), “who would choose to hate [God]?” (225) Father Paneloux is forced into his religious beliefs simply because he cannot tolerate the alternative. He undergoes Kierkegaard’s “leap to faith.” God and immortality is believed because otherwise all would be absurd; his factual existence is secondary. “Then the ineluctable option, Paneloux’s ‘all or nothing’ imposes itself: either one takes up one’s abode, in the Absurd and faces up vigorously to the monster, or one must believe in the ‘miracle’ which amounts to total submission and silence” (Onimus 47).

On a related note, Father Paneloux also demonstrates an epistemological angst that provides a commentary on Alyosha’s own situation. His private monologue to himself frankly admits an ignorance of the hereafter (Camus, The Plague 224) after his initially simplistic faith is dramatically shaken by the death of Othon’s son.

However, Alyosha is seemingly quite sure of his own faith. On the last page of The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha assures the schoolchildren near him, “certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been” (Dostoevsky, 776). Furthermore, Camus admits that Dostoevsky stated that “the immortality of the human soul exists without a doubt” (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus 110). However, Camus is openly suspicious of this firm belief, and demonstrates bewilderment at Alyosha’s definitive statements regarding the factuality of religious belief: 

Dostoevsky wrote “the chief question that will be pursued throughout this book is the very one from which I have suffered consciously or unconsciously all life-long: the existence of God.” It is hard to believe that a novel sufficed to transform into joyful certainty the suffering of a lifetime. One commentator correctly pointed out that Dostoevsky is on Ivan’s side and that the affirmative chapters took three months of effort whereas what he called “the blasphemies” were written in three weeks in a state of excitement. (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus 111)

Far from accepting Alyosha’s confessions of faithfulness, he saw in the narrative of the  Karamazovs a deeper struggle within the psyche of Dostoevsky over the existence of God, a struggle that found its manifestation in the skeptical believer of Father Paneloux, a projection of a more sincere, genuine Alyosha, perhaps an attempt to bring to the surface what he saw as Dosteovsky’s admitted “unconscious” questioning of the existence of God.

Like Ivan, both Alyosha and Father Paneloux are forced to accept the “dilemma, to be virtuous and illogical, or logical and criminal” (Camus, The Rebel 53). In accepting the all-or-nothing paradigm, the pragmatic religionists in this case are in some way accepting some of Camus’s basic premises. “The Jesuit Paneloux has adopted a position resembling the third-century Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum est--I believe because it is absurd--a position closer to Camus’s own absurdist vision” (Kellman 58). By creating a sympathetic character (“perhaps the most sympathetically drawn Christian in all of Camus’s fiction” [Sprintzen 94]) that operates out of his own existentialist principles and that is a literary mimicry of Alyosha, Camus is recognizing the legitimacy of Dosteovsky’s questions.

“After all,” the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, “it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes towards the heaven where He sits in silence?” Tarrou nodded. “Yes. But your victories will never be lasting: that’s all.” Rieux’s face darkened. “Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.” “No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.” “Yes, a never ending defeat.”  (128)

According to Belford “it is probably Rieux who comes closest to the author at this time in his life” (97). In this case, Rieux’s perspective is essentially Camus’s. While Camus agrees with the initial existential setup ascribed to these character’s cosmologies, he ultimately disagrees with the pragmatic argument for religious belief. He, unlike Father Paneloux, “dare[s] to deny everything” (Dostoevsky 223). In one of his commentaries on the matter, he directly “accuses Dostoevsky of betraying the absurd by using it…as a springboard to faith. He classes Dostoevsky as a Christian existentialist novelist who makes the illogical ‘saut.’” (Davison 17-18), and that therefore he does not qualify as a complete absurdist (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus 111).

There is a final disconnect between Alyosha and Father Paneloux found in the ultimate fate of their characters. While we are not told whether his corpse was still clasping his crucifix (as had been his habit), and while, in an earlier version of the story, Paneloux completely loses his faith (Gray 169), it does appear that, like Alyosha, he ends his role in the story as a man of faith. However, it is strongly hinted at that his succumbing was the result of his decision to follow the God-who-allows-the-suffering-of-children. He does not show any of the specific symptoms of the disease, and when he dies, the card next to his bed reads “doubtful case” (Camus, The Plague 234). Cordes (67) shares this interpretation when he writes about Paneloux’s last moments:

He was extremely restless and, perhaps because of his denial of the personality, he appeared “more dead than alive.” Moreover he coughed constantly as if he were trying to regurgitate something that was choking him and that he could no longer hold in. …Those who “died” from the plague did so because they succumbed to Evil and to the dehumanization of the absurd rather than heed to the heart’s cries. Paneloux endured a similar depersonalization by worshipping the “Genius of the Plague.”

Additionally, near his end he regurgitates a clot of red matter, perhaps suggesting a reverse eucharist in which, instead of consuming the blood of Christ, it is vomited up. A death that is caused by an attachment to a God who seemingly does not care about suffering is the exact opposite of what happens in The Brothers Karamazov, where it is the atheist that accepts the pointlessness of the universe that leads to a death. While Alyosha tells Ivan that “he’ll kill himself” (Dostoevsky 263) because of his beliefs, it is Father Paneloux that dies because of his beliefs. The pragmatic argument for religious belief leads to the kinds of problems for Father Paneloux that its adoption is supposed to ameliorate for Alyosha. Recognizing the absurd for what it is, although painful, would have been less problematic for Father Paneloux than inducing cognitive dissonance by attempting to maintain a belief in a kind God in the face of evidence to the contrary. As Alyosha makes a case for the untenability of unbelief (as Father Paneloux does in the beginning), the ultimate fate of Father Paneloux makes the case for the untenability of forcing belief for the sake of belief in something.  


  Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Anthony Bower. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.

Davison, Ray. Camus, the Challenge of Dostoevsky. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1997.  

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Gray, Margeret E. “Layers of meaning in La Peste.” The Cambridge Companion to Camus. Ed.Hughes, Edward J. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Hawkins, Anne Hunsaker. “Editor’s Preface.” Literature and Medicine. 21.1, 2002.

Kellman, Steven G. The Plague, Fiction and Resistance. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993. .

Onimus, Jean. Albert Camus and Christianity. Trans. Emmett Parker. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1970.

Sprintzen, David. Camus: A Critical Examination. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988

Full Citation for this Article: Cranney, Stephen T. (2011) "Father Paneloux, Alyosha Karamazov, and Deference to a God Who Allows the Suffering of Children," SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCranneyDostoevsky.html , access date [give access date].

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 200 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 0 Comments