Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 2, 1981


Donald M. Fiene, University of Tennessee

In this essay I shall not only discuss the apparent influence of Dostoevsky on Vonnegut, but also comment on the extent of Vonnegut's awareness of this influence, based primarily on my correspondence and various conversations with him. (1)

Vonnegut's appreciation of Dostoevsky is not especially obvious in his writings - except for the memorable passage in "Slaughterhouse-Five" when Eliot Rosewater says to Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital: "(E)verything there (is) to know about life (is) in 'The Brothers Karamazov'... But that isn't enough any more..." (2) Here we have both profound admiration of the Russian master and the probably not impertinent implication that Rosewater's creator, having been born a century later, knows a few things that Dostoevsky did not. (E.g. he knows that most modern readers will not accept a divine Christ as the solution to their moral and spiritual problems.)

When I first read the above-quoted passage in 1969, I was a graduate student in Russian at Indiana University. Three years earlier, having just returned from a summer's stay in the USSR, I read Vonnegut for the first time and soon read all his early works: "Player Piano" (1952); "Sirens of Titan" (1959); "Mother Night" (1961); "Cat's Cradle" (1963); and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" (1965). I liked this author so much that I recommended to the Soviet Russian translator, Rita Rait-Kovaleva, then about seventy years old, that she translate Vonnegut into Russian. She read his work and, as she wrote me, "quite fell in love with Vonnegut." By 1970 she had translated "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five" into Russian, both books achieving critical as well as popular success. Most of Vonnegut's works appeared in Soviet editions over the ensuing decade; it may now be said that Vonnegut is the most popular and respected contemporary American author in the Soviet Union.

Even by 1972 the extraordinary extent of Vonnegut's popularity in the USSR was obvious, and several Soviet critics had already remarked on some of the Russian and even Dostoevskian features in the American author's writing. (3) It was in 1972 that I first met Vonnegut at Brown's Hotel in London, on October 27. On the next day he was to meet his Russian translator, Rita Rait, in Paris, where she was doing research. I had done a Jot toward arranging their meeting, via letter and telegram, at Rita's insistence; Vonnegut consequently wanted to meet me and to ask me some questions about Rita before seeing her in person.


Fairly early in our conversation I remarked to Vonnegut that I could see a lot of Dostoevsky in his writing. He at once brightened, insisting that I tell him exactly what I saw. But I suddenly realized I had no firm evidence for my impressions. Embarrassed, I finally managed to stammer, "You both have a strong chiliastic outlook." As it happened, Vonnegut loved the word chiliastic; he said he'd never heard it before, but that he knew exactly what it meant. So we shifted over to a discussion of semantics and I was off the hook on Dostoevsky. But that writer was mentioned later when Vonnegut asked me who Rita's favorite Russian author was - assuming it to be Dostoevsky. I said that in fact Rita cared little for Dostoevsky (in comparison, say, with Tolstoy) - an attitude rather common in her generation. At this Vonnegut thanked me elaborately - for saving him from making a dumb mistake with Rita, from prattling on and on about a writer she didn't like. Vonnegut seemed to be just as nervous about meeting Rita as she was about meeting him. As it turned out, they became friends (and they still are close friends) and Rita went on to translate "Breakfast of Champions" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," in 1974 and 1978, respectively, as well as several stories.

I also saw Vonnegut from time to time after our meeting and exchanged a number of letters with him. By 1974 I had decided to commit myself to doing the research for an article about Vonnegut's reception in the Soviet Union and the possible influence of Russian literature on his work. I hinted now and then in letters to Vonnegut that I needed answers to questions concerning such influence. All such hints were ignored. Then, in a letter written on 3une 27, 1975, I mentioned to Vonnegut that a course I had proposed on Dostoevsky and Vonnegut had been approved by the Comparative Literature Committee of the University of Tennessee. As a partial justification of this course, I wrote in my letter: "I think that anyone who has not read Dostoevsky cannot properly understand you. It's not so much a question of influence as an implicit assumption on your part that the reader you envision while writing has a lasting love for the Karamazovs..." Surprisingly, Vonnegut responded to this with a paragraph in his letter to me of July 2, 1975: "About 'The Brothers Karamazov:' It was the first book I read after becoming a civilian after WW II. My new wife (nee Jane Cox, a Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore) made me read it on our honeymoon in Culver, Indiana. Culver is on Lake Maxincuckee. The cottage in which we stayed had belonged to my family for three generations. It had just been sold. The new owner let us honeymoon there because he was a sentimentalist. I also painted my first picture there. It was of a chair. It was really pretty good. I have no idea what became of it."

Though short on the right kind of details, this paragraph establishes the crucial fact that Vonnegut read the novel in September, 1945 (he was married on September first - he was then twenty-two), just after his harrowing experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden (where he survived the firestorm of February 13, 1945) and some five or six years before he began writing full time.


I should mention also that I had learned a year or so earlier that Vonnegut has the same birth date as Dostoevsky (with the latter's date corrected for calendar error) - that is, November 11, once known as Armistice Day in the United States. (Dostoevsky was born in 1821, Vonnegut in 1922.) I found this coincidence pleasing and told Vonnegut of it; he said he had learned about it only a year earlier. (This would tend to preclude Vonnegut's having had the impression, at least prior to 1973 or so, that he was a reincarnation of Dostoevsky. Better writers than Vonnegut, by the way, have imagined stranger things!) Other such coincidences include the fact that Vonnegut and Dostoevsky were both educated as engineers, the mothers of each died relatively young (when Dostoevsky was 16, Vonnegut, 21), and both writers served time in labor camps.

Not until the end of 1976 did I complete my article, "Kurt Vonnegut's Popularity in the Soviet Union and His Affinities with Russian Literature." (4) Much of it dealt with Vonnegut's relationship with Rita Rait and with Soviet criticism of his work (which has been uniformly positive); there was discussion of the numerous general affinities between Vonnegut and Russian literature; and there was commentary on the influence of, or parallels with, Dostoevsky. With respect to the latter, I noted the reference to Dostoevsky in "Slaughterhouse-Five" and quotations from him in "Breakfast of Champions" and "Slapstick." I referred to the moral didacticism shared by both writers; their occasional sentimentality; their sensitivity to suffering; their frequent preoccupation with insanity, suicide and despair; their mutual devotion to the messianic, the apocalyptic, the eschatological, and the chiliastic, and the tendency of both to dramatize in a single work of fiction one major idea, often exaggerating it to an extreme limit. I mentioned in a footnote the preoccupation of each with Jesus Christ, and I discussed perfunctorily Vonnegut's use of a Grand Inquisitor figure.

I sent Vonnegut a copy of my rough draft of this article; he was much moved by it. He liked it so much, in fact, that in his letter acknowledging receipt of it he asked me formally if I would be his literary executor! I believe this astonishing response to the article is due primarily to my having placed Vonnegut in the tradition of the great Russian writers; no other critic of his has done that, as far as I know, although many have noted the influence on him of Swift, Twain, Voltaire, Anatole France and other Western authors. Certainly there were many other scholars for Vonnegut to choose from - to name as literary executor - from among the authors of over 100 articles, ten books, and thirteen dissertations about him (as of 1978) and thirteen additional dissertations about him in comparison with other writers. I have met a dozen or more of these Vonnegut scholars, all of whom would make excellent literary executors - but they fail to mention the Russian connection.

For all his enthusiastic acceptance of my article, Vonnegut said almost nothing in his letter of reply to acknowledge a true awareness of Russian literary influence on his writing. The part of his letter most relevant to this matter is as follows:


I once conceived of an experiment in which every piece of information received by a human being would be entered in a log - from birth to the age of twenty-one, say. We would then be able to determine whether that person had also inherited certain knowledge, or perhaps received it telepathically or clairvoyantly. If that experiment had been performed on me, it would be obvious that I am not an educated man. I haven't read nearly all I should. As a chemist, and then as an engineer, and then as an anthropologist, I was kept busy reading, all right. But what I read was not what is customarily thought of as being literature. The only period in my life when I studied literature with some concentration and continuity was when I was a discussion leader in a Great Books group on Cape Cod for about three years - when I was in my middle thirties. People have urged me to read this or that from time to time, and I have usually obeyed them and been grateful. Thus I discovered Blake and CÚline and Edward Lewis Wallant, and on and on. As for the Russians: My wife had studied them intensively at Swarthmore, and she brought about twenty volumes of their work in Modern Library editions as the core of her dowry. So I read them, and in my heart I liked Gogol best. (Letter of November 20, 1976)

In commenting on this long quote, I would like to say first that the reference to Gogol by no means indicates a denial of Dostoevsky, as I feel certain we have already established. Actually, almost anyone thinking first of Vonnegut's humor and satire would look to Gogol rather than Dostoevsky as the more important influence - and that influence is undoubtedly there, as I pointed out in my article. There is also the fact that Vonnegut's characters, like Gogol's, tend to be caricatures rather than fully developed personalities. At the same time, Vonnegut's humor, at least, does not set him apart from Dostoevsky, for both humor and satire are important elements in almost all of the latter's writings. (5) Furthermore, the influence of Gogol on the early Dostoevsky is apparent and fully acknowledged by the latter.

In any case, Vonnegut acknowledges having read the major Russian writers, Dostoevsky and Gogol among them, at a critical time in his life. His sense of having been directly influenced by them, however, is by no means certain. What the earlier portion of the above quotation means to me is that Vonnegut finds convincing my discovery of Russian elements in his fiction, although he was not in fact conscious of the origin of these elements while writing; hence, he has the mystical sense of having been served by creative powers seemingly outside himself - and he is humbled by that.

Probably some feeling similar to this applies to at least half the writers in whom determined literary scholars perceive direct and "obvious" influences. Related to this is the question of just how well writers remember their favorite novels - the books that presumably influence them the most. In a conversation with Vonnegut early in April of 1977 I happened to mention "Grushenka's onion" from "The Brothers Karamazov;" I was astonished that Vonnegut could not recall this passage - and indeed could


not even remember who Grushenka was! I summarized Grushenka's anecdote for him, the essence of which is that even if you do no more good in all your life than to give away but one little onion, then that is still potentially enough, in the eyes of God, to gain you entrance into heaven. This "little onion" is to me the basic theme of "The Brothers Karamazov," and it is fundamental to most of Vonnegut's writings, too - his compassion not only for ordinary people, but for the disreputable, the ugly, the unlovable, and his greater concern, as a writer, for the few virtues of these sufferers rather than for their many sins. But Vonnegut must have only the haziest of impressions that a possible source for this concern is "The Brothers Karamazov" - a novel that he has never reread. (I should mention, however, that while he forgot Grushenka, he did remember Smerdjakov, whom he cites as an example of a fictional villain in a letter to me of December 19, 1977.)

One might suppose a generally greater familiarity with the novel than this, as Vonnegut quotes from it twice - first in "Breakfast of Champions," 1973, and then again in "Slapstick" (1976). However, he names only Dostoevsky and not the novel as his source at the places where he quotes the author, and as it turns out, he had no idea he was quoting from "The Brothers Karamazov" and not some other work by Dostoevsky. The quotation in "Breakfast of Champions" is as follows, with Vonnegut speaking in his own voice: " 'It's all like an ocean!' cried Dostoevsky. I say it's all like cellophane." (Delacorte, p. 234.) Vonnegut's remark stems from Kilgore Trout's having waded across a polluted creek, which coats his legs with a film of plastic - and from further speculation by Vonnegut about the infinite extendability of a typical polymer molecule.

The quotation in "Slapstick," with Wilbur Swain, a spokesman for Vonnegut, narrating, is as follows: "Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, said one time that, 'One sacred memory from childhood is perhaps the best education.' I can think of another quickie education for a child, which, in its way, is almost as salutary: Meeting a human being who is tremendously respected by the adult world, and realizing that that person is actually a malicious lunatic." (Delacorte, p. 90.) Swain adds a footnote two paragraphs later: "I have an Encyclopedia Britannica here in the lobby of the Empire State Building, which is the reason I am able to give Dostoevski his middle name." Swain is speaking (or writing) in the future, after the economic and political collapse of the United States; the malicious lunatic he refers to is a psychologist who did a terrible job of testing his mental abilities as a child.

When I was working on the rough draft of my article on Vonnegut and Russia, I myself had no idea where the above quotes were from. I wrote Vonnegut, asking for the sources, and he replied as follows: "The quotation about 'One sacred memory...' was handed on a slip of paper to my wife at the end of her course at Swarthmore. The teacher was an adored old man, Harold Goddard, who customarily made a gift of a quotation to each student at semester's end. Jane still has the piece of paper. The author is named, but not the book it came from. Jane herself does not know."


(Letter of November 20, 1976.) The "ocean" quote, as he told me much later, was one his wife 3ane Cox often uttered, from the first days of their marriage. For Vonnegut there was always an automatic connection between "It's all like an ocean!" and Fedor Dostoevsky, though he never knew where Dostoevsky had written it. I found the quotation given in "Slapstick" relatively easily; it is from the next to last page of "The Brothers Karamazov," from Alesha's speech to the boys:

"You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometimes be the means of saving us. Perhaps we may even grow wicked later on, may be unable to refrain from a bad action, may laugh at men's tears and at those people who say as Kolya did just now, 'I want to suffer for all men; and may even jeer spitefully at such people. But however bad we may become - which God forbid - yet, when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days, and how we have been talking like friends all together, at this stone, the cruelest and most mocking of us - if we do become so - will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been kind and good at this moment! What's more, perhaps, that one memory may keep him from great evil and he will reflect and say, 'Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!'" (Norton Critical Edition, p. 734)

As this context was not known to Vonnegut when he used the quote, there is little point in speculating about its precise influence on him. However, some part of the general philosophy expressed here may be seen in "Slaughterhouse-Five," if we remember its subtitle, "The Children's Crusade," and view it as a desperate and hopeless appeal to end all wars, by telling a story about the suffering of children.

The "ocean" quote was in essence impossible to find. (6) I and twenty students looked out for it as we read and discussed "The Brothers Karamazov" - and we all missed it. Then in May of 1977, long after I had given up hope of finding this quote, I happened to be reading a brief excerpt from Dostoevsky's novel in an anthology. The phone rang. It was Vonnegut. We talked for ten minutes and I returned to my book. And right away I spotted the five elusive words glowing serenely in a passage from "The Conversations and Exhortations of Father Zosima" (Book VI, Chapter 3, Section g):

My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side - a little happier, anyway - and children and all


animals, if you yourself were nobler than you are now. It's all like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds, too, consumed by an all-embracing love, in a sort of transport, and pray that they, too, will forgive you your sin. Treasure this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to men. (Norton Critical Edition, p. 299.) (7)

This unexpected appeal to pantheism in the midst of Father Zosima's Christian exhortations is an interesting indication that Dostoevsky (for whom Zosima is in part a spokesman) was not so orthodox a Christian as many critics have insisted. (8) For all that, Christ, if not His church, was always squarely at the center of Dostoevsky's work. As for the birds in the quoted passage: they do not seem to exemplify an obvious motif in Dostoevsky, but there are, coincidentally, birds galore in Vonnegut's novels, beginning with the giant bluebirds - "the most admirable creatures in Titan" - worshipped by Chrono in "Sirens of Titan," and continuing for twenty years with birds in every novel through "Jailbird" with its symbolic, golden prothonotary warblers.

In "Jailbird," incidentally, Vonnegut's next novel after "Slapstick", there are no references to Dostoevsky, but Vonnegut provocatively juxtaposes Christianity and revolution as he retells the story of Sacco and Vanzetti so as to compare their martyrdom with that of Jesus Christ. Then, one year after "Jailbird" was released, Vonnegut delivered a guest sermon on Palm Sunday, 1980, at St. Clement's Episcopal Church, West 46th St., Manhattan, wherein, after first identifying himself as a "Christ-worshipping agnostic," he analyzes John 12:8: "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me," - excusing Jesus of responsibility for any interpretation of these lines to mean that it is all right to ignore the poor, as there are so many of them anyway... The sermon appears in a book of Vonnegut's essays published by Delacorte in March, 1981, under the title "Palm Sunday." Late in 1980 Vonnegut wrote a version of the Nativity for children, with art by Ivan Chermayeff, under the title "Sun Moon Star" (Harper and Row). These preoccupations together with the important references to Jesus in "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Breakfast of Champions," and "Slapstick" point to a gradually increasing concern with Christianity and Christ. In this we may recognize considerable common ground with Dostoevsky. Vonnegut himself recognizes a certain psychological ground in common with Dostoevsky, expressed in an interesting passage written in 1980:

So I am embarrassed about the failure of my first marriage. I am embarrassed by my older relatives' responses to my books. But I was embarrassed before I was married or had written a book. A bad dream I have dreamed for as long as I can remember may hold a clue. In that dream, I know that I have murdered an old women a long time ago. I have led an exemplary life ever since. But now the police have come to get me, with incontrovertible evidence of my crime. This is more or less the plot of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," of course. By coincidence, Dostoevsky and I have the same birthday, too. ("Palm Sunday," p. 189)


Most importantly Vonnegut's novels from the first are much occupied with religious questions, as are virtually all of Dostoevsky's. In addition, both writers make use of what may be called the strange, the coincidental and the mystical - not to promote established religion, but primarily to demonstrate the wonderful complexity and unpredictability of life itself. An example of this sort of thing in Vonnegut is his invented term karass a karass being one of the many special teams, according to Bokonon, the religious sage of "Cat's Cradle," into which all humanity is organized. These teams "do God's will without ever discovering what they are doing," says Bokonon, and he adds that "if you find your life tangled up with somebody else's life for no very logical reason, that person may be a member of your karass." (Dell, pp. 11-12.) There is something almost like a karass at work in "The Brothers Karamazov" as Dostoevsky guides Alesha into "accidental" involvement with Grushenka, Iljusha and others. When Alesha hears Grushenka's story of the little onion and observes the change that has taken place in her before his eyes, he himself is spiritually transformed and becomes imbued with a sense of the miraculous. Dostoevsky means for this miracle, coming out of life itself, to be seen as the true counterpart to the false miracle of the Grand Inquisitor's tripartite formula - "miracle, mystery and authority" - for gaining and holding power over the Christian masses for their own good. Later Alesha's relationship with Iljusha and Kolja inevitably requires of him that he preach a quiet funeral sermon to the boys (quoted in part earlier in this paper) at Iljusha's stone. Here the mystery and authority of the Grand Inquisitor's institutional church are challenged by the ordinary stone or rock, which derives its authority as a place of worship from the simple fact that people of good faith have gathered around it; while Alesha acquires the authority to preach only from the natural respect he has earned through his friendship with the boys. It is interesting that the name of Christ is never uttered by Alesha in this speech that ends the novel, nor is Christ mentioned anywhere in the final chapter - though his presence is symbolized not only by the "rock" (that is Peter) upon which Christ founded his church, but by the fact that there are "about twelve" boys surrounding Alesha (Norton, p. 727). I do not think Dostoevsky means for us to see Alesha, surrounded by his disciples, as Christ, but only as a kind of secular analogue to Christ that any of us might hope to emulate. In any case, it is through this specially constructed "karass," if you will, that Dostoevsky elaborates his reply to Ivan's Grand Inquisitor, showing that ordinary people are capable of practicing without coercion or deception a simple and direct form of Christianity in their daily lives.

While Dostoevsky's challenge to the Grand Inquisitor is but hazily recalled by most readers of "The Brothers Karamazov," the Grand Inquisitor himself is remembered by everyone - including, of course, Vonnegut - although no two people seem to remember this figure in the same way. I suspect that many readers tend to forget the depth of intelligence and spirituality that Dostoevsky, through Ivan Karamazov, grants to his creation. Thus, the Grand Inquisitor repeatedly speaks to Christ of his suffering for having deceived men, for having taken their sins upon himself for their happiness, and his anguish as one of the elite who guard


the mystery and who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. He dares Christ to judge him.

"Know that I fear thee not," he says. "Know that I too have been in the wilderness, I too have lived on roots and locusts, I too prized the freedom with which Thou has blessed men, and I too was striving to stand among Thy elect..." (Norton, p. 240.) Ivan later asks Alesha, "Why can there not martyr oppressed by great sorrow and loving humanity? You see, only suppose that there was one such man among all those who desire nothing but filthy material gain - if there's one like my old inquisitor, who had himself eaten roots in the desert and made frenzied efforts to subdue his flesh to make himself free and perfect. But yet all his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it is no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God's creatures have been created as a mockery (and) that they will never be capable of using their freedom..." (pp. 241-2.)

In this, by the way, we may recognize the attitude of the bodhisattva, who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to teach others how to attain it. Although Ivan confesses to Alesha that the Grand Inquisitor has ceased to believe in God, he insists that this in itself is a sufficient cause of the old man's suffering and tragedy. In any case, the kiss that Christ bestows on the "bloodless aged lips" of the Grand Inquisitor is, at the very least, a powerful and poetically brilliant sign of Christ's perception of the genuineness of the old man's suffering.

The type of the Grand Inquisitor has made its primary appearance in Western literature, I believe, in the twentieth-century anti-utopian novel. Vonnegut's principal contribution to this genre is "Player Piano" (1952), his first novel. In an interview in 1973 he said of that novel, "I cheerfully ripped off the plot of (it from) "Brave New World," whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Eugene Zamiatin's 'We'." (9) This remark is interesting as it shows an awareness of the Russian origin of the story line; it seems unlikely, however, that Vonnegut would also have known that Zamjatin's novel (written in 1920-21 and first published in 1924 - in English translation) frequently echoes Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground." For instance, the "bright and sparkling glass" of which all the structures in "We" are built recalls the famous Crystal Palace of the earlier work-symbol of the future utilitarian and super-rational society that the narrator of "Notes" rejects. (10) Also, the leader of Zamjatin's United State, a benevolent dictator known as the Benefactor (or Well-Doer), makes a speech in Chapter 36 about Christ and the difficult and important part played by those who killed him - for if not for them, he says, "how could that magnificent tragedy ever have been staged?" This clearly calls to mind the Grand Inquisitor, although Zamjatin's Benefactor is not presented as one who suffers in the manner of the Dostoevskian prototype.


Although Huxley denied that he had read "We" prior to 1931 when he wrote "Brave New World," (11) nearly everyone, including Vonnegut, is convinced that he was directly influenced by Zamjatin. For instance, Huxley's World Controller, like Zamjatin's Benefactor, is also a Grand Inquisitor type, though he is actually closer to Dostoevsky's creation than Zamjatin's more schematic figure. In Chapter 16 Huxley's leader speaks of the many years that the people have been under total control and comments, "It hasn't been very good for truth, of course. But it's been very good for happiness." He alludes to the pain he has endured as one obliged to sacrifice truth. In one important respect "Brave New World" is not like "We," for it lacks the revolutionary uprising that determines so much of the plot of the latter.

Vonnegut's remark about the plot of "Player Piano" implies that he had not read "We," but only "Brave New World." (12) Perhaps, then, he borrowed the workers' revolution in his novel from Orwell's "1984" (published in 1948) - a novel Vonnegut mentions elsewhere that he read and one quite obviously based on "We," although Orwell's Big Brother is influenced more by Stalin and Hitler than Zamjatin's Benefactor. Big Brother's chief concern is for power and he has little if any interest in happiness for the masses; he is thus a rather weak example of the Grand Inquisitor, lacking all the virtue and subtlety of the archetype. (13)

Vonnegut's benevolent dictator in "Player Piano" owes nothing to the Big Brother type; he also lacks the intellectual refinement of Huxley's World Controller; and he has little of the symbolic interest of Zamjatin's Benefactor. His name is Doctor Francis Eldgrin Gelhorne and his title is National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs and Resources Director. He is old, shrewd, unafraid, always dresses formally, has concern for the well-being of the masses, and tends to speak in aphorisms: "Nobody's so damn well educated that you can't learn ninety percent of what he knows in six weeks. The other ten percent is decoration... Show me a specialist, and I'll show you a man who's so scared he's dug a hole for himself to hide in... Almost nobody's competent:... It's enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you're a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind." (Avon, 1967, p. 219.)

Owing to literary circumstances, Gelhorne qualifies as a Grand Inquisitor type, but he is not a developed character and he lacks the subtlety of the model. However, in the same novel, the Reverend James 3. Lasher, who engineers the creation of a false but convincing messiah to lead the workers' revolution, is spiritually much closer to the Grand Inquisitor: he combines religious compassion and self-sacrifice with regretful cynicism as he commits himself to the workers' struggle. He does not, however, appear in public as does the Grand Inquisitor.

More developed figures of this type are to be found in Vonnegut's later novels "The Sirens of Titan" (1959) and "Cat's Cradle" (1963). In the former, Winston Niles Rumfoord, a heroic, sensitive figure of style and


brilliance, orchestrates a war between .Mars and Earth and then establishes a new church on Earth with the aim of uniting all humanity in peace and brotherhood. Rumfoord, speaking of himself in particular, declares that "Any man who would change the world in a significant way must have showmanship, a genial willingness to shed other people's blood, and a plausible new religion to introduce during the brief period of repentance and horror that usually follows bloodshed." (Dell, 1966, p. 174.) The "plausible religion" introduced by Rumfoord is made one-hundred-percent credible by him, as he has knowledge of the future that Earthlings lack and is thus able to bring about apparent miracles, create vast pageants of ritual and mystery, and establish absolutely his own authority. The parallel with the Grand Inquisitor seems obvious and conscious, although Rumfoord iconoclastically supplants establishment Christianity with what he calls The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, the motto of which is, "Take care of the people, and God Almighty will take care of himself," and the two chief teachings of which are: "Puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God." (p. 180) Much of the practice of this religion consists in eliminating "luck" from human affairs, to make human beings as nearly equal as possible. In this there is much humor and exaggeration, in keeping with the satirical tone of the novel as a whole - but one sees here nevertheless the same ambivalence that is dramatized in Ivan Karamazov's "poem" about the Grand Inquisitor: on the one hand, agonized resentment of a God indifferent to human suffering and, on the other, a passionate desire, based wholly on the teachings of Jesus, to eliminate that suffering, even if those teachings must be violated in the process.

Much the same ambivalence or tension is dramatized in "Cat's Cradle," except that the manipulative Grand Inquisitor figure is now played by two persons in concert - the beloved, saintly Bokonon, who is seen as all good by the dirt-poor denizens of San Lorenzo who follow his religious teachings; and the feared and hated "Papa" Monzano, a dictator viewed as pure evil by the populace. Monzano threatens gruesome punishment for practicing the outlawed Bokononist religion - which only inspires the people to practice it more fervently. In thus risking their lives, the starving and wretched San Lorenzans attain a dignity otherwise unavailable to them on their deprived and barren little island. The religion they follow is codified in the Books of Bokonon, the first sentence of which is: "Ail of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies." (p. 14.) (14) The religion offers virtually no hope; yet, because of the "priceless equilibrium" between good and evil engineered in secret by Bokonon and Monzano, the people are brought in spite of their condition to a quite admirable level of spiritual happiness. Vonnegut's assumptions here are well known to Ivan's Grand Inquisitor, who would insist that human beings are capable of suffering for their religion only for very short periods. But Vonnegut makes a real effort to teach in "Cat's Cradle" that human beings are better than that, and thus comes close to agreeing with Dostoevsky's arguments against the Grand Inquisitor in the latter part of "The Brothers Karamazov."


In "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" (1965), these arguments are dramatized without benefit of an inquisitor figure. They may be summarized in a few aphoristic quotations from the work: "Pretend to be good always and even God will be fooled." (Dell, 1970, p. 177.) "The problem (of our time) is this: How to love people who have no use." (p. 183.) "(P)eople can use all the uncritical love they can get." (p. 186.) And finally, baptizing Mary Moody's twins in a strictly secular ceremony, Eliot Rosewater says: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies - : "God damn it, you've got to be kind.' " (P. 93.) These few lines characterize not only the essential philosophy of Vonnegut both before and after "Rosewater," but, in a highly abridged form, the views of Dostoevsky, especially in the final chapter of "The Brothers Karamazov," when Alesha speaks to the boys at Iljusha's stone.

Although more may be said on the similarities between Vonnegut and Dostoevsky, (15) it seems to me that enough has been said here to show that these similarities are more than coincidental. On the question of coincidence, however, I would like to add one more note to provide a conclusion to this essay.

In 1975 Vonnegut's son Mark published a book called "Eden Express," about his experiences as a sufferer from schizophrenia. At one point he records a conversation that he imagines he had with his father just after being released from a mental hospital. He tells his father that he has just begun reading "The Brothers Karamazov." His father says this was a mistake - but a beautiful one. Then Vonnegut suggests to his son that he open the book at random. Mark writes: "I let the book (fall) open. About halfway down on the right-hand page, one sentence stood out, glowing, from the rest of the print: The end of time will be marked by acts of unfathomable compassion.' " (Praeger, 1975, p. 176)

Who but Dostoevsky could have written these remarkable chiliastic lines? But I have never been able to find them in "The Brothers Karamazov." Dostoevsky scholars to whom I've appealed have suggested likely places to search - but to no avail. I had written to Mark Vonnegut on the matter, but he never answered - so that I was always half persuaded that the quote was simply made up, some kind of hallucination. Vonnegut himself assured me (just a week or two prior to my writing these lines, in May 1981) that his own role in his son's text was pure hallucination. He gave me Mark's telephone number and said to call him - which I did.

Young Vonnegut has now completed his medical degree at Harvard University and is working as an intern. He no longer suffers from hallucinations. Furthermore, he can distinguish between hallucination and reality when recalling his schizophrenic past. And he swears that the quote from Dostoevsky is something he read; he did not make it up. He admits that his father was not present physically when "The Brothers Karamazov" fell open to the fateful page. He can no longer recall the edition or the translator, but the page itself (as described in the passage quoted above) is vivid in his memory. And he is convinced that the


moment when Dostoevsky's prophetic words leaped out at him marked the turning point in his recovery from mental illness.


  1. This essay is a revision of a paper of the same title read on Feb. 13, 1981, at a conference of the Southern Comparative Literature Association held at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. As my analysis incidentally treats the subject of coincidence, 1 want to mention that my paper was read by chance on the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Dresden firestorm, a profoundly important event in Vonnegut's life and work.
  2. "Slaughterhouse-Five" (New York: Delacorte, 1969), p. 87.
  3. See the bibliography in my article described in note 4 below.
  4. "Russian Literature Triquarterly," 14 (Winter 1976), 166-190; repr. with changes under different title, pp. 258-293 in "Vonnegut in America," ed. J. Klinkowitz and D. Lawler (New York: Delacorte, 1977).
  5. Among numerous articles on humor in Dostoevsky, see Roger L. Cox, "Dostoevsky and the Ridiculous," Dostoevsky Studies, 1 (1980), 103 - 109.
  6. That is, impossible for me to find. I thought to test Professor Robert Louis Jackson on its source just before I read this paper (see note 1); he knew it right away.
  7. I have discussed these quotes also in "Notes on Modern American Literature," 1/4 (Fall 1977), Note 29.
  8. For a recent article on non-Christian elements in Zosima's theology, see Roger B. Anderson, "Mythical implications of Father Zosima's Religious Teachings," Slavic Review, 38/2 (June 1979), 272-289.
  9. "Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons" (New York: Delacorte, 1974), p. 261.
  10. For a full analysis of the influence of "Notes from Underground" on "We," see R. L. Jackson, "Zamiatin's 'We,' " pp. 150-157 in Jackson's "Dostoevsky's Underground Man in Russian Literature" ('s-Gravenhage: Mouton, 1958); Patricia Warrick, "The Source of Zamjatin's 'We' in Dostoevsky's 'Notes from Underground,'" Extrapolation, 17/1 (De cember 1975), 63-77; and others.
  11. See discussion of this in Alex M. Shane, "The Life and Works of Evgenij Zamjatin" (Berkeley/L.A.: U. of California Press, 1968), p. 140.
  12. He did not in fact read "We" until the early 1960's. Parallels with "We" are coincidental - for instance Vonnegut's frequent identifica tion of the characters in "Player Piano" by their job classification numbers: R-127, EC-002, etc. -similar to the naming system used by Zamjatin.
  13. For an excellent discussion of Zamjatin, Huxley and Orwell, see Edward J. Brown, "Brave New World, 1984 and We: An Essay on Anti- Utopia" (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976).
  14. After reading the first draft of this essay, Professor R. Neuhńuser


    suggested that this quoted passage from "Cat's Cradle" is interestingly similar to the lines in Dostoevsky's "Zimnie zametki o letnikh vpechatlenijakh": "Vy znaete tozhe naverno, chto esli ja i navru, to navru, buduchi uveren, chto ne vru." (Chapter 5, opening paragraph.)
  15. I will say more on this matter in a book on "Vonnegut and Russia," which I think I am now about ready to begin writing.
University of Toronto