THR Web Features   /   July 31, 2023

In Through the Out Door

Has the world of the novel been abandoned by God?

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Michael Odelberth/Unsplash.)

So in the end only Umuaro and its leaders saw the final outcome. To them the issue was simple. Their god had taken sides with them against his headstrong and ambitious priest and thus upheld the wisdom of their ancestors—that no man however great was greater than his people; that no one ever won judgment against his clan.

If this was so then UIu had chosen a dangerous time to uphold that truth for in destroying his priest he had also brought disaster on himself, like the lizard in the fable who ruined his mother’s funeral by his own hand. For a deity who chose a moment such as this to chastise his priest or abandon him before his enemies was inciting people to take liberties; and Umuaro was just ripe to do so. The Christian harvest which took place a few days after Obika’s death saw more people than even Goodcountry had dreamed. In his extremity many a man sent his son with a yam or two to offer to the new religion and to bring back the promised immunity. Thereafter any yam harvested in his fields was harvested in the name of the son.

Arrow God (1964) by Chinua Achebe

It was his voice, the voice of Father Zosima. And it must be he, since he called him! The elder raised Alyosha by the hand and he rose from his knees.


“Why do you wonder at me? I gave an onion to a beggar, so I, too, am here. And many here have given only an onion each—only one little onion…. What are all our deeds? And you, my gentle one, you, my kind boy, you too have known how to give a famished woman an onion today. Begin your work, dear one, begin it, gentle one… Do you see our Sun, do you see Him?”

“I am afraid…. I dare not look,” whispered Alyosha.

“Do not fear Him. He is terrible in His greatness, awful in his sublimity, but infinitely merciful. He has made Himself like unto us from love and rejoices with us. He is changing the new water into wine that the gladness of the guests may not be cut short. He is expecting new guests, He is calling new ones unceasingly forever and ever…. They are bringing the new wine. Do you see they are bringing the new vessels….”

Something glowed in Alyosha’s heart, something filled it till it ached, tears of rapture rose from his soul…. He stretched out his hands, uttered a cry and woke up.

The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

In his Theory of the Novel (1916), Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács famously declared that “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” Lukács wasn’t sure that the “godforsaken” novel would have the last word on the state of the world, mind you, but the expression soon took on a life of its own, becoming a tagline for the secular theory of the novel. In brief, critics of this persuasion see the novel tradition as both evidence of the growing secularization of Western culture and a potent force in that process.

Fiction, the argument goes, shows us a world where God is either a nonplayer or God’s ways are subject to interminable debate among the characters (which, in turn, sows doubt about whether God is at work at all). The scholar Michael Wood, for example, points to the influence of Don Quixote, observing that Cervantes “[leaves] God out of the picture, and [suggests] that the worlds of the novel (the one it lives in and the one it presents) are zones of contingency, places where Providence has no jurisdiction.” The critic James Wood (no relation) has argued that “despite being a kind of magic, [the novel] is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions.” In the latter Wood’s formulation, fiction reveals the relativity of all views and insinuates the “as if” of literary belief into our view of the world. “There is something about narrative that puts the world in doubt. Narrative corrugates belief, puts bends and twists in it.”

These claims are obviously too monolithic (as Michael Wood admits “nothing is true of all novels”). Explicitly—often enthusiastically—religious fiction has been in production for centuries and continues today. Give the matter a few moments’ thought, and you can easily assemble a list of well-regarded counterexamples (start with O’Connor, Flannery) that move in the opposite direction that the Woods chart, revealing that Providence is in fact operative in our seemingly haphazard “zone.” Narrative, in these instances, puts the world back in spiritual order, or at least suggests a more pregnant reality beyond the scene at hand. The novel is neither inherently for nor against faith but open to all sides.

While secularization theories hardly account for every twist and turn of the novel tradition, the theorists nonetheless do us a service in highlighting the novel’s lack of an official theological stance. The older narrative genre of epic provides an illuminating contrast. As classicist Eva Brann has noted, no one needs to “believe in” the Homeric gods. The gods are a palpable given. That was still true when John Milton, writing decades after the publication of Don Quixote, composed Paradise Lost. Against the wider background of literary history, then, the novel stands out for its ability to admit faith as well as doubt—and to waffle in between those two different modes. Fiction can avow God, scorn God, and send God into hiding (temporarily or permanently).

Novelistic depictions of belief break in different ways. Some fictions indeed inhabit “godless” universes, which the god-fearing characters deposited therein discover to their dismay or enlightenment. At the same time, religious novelists sometimes submit their protagonists to dark nights of the soul in which the character, and by extension the reader, must entertain the possibility that the world really is a godforsaken ball of rock. The idea seems very modern, but it is not so strange from a traditional religious perspective. Jesus of Nazareth, after all, asked with his dying breath: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). He was, moreover, drawing from his own tradition’s well of lament, his words echoing, in Aramaic, the opening verse of Psalm 22.

Lukács’s assertion might better be cast as a question that the novelist must answer rather than a precondition of the novelist’s art. “Has the world of the novel been abandoned by God?” A less pithy phrasing, perhaps, but rendered as a question it draws a surprising number and assortment of books into the discussion, as my extracts indicate.

The first appears at the close of Arrow of God, the final volume in Chinua Achebe’s “African trilogy.” In some ways, Achebe’s book aligns with the secularization theorists’ view of the novel, particularly Achebe’s attention to how religious beliefs and practices are socially constructed and serve a functionalist purpose of holding groups together. He includes scenes in which both indigenous and Christian forms of faith are debunked. Yet Achebe’s novel also complicates matters because gods abound in his setting, the six-village confederation of Umuaro. The indigenous characters inhabit an enchanted world. They live not in the absence of the One God but in the presence of several local deities and their respective representatives—an already delicate status-quo strained by the arrival of Christianity. Achebe shows that, in depicting colonial-era Nigeria, the novelist’s assignment is not to map a domain in which Providence has no jurisdiction but to show its multiple and often competing human and divine jurisdictions. The tensions of the book are at once theological and political: Who is in charge?

The novel’s most important claimant to traditional authority is Umuaro’s Chief Priest, Ezeulu, a character whose tragic fate is discussed in the excerpt. As the mouthpiece of Ulu, preeminent deity of Umuaro, Ezeulu is responsible for setting the date of the New Yam festival, a celebration of the community’s founding and the official beginning of the yam harvest. As the passage suggests, Ezeulu brings about his own ruin—and that of Ulu—by refusing to hold the festival at the seasonally appropriate time on the grounds that the sacred preliminaries, which had been disrupted by his imprisonment by colonial authorities, must be strictly followed. Fearing famine, the villagers look for deliverance elsewhere, accepting an upstart church’s invitation to harvest with the Christian god’s blessing and protection.

Achebe is a sharp observer of religious psychology, particularly in circumstances in which personal and religious interests mingle. Ezeulu perceives himself to be “no more than an arrow in the bow of his god,” enacting Ulu’s judgment disinterestedly, but Achebe demonstrates how keen he is to use his office to settle tribal scores (especially with other priests). In a kind of indigenous spin on the crisis of faith narrative, Ezeulu’s mind cracks at the novel’s end under the weight of questions that his religious tradition cannot answer: “But why […] had Ulu chosen to deal thus with him, to strike him down, and then cover him with mud? Had he not divined the god’s will and obeyed it?” As the excerpt indicates, the community is grappling for an explanation as well, and they read Ezeulu’s apparent madness as divine retribution, leaning on the wisdom of the ancients that “no man however great was greater than his people.” They lack, however, a procedural mechanism to get out from under the priest’s verdict, and so, under these desperate conditions, many seek the succor of the new god.

Arrow of God is thus in its own way an “epic of a world that has been abandoned by God,” but Achebe puts a twist on that formula by showing how one god’s exodus is another’s accession. Across the African trilogy, Achebe stresses, moreover, that this will be a costly exchange for many members of the community, the failure of religious institutions precipitating other forms of social and cultural breakdown. Pondering his fate, Ezeulu wonders, “What could it point to but the collapse and ruin of all things?” Achebe demonstrates that apocalypses can assume local dimensions. To lose a god is to lose a world.

But an abandoned—or abandoning—god might also reappear, as shown in my second excerpt taken from the unforgettable “Cana of Galilee” chapter of Brothers Karamazov. Before we consider what Dostoevsky attempts there, we need to recall the cause of the spiritual disturbance that this scene conclusively resolves. A few chapters earlier, the monastery had been rocked by the discovery that the body of the recently deceased Father Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor, exhibited “the odor of corruption,” which is to say that it stank. That wouldn’t seem to be a shocking proposition, but the community had been anticipating a miracle given the apparent sanctity of the dead man, and tradition taught that the remains of holy men were incorruptible. To make matters worse, Zosima’s body seemed to decay prematurely, “in excess of nature,” as his enemies scoffed. Even Zosima’s closest friends, those who do not question his holiness, suffer a degree of dejection. Alyosha flees the monastery, seeking his own corruption.

The narrator clarifies that Alyosha’s crisis was not occasioned by the need for a miracle per se but the longing for the demonstration—by way of a miracle—that a “higher justice” is at work in the world. He wants to see virtue rewarded. “Where is the finger of Providence?” the narrator asks on Alyosha’s behalf, “Why did Providence hide its face ‘at the critical moment’ (so Alyosha thought), as though voluntarily submitting to the blind, dumb, pitiless laws of nature?” Alyosha is disheartened by divine passivity, by the fact that the laws of nature are allowed to do their ordinary, ruthless work despite the extraordinary character of the life in question.

But at a deeper level, we might say that Alyosha is articulating a wish not to be a character in a realist novel. As Michael Wood argues, at the “heart” of the realist tradition lie two assumptions: “that the world is what it is, and that reality, whether social, material, political, or psychological, is by its nature resistant to human wishes.” Wood calls realist novels “godless” because they obey “probability” rather than exhibit the special workings of Providence. Whether realist fiction is necessarily “godless” is, of course, open to debate (in the hands of Marilynne Robinson or even Anthony Trollope, it does not seem so). But Wood’s claims speak to Alyosha’s grievance in the terms of the fictional world he occupies: This world resists his pious wishes. Literary critic Gary Saul Morson has dubbed him a “generic refugee,” citing his “thirst for epic and saintly ‘exploits.’” Alyosha would no doubt prefer to be a character in a hagiography where probability has no dominion.

But how can Dostoevsky give Alyosha what he wants? How can an author plausibly write a divine manifestation into a realist novel without turning it into some other kind of writing? (Lukács, for one, believed there wasn’t yet a proper name for what Dostoevsky was doing.) Dostoevsky’s solution is twofold. First, the miraculous vision is preceded by an ethical about-face that makes it to some degree unnecessary. The episode comes on the heels of the Dostoevskyan version of the felix culpa in which Alyosha, in a state of “rebellion,” “seeks his ruin” in the arms of Grushenka only to watch as his humility ennobles the would-be seducer to become his rescuer. Citing an old proverb about the significance of ordinary kindnesses, Grushenka credits Alyosha with giving her an “onion,” and he credits her with restoring his soul. The devilish Rakitin carps that “the miracles you were looking out for just now have come to pass!” But the scene suggests that the scoffer is right; the real miracle is not a spectacle but a change of heart, and that can happen anywhere—even Grushenka’s drawing room—and without suspending the laws of nature.

The second part of Dostoevsky’s solution is to arrange the scene so that he has plausible deniability. Alyosha is in a spiritual tizzy when he returns to the monastery. As Father Paissy reads the Gospel of John’s narrative of the wedding at Cana over the coffin, Alyosha’s mind is unstable, darting between thoughts. The suggestion, of course, is that the vision merely represents the outpouring of his feverish imagination. And then his waking at the end allows us another out: to dismiss it as nothing but a dream elicited by a familiar text. Step by step, Dostoevsky gives us justifications to write the vision off as Alyosha’s fantasy. Notice too that the narrator describes Zosima directly (“the little, thin old man with tiny wrinkles on his face”) but not “Him.” The narrator, like Alyosha, dares not look directly at God, leaving Zosima to characterize “our Sun.” To see “Him” requires that our imaginations set to work. This is Dostoevsky’s brilliant play on fiction’s fundamental vacillation about gods: He turns responsibility for the divine apparition over to the reader. Can you believe it? Do you see God? More importantly, would you join the feast?