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Christianity in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: An Overview Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, ” If someone succeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, then I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth” (Frank 68). It was by no means easy for Dostoyevsky to reach this conclusion. In Dostoyevsky’s life, one sees that of an intellectual Prodigal Son, returning to the Father In Heaven only after all other available systems of belief have been exhausted.
Reared in a devout Russian Orthodox home, Dostoyevsky as a young man rebelled against his upbringing and embraced the anarchist (and atheistic) philosophies of the intelligentsia, radical students and middle class intellectuals violently opposed to the status quo in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Morsm 50). Dostoyevsky revolutionary stirrings were not unnoticed by the Tsar’s secret police, and, in 1849, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to a mock execution followed by ten years’ hard labor in a Siberian prison (Morsm 50).
One critic said “It has been customary to say that Dostoyevsky re-learnt Christianity in prison.” (A Boyce Gibson 19.) There, out of his element and surrounded by hardened criminals, he had plenty of time to contemplate life and read The New Testament (the only book he was allowed). However, it was not until his compulsory army service that Dostoyevsky’s faith began to blossom. In the army, Dostoyevsky met a fellow officer and devout Christian named Baron von Vrangel, who befriended the still young Dostoevesky and helped him re-discover the Christian faith (Frank 4).
Although a professing Christian for the rest of his life, Dostoyevsky was not a “plaster saint.” (Until he died, he was plagued by doubts and a passion for gambling.)
Instead, Dostoyevsky understood, perhaps better than any other great Christian author, that his faith was created and sustained by one thing only: the grace of God. It is of such grace that Dostoyevsky writes in Crime and Punishment. Although most critics agree that Crime and Punishment’s theme is not as deliberately Christian as Dostoyevsky’s latter works, the novel’s voice is still authentically Christian.
Written in 1864, shortly after Dostoyevsky lost his first wife, his brother, and a close friend (Gibson 32); Crime and Punishment reveals a time in Dostoyevsky’s life when he felt disconnected from the world and God. Through Crime and Punishment’s protagonist, Raskalnikov, (Whose name, according to Vyacheslav Ivanov, is derived from the Russian root meaning “schism” or “apostate.”) (Ivanov 72) one glimpses into the condition of Dostoyevsky’s soul. Although Crime and Punishment has a primarily social message, it provides the reader with “a sidelong approach to a Christian interpretation of man.” (Gibson, 102) Through its pages Dostoyevsky illustrates the inherent fallacy in humanism: that individualism carried to the extreme is self destructive. In addition, Dostoyevsky’s work cogently illustrates St. Paul’s words in his first Epistle to the Corinthians that “To shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness” (I Corr. 1:27).
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky also offers a hopeful message: through humility and love, even the vilest man can be reformed. Finally, it is through learning to love that man begins to change. Raskalnikov is the embodiment of the old German proverb, Ein guter Mensch, in seinem dunklen Drangen, ist sich den rechten weges wohl bewusst.Translated loosely, the statement means that “A good man, in his dark impulses, is still conscious of the right way.” Although he tries to convince himself that he is not subject to moral law, Raskalnikov cannot avoid the fact that he is subject to natural law. He believes that he is a superman, one who do anything to assure his success, and he murders an old .pawnbroker to prove this theory. As such, Raskalnikov’s greatest sin is not his murder of Aliona Ivanovna or of Litzeveta, but rather that, in his arrogance, he severs himself from humanity. Although Raskalnikov sucessfully commits the crime, he is unable to live with himself. In an 1879 letter to A.N. Lyubimov, Dostoyevsky said that the end of the humanist was “the complete enslavement of conscience . . . their ideal is an ideal of the coersion of the human conscience and the reduction of mankind to the level of cattle” (Frank 469).
To apply Dostoyevsky’s comparrison, Raskalnikov —in murdering what he calls “a louse” in the name of freedom— becomes a slave to guilt and lousier than his victim. Thus, Rakalnikov’s “Napoleon” theory is negated, and his question becomes “How can I stop the guilt?” illustrated best in this inner dialogue: “This much he (Raskalnikov) knew: he had to put an end to all that, today, right away, once and for all because he did not want to live like that. Put an end to it—but how? By what means put an end to it? About this he had no conception. He did not even want to think of it . He drove away thougth. Painfully, thought tracked him down. He only felt, he only knew, one way or another, everything had to be changed.” (Dostoyevsky 159)
How can Raskalnikiov change? The rest of Crime and Punishment is devoted to the question. Raskalnikov’s theories and idealism failed him, and he is left with nothing but guilt, fear, and a knawing desire for freedom from his concience. But where is such freedom to be found? How can Raskalnikov bridge the schism he created between himself and mankind? These questions eventually lead Raskalnikov to prison and to the grace of God, but first he must learn one thing —humility. To understand fully the importance of the Christian (and Dostoyevsky’s) concept of humility in Crime and Punishment, one need look no further than to the novel’s second chapter in which Raskalnikov meets a drunk named Marmeladov. Marmeladov, although nearly in a stupor, manages to grasp the essence of divine grace and forshadows Raskalnikov’s eventual atonement. For full effect, Marmeladov’s statement must be quoted in entirety. He shouts to the crowd in the bar: “And when He has finished judging all, He will summon us, too: ‘You, too come forth,’ he will say, ‘Come forth you drunkards, come forth you weaklings; come forth you shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth unashamed.
And we will stand before him, and He will say: ‘You are swine, made in the image of the Beast, with his seal upon you, but you, too come unto me!’ And the wise and the clever will cry out: ‘Lord! why dost thou receive these men ?’ And he will say: ‘I receive them, O wise and clever ones, because not one among them considers himself worthy of this.” (Dostoyevsky 33)
Through Marmeladov’s drunken rambling, Dostoyevsky echoes Pauline sentiment in the first chapter of Corinthians, where it is stated that God will shame the wise with folly and the strong with weakness (I Cor. 1:27). In Crime and Punishment, this is the essence of the Gospel. God’s acceptance of drunks and weaklings in Marmeladov’s allegory promts incredulity from the “wise and clever.” But to Dostoyevsky, humility is the greatest strength.
Clearly, Raskalnikov’s salvation lies in the recognition of his own weakness, but, after the murder he is far too obsessed with his own strength to remember Marmeladov’s words. Raskalnikov realizes that he is miserable, he is unrepentant: he does not believe he has done wrong and he still believes that, through strength of will, he can absolve his guilt. “‘Enough,'” Raskalnikov says. “‘Now for the kingdom of light and reason . . . and power . . . Now we shall match wits!’ he added . . . as though he were adressing some dark force . . .” (Dostoyevsky, 191). However, it is not a dark force with which Raskolnikov wrestles, but with God. Raskalnikov is still in rebellion and the schism remains. Enter Sonya, the embodiment of divine weakness and catalyst of Raskalnikov’s eventual redemption. She is the daughter of Marmeladov. She is forced into prostitution to provide for her family, but she does so willingly out of love. She is submissive, uneducated, poor, and a woman. In short, Sonya is everything her contemporary world counted as folly, but to Dostoyevsky she too is a testament to God’s grace. Sonya “feels that she has sunk to the depths, and it is only God who keeps her going” (Gibson 94). In Sonya, one sees as great a sinner as Raskalnikov at peace with herself and with God.
Her secrets: humility and love. Like her father, Sonya recognizes her unworthiness before God. Her knowlege that God alone gives her worth allows her to love others unconditionally, including Raskalnikov. To paraphrase I John 4:19, Sonya loves because God first loved Sonya. Against Sonya’s meekness and love, Raskolnikov begins to break. At first, he is argumentative, mocking Sonya’s childlike faith. “‘She’s a holy fool!” (Dostoyevsky 317) Raskolnikov thinks to himself, but he is still drawn to Sonya’s strength. At last, Raskalnikov begins to realize that he is not alone , and it is because of this realization that he confesses to Sonya.
It can be said that, in this confession, Raskalnikov’s strength begins to submit to divine weakness. It is through love and humility that the schism will be bridged. However, Raskalnikov’s confession to Sonya is not enough, and Sonya knows it. Vyacheslav Ivanov said Sonya “asks only one thing of her beloved: that he should aknowledge the reality of . . . mankind outside himself, and should solemnly declare his acceptence of this new . . . faith by an act of confession to all the people” (Ivanov 80). Sonya tells Raskalnikov to bow down at a crossroads, kiss the earth he offended and say aloud “‘I have killed!” After repenting, Sonya says that Raskalnikov must face the consequences of his action (Dostoyevsky 407).
Only through accepting his guilt will Raskalnikov be healed, but he is unwilling to do so. He is unrepentant and is thus not absolved of his guilt, but he eventually makes up his mind to confess, and, in a nervous fit, he falls to the ground at the Haymarket crossroads and kisses it. But the words “‘I killed,’ which had perhaps been ready on his tounge died inside him.” (Dostoyevsky 506). Raskalnikov is unrepentant still. His ego prohibits him from total submission. Yet, Raskalnikov submits to the authorities and is sentanced to prison in Siberia. Ever devoted, Sonya follows him, but Raskalnikov is “ashamed before her” (Dostoyevsky 521), and treats her badly. Raskalnikov is still unrepentant, for he regards his crime as “simply a blunder, the sort of thing that might happen to anyone” (Dostoyevsky 521), but he is ashamed because he allowed himself to feel guilty. Although he is phisically in prison, Raskalnikov’s real prison is spiritual. Raskalnikov remains a slave to guilt, and it is only through repentance that the chains will be loosed. It can be said that, in Crime and Punishment, Raskalnikov never repents in the theological sense of a concrete turning away from his sinful nature. Indeed, to the last he merely entertains the idea of conversion to Christianity (Dostoyevsky 528).
But if indeed Crime and Punishment is a story about the grace of God, shouldn’t there be a conversion experience? Shouldn’t Raskalnikov do something equivalent to walking down the aisle weeping and utttering “I saw the light?” Dostoyevsky’s answer would be an emphatic “No.” In his life, faith came gradually after years of struggle. Similarly, Dostoyevsky’s hero Raskalnikov must undergo “a gradual transition from one world to another” (Dostoyevsky 528).
Dostoyevsky understood that to define divine grace as a moment’s conversion experience was to cheapen it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Cheap grace is the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner” (Bonhoeffer 46). Dostoyevsky would have agreed, if Crime and Punishment is any indicator. As such, there is no cheapening of grace in the novel. Rather, Dostoyevsky leaves the reader at the begining of faith: love. For it is by Raskalnikov’s love for Sonya that the schism between Raskalnikov and mankind is finally bridged. Fittingly, Raskanilov’s redemption begins in the spring, a time of new beginings. Raskalnikov “wept and embraced [Sonya’s] knees . . . there was no longer any doubt he loved her. He loved her infinitely. At long last, the moment had come . . .” (Dostoyevsky 527). At last Raskalnikov looks beyond himself and begins to see that he is in error and that there is something more than his guilt. He is freed from the slavery of guilt. In short, in this brief encounter with Sonya, the seed of faith is planted. Whether or not the seed will be brought to fruition remains to be seen.
However, given Sonya’s love and Raskalnikov’s desire for freedom, salvation seems likely. What, then, is the reader to learn about Christianity in Crime and Punishment? Certainly one is presented with enough Christian symbolism, obscure biblical allusion, and allegory to merit volumes of literary analysis and keep thousands of otherwise aimless Russian literature experts employed. However, at its fundamental level, Crime and Punishment presents itself as a novel about contrasts: love and hate, right and wrong, young and old. Most importantly, the novel contrasts the oppression of sin with boundless freedom that lies within the grace of God. In Raskalnikov, Dostoyevsky has a testament that, in spite of one’s past, one can, in God’s love, be renewed. Crime and Punishment tells us that, no matter how great the schism between God and man may be, God’s grace is greater still. Also read an at the Crossroads meaning
Cited and Consulted Barnhart, Joe and Linda Kraeger. Dostoyevsky on Evil and Atonement: The Ontology of Personalism in his Major Fiction. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1959.
Cameron, Norman, trans. Freedom and the Tragic Life: A Study in Dostoyevsky. By Vyecheslav Ivanov. New York: Noonday Press, 1960.
“Dostoevkij, F.M.” in The Great Soviet Encylopedia: A Translation of the Third Edition. 1975 ed.
Frank, Joseph and David I Goldstein, Editors. Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Monas, Sidney, trans. Crime and Punishment. By Fyodor Dostoyevsky. New York: Penguin, 1968.
Morsm, Gary Saul. “How to Read. Crime and Punishment.” Commentary 1992 June, 93 (6): 49-53.
Rosenshield, Gary “The Realization of the Collective Self: The Birth of Religious Autobiography in Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz Mertvogo Doma.” Slavic Review 1991 Summer 50 (2): 317-27.
Panichas, George A. “The World of Dostoyevsky.” Modern Age 22: 346-57 Mann, Robert. “Elijah the Prophet in Crime and Punishment.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 1981 Sept 23 (3): 261-72.
Yancey, Phillip. “Be Ye Perfect, More or Less: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and the impossible Sermon on the Mount.” Christianity Today 17 July 1991: 38-41.
O’Grady, Desmond. “Dostoyevsky Lives: Apostle of Interior Freedom.” Commonweal 4 November, 1994: 6-7.
Gibson, A Boyce. The Religion of Dostoyevsky. Philadelphia: Westmenster Press, 1973.
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