The Human Suffering During Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Time in Russia in the 19th Century

Categories: Literature

It is an unfortunate aspect of life, but suffering is all around us. We as a human society have always realized this and have looked for ways to cope with it. The time of 19th century Russia, in which Fyodor Dostoyevsky lived, was filled with far more suffering, than we tolerate today. His environment was filled with poverty, filth, and social turmoil, which made the atmosphere far more volatile than current life. Dostoyevsky tackles the topic of suffering in Crime and Punishment and shows how it can have multiple effects, mainly societal retribution and spiritual salvation.

These two categories of suffering have two distinct classifications. Societal retribution is looking for forgiveness from our community. When applied to the law, this usually means carrying out a criminal punishment. The other form of relief from suffering is spiritual salvation. This is usually dependent on the wrongdoer’s conscience and religious beliefs. Spiritual salvation can only be reached if the wrongdoer has done what either their conscience or religion has told them to do.

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Dostoyevsky proves that both of these results bring the sufferer peace of mind and a sense of fulfillment. Even though the majority of the human race no longer lives in conditions like Dostoyevsky endured we still face suffering every day. It is easiest to see suffering as existing on two separate, but interacting, levels. The first level is the suffering we endure because of our interaction with society. This is most of the suffering we face today. It includes the suffering of a homeless family, the grief of a laid off employee, or the pain of an electrocuted death row inmate.

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Societal suffering is pertinent to all subjects participating and involved in a system of law and justice. We as a society have created a system where crime is usually repaid through some kind of suffering allocated by the government. The creators of our constitution were aware of the possibility of the abuse of the legal system’s ability to disperse suffering, and so they included the 8th amendment, which prevents cruel and unusual punishment. Suffering also exists on a more personal level. Most children develop a conscious through experiencing suffering or by observing others suffer for something they have done wrong. The idea of suffering also finds its way into our relationships. We are constantly apologizing and forgiving others for something they might have done against us, even if it is petty and minor. Suffering is an integral part of society. When man comes to terms with the sufferings of society and with his own personal spiritual suffering he becomes balanced within himself and has peace of mind. This grants him freedom from suffering. However, scholars argue that suffering is not always necessary for the punishment of societal wrongs. For example, it is upheld in Crime and Human Nature that suffering is not required in a criminal sentence. If incapacitation is the goal, a criminal need not suffer, for he is only being held so that he cannot commit more crimes. Reform and deterrence are the types of punishments that benefit from suffering. Suffering “strengthens their own rewards for noncrime.” This means that both the punished and the general public would be further discouraged of doing the same thing. It is a preventative measure. The previously stated view on suffering is not the only view though. The radical Russians of the mid-1800’s fostered many of these ideas, and it was against the radicals that Dostoyevsky wrote. The radicals held that suffering had little place in society. According to them, “man may be made to see where his best interest lies and act accordingly” they also held that “good is that which is useful.” If these two statements were taken to be true, than suffering would not exist. This is because it is not in our best interest to suffer and if we each individually decide what is right and wrong we could never personally sin. The radicals also state that “man does not possess a spiritual dimension.” If man does not have a spirit, than he cannot suffer spiritually either.

It was all of these views combined that Dostoyevsky opposed. Dostoyevsky’s beliefs on punishment were not as liberal as the scholars and not as revolutionary as the radicals. He held that suffering does exist and that the retribution of a crime should be uncomfortable. According to Irving Howe, author of Dostoevsky: Politics of Salvation, he supported suffering as a punishment because it was suffering that reformed him from the radical he was in his youth to the moderate thinker he became to be. On the punishment Howe says “Upon his return to St. Petersburg ten years later Dostoevsky, his spiritual features lacerated and transformed, was no longer a radical, though neither was he the vitriolic reactionary of his last years.” Dostoyevsky also shows the other side of suffering in his novel. The other side of suffering is spiritual suffering, which is aimed at salvation. This salvation varies, but throughout this essay it will be taken to mean inner-peace with yourself and confidence in your relationship with God. Almost every major religion works suffering into its teachings in some way. Most faiths support that suffering strengthens the conscious and our relation to God. Fasting is perhaps the most common form of suffering. This is when a worshiper will not eat as much as usual in order to cause them discomfort.

The Muslims have the month of Ramadan during which they fast from sunrise till sunset. Buddhists believe that the world we live in is full of suffering, and we have exist in the suffering. Christian teachings claim that we can become closer to God by fasting during certain periods and not eating meat during others. The spiritual aspect can be seen in other places than religion though. When the AIDS epidemic broke out in the 1980’s many fundamentalists held that the rise of AIDS was God’s way of punishing the predominately homosexual patients and making them suffer to see their “sins.” Suffering is a predominate factor in most spiritual lives.

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is dominated by the motif of suffering and presents the idea on both levels as well. The majority of the novel revolves around Raskolnikov who kills two women in the first section and then contemplates and laments his actions for the next seven sections. He is a character that would at first glance seem unappealing, but as we become familiar with him we realize that he is a sincere character who is suffering and has compassion for those who are suffering. His own personal suffering begins immediately after the crime. He falls ill and sleeps for days. This was foreshadowed earlier when he thought to himself why so many criminals are unsuccessful and then concludes that it is because they lose their reasoning during the crime and become ill. Raskolnikov decided that this did not apply to him though, for he was not performing a crime, but rather doing the world a favor by getting rid of her. After he had recovered somewhat he questions why he broke down. He follows a philosophy which says that he is an “extraordinary man”, and that he can break the law because in killing the women he was doing society a favor. He does not understand why he is suffering until he realizes that because he is an extraordinary man he will have to sacrifice himself and suffer for breaking the law. It is this suffering that makes him an extraordinary man. But, he also realizes that there is a possibility that he is suffering because he is not an extraordinary man as he had thought. If this is true he is normal and ordinary, and so he suffers like anyone else. This is his dilemma throughout the novel. Because Raskolnikov’s world is such a horrible place other characters show signs of suffering as well. They suffer bother socially and spiritually. Marmeladov endures self-inflicted suffering which results from his irresponsibility and insatiable alcoholism. These traits make him likeable to the sympathetic Raskolnikov who always wants to help. Katerina and her children also suffer because of her husband Marmeladov’s suffering an inability to provide for them. Porfiry works into the equation as well, but not as a sufferer, rather he encourages Raskolnikov to confess his crime to achieve atonement. According to Porfiry a confession is the only way to be forgiven by his peers.

All of the previously mentioned characters were concerned with suffering inflicted by worldly thing. Another group of characters are concerned with the spiritual side of suffering. Sonia sees suffering as a way of making up for sins in the eyes of God and securing deliverance. Donia suggests that he turn himself in to decrease the severity of the crime. Katerina also represents the spiritual. At one point she goes crazy and is lying on her deathbed. When asked if she would like a priest she replies “I don’t want him. I have no sins. God must forgive me without that (confession). He knows I have suffered And if He won’t forgive me, I don’t care!” By saying this she is stating that she has suffered so much in this world that God must show her sympathy, and if he doesn’t she won’t mind because she can’t suffer anymore. Nickolay the painter is also an example of spiritual suffering, but his suffering is self inflicted. He follows a religion that says that suffering is good for the soul and makes you stronger. According to Murav, “His suffering, when seen in specific historical context, can also be understood as a form of resistance directed against official authority.” It is this horrible society in which Raskolnikov lives in and that makes him aware that his suffering can only be alleviated by his final confession to the public, which results in his spiritual redemption.

Dostoyevsky held that “dealing with life rested on the fundamental belief that a true rebirth, a great conversion, can only come after a great sin.” This statement applies to both himself and the character of Raskolnikov, both were only redeemed after they had committed a sin and both took the suffering and punishment that went along with it. There is another parallel between the author and his character in the sense that the both had followed the idea that, as Holquist says, “in order to be reborn, the old self must die.”

This presents the idea that by suffering we atone for our sins and work for forgiveness. Once society thinks we have done enough we have reached societal redemption. Once we are spiritually at peace with ourselves we have reached spiritual salvation from our sins. When one thinks of suffering we almost always think of it in a negative way. We see it as a punishment that we have to endure until times are better. But, as Dostoyevsky pointed out, suffering can also be good for us. If we look at what we have done to deserve the suffering, and then use the suffering to make us stronger we come out a better person. We may be stronger mentally because of a societal or criminal punishment; or we may have greater faith because we have been spiritually redeemed. Either way, we can become a better person if we endure our suffering with grace.

Bibliography

  1. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. C. Garnett, translator. New York: Bantam Publishing Co., 1987
  2. Holquist, Michael. “Puzzle and Mystery, The Narrative Poles of Knowing: Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
  3. Howe, Irving. “The Politics of Salvation,” Dostoevsky, A Collection of Critical Essays. Rene Wellek, ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prestince-Hall, Inc., 1962.
  4. Murray, Harriet. “Psychology on Trial,” Holy Foolishness. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.
  5. Offord, Derek. “The Causes of Crime and the Meaning of Law: Crime and Punishment and Contemporary Radical Thought,” Fydor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and
  6. Punishment. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 88-101.
  7. Wilson & Herrnstein. “Punishment and Personal Responsibility.” Crime and Human Nature. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

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The Human Suffering During Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Time in Russia in the 19th Century. (2021, Sep 23). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-human-suffering-during-fyodor-dostoyevsky-s-time-in-russia-in-the-19th-century-essay

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