“Nothing in the world is harder than speaking the Truth and nothing easier than Flattery.”
All Illustrations by Dementy Alexeievich Shmarinov (1907-1999)
To many readers familiar with classic 19th-century novels and their brilliance, out of the many that there are stands a bold work of great significance: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The intricacies of its significance lie within a design paved for the sinful and their meaningless lives towards spiritual redemption by way of the story of Rodion Raskolnikov and the murders he commits. We shall be exploring how the theme of redemption within Crime and Punishment crosses into our consideration of our mortality, direction and meaning within life through the consequences of Raskolnikov’s story. This shall be more of a broad discussion compared to prior articles, as the exploration does not rely on a strict adherence to the narrative referenced, rather it will be used as a prompt for further imaginative thinking.
Foundations of Forgiveness
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life is quite well known in the literary world so details of his biography will not be mentioned here, except for the crucial experience mirrored in the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, whereby Raskolnikov confesses his murder and is sent to a prison camp in the wastelands of Siberia. Dostoevsky was himself imprisoned in Siberia but the reasons as to why are different between author and character, the latter being the chief object of our attention. Raskolnikov experiences a lighting of his soul once he submits to the knees of Sonia (his only companion and love) and accepts forgiveness of his crimes into his heart.
The entire novel documents the agonising journey of Raskolnikov’s acceptance of forgiveness for his crime through his many fancies and run-ins with different people, all of whom contribute towards the pinball machine mess that is Raskolnikov. The many ideas that drive him to commit his murder, and yet leave him perplexed to the presence of his guilt, all have a direct origin in the life of Dostoevsky, particularly within his time in Siberia. There, he read the New Testament feverishly. We shall use Dostoevsky’s time spent reading the New Testament to layout the concepts within Crime and Punishment.
The first story that we shall focus on from the New Testament for our article is the one of the man possessed of many demons, calling himself Legion, who is saved by Christ. The man lived in the tombs outside of Gerasenes and was known to be unbindable, too strong and terrifying for the average man to contain, for the difficulty of his binding lay in a spiritual dismemberment which only God could have tackled. He falls to his knees when Jesus approaches him and begs him not to be cast into the Abyss, but instead, have his demons cast out into a herd of swine, which Jesus agrees to. Is it not fascinating to see how a parallel of Raskolnikov’s own swirling confusion and the blind leap he made in the murder of the old pawnbroker can be seen as an allegory of casting out his evil into the sacrifice of swine? Only after that event and the misery that follows could Raskolnikov come towards redemption as the possessed man could come to Christ. Yet the herd of swine does not attribute to the sacrifice of the pawnbroker, indeed not so: the sacrifice of the swine could be interpreted as Raskolnikov’s future, his values and sense of self and all sense of order he once had.
This is not supposed to be interpreted as a justification of the crime committed, but it seems in Crime and Punishment that those who are brazen with sin and unknowing of how to forgive themselves from their acts of evil are presented a sobering perspective on the state of their souls and the distance they have from any notion of “the good”1 once they understand the consequences of their actions. This could be an intrinsic principle tied to the want of spiritual wholeness but sought out through an ill-constructed process; the possessed man comes before Christ the instant he sees him and we may say that the inner want of spiritual wholeness and freedom was seen to be realized in the submission of himself to Christ – this could be true also of Raskolnikov’s murder and the witnessing of Sonia to be his recollection of the true inner struggle to have forgiveness of sin.
When Raskolnikov is first introduced to the character of Marmeladov (the father of Sonia) he is exposed to the man’s life story and a proclamation from him by way of an imaginative vision of God’s forgiveness for every sin committed by mankind. For Raskolnikov, who is painted as a character possessed of pride and haughty ideas, it is not sensible or realistic for him to accept any sort of spiritual forgiveness because of the condition of his pride and nihilism: giving oneself to God requires a state of humbleness and submission to God which he does not submit to because of his obstinate rejection of religion, thus an obstinate rejection of receiving forgiveness. The seeds could have been sowed when Marmeladov’s vision of God’s forgiveness to humanity is told to Raskolnikov, presenting a very dramatic path to humanity’s salvation in the fact of Christ’s sacrifice for all sin.
It could also be said that Raskolnikov wanted to challenge this notion of absolute forgiveness by playing out his crime and thus desiring to step over the boundaries of his morality. He creates many rational arguments to justify the reasons for killing the pawnbroker but does not accept or understand the guilt that tortures him afterwards, especially from also killing the pawn broker’s sister which was not in his original design. The killing of Lizaveta was more so a move done in self-preservation, to not get caught by the police from a witness and this only deepens Raskolnikov’s awareness that the objective of his crime never had any solid foundations to begin with – the superior sense of duty he felt to have justified his actions melted away after Lizaveta’s murder and posed to him the radical condition of his justifications.
The story of Crime and Punishment is portrayed through the harsh circumstances facing St.Petersburg in the 19th century and how conditions such as poverty, drunkenness and debauchery influence the decisions of its residents, such as Raskolnikov’s decision to kill the pawnbroker as an expression of vexation of his poverty and the people that feed off of that or Sonia’s prostitution as a gateway towards financial security. And yet the characters of the novel soon find out that environmental conditions only serve as an excuse for their actions and reveal the lack of responsibility they practise, for nothing forces their will to undertake murder or prostitution: it is themselves, only themselves that decide such actions. This is where the need for absolute forgiveness of their sins manifest as shown with Sonia’s profound spiritual purity to God and the redemption that comes from submission to the almighty. The inclusion of Christianity is neither random nor serving to be a simple means of escape for the characters, for, it may be boldly said, that out of all religions there is not a single one as devoted to the idea of forgiveness as Christianity is and Dostoevsky’s orthodox beliefs in this were a gigantic influence in his storytelling.
The Lazarus story included in the novel serves as a way for Sonia and Raskolnikov to glimpse at the spiritual resurrection received from God’s mercy, but there is another story from the New Testament that is just as telling and more suitable for our causes that we can look into. The story of the bleeding woman, who was regarded by Jewish law to be unclean and socially rejected 2, touched the hem of Jesus’s cloak in a desperate effort to be healed of her affliction and was in fact cleansed. He asked who did this and she fell to the feet of Jesus, revealing that it was her, followed by Jesus’s words, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” Like the bleeding woman, Sonia is characterised as having devout faith by her selfless occupation into prostitution for the benefit of her family but from the eyes of society, she is seen as unclean and regarded as nothing more than a harlot 3. This reality pushes Sonia to contemplate suicide due to the unharmonised opposites of possessing pure faith in God and yet not being able to rectify one’s decisions in that faith, for being so sinful in body yet sinless in heart breaks the foundation of the personality. This is why when she first meets Raskolnikov’s sister, Dounia, she is mortally wounded by the dignity she carries and is reminded of her own awfulness. It could be said that Crime and Punishment presents to us the wounded self by this equation: a mix of self-loathing and lack of love pushes someone to decisions that deeply scar them and they realize, through that pain, that they had never valued themselves enough to contemplate the consequences of their vile choices.
Yet, whatever the sin may be, however bad and however awful it is to the whole world, the New Testament speaks certain of the fact that Christ shall forgive any sin if one relinquishes themselves to God – through this, the gift of faith is received. ‘Faith’, which comes from the Greek word pistis, meaning ‘trust’, is illustrated in the story of the bleeding woman prior mentioned, for her affliction was not healed by the ‘power’ of Christ, as if by magic but by the faith she entrusted into him. With that faith, even if it’s devoid of any theological sophistication ( as the bleeding woman clearly exemplified by her desperate attempt to touch only the cloak of Jesus ) one can be brought to true redemption from the giving up of oneself and trusting within God – they have successfully proven that they want to align themselves with the good and be purged, if you will, of all evil that distances them from good. This process is exactly what happens to Raskolnikov in the epilogue of the novel.
The Path to Redemption
Raskolnikov’s redemption did not necessarily arrive in full form when he dropped to Sonia’s knees at the end of the novel, rather he initiated the beginnings of his redemption by opening his heart to her. The act was described as being a confession of his love to her4. Justified perhaps by the pity Raskolnikov had for Sonia, and the sharing of base sins between them both, his love begins through the transformation of her purpose: first she is a symbolic opposite to his sinful nature, then later she becomes an advocate for the confession of his crimes before becoming his true and total redeemer. The love that he felt for Sonia is a dual love that mirrors his love for God; through Sonia does he see the possibility of redemption for his sins and a new life full of good. This love is discovered, not created, and it is discovered only at the end of everything when Raskolnikov has given up the grip of his convictions and kneels.
The only way to match the redemption of Raskolnikov to his crime lies within Sonia’s push for him to lay down in the street, kiss the earth and confess his sin to the whole world. It is interesting that such a straining, mortally wounding event as killing another human being is easy for Raskolnikov and yet kneeling down and kissing the earth is something akin to moving a mountain, an absolute impossibility for the weak-willed. The path to redemption, as portrayed by the novel, is paved by the tiles of one’s sins, matching gravity to gravity, eye for eye: Raskolnikov’s sneaky murder of two women is compensated by Sonia’s suggestion to broadcast, to everybody in St. Petersburg, that he was the one who did it and kiss the earth in repentance for ever defiling it. Of course, Raskolnikov attempts to do this but instead confesses in the police station, for he is still a coward. Only at the end of the novel does this dramatic confession become somewhat realized.
Sonia bridges the gap between Raskolnikov and God through love. Love is the object that brings one down the road of redemption and forgiveness, in that by having not a shred of love for oneself, then neither is God loved and if God is said to be the giver of forgiveness, one cannot feel forgiven for their sins. In loving oneself, it is said in the New Testament 5 one has discovered their love for God and has accepted his mercy: the guilt-ridden weight of sin is based upon the notion that one has committed such a travesty that they are unworthy, nay, unable to be received back into normality or any semblance of happiness because they have crossed over a line that cannot be reprimanded.
The Russian word for crime, Prestupléniye, translates as meaning a ‘stepping over’ and this is at the heart of one’s rejection of forgiveness: they have strayed themselves too far to be given any semblance of forgiveness. As Raskolnikov admits that he is a louse, previously calling the old pawnbroker the same thing, he has effectively hidden from his redemption by burying his head into the sand and keeping his eyes shut. This shows that he doesn’t love himself and this is the single most paramount reason as to why nothing can be done, nothing can be truly rectified, even by confessing and going to prison, until the gates of his heart fall to Sonia and to God.
Svidrigailov is an example of a character who did not accept love for himself and so ended his life in suicide. It is fascinating to think of Judas Iscariot, who likewise took his own life because he could not accept forgiveness. Forgiveness, it could be said, is not an option for those who cannot simply accept it. In accepting forgiveness, the person takes on the responsibility of his/her sins and bears the suffering. When one throws their life away in a passion produced of their wretchedness, like Svidrigailov in suicide or Raskolnikov in prison, they have proven that the condition to take on their misery, to take up their cross and accept forgiveness, was too much for them: so they opted for the option where regret would not exist, could not touch them and give them pain. For in accepting one’s sins one has accepted that they, the world and everything else is in a state of complete and utter suffering and that this simply how it is: to live is to suffer.
And yet there is hope. As shown at the end of the novel, there is such thing a thing as true redemption for one’s sins and there is such a thing as eternal life, but what all of that means and how it is to be understood surpasses the comprehension of humanity and rests in the hands of God, who, as Raskolnikov proves in his submission to Sonia, makes the decisions as to what happens when one dies and how one is to live in the world. Throwing away oneself is evidence of one’s lack of humility towards anything else. The selfish die selfishly. The one who rejects God is the one who rejects the reality of the world. Why? Humanity hasn’t a clear explanation of why: why are we alive, why do we die and why, as Dostoyevsky stresses in his novel, why we do the things that we do and yet do not understand them. That is the reality of the world that Dostoyevsky wants his readers to see: that there is a justification for nihilism and dread but there is just the same in a belief in God. He paints this as the modern condition of man; as a figure who juggles two balls in the spotlight of the world, every one watching his performance with penetrating concentration, everything resting on the splendid execution of his performance and if he is to drop one of the balls, if the juggler loses his balance or his eyes stray for just a second or if he decides that he will no longer be a juggler and end it all, going into the crowds and damning them to hell with himself: then the act is over.
And so, we must keep juggling.
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|1.||↑||Aristotle argued in his Nicomachean Ethics that all of humanity strives towards a form of excellence, called the good. ‘It is thought that each activity, artistic or scientific, in fact every deliberate action or pursuit, has for its object the attainment of some good. We may therefore assent to the view which has been expressed that the ‘good’ is ‘that at which all things aim.’|
|2.||↑||Known as a Niddah in the Hebrew Bible, see any commentary on Mark 5:25 or Luke 8:43|
|3.||↑||In his letter to Raskolnikov’s mother and sister, Luzhin refers to Sonia as “a young woman of notorious behaviour” as Sonia was known to have a Yellow Passport in her community, an informal document allowing the practise of prostitution|
|4.||↑||“How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come….” Crime and Punishment, Epilogue|
|5.||↑||“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” Luke 6:27–29|