Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. My preferred edition is the Vintage Classics 1993 edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volonkhonsky.
If you’ve been reading for a while, you might know that I hold Fyodor Dostoevsky in high regard. In my review of Writers Gone Wild, I shared the story of Dostoevsky’s witnessing a mock execution and enduring imprisonment in Siberia. His classics The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment were born out of these experiences of suffering, punishment, and faith. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books of all time and something about reading Crime and Punishment, as difficult and long as it is, felt like meeting with and learning from a beloved teacher again.
If you don’t know the plot, I’ll give you a very basic summary. In the first part, the main character, Raskolnikov, a bright but despondent student, murders an old woman known as a greedy pawnbroker, as well as her sister, with an axe. He steals the pawnbroker’s money, but never actually looks at it or uses it. He becomes extremely ill just after committing the crime and for most of the book he is unpredictable, moody, and vicious. His friends and family think that Raskolnikov is just cracking under intense pressure and stress and do not suspect him. Only one person figures out that Raskolnikov is the criminal, a police inspector named Porfiry Petrovich. (For native English speakers, dealing with the Russian names and their variations can be difficult. I ended up making a character chart to keep track of everyone.) Most of the book is devoted to discovering why this promising young man commits such a horrid crime and what will happen to him.
Raskolnikov’s reasoning goes something like this: For ordinary people, laws and rules exist to guide them and help them live good lives. But some people are extraordinary; they are the leaders, the game-changers, people who help humanity progress. These people must often transgress rules and laws to allow for progress. Though, according to the law, these people are criminals, they are actually heros. Raskolnikov explains this way:
“In short, I deduce that all, not only great men, but even those who are a tiny bit off the beaten track—that is, who are a tiny bit capable of saying something new—by their very nature cannot fail to be criminals—more or less, to be sure. Otherwise it would be hard for them to get off the beaten track, and, of course, they cannot consent to stay on it, again by nature, and in my opinion it is even their duty not to consent.” (260)
Raskolnikov cites Napoleon, who is revered as a brilliant strategist and made significant contributions to society. The unfortunate byproduct was that he killed thousands of people. Nevertheless, Raskolnikov says, it was worth it. Raskolnikov believes that he himself might be one of these extraordinary people. He has grand plans to help people and be a great benefactor, but he is destitute and needs money to get started. The old woman has the money that he needs, and she is a greedy tyrant. He devises the plan to kill her as a test of his own worth: whether or not he will prove to be able to step over the boundaries of the law in order to make progress.
I mentioned before that I noticed this kind of thinking in The Magician’s Nephew. Both Uncle Andrew and the Empress Jadis believe that they are outside the law. They are proved wrong, of course, and so is Raskolnikov. Throughout the book, Raskolnikov slowly realizes that he is not outside the law, and the process of this discovery is heartbreaking at times.
Part of Raskolnikov’s theory is the idea that an ordinary person’s will and reason abandon them when they commit a crime, which is why they are caught so easily. An extraordinary person, however, will not lose his will and reason. He will remain in complete control because his “crime” is actually good for the world. “The criminal himself, almost any criminal, experiences at the moment of the crime a sort of failure of will and reason, which, on the contrary, are replaced by a phenomenal, childish thoughtlessness, just at the moment when reason and prudence are most necessary. …Having come to such conclusions, he decided that in his own personal case there would be no such morbid revolutions, that reason and will would remain with him inalienably throughout the fulfillment of what he had plotted, for the sole reason that what he had plotted—was ‘not a crime.'” (70-1)
Unfortunately, Raskolnikov does in fact lose his will and reason during the crime. He only intended to kill the pawnbroker. But when the pawnbroker’s sister arrives just after Raskolnikov has killed her, Raskolnikov panics and murders the sister as well. He still manages to escape and avoid suspicion, but he is haunted by the second murder, which was committed in “childish thoughtlessness.”
Still hoping that he might be able to prove to himself that he is extraordinary, Raskolnikov decides to confess to Sonya, a girl who has prostituted herself in order to provide money for her family. Sonya is a “pure spirit”—she willingly sins every day, but she believes in God with an unshakeable faith. Sonya suffers and it would be a relief to her to end her life, but she sacrifices even that desire so that she will not be guilty of such a great sin and can continue being a prostitute to keep her stepmother, sisters, and brother fed. Raskolnikov is skeptical that her faith is legitimate; he would rather believe that she is crazy than that her faith sustains her. In a scene that made me, for a moment, despise Raskolnikov, he sets about trying to make her crazy by talking about the horrible fates that no doubt will come to her sisters and brother despite Sonya’s best efforts and by trying to poke holes in her faith. Thankfully, Sonya is a rockstar. She remains steadfast, and her unwavering love for God and compassion for Raskolnikov is the final proof to him that he is just as depraved as the rest of the world.
He confesses to her but still tries to justify himself: “I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless, nasty, pernicious louse.” (416)
He explains his reasoning to her, his grand theory of humanity, and shares the conclusion of his experiment: “I wanted to prove only one thing to you: that the devil did drag me there then, but afterwards he explained to me that I had no right to go there, because I’m exactly the same louse as all the rest! He made a mockery of me, and so I’ve come to you now! …Was it the old crone I killed? I killed myself, not the old crone! Whopped myself right then and there, forever!” (419-20)
At this point, he still will not accept responsibility. He still does not believe he did anything wrong; he only believes that he himself is not a great man like Napoleon. Sonya wants him to turn himself in and accept his punishment. But he does not want to give the government the satisfaction of convicting him, because the government itself is corrupt and guilty of indiscriminately killing innocent people. What right does the government have to judge him?
Although for most of the book, I did not like Porfiry Petrovich, I came to love him in the sixth part. Porfiry also restored my good opinion of Raskolnikov. He comes to Raskolnikov to tell him that he, Porfiry, knows Raskolnikov is the murderer and that Raskolnikov has three days to turn himself in. He tells R that he will get a reduced sentence if he just confesses. R is, as he always is, skeptical of Porfiry’s kindness to him. Porfiry tells him:
“Do you know how I regard you? I regard you as one of those men who could have their guts cut out, and would stand and look at his torturers with a smile—provided he’s found faith, or God. Well go and find it, and you will live. First of all, you’ve needed a change of air for a long time. And suffering is also a good thing, after all. Suffer, then. …I know belief doesn’t come easily—but don’t be too clever about it, just give yourself directly to life, without reasoning; don’t worry—it will carry you straight to shore and set you on your feet. What shore? How do I know? I only believe that you have much life ahead of you. …It’s good that you only killed a little old woman. If you’d come up with a different theory, you might have done something a hundred million times more hideous! Maybe you should still thank God; how do you know, maybe God is saving you for something.” (460)
Porfiry encourages Raskolnikov to embrace his punishment because it will be good for him, and because it is his only chance of salvation. If he does not confess, Raskolnikov will continue to be haunted and tormented by his own ideas. It is only by enduring suffering and finding faith that he will be able to live a good life, which is what Raskolnikov does want. Part 6 ends with Raskolnikov finally confessing to the police that he is the murderer.
As much as we would like to see “mercy” extended to Raskolnikov because he confessed, the Epilogue shows that the real mercy was in sending him to Siberia to suffer. Even in prison, Raskolnikov at first still persists in his flawed theory:
“‘…Even many benefactors of mankind, who did not inherit power but seized it for themselves, ought to have been executed at their very first steps. But those men endured their steps, and therefore they were right, while I did not endure, and so I had no right to permit myself that step.’
“This alone he recognized as his crime: that he had not endured it, but had gone and confessed.” (544)
Sonya is with Raskolnikov in Siberia, as she promised him he would be. For the first year of his eight-year sentence, he is still unkind to her. But suddenly he realizes that he loves her and wants to live so that they can be together. And Dostoevsky hints that he will, eventually, find faith: “A thought flashed in him: ‘Can her convictions not be my convictions now? Her feelings, her aspirations, at least…'” (550). They still have seven years to endure his punishment, but “at the beginning of their happiness there were moments when they were both ready to look at those seven years as if they were seven days.” (551) This, of course, reminds me of the story of Jacob and Rachel: “So Jacob served Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel. The years went by quickly and seemed to him to be only a few days because of the immense love he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20)
I love this book because it explores some of my favorite themes: justice versus grace, punishment versus discipline, earthly knowledge versus faith. What I have been reminded from this book is that we all, in some ways, believe we are outside of the law. I believe it when I argue with God, telling Him I don’t have to apologize to my husband for unkind words. I believe it when I ignore the prompting of the Holy Spirit to do something for another person. I certainly don’t think I’m a military genius like Napoleon, or even someone who can “speak a new word” like Raskolnikov hopes he is. But I still wish to avoid the consequences of my sin. However, I have had to face those very unwelcome consequences before, and it has been good for me. God’s discipline is good for me, and He transforms that suffering to hope.
“We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness. And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love.” (Romans 5:3-5)
If you have read this entire post…wow. Thank you!