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
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 th e 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
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
"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 Raskalnikov
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, Raskalnikov begins to break. At first,
he is argumentative, mocking Sonya's childlike faith. "‘She's a holy fool!"
(Dostoyevsky 317) Raskalnikov 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
tota l 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
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
Works 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,
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:
Morsm, Gary Saul. "How to Read. Crime and Punishment." Commentary 1992 June, 93
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,