If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to My breast.

-George Herbert

Monday, July 12, 2010

Crime and Punishment

I recently finished reading Dostoyevsky's novel, Crime and Punishment, and have been pondering the similarities and differences between the characters of Sonya and Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov, a desperately impoverished university drop-out living in St. Petersburg in 1865, has developed a theory, based on historical observation, that the man of genius, the superior man, in view of his potential for becoming a benefactor to humanity, may commit murder if to do so will catapult him to the position of power and influence for which he is destined. Consequently, Raskolnikov works out a plan to murder an old pawnbroker and steal her money. He reckons that, with 3000 rubles, he will, as a gifted and promising student of the law, be enabled to commence a career which will benefit thousands, and his one act of evil will be more than compensated for by his future largesse, particularly since the victim of his crime is an avaricious old woman who profits from the wretchedness of the poor. The murder is carried out, but Raskolnikov's scheme goes awry when he is unexpectedly confronted with the pawnbroker's innocent and simple-minded sister, whom he had expected to be away, and is compelled to murder her, as well, to conceal his moments-old crime. He loses his nerve at this point, and flees the scene without even stealing his victim's money. This precipitates a moral crisis which manifests in Raskolnikov as physical and mental breakdown, since he is unable to recognize the moral dimension of his situation.

Sonya is an angelic young woman who becomes Raskolnikov's savior. She is a prostitute who has taken to the street solely to support her destitute stepmother and half-siblings because, otherwise, her father's uncontrollable alcoholism would shortly render them homeless. Like Raskolnikov, Sonya engages in transgressive behavior, in vice, for the purpose of aiding others. However, unlike Raskolnikov, her integrity and purity of spirit remain, for the present, intact. Why?

First of all, let me say that from the point of view of history, of purely natural reason, Raskolnikov's theory is correct. Leaders of nations and great movements cannot exist without murder, usually on a grand scale; and if they do not lose their nerve, and above all, if they succeed, far from being regarded as criminals, they will be revered as national heros. After all, by the death of thousands, millions are benefited. All this depends, however, on the absolute suppression of the supernatural principle of the infinite value of the human person. When this principle is recognized, there can be no more question of sacrificing another's life for the greater good...because nothing can be greater than that which is of infinite value. All purely natural scales of valuation and judgement are rendered meaningless. There can be no more question of recognizing "great" men and women apart from the "common herd". Raskolnikov fails, his nerve fails, because his essentially good heart is not as hardened against humanity as is his proud, immature and susceptible mind. It is precisely this conflict between mind and heart, exacerbated by extreme poverty, which plunges Raskolnikov into illness and near-madness, and which serves as the central conflict of the novel.

While Raskolnikov consciously holds to the natural ethic of human worth and the will-to-power described above, and is therefore motivated by a desire for self-aggrandizement, Sonya's descent into vice has no ulterior motives and no stimulus of pride. It is her humility, her Christlike willingness to suffer for others, and her concomitant sensitivity to the suffering of others, which preserves her spiritual virginity - if one may use the phrase - intact. She is the one who is able to make Raskolnikov understand that he is loved in spite of his crime and failure, and consequently to understand, finally, the true nature of his crime, whereupon repentance and healing become possible.


  1. Thanks for this, it is ages since I read Crime and Punishment. It certainly isn't a cheery read, but it is fascinating.

  2. I think if Dostoyevsky's novels were any more intense, they would kill. Thanks for your comment!