Fedor Dostoevsky: On Being Human

Crime and Punishment is one of the world’s greatest literary works. Written in 1864 by the Russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky, it has become a classic read and re-read many times around the world. Oxford Professor John Jones describes Crime and Punishment as “the most accessible and most exciting novel in the world. It is the king of murder stories. And of detective stories. And of thrillers. The words suspense and atmosphere take on a new meaning when we read it for the first time. And when we re-read it!”

Fedor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1921. His family was from the impoverished middle-class and the young Dostoevsky moved to St. Petersburg to study military engineering, hoping to improve his prospects. It was not engineering, however, which captivated his attention, but writing. At the age of twenty-four, he published his first novel, Poor Folk, which won him immediate acclaim. In subsequent years, he developed friendships among a group of liberal radicals and, as a result, was arrested and condemned to death for setting up an underground printing press. His sentence was later reduced to exile and hard labor in Siberia, an experience which dramatically reshaped Fedor’s view of life and the meaning of being human. The theme of salvation through suffering became central in his writings and, when he returned from Siberia ten years later, he repeatedly explored this theme in his later novels.

The Story Line

Crime and Punishment combines a detective novel with a novel of ideas. It has symbolic meaning as a mystery play in which good and evil vie for the soul of a nineteenth-century man. At the same time, it is one of the great realistic novels of urban life, depicting in vivid detail the squalid circumstances of St. Petersburg as well as the warped psychological and emotional states of urban poverty.

The central figure in the novel is Raskolnikov, a poverty-stricken student who brutally murders a moneylender and her sister; his motives for this crime are revealed as the story unfolds. Raskolnikov’s justification is a complex blend of an altruistic desire to rid the world of evil by murdering the moneylender and a “Napoleonic” impulse to prove he is above the law and thus can commit murder with impunity.

In contrast to Raskolnikov’s sister’s suitor, who represents a conscience-less man concerned only with his own free will and the pursuit of extreme sensuality, Raskolnikov searches for a renewed life through Sonya, the daughter of a drunken government clerk. Sonya, who was forced by her father’s alcoholism to become a prostitute, is a frail, passive girl who holds to her faith in God despite the suffering she endures. At one point, Raskolnikov inquires of her, “And what does God do for you?” Sonya–a prostituted girl with a ruined home and an abused body–thinks for a moment before replying, “He does everything.”

The Gospel Reading about Lazarus 

One of the most powerful episodes in Crime and Punishment occurs when the guilt-ridden Raskolnikov visits Sonya and, surprisingly, asks her to read the story of Lazarus to him from her old, worn-out Russian translation of the New Testament. She hesitates at first, but eventually reads in a halting, frightened voice. As she reaches the climax of the story about Lazarus’ resurrection, her voice gains strength and Raskolnikov is deeply touched by Jesus’ claim that he was “the resurrection and the life” and that anyone who believed in him, “though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

Later in the novel, Raskolnikov finally confesses his murder to Sonya and begs her to tell him what to do, now that his guilt has been revealed.

“What to do?” she exclaimed, starting up, and her eyes, which had been full of tears, began to flash. “Get up!” (She seized him by the shoulder, and he stood up, looking at her almost in consternation.) “Go at once, this instant, stand at the cross-roads, first bow down and kiss the earth you have desecrated, then bow to the whole world, to the four corners of the earth, and say aloud to all the world: ‘I have done murder.’ Then God will send you life again.”

Raskolnikov responds with desperation that denouncing himself will mean prison, but Sonya’s answer is quick and firm: “Accept suffering and achieve atonement through it – that is what you must do.” When he balks at her advice, she cries out in despair at his refusal to accept his punishment for his crime: “You will have ceased to be a human being, and how, how, can you live then? What will become of you?”

The Epilogue   

Dostoevsky ends his novel with Raskolnikov’s exile in Siberia, the beginning of his eight-year term. Sonya accompanies him to his prison fortress and patiently awaits the completion of his punishment. Their first meeting in Siberia is moving: “Tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin, but in their white sick faces there glowed the dawn of a new future, a perfect resurrection into a new life. Love had raised them from the dead, and the heart of each held endless springs of life for the heart of the other.”

Raskolnikov reaches for his copy of the New Testament, a gift from Sonya that had remained unopened so far during his prison term. He realizes that Sonya’s beliefs might become his as well. Despite their desperate circumstances, they both knew that a new life was ahead of them, although this new life “would not be his for nothing, that it must be dearly bought, and paid for with great and heroic struggles yet to come….”

It is here that Dostoevsky leaves his readers, adding only this final postscript:

But that is the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regeneration, of his slow progress from one world to another, of how he learned to know of a hitherto undreamed-of reality. All that might be the subject of a new tale, but our present one is ended.