The candle-end had long since burned low in the twisted candlestick, dimly lighting the poverty-stricken room and the murderer and the harlot who had come together so strangely to read the eternal book.
Dostoevsky’s dark tale of murder and guilt has assumed for many readers the status of a religious parable, describing how a sinner finds redemption through faith in Christ. Crime and Punishment is the first of Dostoevsky’s novels to have an explicitly Christian message. However, if we place its Christian message within the context of the debates happening in the Russia of the time, in the context of Dostoevsky’s position in those debates, and in the context of Dostoevsky’s own Christianity, the book reveals itself as far more complex in its attitude to Christianity than a mere parable.
The first mention of Christianity in Dostoevsky’s writing comes in a famous letter written in 1854 to Fonvizina, a wife of one of the Decembrists. The letter was written when Dostoevsky had been just newly released from his four years in prison. The letter is a key document for understanding the development and style of Dostoevsky’s Christianity:
I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here is it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper and more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Saviour. I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more. If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth did really exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ, and not with truth.
However, just before this statement of his creed, Dostoevsky writes:
I want to say this to you about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully it has tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it….
Faith for Dostoevsky –at this time- was only intermittent, and the search for these intermittent moments of faith was tormenting, because they were against the grain and did not come easily. They were borne of suffering:
In such moments one does, like dry grass, thirst after faith, and that one finds it in the end solely and simply because one sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy.
So we see a highly ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, rational scepticism, even atheism, and on the other a burning love for the person of Christ as a Saviour borne out of the need for solace in great suffering. This ambivalence is reflected all the way through Crime and Punishment. Christianity makes its appearance in the novel in eight different episodes. Each episode reflects the same tension between faith and unfaith as revealed in the letter to Fonvizina.
Christianity in Crime and Punishment I
First, is Marmeladov’s outburst in the pub, when he jumps to his feet in drunken ecstasy and begins to prosyletize, a garbled message covering the themes of affliction, mercy and forgiveness. There is a stunned silence, then raucous laughter and curses from the other drinkers: “There spoke the great intellect!” “What a load of rubbish!” “There’s a civil servant for you”, and so on. The second appearance is in Raskolnikov’s mother’s letter, in which she reveals herself as a devoutly religious woman. Her letter is full of the standard phrases of religiosity, and an admonishment to her son to pray. I fear that you too have become affected by the fashionable modern unbelief. If that is so, I will pray for you. Third, Raskolnikov on his way to commit the murder vacillates between doing it and not doing it. He prays to God to give him strength: “Lord, show me the way, that I may renounce this accursed fantasy of mine.". Later, he remembers, with superstitious awe, the moment as a conflation of circumstances which leads him irrevocably to the murder – the hand of God?
The fourth episode is the scene where Raskolnikov and Sonya read the gospel. Sonya is the first to broach the subject of God in their conversation, and Raskolnikov meets it with atheistic cruelty. “Perhaps God does not exist”, answered Raskolnikov with malicious enjoyment. He decides that it is her faith that sustains Sonya through her suffering. It is Raskolnikov who first suggests that Sonya read to him from the gospel, and he himself chooses the story of the raising of Lazarus. This choice is highly significant. First, it stands as sign for Raskolnikov’s remorse and regret at killing the innocent Lizaveta, whom he had not planned or intended to kill. He wishes she could walk again. Second, Lazarus’s return from the dead signifies Raskolnikov’s longing to return to human society. He has been existing in a kind of self-imposed isolation ever since the murder, separate from the rest of humanity, crushed by his loneliness, incapable of responding to the kindness shown to him by those who love him. Thirdly, the raising of Lazarus stands for the rebirth of Russia, or more specifically, for the rebirth of the Russian intelligentsia. Let’s pause here and look at this aspect of the symbol of Lazarus in more detail.
Interlude: Crime and Punishment and the debates of the 1860s
During the early 1860s Dostoevsky was engaged in a polemic between the Slavophile conservatives on the one hand, and the radical, rationalistic, nihilism of the Westernisers on the other. He was trying to steer a third way between them. He had spent the early part of the decade arguing for ‘a return to the soil’, an ambiguous term that covered a range of meanings, from the urgent call to land reform to a kind of mystical nationalism based on the values of the peasant and peasant religion, a call to unity for Russians of all classes and all political persuasions. As the decade wore on, he moved steadily to the right of the political spectrum, and to a belief that only the traditional values of Russian Orthodoxy could save Russia. This transition can be mapped out in the three published works of the early 1860s: Winter Notes on Summer Impression (1862), Notes from Underground (1864), and Crime and Punishment (1866).
Dostoevsky’s original intention for Notes from Underground, the novel immediately prior to Crime and Punishment, was to introduce Christianity into it, as an antidote to the poisonous dialectic between the underground man’s nihilism and the Westernisers’ rationalism, both of which Dostoevsky saw as dangerous for the Russian soul. However, his design was scuppered by the censor, who removed large chunks of part 1 chapter 10 in which Dostoevsky had hoped to cause the reader to deduce the need for faith and Christ, as he put it in a letter to his brother. These excisions on the part of the censor were never corrected by Dostoevsky in subsequent editions of his works, and this leaves Notes From Underground the last major work in the early part of Dostoevsky’s career where Christianity is absent.
In Crime and Punishment written two years later, Dostoevsky was much more upfront in his aim. The need for faith and Christ is not to be ‘deduced’, but is to be clearly understood, indeed is asserted at the levels of ideas, psychology, and plot. Crime and Punishment includes many of the same contemporary debates as Notes From Underground, and shares many of its same images and concerns.
➢ The debate about socialism, symbolised by the crystal palace, an image that appears also in Winter Notes, and in Notes from Underground. Here, it is (mockingly?) transformed into the name of the pub where Raskolnikov taunts the policeman. In a key scene where Raskolnikov, his friend Razhumikin, and the Examining Magistrate Porfiry discuss various topics, Razhumikin summarizes the socialists’ views on crime: crime is a protest against the unnatural structure of society… ‘the deleterious effect of the environment’. He criticises their hostility to history and their denial of nature: they do not like the living process of life, they have no use for the living soul. Dostoevsky, through the actions of the murderer Raskolnikov, and through the mouth of Razhumikin, is criticising the socialism of Chernyshevsky, and at the same time repudiating his own youthful enthusiasm for Western socialism.
➢ The motivations for Raskolnikov’s murder provide the occasion for many of the same arguments against the rational utilitarianism of the Westernisers that appear in Notes from Underground. Raskolnikov is a man motivated by a theory, largely of his own devising, but clearly an extension of the Westernisers notions of rational self- interest and utilitarianism. His theory consists of three elements. First: that a great man stands outside social norms, that he should not hesitate to grasp his destiny, even if it means killing someone who might stand in his way. Second: the greater good the great man will eventually accomplish will outweigh the lesser evils committed along the way. Third: that humanity is divided into two groups, those who are useful, and those who are not. From the first group, come the great men, while the second group provides the disposable and unimportant raw material on which great men may work. In the same scene, Porfiry, with ironically exaggerated politeness, raises the following objections to this theory: how do you distinguish the extraordinary people from the ordinary? Do signs and portents appear when they are born? I mean to say… couldn’t there be, for example, some special clothing, couldn’t they carry some kind of brand or something? Another objection Porfiry raises is, of course, that a person from the second group might mistakenly imagine himself to be a person from the first group and use this delusion as a justification for murder, which is exactly Raskolnikov’s story. (The cat and mouse games the all-knowing Porfiry plays with Raskolnikov in this scene is one of the great highpoints of suspense in the novel). Dostoevsky is keen to show in this debate the spiritual paucity and danger of such rational theories, and what they might mean if implemented.
➢ The planning and implementation of the murder allows Dostoevsky to examine the relationship between free will and chance, also one of the contemporary issues raised in Notes from Underground. In spite of his rehearsal and detailed planning, Raskolnikov makes several errors during the murder, and has to deal with several chance happenings – not least the sudden and unexpected appearance of Lizaveta. These are designed to show that the ‘ineluctable’ laws of nature are undone by the presence of both human error (irrationality) and coincidence. The novel abounds with coincidences. Raskolnikov’s encounter with Svidrigaliov just when he is thinking about him, the coincidental fact that most of the visitors to St. Petersburg are lodging in the same building. The city throws up other strange coincidences, such as the suicidal woman, and the mysterious apparition of the old man who hisses Murderer! at Raskolnikov in the street, one of the most truly terrifying episodes in 19th century Russian literature. Of course, these coincidences are part and parcel of any 19th century plot, but they are also perhaps traces of Gogolian magic.
It is the Examining Magistrate who, again, voices Dostoevsky’s concern that an exclusive reliance on Western rationalism may lead to the kind of actions that Raskolnikov commits.
This is an obscure and fantastic case, a contemporary case, something that could only happen in our day, when the heart of man has grown so troubled, when people quote sayings about ‘blood refreshing’; when the whole of life is dedicated to comfort. There are bookish dreams here, a heart troubled by theory…
On the level of action and ideas, then, the novel engages with the debates of the 1860s and acts as vehicle for Dostoevsky’s criticism of them, showing their ultimate unworkability as solutions for Russia, and for humanity in general. Now, let’s return to how the novel puts forward Christianity- Christ’s interference in the spiritual fate of Lazarus- as a solution to these various contemporary philosophical problems aired in the text.
Christianity in Crime and Punishment II
The next key appearance of Christianity in the novel is the scene where Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sonya, and explains his motivation to her. The rational purity and logical coherence of his theory melts away like sand in the wind in the face of Sonya’s appalled, human reaction to it –“A human being a louse?” leaving Raskolnikov rather shamefaced at the fact that he had not previously seen its nullity. What strikes Sonya about it is the fact that it causes Raskolnikov himself suffering. When Raskolnikov asks for her advice her reaction is very significant. ‘Go at once this instant, stand at the crossroads, 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.”’ In other words, she enjoins him to reconnect with the soil of Russia, the soil from which his theories had divorced him, and to re-establish his sense of brotherhood with his fellow man. She gives him her cross to wear, an act laden with meanings symbolic of brotherhood for a Russian Orthodox (Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin also exchange crosses in the name of brotherhood in The Idiot), but Raskolnikov refuses it: he is not ready for it yet. “Better give it to me afterwards.” “Yes, yes, that will be better, much better. When you accept your suffering, you shall put it on.” Like Dostoevsky himself, Raskolnikov is slowly moving away from Western rationalism towards faith through an acceptance of suffering.
Earlier in the novel, the death of Katerina Ivanovna has provided an example through contrast of someone who rejects Christianity as a solace for suffering. On her deathbed, she rejects the suggestion of a priest. “I don’t want him. I have no sins. God ought to pardon me without the priest’s help. He knows how much I have suffered. And if he doesn’t pardon me, so much the worse!...Enough. The time has come. Goodbye poor wretch! This poor beast has been driven to death! I am finished”, she cried full of despair and hatred and her head fell heavily back on the pillow. By rejecting Christianity and by refusing to accept her own suffering in the way that Sonya has accepted hers, Katerina Ivanovna dies in anger, bitterness and hatred, a fate that awaits Raskolnikov.
The seventh appearance of Christianity in the novel is in the episode of the house painter who steps forward and ‘confesses’ to the crime. This painter is an Old Believer and belongs to one of the obscure fundamentalist sects that Russian Orthodoxy is full of, and has been instructed by his spiritual father to take on the burden of this crime that he has not committed, to undergo punishment for it so as to learn the meaning of suffering, and thereby come closer to God. Again, it is the Examining Magistrate who explains the significance of this to Raskolnikov (and us): “Do you know what some of these people mean by ‘suffering’? It is not suffering for somebody’s sake, but simply ‘suffering is necessary’ – the acceptance of suffering that means, and if it is at the hands of the authorities, so much the better.” Now, the Russian word for such an Old Believer is raskolniki. Through example and through the name of his main character, Dostoevsky makes the meaning of Christianity in the novel clear.
Finally, in prison, Raskolnikov is haunted by the persistent remnants of his rationalist fantasy. It distressed Raskolnikov that this ridiculous fantasy (is this ‘ridiculous’ Dostoevsky’s or Raskolnikov’s?) lingered so painfully and sadly in his memory. Sonya, who has voluntarily joined him in his exile, provides his final and most powerful example of someone who has accepted suffering, both her own and another’s, and found faith. Couldn’t her beliefs become my beliefs now? The closing paragraph of the novel makes it clear that Raskolnikov will accept Christianity, and by doing so show how, for all Russian intellectuals, Christianity will heal and atone for the damage done by an over-reliance on Western rationalism.
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 a hitherto undreamed of reality.
I like people to talk nonsense. It is man’s unique privilege, among all other organisms. By pursuing falsehood you will arrive at truth. The fact that I am in error shows that I am human. …but we can’t even produce our errors out of our own heads. You can talk the most mistaken rubbish to me, and if it’s your own, I will embrace you! It is almost better to tell your own lies than someone else’s truth. In the first case you are a man, in the second, you are no better than a parrot. Truth remains, but life can be choked up, there have been instances…
People only love God when no one else will love them.