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
soul.
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)