Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a story of redemption and liberation through suffering – an extreme form of suffering generated by the protagonist’s destructive thoughts. Through an at-times comical, at other times heart-wrenching novel Dostoyevsky explores the human soul’s susceptibility to sin and regret (not to be confused with repentance) and the unfortunate, if extreme, consequences that result from accepting prideful thoughts.
From the very first pages we understand that Raskolnikov (the protagonist) is being tormented by disturbing thoughts. We don’t, however, find out the precise thought that led to such turmoil until nearly halfway through the novel, at which point the subject of an article Raskolnikov had published a few months prior is brought up by the character Porfiry Petrovich. We learn that Rasolnikov posited a theory in the aforementioned article. He theorized that extraordinary men were free to commit crime on account of their greatness. And so, what was the driving force behind Raskolnikov’s temptation to commit a horrendous crime resulting in his unhinged mental state? Pride. He thought he might be one such “extraordinary man” and felt the only way to prove to himself as such – to prove himself a “Napoleon” so to speak – was to commit a crime and see whether or not his conscience was extraordinary, namely, whether or not he could get away with such a crime not by law, but by conscience. For an “extrodinary man” – according to Raskolnikov’s understanding – would be free to commit crime. And so he not only believed himself to be a great man, he was eager to prove himself as such. He confesses as much when he tells Sonya, “I was ambitious to become another Napoleon; that was why I committed a murder.”
It is not Raskolnikov’s realization that he is not a great man that plunges him into honest redemption, but what seems to me to be his acceptance, his embrace, of his unworthiness. His redemption comes at the moment he reconciles himself with his shame, his nothingness and his reliance on another, on Sonya. Through suffering condemnation for his crime, and in a sense death, he gains new life.
Ultimately Crime and Punishment takes the reader on one man’s long and difficult journey from fantasizing he is great to accepting he is unworthy – a state of mind which Dostoyevsky presents as a true means of acquiring God’s great mercy.
While drinking himself drunk, the character Marmeladov tells Raskolnikov the antidote to his twisted prideful thoughts before he even acts on them. That is, he tells him that God pities those who know their own unworthiness, not those who are glorious upon the earth. Marmeladov says: “Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation and have found it, and I have tasted it; but He will pity us Who has had pity on all men Who has understood all men and all things, He is the One, He too is the judge… He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, ye weak ones, come forth ye children of shame!’ And we shall come forth, without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise one and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this‘ [emphasis mine]. And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him… Lord, Thy kingdom come!” (Dostoyovsky, Crime and Punishment, pp. 24-25). But it wasn’t until the last pages of the novel, finding Raskolnikov recovering from illness in a Siberian prison camp, that we see he is finally able to believe himself unworthy and therefore be resurrected from his own willful corruption when he throws himself at Sonya’s feet.
Crime and Punishment: a genius story about the crucifixion the human soul suffers when it cannot accept, refuses to accept, its complete and utter “ordinariness,” and the redemption that is brought to life when one is able to humble himself enough to accept the love offered by another.