If you thought you could commit a murder and get away with it, would you do it?
Would you take out an annoying co-worker? Or someone you just don’t like, or who just doesn’t like you? How about a cheating husband or wife and his or her companion?
How about a stranger, simply because you believe it’s your right?
A former university student decides to kill an old woman, the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanova. In killing the old woman, he also kills the woman’s sister, Lizaveta, a gentle soul who has the misfortune of arriving at the scene to encounter her dead sister and the murderer.
The first murder is premeditated, the second to cover up the murderer’s identity. Committed with an axe, each is brutal and vicious.
Although a shrewd detective suspects the student, and the student’s bizarre behavior seems to make him even more of a suspect, the student seems to have gotten away with the crime.
The former student, Raskolnikov, is the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment (1866).* Before he commits the murder, he is tormented in mind. But after, perhaps because of the conscience he believes clear, he becomes even more tormented.
What led Raskolnikov to commit the murder is his belief that some human beings have the right to live above the law and morality.
In prison Raskolnikov suffers no guilt and remains sick in mind, troubled by what he sees as his stupidity. As translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, he thinks:
“Now what do they find so hideous in my action?” . . . . “That it was an evildoing? What does the word ‘evildoing’ mean? My conscience is clear. Of course, a criminal act was committed; of course, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. . . . Of course, in that case, even many benefactors of mankind, who did not inherit power but seized if for themselves, ought to have been executed at their very first steps. But those men endured their steps, and therefore they were right, while I did not endure, so I had no right to permit myself that step.”
In Raskolnikov’s twisted thinking, his inability to go forward with his life without confessing his crime is his only true crime. He wonders why he confessed and didn’t kill himself instead. It is this question, the narrator states, that will lead to “his future resurrection, his future new vision in life.”
Eventually the love of a young woman, Sofya Semyonova, who is called Sonya, softens his hardened heart.
Sonya, a former prostitute who sold her body to provide for her family, tells the man who murdered her friend, Lizaveta, what he must do to open the door to repentance: “Go to the crossroads, bow down to people, kiss the earth, because you have sinned before it as well, and say aloud to the whole world: ‘I am a murderer!’”
And, for the most part, he does it; he then goes to the police to confess. Sonya, who has watched his bows and kiss, follows him to Siberia. Once there she patiently watches and waits for him, until he one day notices her waiting and feels that “something seemed to pierce his heart.”
We do not witness Raskolnikov’s repentance; we see only the moment at which the love of a small, timid, meek, and humble woman who has chosen Christ over the world, who takes seriously Our Lord’s instruction that we love and care for others, has opened the way to Christ and repentance for him.
Together, they will become new. “They were resurrected by love,” Dostoevsky writes.
Raskolnikov’s heart is won by Sonya’s suffering in the name of Christ for others, her patient waiting, and her love, not the Bible she has given him in silence that he leaves under his pillow unread. The Gospels are instrumental in winning Raskolnikov’s heart, however, because Sonya has read them and the Gospels have led her to live their truth.
And Raskolnikov, it is safe to surmise, will read the Gospels too, just as Dostoevsky did himself while imprisoned in Siberia for treason.
Two core lessons emerge from Crime and Punishment. The first is that traditional Christian morality lived purely for the love of Christ can save souls. The second is that we are free in this life only when we live God’s moral law, his will, as little Christs in the world. While the novel proves these points, they can be discovered largely by reading and meditating on the roughly sixteen-page epilogue of the 551-page novel.
In our times, more and more seem to believe they have the right to live above the law and traditional Christian morality. Murder, rape, suicide, abortion, sexual relations outside traditional marriage, and the use of contraception are examples, but so are terrorist acts, robbery, the refusal to obey authority or basic civil rules, and, above all, the actual denial of God.
As Christians, we must not despair. Instead, we must love God’s law and live it in love. And we must wait and watch, filled with the love of others, just as God waits and watches and is filled with love for us. Repentant and patient Sonya, the little mother, stands witness.
Crime and Punishment was originally published in 1866.
Among the best English translations are:
Constance Garnett, Dover, 1914, 430pp.
David Magershack, 1951, Penguin, 560pp.
David McDuff, 1991, Penguin, 720pp.
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1992, Vintage, 565pp.
Oliver Ready, 2014, Penguin, 608 pp.
There are over 25 film adaptations of the novel.