In the latest CD in his Great Books audio series, Dr. Ken Boa talks about Fyodor Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment. Written in 1866, the novel shows penetrating insights into human nature, anticipating trends in psychology and politics that would one day sweep the globe. In writing Crime and Punishment, Boa tells us, Dostoevsky was a man ahead of his time. I agree. He’s prophetic and one of my favorite authors.
The novel tells the story of Raskalnikov, a student in St. Petersburg, Russia. Burdened by the poverty, oppression, and decadence that he sees all around him, Raskolnikov isolates himself from most other human beings. In his self-alienation, he begins to see himself as a superior being, a kind of “superman,” who transcends the moral laws that bind other people. He looks for a way to “validate” himself and his feelings of superiority—a process that Boa calls “suicide by self-affirmation.”
Dostoevsky had lived in Western Europe, and as a Christian, he saw the dangers of its fashionable intellectual ideas like nihilism and utilitarianism. A “pattern in his work,” Boa says, is the conflict of Christianity with utopian worldviews. Dostoevsky wanted to make it clear that “ideas have consequences.”
In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s nihilism and utilitarianism lead to his murder of two women. “Under the spell of an idea,” he decided that a miserly old pawnbroker does not deserve to live—and then he kills her sister when she discovers the crime.
Paradoxically, these evil acts become the turning point for Raskalnikov. This “rational and proud” young man, spurred by guilt, begins to move toward “humility” and “openness” to other people. He comes to realize that the moral law that he disdained is written on every human heart, and that he is just as bound by that law as every other human being. Guided by a young woman named Sonia, who has been forced into prostitution to feed her starving family, Raskolnikov learns that suffering, not rebellion, leads to redemption.
Finally turning himself in, he is sentenced to eight years in a Siberian prison. Still, his repentance is not yet fully genuine. He is still the man who was willing to “sacrifice his existence for an idea.” Only when he realizes that he loves Sonia—that he finally has developed the ability to care for another human being besides himself—is he ready to experience full redemption. The epilogue ends as he begins to read the New Testament that she has given him.
Boa notes that some critics have called this a “weak happy ending,” not understanding that “in . . . the very structure of the novel, we see that the gospel is central within the novel’s plot.” Sonia has acted as a “Christ figure” all along, helping to liberate Raskalnikov from the Nietzschean “will to power” that had enslaved him.
As you can see, Crime and Punishment offers some very sobering and valuable food for thought for us today. As Ken Boa points out, this book helps to show us that we’re still surrounded by the bankrupt worldviews that have descended directly from the utopian ideals of Dostoevsky’s time—and that the way out is not through focus on our self (as our culture teaches us today,) but only through surrender to Christ.