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Fyodor Dostoevsky uses Crime and Punishment as a vehicle for his critique on the moral deterioration of society caused by the encroaching poisonous, impersonal rationalism of modernity. He focuses his critique by utilizing a defining component of nineteenth century Russia: Orthodox Christianity. Drawing from personal trauma and experience, Dostoevsky uses the relationship between Sonya and Raskolnikov to place traditional values of morality, sacrifice, and redemption on a pedestal, while also striving to expose the rise of social science and utilitarianism as emotional and spiritual prisons.
The novel brims with a continuous stream of characters that typify the redeeming aspects of salvation and redemption through suffering. Rising from the multitude of characters is the complexly pure Sonya. While there is an argument made for Raskolnikov’s depiction as a Christ-like figure, Sonya’s influence on those around her most closely mimics the paragon of deliverance and suffering Jesus Christ embodied.
Sonya does not suffer to fulfill a self-possessive ideal, but rather sacrifices her desires and dreams for the chance to maintain a level of hope and existence for her family. After his encounter with Marmelodov in the tavern, Raskolnikov muses, “Bravo, Sonya!…They really do use it! And they got accustomed to it. Wept a bit and got accustomed to it” (27). He recognizes the futility of her situation due to the burden of being the responsible member of the family. While she is subjugated into a profession that is found among the dredges of society, her morality is continually cleansed by the motivation of her actions.
This is in direct opposition to Raskolnikov’s utilitarian drive. In conversation about his article “On Crime”, he says, “I merely suggested that an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right…that is, not an official right, but his own right, to allow his conscience to…step over certain obstacles” (259). He holds an elitist view of society. He views himself as enlightened, and he sees this status of knowledge as a viable excuse to compromise any vestiges of morality and conscience. The irony in his thinking is magnified by the reality that it is Sonya, a person lacking any formal education and suffering for others rather than for self, who is depicted as the truly enlightened one.
Dostoevsky’s hope for the eventual deference of modernity to traditional Christian Russian values is personified by Raskolnikov’s own submission to Sonya. Playing on distinguished scenes from the New Testament, Dostoevsky crafts Raskolnikov’s burgeoning consciousness of Sonya’s status as savior and redeemer. Raskolnikov addresses Sonya, saying, “I was not bowing to you, I was bowing to all human suffering… I told one offender today that he wasn’t worth your little finger… and that I did my sister an honor by sitting her next to you”(322). He now looks past her surface and sees the elevated ideal which she symbolizes. This directly correlates with the biblical story of Jesus cleansing a handmaiden’s feet with oil. Both are examples of humbling one’s own self in order to serve another fully and whole-heartedly.
Dostoevsky further toys with religious allusion in Raskolnikov’s plea to Sonya. Raskolnikov, nearing his confession to her, says, “I’ve chosen you… I chose you long ago to tell it to, back when your father was talking about you and Lizavetta was still alive, I thought of it then” (330). Raskolnikov makes Sonya “The Chosen One” and alludes to the Christian notion of Christ as the realization of ancient prophecy by adding that he had previously assigned Sonya the responsibility of bearing the truth of his sin. He allots to her the burden of his transgressions such as Jesus Christ was allotted the burden of the transgressions of all of humanity. Raskolnikov yields his previously self-appointed position as an elevated figure by his admission of his need to confess to her.
The novel ends with a glimpse into Raskolnikov and Sonya’s future together. Dostoevsky comments on Raskolnikov’s reformed life by saying, “He did not know that a new life would not be given him for nothing, that it still had to be dearly bought, to be paid for with a great future deed…” (551). Raskolnikov’s physical punishment in the labor camp was not what eventually redeemed him. It was his emotional and spiritual awakening that was the root of his happiness. Dostoevsky uses this situation as a critique of society’s increasing dependency on logic and rationalism. It is not the judicial system, or the theories of a criminal mind, that help reform Raskolnikov. It is the purity of love and faith that pull him from his deceitful web of sin, guilt, and delusion.
The incompetence of Raskolnikov’s criminal punishment set by society points to the idea that worldly ideas of sociology and modernity eventually fall short of the power of religion and belief. All the trappings and lessons of society were unable to reform Raskolnikov. In many ways, it was the baseness of society that drove him to his ill-fated ideals and motives. This is a danger of modernity that Dostoevsky strives to convey. When one loses sight of an inner moral compass, one loses sight of the goodness of life. As Raskolnikov depicted, modernity boils existence into impersonal theories which become dangerous when those theories replace emotion, faith, and conscience.
Sonya, however, emerges as a light for Raskolnikov and society. Her entire existence, from her profession to her devout belief in God, is a complete rebuttal of utilitarianism and other advancing schools of thought. She is the moral conscience of the novel, and typifies the citizen Dostoevsky implores his reader to be. Through her, he challenges a rising tide of individualism with the idealism of redemption though selfless sacrifice.
Dostoevsky personally understands the power of this ideal. His, “greatest comfort during these dark years was his copy of the New Testament” (xiii). During his time of imprisonment he found solace in scripture. Similarly, Raskolnikov finds refuge from his wrenching inner turmoil with the novel’s epitome of the Christian message – Sonya. Sonya herself finds sanctuary from the grim existence of her reality in her unshakeable belief in God. Dostoevsky clearly equivocates his preference for Sonya’s beliefs over Raskolnikov’s in the scene in which Sonya questions Raskolnikov on his beliefs. When he challenges the basic existence of God, “Sonya’s face changed terribly… looked at him with inexpressible reproach…” (321). The horror expressed by Sonya echoes the horror Dostoevsky harbors when he observes the path that Russian society is progressing down. He views the “forward” movement of ideas as a digression into a savage society of immorality and inhumanity.
Taking a step back from these interpretations of Dostoevsky’s theme and purpose, one can gather the author’s intention by observing the protagonist of the novel on a basic level. Raskolnikov’s name, “comes from raskolnik, a schismatic, from raskol, schism…” (xxxv). There was also a sect called the Raskolniki, “who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century” (xxxv). Raskolnikov thereby embodies, through his name, the conflict between the traditional and the modern. For the greater part of the novel his actions signify a tendency to rebel against foundational institutions, such as religion, in favor of new schools of thought which champion individualism.
While this may seem contradictory to Dostoevsky’s message, it eventually becomes an additional vehicle for Dostoevsky’s observance of the Christian ideals of redemption. In the end, Raskolnikov begins to open his mind, soul, and heart to also allow himself to experience the respect and passion Sonya harbors towards religion and faith. In the ending paragraphs of the epilogue, he rediscovers the Gospels Sonya had given him and now muses, “Can her convictions not be my convictions now? Her feelings, her aspirations, at least…” (550). Even he, a man who previously pledged his entire existence to the refute of all institutionalized thought and values, a man whose name epitomizes rebellion and divergence, eventually yields to the overpowering influence of religion. It is an inevitable, and imperative, transition.
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