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Fyodor Dosteoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a renowned 19th-century novel that has captivated audiences for generations. Part of the appeal for this classic text comes from the densely interwoven and constantly evolving thematic motifs and symbols. Arguably one of the most crucial episodes in the novel comes when Raskolnikov and Sonya discuss the existence or absence of God and the biblical account of Lazarus’ resurrection. By examining this scene in comparison to the novel’s conclusion, the reader can see how Dostoevsky uses the progression of development for Roskolnikov’s character and his “acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality” (551) to echo the theme of resurrection that stems from story of Lazarus.
When looking at the character of Raskolnikov, it is hard to get a holistic and unified view of his thoughts, actions, and faith. The schism in his behavior is clearly seen through his acts of charity on one hand and his self-absorbed isolation on the other. There is no defining moment that reveals the immutable character of Raskolnikov, and thus the scene with Sonya’s reading of Jesus’ miraculous healing of Lazarus only hints at one state of Raskolnikov’s fickle nature. However, it becomes clear from this episode that Raskolnikov appears to challenge the existence of God and Sonya’s faith. When Raskolnikov begins theorizing about what will happen to Sonya’s family if something tragic should occur, Sonya replies, “‘No, no! God will protect her! God!…’ she repeated, beside herself. ‘But maybe there isn’t any God,’ Raskolnikov replied…Sonya’s face suddenly changed terribly: spasms ran over it. She looked at him with inexpressible reproach…and simply began sobbing all at once very bitterly, covering her face with her hands” (321)2E It is evident from this interaction that Sonya cherishes her faith and is taken back by Raskolnikov’s inquisition and indirect denial of God. Strangely, when he notices a copy of the New Testament on a chest of drawers, Raskolnikov quickly asks Sonya to read him the story about the raising of Lazarus. In the story of Lazarus, Dostoevsky foreshadows the resurrection of faith that Raskolnikov eventually reaches after his confession.
At Raskolnikov’s request, Sonya reads, “‘Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die..2EAnd when he has spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth” (326-328). Undoubtedly this is a story of resurrection for Lazarus, a man who was physically dead and yet rose from the grave at Jesus’ command. Although the parallel may not be readily apparent since Raskolnikov is not physically dead, there does exist a synonymous relationship between Lazarus’ physical death and Raskolnikov’s spiritual death. Once Raskolnikov finally reveals to Sonya that he killed Alyona and Lizaveta Ivanovna, he comes to an internal realization, “Was it the old crone I killed? I killed myself, not the old crone!” (420). In a nonphysical sense, Raskolnikov experiences a self-inflicted death that is comparable to the death that sent Lazarus to the grave: both are potentially eternal apart from salvation or rebirth. The story of Lazarus is a story of fatal suffering and sickness, but it also embraces triumph over death and sin that is brought about through the miraculous resurrection. Through the reading of Lazarus’ story, Sonya is acknowledging and proclaiming the eternal message of faith that sits at the feet of Raskolnikov.
After much anguish and tribulation, Raskolnikov is brought to a state of confession and is sent to Siberia with a sentence of eight years of hard labor. Sonya accompanies him to Siberia, and through her influence on him, the transformational power of love is displayed and a change begins to take place in the core of Raskolnikov: “they were resurrected by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of another” (549). Without Sonya’s love, Raskolnikov would be unable to leave his grave of unbelief, and although the change is gradual and indistinct, Dostoevsky makes it clear that an inner resurrection and rebirth takes place. With the New Testament in hand, Raskolnikov begins questioning, “Can her [Sonya’s] convictions become my convictions now? Her feelings, her aspirations, at least…” (550). Eventually Raskolnikov does reach a point where he consciously realizes his potential for accepting and obtaining the faith that he sees displayed through Sonya’s loving character. The closing of the book states, “But here begins a new account…the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality” (551). From prior passages, it was clear that Raskolnikov openly rejected God and a belief in the sacredness of human nature. After all, his crime was committed in an attempt to prove the world exists without a moral consciousness or eternal goodness. Although Raskolnikov’s rebirth may not be as explicit as Lazarus’ walking out of the tomb, it is clear in the closing of the novel that a resurrection has taken place inside of Raskolnikov’s character as he begins to embrace a life of faith.
Crime and Punishment is a novel rich in thematic meanings displayed through the lives of its characters. In the case of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky uses a complex and intriguing character to portray the eternal message and power of faith. Because of Sonya’s love for Raskolnikov, he is eventually resurrected from a life of destruction, egotism, and despair to a life capable of acknowledging the sanctity in human nature, a higher good, and a caring God. Through the story of Lazarus and the scene involving its reading, Dostoevsky uses Raskolnikov’s life to reveal the theme of resurrection and the significance of rebirth in the acceptance of faith.
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