The Philosophy of Murder

Review of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Crime and Punishment may be the most theologically explicit and ambitious novel ever written.  It attempts nothing less than the conviction of nihilism and postmodernism for the sins latent within them, and the conversion of their adherents to Christianity. 

The books follows a young man, Raskolnikov, as he murders an old woman; is consumed by guilt; eventually confesses; and is exiled to Siberia.  He tells himself that he is murdering her for money, but he doesn’t bother to rob her competently, hides and then apparently forgets what little money he took.  Something else is driving him.

Raskolnikov tells us as much.  He feels compelled to kill to prove that he is beyond conventional morality, that he is a great man like Napoleon, that he has transcended, gone beyond, overcome.  Like Nietzsche, he believes that Christian morality is for slaves; he aspires to be a master.  He murders to argue with God.

Raskolnikov is a figure we’ve met before.  He is Ivan, from The Brothers Karamazov; Bazarov, from Fathers and Sons; Vautrin, from Pere Goriot.  They are the 19th Century European nihilists, alternatively despairing, celebrating, and wallowing in the implications of modernity.  They are mourners and celebrants and the funeral of the ancien regime.  Today their descendants are called postmodernists.

Dostoevsky’s genius as a writer is to make a character like Raskolnikov a fully-drawn and realized person while simultaneously serving as the embodiment of an idea. That’s what makes his novels unique and so philosophically dense.  Dostoevsky pulls no punches making Raskolnikov an explicit embodiment of nihilism.  Crime and Punishment puts that idea on trial.

In the conclusion of the novel, Dostoevsky has Raskolnikov repent of his crime and voluntarily confess.  It is perhaps the only book in the cannon of western literature that climaxes with a religious conversion:

“So crushed was he by the hopeless anguish and anxiety of this whole time, and especially of the last few hour, that he simply threw himself into the possibility of this wholesome, new, full sensation.  It came to him suddenly in a sort of fit, caught fire in his soul from a single spark, and suddenly, like a flame, engulfed him.  Everything softened in him all at once, and the tears flowed.”

In the closing paragraphs of the novel, Raskolnikov reaches for the Gospels.  In novels, we are supposed to live vicariously through the protagonist, feel his feelings, will his actions.  With Raskolnikov’s conversion, Dostoevsky is inviting his readers—you and I—to consider the truth of the Gospel.  That a novel could be so forthrightly Christian and simultaneously one of the great books ever written is a testament, on the one hand, to Dostoevsky’s faith and, on the other, his genius.

Dostoevsky’s refutation of nihilism by showing how it collapses in grief, despair, and violence reflects a true anthropology.  He understands that human beings are not made to be purely autonomous, self-creating moral supermen; we are made to be dependent, God-worshipping beings—who have more dignity and worth than we could ever invent for ourselves on our own.

Raskolnikov is convicted and eventually converted by the love—agape, not romantic—of a Christian woman named Sonya.  The main point of the novel—that Christianity has the answer to the despair and violence of nihilism—hinges on how plausible a character she is.  The whole weight of Crime and Punishment rests on how persuasive, real, and attractive a picture of Christ she is, as Raskolnikov’s picture of nihilism is bleak, dark, and ugly.

This may be the novel’s main point of weakness.  I suspect different readers react to Sonya in different ways.  I can imagine some readers, unused to simple sincerity and love, accusing her being saccharine and annoying; others, plastic and inauthentic.  Sonya is a Christian figure, like Alyosha in The Brothers Karamozov, but unlike him she does not seem to grapple with her faith.  It seems fixed and unmoving.  That is admirable, but also hard to empathize with, and a little dull.  There is little drama in sainthood.

To fix this, Dostoevsky has Sonya turn to prostitution to feed her starving siblings.  He probably makes this move to ground her in the harshness and brutality of the real world, to give her a struggle lest she be a mere saint or angel.  Sonya must be a real person who struggles with real trials if her picture of Christianity is to resonate with mere mortals.  But in doing so, Dostoevsky turns Sonya into a cliché—the “hooker with the heart of gold” has her own Wikipedia entry—and creates a schizophrenic character who makes no logical sense.  Her picture of Christ is both sterile and distorted.

Crime and Punishment is, without doubt, one of the finest books I have ever read against whatever criteria you want to judge it by—aesthetic, theological, dramatic, or merely emotional.  It accomplishes all you can ask of a novel.  It inspires, ennobles, and educates.  It expands our sympathies and tells a true story.  It is, almost, the perfect novel.  If Sonya was more like Alyosha, it would be.

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