WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead, although only for the start of the novel.
I’d heard good things about this Russian writer called Dostoevsky. So, before Christmas in a moment of boredom, I picked Crime and Punishment out from the shelf and decided to give it a read. One of the better decisions of 2020. I hope that this little taster of the novel may leave you desiring to go on and read the novel, or at the very least to be encouraged by the glorious truths of Christianity which Dostoevsky so expertly illustrates.
To give some context to the novel, 19th century Russia has started to come under the influence of the philosophical ideas of the European Enlightenment. New thought about the importance of reason and science had created an increasingly popular movement of people affirming such ideas as atheism and nihilism (the belief that there are no real moral truths). They consequently rejected the traditional Christian beliefs and values of their ancestors.
Dostoevsky explores these themes through the lens of Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student. As an educated youth, Raskolnikov has been deeply influenced by these new Enlightenment opinions. However, short of money, Raskolnikov has had to drop out of law school. He’s spending most of his time cramped in his tiny room (sadly somewhat relatable at the moment). To make matters worse, he has just sold his last valuable item to a greedy, old pawnbroker woman.
As Dostoevsky narrates, we read of a man with deep inner turmoil; from Raskolnikov’s point of view his best option is to rob and murder the greedy pawnbroker. Everyone hates the old woman. She takes people’s valuables in exchange for little money; many are indebted to her and consequently struggling to survive; she has no family or friends except her handicapped sister who she treats like a slave. Society would be better off without her. Raskolnikov would be better off without her. But, of course, morally, he cannot go through with murder, can he? That’s obviously wrong. Isn’t it?
Except, as Raskolnikov contemplates, if there is no god, then there is no one except society to decide what is right and wrong. Without god, there is no transcendental right and wrong - there is only what is beneficial to the common good. And surely the murder of the pawnbroker will ultimately be beneficial to society? Is it really wrong? The end surely justifies the means. Raskolnikov is motivated by his own remarkable logic and ability to see beyond the apparent moralistic framework that the rest of the world blindly follows. And so he grabs an axe and heads out.
Without spoiling too much of the story, in the rest of the novel Dostoevsky masterfully conveys the inner psychological turmoil and guilt which is brought upon by the murder. It plagues Raskolnikov for the rest of his life. The story narrates the devastating consequences of his atheistic and nihilistic worldview not just on himself, but on his relationships with friends and family.
Sounds cheery. But there is hope! Through the other characters in the novel, particularly Raskolnikov’s high-spirited best friend and a humble, Christ-loving prostitute, Dostoevsky magnifies the joy and hope that even the poorest and most wretched can find in a life with meaning, a life with value, a life with God.
Despite being set in 19th century Tsarist Russia, the novel is very much relevant today. The New Atheist movement of the West has become very popular under the lead of such figures as Richard Dawkins. Mercifully, however, the New Atheists have not allowed their belief to lead to its logical conclusions. In contrast to Raskolnikov, most would still (unjustifiably) consider murder as objectively wrong. Yet the idea of subjective moral values (‘you do you’ etc.) is becoming increasingly popular and one wonders what the ramifications of this might be.
All in all, this novel serves as a great encouragement to the Christian (and a great discouragement to the atheist). Dostoevsky masterfully illustrates how God is a good God who has created a morality that is beneficial to us and clearly evident in the world around us. To deny that is to deny truth, meaning, purpose, love, and the consequences of this are severe!