Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky closes his classic novel Crime and Punishment, with the imprisoned character, Raskolnikov, making the smallest turn toward God. A radical thinker-turned-murderer, Raskolnikov begins rejecting his past life and hopes to find a new life. He begins to believe. The story ends there, with Raskolnikov on the verge of transformation.
Dostoevsky writes, “But that is the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.”
For hundreds of pages before Raskolnikov’s turn, Dostoevsky paints a bleak picture of humanity. All of Dostoevsky’s novels delve into human cruelty and suffering, the brokenness of the human soul, and faith. Pessimism abounds as he chronicles life in Russia in the mid-to-late 1800s. But his is pessimism comes with a call to action, namely belief in Christ.
Though Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky’s most accessible novel to western readers, it is also one of his darkest tales. In the book, Raskolnikov ponders a reality without moral boundaries. The philosophical, poor, former student convinces himself that killing the “evil” pawnbroker would altruistic. He is riddled with guilt after the murder and is eventually arrested and jailed. Raskolinov begins reading the New Testament and contemplates a turn to Christ – “… passing from one world into another …”
The Story Behind Dostoevsky’s Pessimism
Dostoevsky’s pessimism was hard-earned and harder to renounce. After publishing his first novel, Dostoevsky was arrested and sentenced to death with a group of suspected revolutionaries. During his time in prison, Dostoevsky studied the New Testament intensely and experienced a spiritual awaking while focusing on the person of Christ. After eight months in prison, he and his friends were placed before a firing squad and then abruptly released.
The unspeakable cruelty of the Siberian prison the mock execution shaped his subsequent works. Dostoevsky became a man of faith, though he likely struggled to reconcile his own failings and ever-present doubts with his commitment to Christ. The juxtaposition of faith and doubt in his works (see Ivan’s “Grand Inquisitor” poem in The Brothers Karamazov and the discussion about Hans Holbein’s painting “Dead Christ” in The Idiot) must represent Dostoevsky’s own doubts and his real faith in Christ. His radical commitment (and faulty theology) is illustrated in his famous quote: “even if someone were to prove to me that the truth lay outside Christ, I should choose to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”
Dostoevsky’s pessimism was rooted in the gritty, dark realities around him. Ultimately, he saw an ugly, fallen world with only one hope of redemption: Christ.
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