Environment and the Importance of Confession in Crime and Punishment

 | 1376 words

All good writers anticipate their opponents’ arguments. Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment to defend Russian traditions from their critics. One of these traditions was Christianity and its morals. Christianity is a religion which places great influence on the necessity of confession and justice in punishment. Dostoevsky shows his brilliance in writing by creating an environment in the novel which would seemingly weaken his emphasis on confession, only to demonstrate its practical, personal importance. Dostoevsky shows that whether Raskolnikov was driven to his crime by his environment has no significance in the moral necessity of confession and punishment, as just punishment is necessary in the redemptive process.

Christianity emphasizes personal responsibility for any sin, including for a legal crime. One demonstration of this concept of personal responsibility is Raskolnikov’s friend Razumihin, who shows that a person can overcome the negative influences of his environment. An interesting contrast appears between the protagonist Raskolnikov and his friend Razumihin. Both are poor university dropouts. However, Raskolnikov is a political radical with the ideals of a revolutionary. Razumihin, in contrast, seems fairly content with the political regime, preferring to work with it, rather than against it. They each have their own response to poverty: Raskolnikov lives off of his mother’s pension and pawns off his possessions to live day to day, while Razumihin makes and lives off of his own money. His reputation is that he is remarkably resourceful and thrifty (54). He anticipates being able to return to the university (54). Razumihin’s diligence contrasts starkly with Raskolnikov’s apathy: after running out of money for his university education, the latter leaves it and mopes.

The contrast between these two is interesting; from these examples it is clear that laziness is correlated with radicalism. Raskolnikov desires to improve society by killing the old pawnbroker, obtaining her money, and distributing it to the poor. He sees this as pragmatic, and thus morally justifiable. He had made this argument in a magazine article, arguing that actions of certain people are justifiable if the action improves society. Razumihin does not express revolutionary thoughts, and seems indeed quite unrevolutionary, preferring to improve his situation through normal, legal efforts. Perhaps Dostoevsky’s illustration is to say that revolutionary socialists are lazy.

However, this explanation does not fully unfold Dostoevsky’s thoughts. Rather, it is also restlessness that leads to radicalism. Raskolnikov seems restless and unhappy with his situation, while Razumihin seems somewhat content. It is possible that Raskolnikov’s restlessness is what causes his apathy, as he seems quite hopeless about society, himself, and his family throughout the novel. Seeing no resolution, he simply does nothing. Thus, apathy causes restlessness, as apathy results in inactivity, ultimately resulting in boredom. When people are bored, they often come up with new, radical ideas. It seems, then, that radicalism and restlessness are intimately bound together.

Dostoevsky demonstrates the importance of faith, a theme which runs throughout the novel. Raskolnikov’s beliefs seem to constantly change. He has clearly abandoned traditional morals through his theory of ethics. However, he seems to believe in God and the biblical account of Lazarus’ resurrection (262). He also tells Sonya that “perhaps, there is no God at all” in response to her distress at his reasoning on what would be the fate of her family members. He also calls Sonya a "religious maniac, worrying that he may become one himself (323-234). His contradictory relationship with religion is somewhat of an enigma.

However, this enigma is resolved with the hypothesis that he accepts religion to be able to repent and be redeemed, or, metaphorically, “resurrected.” Dostoevsky clarifies the nature of redemption by often alluding to the biblical account of Lazarus’ resurrection. However, Raskolnikov also realizes that faith would require confession, which he is afraid of. He is forced into indecision between redemptive faith at the cost of confession, and continued skepticism at the cost of continued life with the psychological burden of an unconfessed sin.

Raskolnikov is afraid of confession because it would result in punishment for his crime, but he is already inflicting his own psychological imprisonment upon himself. The police detective Porfiry takes advantage of this, reasoning that the criminal would be forced by his own mind to make a confession and even, left to his own devices, prove his own guilt (337-339). Raskolnikov’s personal responsibility and need for confession are illuminated by his inescapable self-punishment. Raskolnikov was driven to his crime by anti-religious radicalism and tortures himself by continuing in irreligion. His only hope of redemption is a return to Christianity and a belief in the redemption which is given through both Christ and personal repentance. This requires a just punishment, but a just punishment is, as Raskolnikov finds, often more beneficial and even pleasant than the internal turmoil of living in guilt.

Raskolnikov’s first fully transparent confession is to Sonia. This is quite poignant: two people who have committed great immoralities are finding redemption in faith, led by each other. Sonia decides to go to Siberia with Raskolnikov—perhaps this would help her escape her own unfortunate situation—and Raskolnikov starts on a path to full repentance. This, however, requires confession to the proper legal authorities. Raskolnikov also discusses this with Sonia. She helps him to understand the true importance of confession. Both he and she desire moral absolution; he can only obtain it by confession.

In their earlier conversation about the raising of Lazarus, Sonia, despite her own moral failings, becomes Raskolnikov’s religious guide. Her faith is what redeems her; she leads him with it. Her faith, though Raskolnikov doubts its truth, is genuine and thus can influence him to to confess. Dostoevsky thus shows that the scientific validity of faith is ultimately worthless on an eternal scale: scientific theories, no matter their nature, cannot provide rest and calm to the soul, while a genuine faith can. This is not to say that Christianity is scientifically invalid. This seems very much within Dostoevsky’s nature as a conservative Russian: he wishes to emphasize the importance of Christianity to the well-being of both the society and individuals. Raskolnikov’s confession, while it is not to the Church, is certainly an act of Christian morality. Thus, Dostoevsky shows even through his discussion of faith that individual confession is necessary.

While dismantling the popular, radical arguments against the importance of personal responsibility, Dostoevsky demonstrates the strength of his thesis by creating an environment that could be quite easily blamed for crime. While Razumihin can serve as an example of the importance of personal responsibility, it is still clear that Raskolnikov was heavily influenced by his environment. Raskolnikov’s restlessness was certainly influenced by his situation; even Porfiry, the conservative voice in the novel, acknowledges that environment can contribute to crime (258). Raskolnikov’s environment drives him to boredom, and thus to restlessness and radicalism.

Dostoevsky also shows that environment affects other people. For example, Nikolay, the painter who made a false confession to the murder which Raskolnikov committed, has had his own nature changed by the environment. Porfiry specifically notes that Nikolay’s entire temperament had changed when he moved from the country to St. Petersburg, forgetting his traditional, though heterodox, religious beliefs (448-450). This affected his entire personality negatively.

Dostoevsky uses Crime and Punishment to show the value of confession and punishment for redemption. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, only finds relief from the guilt from murder by confessing his crime and submitting to a just punishment. Despite his environment, which, it can be argued, drove him to his crime, the only way that Raskolnikov is able to achieve redemption and live well is to confess. Dostoevsky answers his opponents through this apparent weakness which he then completely overcomes by demonstrating the importance of Christian faith. Though Raskolnikov’s punishment is mercifully lightened, it still fulfills the need for justice and thus results in redemption.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Constance Garnett, Bantam Dell, 2003.