“Power is given only to him who dares to stoop and take it… one must have the courage to dare.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of my favourite novels, Crime and Punishment (it was serialised throughout the year of 1866).
In this story, the main character, Raskolnikov, is a poverty-stricken former student in St Petersburg. He’s a university drop-out, but aspires to greatness. Proud and contemptuous of seemingly everyone around him, he has developed a theory that there are some great men of history to whom the rules don’t apply – men who could commit the most hideous crimes, but be excused because of the worth they bring to humankind. And there are no prizes for guessing which category Raskolnikov believes he belongs in.
To test his theory, he decides to commit a crime. He brutally murders an elderly pawn-broker, and then finds himself forced to murder her half-sister, who has witnessed the murder. From there, Raskolnikov descends into illness and madness, as he struggles to deal with the guilt of what he has done, combined with his terror of being caught, and his desperate self-doubt that he may in fact not be one of the great men of history, as he believed. That his cruelty has been all in vain.
While Raskolnikov may at first come across as a completely unrelatable character, Dostoevsky draws us into his inner life with unbelievable realism. And soon we start to realise that the forces that create a Raskolnikov – that compel an ordinary human being to commit hideous crimes – are not so distant from all of us.
Put simply, they’re the forces of modern thought, in its cruellest forms – the forces we ourselves are exposed to, and the narratives we often unquestioningly accept, in our everyday life.
Raskolnikov’s narcissistic fixation with individual greatness leads him to see others as necessarily inferior to himself; his emotional detachment and his chosen isolation see him spiral down into madness, with his thoughts as his only companions; and his deep obsession with the idea that he, and he alone, is the master of his fate and the centre of the universe are the root cause, ultimately of his evil actions. Ultimately, his philosophy that “to go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s”, while eerily Pinterest-quote-worthy, led him into an ever-deepening spiral of murderous hatred.
And here’s where I see the connection: many of us here in the UK are born into privileged circumstances. We’re given seemingly limitless opportunities by virtue of birth, education, geography, and the benefits of modern life. We’re told constantly by the narratives around us – often spin-offs of the American Dream – that we have the capacity to be great individuals. We’re told all the time that we can (must!) achieve our goals, reach for the stars, and let nothing and no one stand in our way. We’re also taught, often subconsciously, that vulnerability and dependence are weak and undesirable traits, leading us to live lives of ‘resilience’ and being ‘together’, which in popular terms seems to mean emotional detachment and contempt for our own emotional needs, as well as those of others.
Now I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to have ambitions or dreams, or that Pinterest quotes are catalysts for violent crime, but I have to admit that when I remember the story of Raskolnikov, I see a alarming synchronicity between the beliefs that eventually end up shaping his murderous actions and the ones that shape my own: individualism (I’m the centre of the universe); ambition (I deserve greatness and will do anything I can to achieve it); and independence (I can do it on my own, even if this leads to isolation).
To put it bluntly, in my heart, I’m often Raskolnikov.
Like Raskolnikov, the good in me wars with the bad, causing a sense of double-mindedness and division – the name Raskolnikov literally means “schism” – and I’m all too easily susceptible to the narratives of individualism, ambition and independence – occasionally to the point of moral abasement.
While I may not choose to embrace a life of crime, Raskolnikov-style, I have to admit to all too easily displaying the sort of garden-variety evil which, to put it into perspective, Jesus starkly warns is just as bad as if it were me picking up the axe, instead of Raskolnikov.
Raskolnikov’s salvation ultimately comes through the humble, Christ-like figure of Sonia, a prostitute. She doesn’t share his aspirations. She doesn’t seek to impress, or strive to subject other people to her will. She doesn’t succumb to the drive to prove herself. Instead, she’s marked by her devout faith and an incredible capacity for forgiveness and compassion. In Sonia, Raskolnikov finds the wise guide that he’s been seeking; the companionship and moral compass he’s been lacking. With Sonia, he’s no longer isolated and unseen. He can, and does, confess his crimes to her. And she, full of compassion and grace, loves him anyway – she sees beyond what he’s become, a rage-filled murderer in rags – to what he could be again. Redeemed. Free.
We all need this. We all need someone to come to us in our need, to see our rags and our shame and to love us anyway. To hear our worst secrets; the most contemptible things of our heart, and to tell us that we’re accepted. We all need someone to show us that we no longer need to live in isolation, that we will be accepted if we drop the front. We need to be shown that we are not an end in ourselves. That we are not the centre of the universe.
So this Christmas, as I re-read Crime and Punishment, I’m remembering the stunning fact that just as hope and a chance at a new life came to Raskolnikov through the most unexpected of people – a young, uneducated prostitute – so has the life and freedom that our world is craving available to all who seek it, through the most unlikely of circumstances.
It has come to us, not through a strongman or a power-hungry ruler; not through someone who played by society’s rules or who craved the adulation of their peers. No, divine intervention came in the form of a baby, born in a backwards town to a disgraced mother and father; growing up to live a life of poverty and rejection and sacrificing even that to die a shameful death, 2,000 years ago.