Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (2 of 2)

Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are wonderful novels displaying the human condition in all its beauty and complexity. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky fundamentally describe humanity in different ways, one positive and another negative. This blog series is an attempt at uncovering what the authors were trying to communicate in regards to what is wrong with humanity and what will make it right. Last week we looked at Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and this week we are looking at Dostoevsky’s outlook on humanity in Crime and Punishment.

A Murderer 

Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina differ in many ways. Dostoevsky is focusing in on a poor urban area of St. Petersburg as opposed to the aristocratic quarters of Moscow or the countryside. This setting brings with it a darker look at the effects poverty can have on a society and the psychological stresses it puts on individuals. Crime and Punishment is a murder mystery, but the murderer is not the mystery, the psychological motive of the murderer is the mystery. Although there is a cat and mouse chase between the criminal Raskolnikov and the detective Porfiry, the reader is trying to figure out why Raskolnikov killed his neighborhood pawnbroker and her younger sister. Raskolnikov is an intelligent student who is currently taking a break from the University. Most of his time is spent in his poor apartment, the size of a closet, thinking through what he is about to do and then after the act, why he has done it. Raskolnikov has this theory that there are two types of people, the ordinary and the extraordinary. The ordinary are those who follow the customs and laws of the present in a citizen like fashion. The extraordinary are the few in history that lead the masses out of an old way of doing things into a new way. If the extraordinary way involves people dying, so be it, the future state of humanity will be better for it. Raskolnikov used Napoleon as an example of one who is extraordinary, forgetting armies in Egypt and taking thousands of lives in the name of human progress. Raskolnikov sees himself as a Napoleon type, an extraordinary human. His target is a pawnbroker who rips off poor people to the advancement of her wealth. He hopes to take the cash and goods from this pawnbroker and give them to the poor. Raskolnikov kills the pawn broker and is forced to kill her younger sister as well because she showed up at the wrong time. Its as if the younger sister is just a casualty of war, the cost of doing justice to the neighborhood. Joseph Frank comments on Raskolnikov while he is in this state of mind: “It is not only that his ideas run counter to the instinctive promptings of his moral-emotive sensibility; these ideas momentarily transform him into someone for whom moral conscience ceases to operate as part of his personality” (Frank, 489).

As the novel unfolds, clearly Raskolnikov did not murder the pawnbroker as a twisted way to execute social justice. He killed her because of his ego. Frank goes on to explain, “…he killed not for the altruistic-humanitarian motives he believed he was acting upon but solely because of a purely selfish need to test his own strength” (485). Raskolnikov comes to this awareness and is horrified by it. The reader is thrown through an emotional seesaw by seeing the dichotomy of Raskolnikov’s character. On the one hand he gives away money to the poorest of the poor so they can live and on the other hand, he takes the life of the rich in his neighborhood so his ego can live. There is this back and forth of what seems to be selflessness and selfishness, but even the small flickers of selflessness are shown to be a sham by Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky shows us a man who is beyond repair, even his best actions are as filthy rags compared to genuine goodness. But, there is Sonya!

A Harlot 

Sonya is the daughter of a drunk unemployed man with a large family. The children are starving and her father is not a good provider. There seems to be no immediate work for Sonya outside of prostitution and by sacrificing herself, her father continues to drink and her family is fed. Sonya is a complete outsider and one of her only friends was the pawnbroker’s daughter. She is sad over the lost of her friend and humiliated by her desperate situation. Raskolnikov comes to know her father and ends up being there at their home when Sonya’s father dies of an accident related to his drunkenness. Raskolnikov is aware of Sonya’s occupation and later comes to her because he feels like he cannot confide in anyone else. There they are in Sonya’s room, harlot and murderer, and Raskolnikov wants to know how she has the power to continually give sacrificially of herself so others can flourish? A Christian, Sonya shares her faith through the personalized reading of Lazarus’ revivification in the gospel account. This affected Raskolnikov and would eventually help lead him to repentance. Through a series of events, Raskolnikov finds himself back at the room of Sonya and she challenges Raskolnikov to repent and to embrace suffering. He has no other options outside taking his life and being a fugitive, neither are reasonable in light of what he has done and what Sonya has offered him. He has transgressed the law and is not above it, and yet someone close to him who owes him contrary to what he receives sticks with him through it all. He is an ordinary man and will only find resurrection through the unmerited love and affection of another. It is this type of grace Raskolnikov experiences from Sonya. She should have avenged her friend’s death and yet she entered Raskolnikov’s suffering, even by following him all the way to Siberia where he was imprisoned and eventually converted. Writing on this, Ernest Gordan wrote:

“By her faith the power of Grace that brought Lazarus from the corruption of the grave is repeated in the experience of Raskolnikov. He has the assurance that by this Grace he will be forgiven at the Last Judgment. He is thus liberated from the bondage of sin, guilt, and fear (Ernest Gordon, xiii).

Dostoevsky’s Outlook on Humanity 

Dostoevsky’s outlook on humanity is negative, there is nothing in humanity that will enable humans to fix themselves of the curse of sin. Tolstoy’s view of humanity, which was: Humans are able to correct their morality to the degree they align to proper belief structures contrasts Dostoevsky’s view of humanity: The inability to correct human morality outside a human’s experience of monumental grace. What makes Sonya’s grace monumental, is how she differs from Raskolnikov. Frank explains their difference well:

On the one side, there is the ethic of Christian agape, the total, immediate, and unconditional sacrifice of self that is the law of Sonya’s being (and Dostoevsky’s own highest value); on the other, there is Raskolnikov’s rational Utilitarian ethic, which justifies the sacrifice of others for the sake of the greater social good (Frank, 501-502).

What the reader finds in Sonya is a woman who continually thinks outside of herself to meet the needs of others. This was Dostoevsky’s highest value of humanity, and it only came through the experience of monumental grace. Sonya could only offer it to Raskolnikov because she had experienced it in a personal way through Christ. Christ did not abandon her in her suffering, he called her to repentance and then went with her in her suffering all the way to her furthest inner prison. It is this Grace that enabled Sonya to love Raskolnikov as she had been loved, not based on what was deserved, but loving contra-conditionally. Karl Notzel wrote in a German edition of The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selections from His Works  “In his last great masterpieces Dostoyevsky shows the wounded soul the way to healing, which is to be unavenging. Such a person is thereby immediately immune to attack –– to the helpless amazement of all” (Notzel,192). Sonya is amazing to the reader, and it is her amazement that enables Roskolnikov to repent and embrace suffering for evil deeds. The amount of suffering was no longer crushing in light of the experience of grace, Dostoevsky writes:

But she was so happy that she almost became frightened of her happiness. Seven years, only seven years! At the beginning of their happiness there were moments when they were both ready to look at those seven years as if they were seven days (Dostoevsky, 550-551).

Tolstoy & Dostoevsky

In conclusion, Tolstoy has a positive outlook on humanity in the sense that whatever moral ills humans have, it is not beyond the individual to make itself well. This differs dramatically from Dostoevsky negative outlook on humanity. He views humanity as totally unable to heal itself, there must be an outside force applying pressure. The type of pressure that leaves genuine and lasting change is grace. Grace is defined as receiving contrary to what one deserves. The fundamental difference between the authors is articulated well by Mathews-Green when she writes, “Life is not sugar-coated in Tolstoy’s works; terrible things take place. But it can be argued that he lacks the profound understanding of evil that makes Dostoevsky’s work so powerful” (Mathews-Green, p. 580). Both Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are powerful, they both offer a way of living that will be more beneficial than if they were not read at all. Yet, I think a hybrid of the two views of humanity would be appropriate for living. To be humble enough to know that true and lasting change will not happen in life apart from experiencing monumental acts of grace; and then to be sober enough to realize that happiness will not come in the realization of inordinate desires, but in a soul that is oriented on God and not on self.

Works Cited in Both Post

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Notzel, Karl; Muggeridge, Malcolm; Paker, J.I. Paker. Gordon, James. The Gospel in Dostoyevsky: Selections from His Works. Rifton: The Plough Publishing House, 2011.

Reynolds, John Mark. The Great Books Reader: Excerpts And Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization. Bloomington: Bethany House, 2011.

Mathews-Green, Frederica “On Anna Karenina”  (From The Great Books Reader)

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.

Yancey, Philip. “Be Ye Perfect, More or Less: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the impossible Sermon on the Mount.” Christianity Today: July 17, 1975.


About Daniel Ray
My wife and I live in Waxhaw, NC. Currently, I am a Sales Manager for a flooring company in Charlotte and also a distance student at UNCG. When I have time I like to hear live music, play golf, run, read good books, hike and ride my mountain bike. My wife and I are sinners saved by grace, trying to walk it out in grace.

One Response to Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (2 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (1 of 2) « NewSelf

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