Crime, Punishment, and Compassion

It was required reading when I first read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in high school, but I’d like to think that I would have eventually read it on my own volition, as it has become one of the most influential writings that I have read.  As the reader follows the main character, Raskolnikov, through his murder, justification, eventual guilt, and confession of killing the greedy pawnbroker in town, Alyona, there is a sense of intense attachment that develops. Getting inside of the thought processes that motivated Raskolnikov to murder Alyona, the reader cannot quickly dismiss Raskolnikov simply as an evil person. He goes through an intense justification, going back and forth on his decision to murder her as many do with innumerable evils in our own lives. While the psychological exploits of a one-time murderer are enough to create a good story, it is his relationships that make Raskolnikov such a relatable character. His relationships, toxic or healthy, with his family, friends, and acquaintances drive the reader to see herself as if she were in the same situation.   

Dostoevsky explores social relations, the moral good, and redemption in this book. As Raskolnikov tries to hide his deed from the people he loves as well as the people he despises, he begins to distance himself from reality and interaction with others, which leads to introspection and seeps him further in guilt. There is a simple moment in the novel that Raskolnikov has this beautiful exchange with a child, she sees through his barriers and the space that he has put between himself and reality after he committed murder. The child is a minor character, to say the least, and barely makes more than one appearance, but in that moment my world shifted.

Growing up in and believing faithfully in an exclusive religious sect, at 17-years-old I starkly saw the world in black and white: there was good and bad, right and wrong, and most influentially, loved and unloved. When Dostoevsky’s writing pulled at my emotional response, it also pulled at my theological leanings, and in the course of reading the tale of a murderer I took my first step away from legalism. It wasn’t an easy step, and certainly wasn’t a quick one either. It’s been ten years since I first read Crime and Punishment, but I still often think about how it first affected me and how I view the world. This fictional work of Dostoevsky was most influential to me because Raskolnikov was the first murderer for whom I had compassion. I felt compelled to love and help him in his story, and I realized that my feelings that overcame this sense of right could and should be transferred to real people. Compassion is something that I believe needs to constantly flow, and I’m still figuring out the balance of forgiveness and compassion. Crime and Punishment had a profound impact on my worldview and I am grateful that it crossed paths with my life when it did and that now I am able to see the world full of grays. 

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