It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to read fiction, and I like to at least read one every few months to make sure that my heart remains full and refreshed. I read plenty of narrative prose for my research and day job, and I read plenty of prose for learning about Christ and teaching in my church. While I love the beauty of well-written, technical, narrative prose, my heart remains detached from the details of those documents. I cannot remain detached from the fiction that I read.
My latest book was Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This was, quite possibly, the best book that I have ever read. For me, the power of the book is in its communicating the power of love to redeem and transform even the most guilty conscience.
In my opinion, this book, like Anna Karenina, was much more about a supporting cast member, Sonechka, than the main character, Rodya. While the book deals mainly with the acts and thoughts of Rodya, his ideas about the doctrine of man from the agnostic/atheistic and theistic/Christian perspectives, social structure and hierarchy, guilt and the identity of man, the book makes its main statements through the actions of Sonechka.
As a Christian, I find Sonechka’s place in the story remarkable. Having become a prostitute to support her family in spite of her father’s alcoholism and depression, her lower caste and occupation makes her essentially untouchable in the contemporary Russian society. Nonetheless, her nobility is demonstrated in her inability to remain indifferent when confronted with the suffering of her family. Rodya rightly sees this aspect of her character, and even appraises her character much more highly than the higher caste Luzhin, engaged to his sister. Luzhin has the higher social position and resource, but he is of much lower character, treating his future mother-in-law and fiancé with great contempt.
At the end of the book, Sonechka is vindicated as we witness the closing scene between Rodya and Sonechka. Having been sent to Siberia for his murder, Rodya has recovered from a sickness and now has the chance to receive Sonechka after an illness of her own. During this time, it becomes clear to him how much he loves her and is indebted to her reckless companionship and faith in his future redemption. We are told at the end of the book that it is her tireless love that convinces Rodya to pursue life, spurning guilt’s heavy weight on his conscience and giving him a taste of the sweetness of life. He is compared to Lazarus, in my opinion. Just as Lazarus is resurrected at the word of Jesus, the redemption of God endures beyond the greatest guilt that can be upon any man or woman. Sonechka clearly believes this, as we see from her reading of this story with Rodya when he visits her after his sister spurns Luzhin, and this story is in the background of the final third of the book as we approach Rodya’s confession.
Crime and Punishment closes with a statement of newness of life for Rodya, a statement of renewal and regeneration. There’s so much more in this that could be explored–the use of a broken vessel to bring life to a guilty soul; the inability to escape one’s own guilt; the fact that our deeds and desires carry us along despite our desire to master them. But I leave the exploration of these topics to my fellow reader.
But here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. It might make the subject of a new story–but our present story is ended.