Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment aka What Can’t You Get Away With

Essay 2.  Although Crime and Punishment was begun prior to Nietzsche’s first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, it nevertheless offers one of the finest ripostes to Nietzschean power philosophy. Consider the ways Dostoevsky answers Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity through the relationship between Raskolnikov and Sonia.


God is dead   – Nietzsche

Nietzsche is dead – God

<note:review of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is not contained herein, but it’s only Jan. 2 …>

the playful, t-shirt or bumper-snicker worthy sloganeering goes.  Death and life – Nietzsche posits the former (death of God) to find a place for the latter (life for man).  Jesus, of course, had his own take on the relationship: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10 New KJV), “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39) and finally “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).  The nineteenth century Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, also a Christian, embodied that life-giving power of Christ in his 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment, specifically in the love relationship between the Raskolnikov and Sonia.


             The comparison of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is an insightful choice, as Crime and Punishment has been described as “formally two distinct but closely related, things, namely a particular type of tragedy in the classical Greek mold and a Christian resurrection tale.”  [1]  The tragic form espoused by Nietzsche, that of man exercising his will in the face of existence and suffering (or the creative, inspired Dionysian element operating within the more reasoned, Apollonian framework), is fulfilled in Crime and Punishment. But it will be seen that Dostoevsky goes one step further, showing the limits of this autonomy, or will to power, then providing redemption.


The atheism of Nietzsche is pronounced, and needs to be understood before undertaking Dostoevsky’s counter.  Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music was his first book, youthful and energetic, and published in 1872.  Nietzsche’s fundamental direction, however, is revealed most clearly when Nietzsche states in his later (1882) The Gay Science “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. … Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”[2]  Nietzsche thus writes of a once Christian Europe straining to cast aside its religious mooring; this was just a timely case in point for Nietzsche, however, as he held that any form of religion or human morality is socially determined and hence a form of social control or even class warfare.[3]


cp4           In Twilight of the Idols (the primary text from which we understand Nietzsche in this course) instead of the bald (and quite famous) declaration of God’s death, Nietzsche dispenses with Christianity with statements such as  “life terminates where the ‘Kingdom of God’ begins”[4] and “we deny God, we deny responsibility in God: thus alone do we save the world.”[5] With the denial of God and the subsequent embrace of ‘the will to power,’ Nietzsche anticipates what psychologist Victor Frankl would predict a century later as the alternatives once there is an existential vacuum, or loss of a ‘will to meaning: “the will to power” (and its “most primitive form … the will to money”), and the “will to pleasure.”[6] Perhaps even more famously, Malcolm Muggeridge described it in these terms: “If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place. It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Hefner.”[7]


Nietzsche’s will to power in fact seems to begin as a will to pleasure, as he offers “a spiritualization of sensuality, a great triumph over Christianity”[8]  But Nietzsche ends up with naked personal autonomy, the will to power, as where once the “peace of the soul” was desired, that peace would now amount to “the calm breathing that denotes ‘the freedom of the will’ has been attained.” [9]  Nietzsche’s will to power is thus a simple case of personal, Godless autonomy,[10] a version of the Psalmist’s “the fool has said in his heart, there is no God,” (Psalms. 14:1), of the unrighteous in Romans 1 who have “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man” (Romans 1:23), of Milton’s lost souls who declare “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” [11] or of those to whom God relents and is said to declare “thy will be done.”[12] But it is largely through the offer of a richer life that Nietzsche stakes his claim.  Claiming to follow and even best figures such as Goethe and of course the Christians, Nietzsche offers  his version of ‘the abundant life:’  “the psychology of orgiasm conceived as the feeling of a superabundance of vitality and strength,” “the saying of yea to life,” and “ the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibleness” and “the eternal lust of Becoming itself:”[13]


With the strident, self-fulfilled autonomy of Nietzsche as a backdrop, we can now better appreciate the psychological astuteness of Dostoevsky.  The first major novel after his ten year exile in Siberia, we can see in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment the nature of man as both good and loving, as well as evil and guilt-ridden.  Raskolnikov, the protagonist, wrestles with the adoption of a Nietzschean attitude, though he draws from Hegelian philosophy of the world-historical individual, such as a Napoleon, who is above the law owing to the order and enlightenment his conquests will bring to humanity.  Raskolnikov is led by his Hegelian and utilitarian ideologies to commit the murder of an aged and cruel tightwad of a pawnbroker (as well as her innocent sister who happens in on the scene) with the hopes of distributing her wealth to help the very same people she had spent so much of her life taking advantage of. In this act alone, Raskolnikov demonstrates both the good and evil in one’s soul; afterwards, Raskolnikov shows so much anguish as to make his case for the perceptive but (self-)violated conscience ironclad.


Raskolnikov’s enduring, at times self-afflicting, conscience elucidates Dostoevsky’s claims about ideological and philosophical currents of his day.  Reacting in part to the socialist Fourierism that originally landed Dostoevsky in a Siberian work camp for ten years of his life, and to its nihilism and naivete of the human soul, Dostoevsky holds unassailably against the simple agenda of social reforms being effective without engaging the soul of man.  “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently” [14]  Raskolnikov notes; but sadly, the reformers rely on mathematical models of  social systems, assuming they can simply grow a “normal society … and instantly make it righteous and sinless.”[15] Instead, the “the living process of life … the living soul” is left out, and it is that soul, “suspicious” and “retrograde” but not yielding to simple mechanical analysis, that Dostoevsky claims is the true subject matter of history, and of life.[16]


But it is in the love relationship between Raskolnikov (the murderer) and Sonia (the prostitute) that Dostoevsky shows the redeeming power of love, grace and forgiveness.  Raskolnikov’s guilt has eaten away at him throughout the novel – “Man is a scoundrel!”[17] he declares early on, and his own anguished soul shows itself throughout, even to the extent of his persisting (guilt-induced) physical illness after he commits the murders.  While Raskolnikov exhibits the depravity of the soul, he does have his generosity and dignity. But it is in the love relation between Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya and his friend Razumikhin that Dostoevsky exhibits so deftly the nearly divine nature of man and love, as Razumikhin declares enrapturedly “you are a wellspring of kindness, purity, reason, and … perfection” while declaring himself “not worthy to love you, but to worship you is every man’s duty.”[18]


The early relation between Raskolnikov and Sonia portend the redemption that their later relationship will demonstrate.  There is a quiet dignity underlying both characters: Sonia is forced into prostitution to support her younger step-siblings as her father does not support the family, and even  Raskolnikov had some noble motives behind the murders he committed.  But it is Sonia who knows the hope that God offers through such crushing circumstances: when Raskolnikov presses Sonia on her praying to God, she admits “and what would I be without God?” and “He does everything!”[19] At the end of this conversation, perhaps symbolically, Raskolnikov decides to confess to Sonia (on their next meeting) that he is the killer. On that next meeting, Raskolnikov begins by trying to get a response of forgiveness from Sonia by describing a hypothetical situation with different characters; he then admits it was a backhanded way to ask for the forgiveness he vowed he would not otherwise ask of her upon his confession.


The depths of love and forgiveness become more evident in Sonia’s reactions, while Raskolnikov more slowly understands (‘men! … ‘).  Upon Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonia, Sonia embraces him and he is overwhelmed with “a feeling long unfamiliar to him (which) flooded his soul and softened it all at once.”[20] Love’s work is not complete in Raskolnikov at this point, however, as Sonia’s further suggestion of accompanying him to hard labor is met with his resistance to turning himself in, and in his words Sonia “suddenly could hear the murderer”[21] again.  But at the funeral, Raskolnikov is impressed by the “boundlessness of one’s own humiliation”[22] he feels as Sonia turns from her prayers to take both his hands and embrace him.  The humiliation was Sonia’s and his own; on a symbolic level, this represents the humiliation of Christ in embracing us in our own sinfulness, as well as in our own humility in accepting His undeserved love, his Grace.  By contrast, forgiveness and grace are as similar in their absence from Nietzsche as sin and forgiveness are in a Joel Osteen sermon. The nobility of man, so prized and coveted by Nietzsche, slips in through the back door of forgiveness and humility for Dostoevsky.  In accepting the humility of Christ, nobility follows.

As Raskolnikov nears his full repentance, turning himself in, he finds in Sonia the resources that we find in Christ.  Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, in considering Sonia’s accompanying Raskolnikov to the labor camp, finds in Sonia a “human being  when he had needed a human being” [23]and a figure very close to Christ, who is “not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15).  Sonia herself shows the dignity and nobility of a life scented with redemptive love, as her sacrifice of herself to support her siblings (her own humiliation, as Raskolnikov had noted earlier how she had been a great sinner herself, but with the crime being against herself[24]) has Dunya bowing to her with so much reverence that it nearly embarrasses Sonia, though the image “remained forever in her soul as one of the most beautiful and unattainable visions of her life.”[25]

It is in Sonia that Raskolnikov finds his last glimpse of humanity before he heads off to his rightful doom. Reflecting on why he visited her one last time, receiving a cypress cross for himself to match her brass one from Lizaveta, the murdered sister,  he admits [26]


I wanted her tears, I wanted to see her frightened, to look at her heartache and torment! I wanted to cling, at least to something, to linger, to look at a human being! And I dared have such high hopes for myself, such dreams, abject as I am, worthless – a scoundrel, a scoundrel!


Raskolnikov’s desire for something, or someone, with whom he could empathize, speaks of human longings satisfiable only in Christ, or in this case, in Sonia.  His desire to see her ‘heartache and torment’ is also consistent with Raskolnikov’s statements throughout on how suffering allowed him to feel at least human (compared to the sterile theorizings of the socialists), though Sonia’s symbolic Christlike figure is certainly relevant.  It is also Sonia who had directed him in the ways of confession, asking him to kiss the ground in the square and declare “I am a murderer!”[27] Sonia’s final looks to Raskolnikov when he initially re-emerged from the police station without having confessed, “pale, numb all over” with a “pained and tormented .. desperate” face, while giving him a “wild, wild look”[28] speak of the deadening effect of sin, with wild desire to find the life that could exist on the other side of redemption.


So ends Crime and Punishment proper, cited as qualifying as a classical tragedy.  The Christian symbolism of Dostoevsky (and his characters) is there to be found, but it is not until the Epilogue that the story truly earns its moniker of redemptive tale. In the first year of his incarceration, Raskolnikov’s lifeless actions resemble those of the socialists whom he previously deplored. Simple mechanical motions, instead of “an inner life … there stood only facts,” and “constantly sullen, taciturn … and uninterested”[29] depict Raskolnikov at this point.  His Crime had received Punishment, but his soul had not found any rest or home.   It was Raskolnikov’s wounded pride, more than the physical humiliation of the camp, that bade him such ill. The stupidity of his actions, the shame of his blunder and how insignificant he had thus become, tugged at him more than any pangs of a guilty conscience. Submitting to the “meaninglessness” of his sentence, reconciling how he had “perished so blindly, hopelessly, vainly and stupidly,” and the “pointless and purposeless anxiety in the present,, and in the future, one endless sacrifice by which nothing would be gained:” Raskolnikov’s lostness and lack of meaning, significance and hope are thorough and complete.


‘The power of love’ – there it has been said. It was a mystery to Raskolnikov at this point: the prisoners had love for life which he could not understand in his futile and unrepentant state, neither could he figure out how it was that Sonia had become so beloved by his fellow prisoners.  Her record of small but continual acts of kindness for prisoners and their loved ones had ingratiated her into their hearts. The insightful course posting by the eminent Ryan Grube made clear how such a persistent train of perhaps not entirely random acts of love and kindness provide the seeds which the evangelist only waters with his words, and does the work of winning lost souls.

It  is this power of Christian charity that finally envelopes Raskolnikov in the end. His kneeling and weeping come from his understanding that he loves Sonia “infinitely;” while “infinite happiness lit up in her eyes,” and they shared “complete resurrection into a new life.” The reason for this, as Dostoevsky poetically penned it: they were “resurrected by love, the heart of each (having) held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other” [30]  One may question in what way(s) is this any different from anything like an early modern theory of the sentiments, an epiphenomenal of sorts emotive theory of ethics or a gushy Hallmark romance movie?  It lies precisely in this fact: the punishment for Raskolnikov’s crime could perform no restoration within his soul, his soul was in fact largely dead (and unrepentant to boot) at this point.  But it was the life of Sonia’s outreaching love that was able to save Raskolnikov.  Sonia’s love had depicted and embodied Christ’s love throughout their relationship, and it finally won its way into Raskolnikov’s heart.  Raskolnikov himself then possesses Christ’s love, symbolically thinking then of  “by what infinite love he would now redeem all her sufferings,” [31] in the same way Sonia had just redeemed his.

“Witness at all times. If necessary, use words” famously quoth the Roman Catholic Saint Francis De Sales in 16th century Geneva.  This much Sonia had done; Raskolnikov then re-discovers the book of the Gospels Sonia had given him earlier. The book he had previously used as a pillow, so well noted in its symbolism by Mr. Grube, now crowns the work of Sonia. Raskolnikov had incorrectly assumed Sonia would preach religion at him from the get-go, but only after his heart is won does he move to ponder the formal religion behind it all. But it is with a heart won over to love and feeling, and not the dialectics of his previous philosophizing, that he is then able to allow “something completely different … to work itself out in his consciousness.”[32]


So, what to make of this as ‘a riposte to Nietzsche?’ Has Dostoevsky shown him the way to redemption? In seeking to affirm and suck the marrow out of life, Nietzsche aimed for the mountains, but ended up with merely a molehill, that of man itself, impoverished by self-love and the limitations of his own imagination. Nietzsche understood the value of life in a sense, after all it was he who stated “Life without music would be a mistake. The German imagines even  God as a songster.”[33]  Nietzsche’s solution is similar to C.S. Lewis’s description in the Weight of Glory [34]

       It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Or, like a ‘merely annoying beggar’ who wanders off too early rather than the importunate beggar whom Jesus praised. In the Christian life the same mistake can be made, as the poet JoAnn Kelly penned: [35]


If you had been living while Christ was on earth,

and met the Savior kind,

what would you have asked for Him to do,

supposing that you were stone blind?

The child considered and then replied

‘I suppose without a doubt I would ask the Lord for a guide dog to lead me about.’

How often thus in faithless prayers we acknowledge with shamed surprise,

We have only asked for a dog with a chain when we might have had open eyes.


Nietzsche’s appetite for dramatic, creative, dignity-of-man-affirming Dionysian tragedy thus pales next to Dostoevsky’s dead end of human effort.  It is the infinite love of Christ, reflected at first from Sonia to Raskolnikov and then back again, that makes not so much blind men see, or reformers and social engineers more effective, but instead dead men come to life.





Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Books, 1993 .


Frankl, Victor.  Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.


Lewis, C.S.  The Weight of Glory and other Essays,ed. Walter Hooper.  New York: Macmillan, 1980.


Lewis, C.S.  The Great Divorce. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.


Nietzsche, Friecrich.  The Portable Nietzsche, ed. WalterKaufmann. New York: Viking, 1954.


Nietzsche, Friecrich.  A Nietzsche Compendium, ed. David Taffel, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008. Nook.


Westphal, Merold.  Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

[1]           Cassedy, Steven (1982). “The Formal Problem of the Epilogue in Crime and Punishment: The Logic of Tragic and Christian Structures”. Dostoevsky Centenary Conference at the University of Nottingham 3, 171. International Dostoevsky Society.

[2]                Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Madman,” in  The Gay Science, ed. Walter Kaufmann ed. The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking, 1954), 125.

[3]              Merold Westphal, Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), 232.

[4]     Friedrich Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols.” In  A Nietzsche Compendium, ed. David Taffel, (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008), 374. Nook.

[5]     Ibid., 357.

[6]     Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 112.

[7]     Wow is the source hard to find … though highly quoted.

[8]     Ibid., 347.

[9]     Ibid., 347.

[10]   The operation of the human will alongside the Divine is of course a sort of paradox taken up by many respectable writers under the guise ‘the problem of evil.’ The essential mystery of the situation reminds one of the Christian mysteries of the Trinity and how in marriage two become one flesh. C.S. Lewis perhaps stated it most poetically in The Great Divorce, as “Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality,” on p. 141 of the 2001 edition cited in the next footnote.

[11]   C.S.Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 71.

[12]   Ibid., 75.

[13]   Ibid., 408.

[14]   Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 235 .

[15]   Ibid., 256.

[16]   Ibid., 256.

[17]   Ibid., 158.

[18]   Ibid., 203.

[19]   Ibid., 323-324.

[20]   Ibid., 412.

[21]   Ibid.,v412.

[22]   Ibid., 441.

[23]   Ibid., 521.

[24]   Ibid., 322.

[25]   Ibid., 521.

[26]   Ibid., 524.

[27]   Ibid., 525.

[28]   Ibid., 530.

[29]   Ibid., 541.

[30]   Ibid., 549.

[31]   Ibid., 550.

[32]   Ibid., 550.

[33]   Friedrich Nietzsche, “Maxims and Missiles,” in Twilight of the Idols, 1888, Maxim 33.

[34]   C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and other Essays,ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 3-4.

[35]   Difficult to find; quoted in the sermon by Isaac  Shaw, Men Ought Always to Pray and Not Give Up, Sermon delivered May 19, 2013 Parkside Church, Solon, OH.  Online

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