It is my firm conviction that one of the greatest penances that people must bear is to suffer the ongoing consequences of their sin. In doing so, these consequences can have a purifying effect; the suffering incurred by sin has a way of making one holy. It is for this reason alone that I can recommend Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Though a masterpiece in psychology and the spiritual life, it is simply painful to read because of its likeness to reality.
On Tuesday, I finally finished this piece of classic literature. Having begun reading it and stopped two times previously, this was no small accomplishment. It is not as though the book is too dense, or the ideas too complex, or the plot too slow that halted my progress. Rather, in a way, the book is too heavy. The author's portrayal of sin and self-loathing is too accurate. True to life, Dostoevsky opens the novel with his main character, Raskolnikov, agonizing as he encounters the relentless temptation to sin. Equally true to life, he incrementally justifies the sin in his own head, until he finally arrives at the decision to murder an old pawnbroker and then her sister who catches him in the act. Seeing the plot progress, the reader feels as though he is suffocating, unable to convince Raskolnikov to turn back each when, with each passing epsidoe, he is provided opportunities for doing so.
Raskolnikov does not turn back, though. In a scene as dark as any written by Tarantino, the two women lose their lives to an ax-wielding, impoverished college student. This action occurs early in the book, leaving several hundred pages thereafter, each dripping with Raskolnikov's sense of alienation, self-loathing, his incapacity to love or be loved, and his paradoxical desire to confess coupled with a desperate desire not to be discovered. Through all of this, Raskolnikov is physically ill, an outward manifestation of his inner turmoil. With him, the reader has two desires: alleviate the guilt, but do not get caught. As any sinner can tell you, though, nothing alleviates the guilt of a sin once committed except a good confession. It is that moment toward which the entire novel spirals.
Besides the sins of the main character, Dostoevsky introduces readers to the sins of several other characters. Through them, one comes to see very clearly that no sin is private. Sonya, a young prostitute, lives her life of sin due to the dereliction of her father. Raskolnikov's sister finds herself engaged to a dreadful man in the hope that she might sacrifice herself for the benefit of her brother. A stranger and minor character in the story, nearly goes to the gallows for Raskolnikov's crime.
Only in the last few chapters of the book does a glimmer of hope begin to shine. Confronted by a lawyer convinced of his guilt, Raskolnikov begins to acknowledge his sin and to begin to suffer the consequences thereof. This is the start of a long healing process. Through suffering, he finds that he is able to love again. Through suffering, he is able to begin to forgive himself. Through suffering, he is able to let others forgive him. In a word, through his suffering, Raskolnikov is able to find the truth of his own sin and depravity. In knowing these, he finally comes to recognize the true depths of love.
This book is agonizing because it is true. Too real are the emotions and thoughts of Raskolnikov. Anyone who has undergone an experience of conversion will find himself resisting the book, screaming within himself, "I will not go back there. I will not go through this again." Punishment, one discovers at the end of this novel, has little to do with the suffering one endures at the hands of another. Suffering of that sort would be easier. Indeed, one often wishes that another would simply punish him so that his sin could be expiated. Such is not often the case, though. Instead, punishment is the real experience inflicted on himself of any man of conscience who has sinned. This self-inflicted punishment is necessary. It carries with it the possibility of salvation. Like Raskolnikov, each of us must confront the truth of our wickedness and perversion. We must suffer the consequences that such knowledge brings. In doing so, we will experience love, and we too will love. By this love, we will find salvation. That is the mystery of the Cross.