RPM, Volume 12, Number 28, July 11 to July 17, 2010

Descent into the Labyrinth*

By Scott Schuleit

It has been said that Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is the most psychologically incisive novel ever written. In light of the fact that literary history contains numerous works of staggering psychological richness, that's quite a statement. Some authors with works which could be contenders for this crown are: Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and William Faulkner. Though I'm only mildly learned in literature, after having read the book, I can't help but think that this audacious claim might be true. In my limited experience, I'm personally not aware of a more keen, penetrating descent into the mind of a character like that within Crime and Punishment.

The story surrounds a man named Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, who decides to engage in an experiment to validate his own thesis that there are certain rare individuals—greater in their gifts and capacities than the common man—who achieve great things by transgressing the laws that ordinary people obey, and that these transgressions, no matter what they are, are not evil, for they are done in the present to procure a future good for all mankind who temporarily fail to foresee the forthcoming benefit. In order to prove his thesis, Raskolnikov plots to murder a wealthy, wicked woman and steal her money to use for the benefit of humanity. He then proceeds to murder this woman as well as her sister—who unexpectedly stumbles into the scene to become a second victim in his hideous experiment. Haunted with guilt from the crimes he's committed, Raskolnikov now attempts, through a myriad of means, to destroy his guilt-plagued conscience which pursues him relentlessly, torturing him with the searing throb of his sins. While Raskolnikov descends deeper into the labyrinth of his guilt and rationalizations, he meets a young, dejected prostitute named Sonia, and through her, (one of many important, well fleshed-out characters within this complex novel) a Christian influence works on him. Eventually, he becomes aware that his experiment is a failure, and that he is not one of these, so called, great men, and begins wrestling with the idea of turning himself in.

In understanding Crime and Punishment, it can be helpful to be aware that Dostoevsky patterned Raskolnikov largely after Lord Byron's (1788-1824) famous, and highly influential, Byronic hero. The Byronic hero—though I would most certainly not call him a hero within traditional or biblical categories—is, and there have been many interpretations of him that more or less coincide with each other, that of an individual who holds talents and abilities that far exceed that of the average man. This hero is an immensely passionate, irascible, moody, melancholic, hypersensitive and gloomy person who is an outcast and rebel from society (of which he holds in disdain) due to his deviant, non-conventional behavior. This figure is a wanderer who fashions his own moral-code, and is willing to defy man, and even God to fulfill it. He goes about doing what is right in his own eyes without thought of the consequences to himself or anyone else. Though harboring a great burden of guilt, in his enormous pride, this tragic figure remains unrepentant, a posture which propels him to his demise.

Some other classic literary representations of the Byronic hero include: Dr. Frankenstein in Shelley's Frankenstein, Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick, and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. The antecedent figure, from which the Byronic hero was at least partly modeled after (undoubtedly it would have been to John Milton's chagrin if he had been around to see it) was the character of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost.

From a Christian perspective, we might see the Byronic hero (or anti-hero, since he is antithetical to the traditional view of a hero) as exhibiting characteristics corresponding to the radically depraved desires of the human heart. This character actually makes for a fascinating, and beneficial study—if seen from a biblical perspective—into the pernicious desires and machinations that emerge from our sinful nature.

In our culture today, it is unfortunate that forms of Byron's anti-hero are actually often revered and applauded rather than rebuked or considered repugnant. The standard American hero typically looks more like that of the Byronic hero. The lines of distinction between good and evil are continually being blurred. Rather than being seen as an example of what not to emulate, we find these figures loved and imitated in the arts and real life. Of course, this shouldn't surprise us; rather, it should be seen as the tragic, inevitable consequences—the worm-ridden fruit—of a rapidly degenerating, relativistic, post-Christian society. Obviously it's not inherently wrong for an author or poet to fashion a character like this, but the problem lies in portraying the Byronic hero in such a way as to elicit our admiration rather than our disgust. These kinds of characters are certainly interesting, but definitely dangerous if left unchallenged by the Christian worldview.

Some believe that it is wrong for Christians to include such characters in their works of literature. However, if it were inherently inappropriate to do this, then it would logically follow to say that God should never have allowed these kinds of historical personages into His Word. I say this, in part, to make the point that there is nothing wrong for a Christian author to fashion—from a biblical perspective—depraved characters in a work of art, or to deal with dark, difficult subjects. I also say this to fight the problem of shallow, flowery, maudlin, and overly didactic Christian fiction and poetry, which we as Christians have a tendency to produce too much of. Fortunately for us, Dostoevsky, who became a Christian at the age of thirty-seven, (well before the writing of Crime and Punishment) did not have this problem, otherwise he would have possibly been forgotten a long time ago.

It should be noted that Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov seems to have diverged in at least one major way from Byron's hero, and though I wouldn't say the evidence is absolutely conclusive, a case could be made that towards the end of the novel Raskolnikov exhibited signs of genuine repentance, and became a Christian.

*This book review was first published on April 2nd, 2003 on the Ligonier Ministries Website. It has, since then, been slightly revised.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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