Raskolnikov’s Confession in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Why Part 5, Chapter 4 of Dostoevsky’s Masterpiece is One of My Favorite Scenes in Any Novel.

Nov 13, 2018 · 5 min read

“He had to tell her who had killed Lizaveta. He knew the terrible suffering it would be to him and, as it were, brushed away the thought of it.”

I’ve been counting down my 5 favorite chapters from literature. My #5 pick, the first chapter of Dune, is discussed here. My #4 pick, Chapter 10 of For Whom the Bell Tolls is here.

#3 on my list of the best chapters I’ve ever read is Book 5, Chapter 4 of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov, takes a first step towards rebuilding his soul and rejoining humanity by finally confessing the truth to someone.

Raskolnikov has committed a double murder and gotten away with it.

He confesses to Sonia, the merciful, suffering prostitute whose life has become intertwined with his own.

My friends, this scene, Part 5 Chapter 4 of Crime and Punishment, is one of the most intense, beautiful, and surprising scenes I’ve ever read. Dostoevsky brings the themes of the novel together here with a raw intensity that defies description. THIS is why we read the great books. THIS is why the work of going slowly, of studying the hard works of literature, thinking deeply about them, is more than worth it. Taking in the beauty of art of this caliber is, to me, one of the greatest joys in life.

Raskolnikov starts the hard discussion by reminding Sonia that Luzhin nearly got her sent to prison on false pretenses, and, had Luzhin succeeded, it would have been the ruin of Katerina and all the other people Sonia cares about.

He then asks her a hypothetical: What if you had the opportunity to kill Luzhin in order to save Katerina?

Sonia answers, “I can’t know the Divine Providence. Who has made me a judge to decide who is to live and who is not to live?”

That question: “Who gets to decide who lives and doesn’t live?” is the heart of Crime and Punishment.

Even if we could save the lives of 5 young poor people on the streets by killing one old pawn broker and sharing her wealth, who gets to decide that?

Raskolnikov, in a moment of weakness, allowed himself to think that he gets to be the judge. He quickly found that the question wasn’t nearly as simple as he thought, that a cowardly, secret act of premeditated murder destroyed an integral part of who he was.

And now Sonia presses him to say what he’s come here to say. We get the feeling that she already knows. Has the time finally come for Raskolnikov to confess to someone?

The moment of revelation is oblique. Raskolnikov still doesn’t have the fortitude to say aloud the truth of what he’s done. But he knows that Sonia has already figured out the truth, and he says something interesting.

“Take a good look.”

What Sonia says in response to this moment of revelation took my breath away.

First she says, “What have you done?” which we might expect her to say.

Then, immediately after, she wails, “What have you done to yourself!”

Sonia understands, implicitly, the cost of what Raskolnikov has done. She understands that, while he is still alive, a part of him is just as dead as the two women he murdered, and in that moment, we realize that, though Sonia lives a harrowing day-in day-out life of struggle, working as a prostitute so her family can eat, that her life is a paradise compared to the hell Raskolnikov has made for himself.

She tells Raskolnikov as much.

“There is no one,” she shouts at Raskolnikov, “no one in the world now so unhappy as you!”

The message from Dostoevsky is devastatingly clear, and we believe it.

Dostoevsky is telling us that no amount of poverty and physical suffering can compare to the suffering of the soul. He’s telling us that true happiness doesn’t come from one’s social station, that it matters very little if you’re a poor prostitute or a wealthy baron. What matters much, much more, is the integrity of your soul.

And even though Sonia has nothing, her life is one of misery and pain, she immediately feels intense pity for Raskolnikov, because she can look at him, see how he’s destroyed the good in him, and know that his unhappiness is orders of magnitude worse than hers.

Having taken on his suffering as her own, Sonia has given Raskolnikov permission to be honest with himself about the nature of what he’s done, and, for the first time in the novel, he sees himself clearly. He says aloud all the rationalizations he gave himself for his act of murder and hears, for the first time, how trite and awful they sound.

Raskolnikov was under the sway of the radical utilitarian philosophy so popular in 19th century Russia, a philosophy that told him it was okay to murder a mean old crone who hordes her wealth, like the pawnbroker. In allowing Raskolnikov to see the emptiness and craven selfishness of his own motivations, Dostoevsky is condemning the philosophy itself. In this moment, as Raskolnikov faces the cold, hard truth, Dostoevsky provides a devastating indictment of the thought currents in Russia that would eventually lead to revolution.

But more important than the politics in this scene is the personal. Crime and Punishment is an exploration of spirituality, and how it’s tied to our acts and our relationships. In choosing to separate himself from society, and declare himself a superior man, Raskolnikov has destroyed his soul.

In choosing to share in his suffering, Sonia is helping him regain it.

The writing in the scene is beautiful. The depth of thought is stunning. The philosophy is prescient. The politics were proven correct over time.

It’s an unforgettable chapter and one of the most powerful reading experiences I’ve ever had.

Spencer Baum

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On Medium I write about great thinkers and big ideas with a focus on classic literature. spencerbaum.net

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