“I am currently on an extended break from my reading journey through the Great Books of the Western World.”
—Stephen

“Yet There Is Life”: Embracing Suffering in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

by Stephen James Carter on May 9, 2013

Suffering is nothing new to Raskolnikov—or for many of the characters in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for that matter. Suffering, rather, is a way of life, a status of being. The reader follows the story of Raskolnikov as he suffers physically from delirium, emotionally from his conscience, and spiritually from his depravity. While suffering appears to be universal in the story (extending even to the Christ-like Sonya) it is in the embracing of the suffering that true power lies. In the story, suffering, when embraced, ushers in a greater appreciation for life which, if properly channeled, yields redemption.

The first benefit from the acceptance of suffering is an awareness of the preciousness of life. Raskolnikov experiences this after witnessing the suffering of Marmeladov who, on his death bed, cast his eyes on his daughter with “infinite suffering show[ing] in his face.” The cause for this suffering came with the knowledge, on Marmeladov’s part, that his actions forced his daughter into a life of prostitution to provide for the family. Raskolnikov, who sees and understands this suffering, uses Marmeladov’s death as an opportunity to fully appreciate the gift of life. He recalls an anecdote about “a narrow ledge” where a condemned man wishes for a mere square foot of space to live out his remaining days rather than end them now. His initial thoughts after Marmeladov’s include a “new, boundless sensation of a sudden influx of full and powerful life” which leads him back to a bridge where earlier, contemplating his own suicide, he witnessed a suicide attempt. Now, changed, transformed, he states, “There is life” and purposes to go see his friend. While this observation of suffering on his part leads to an appreciation for life, the feelings are temporary and fade quickly as his conscience battles on weakening his desire to live. Here it is suggested that Raskolnikov’s attempt to suffer vicariously leads only to fleeting satisfaction.

While vicarious suffering leads to fleeting satisfaction, the novel suggests that true redemption lies only with embracing suffering for oneself. This notion comes to the reader through the police detective Porfiry whose seemingly unorthodox methods of entrapment walk the line between madness and brilliance. Nonetheless, he sees through Raskolnikov and justly accuses him of the murder despite a recent confession from a workingman. This confession is explained away by Porfiry as the desire to embrace suffering: “Because suffering . . . is a great thing . . . there is an idea in suffering.” This idea, though unstated, seems to be the possibility for redemption. It is this idea that seems to tempt Raskolnikov to not “disdain life” but rather to confess and accept the consequences for his crime. He confesses and is sent to Siberia, expecting, it would seem, the promised benefits of suffering. He waits, and nothing happens. He then begins to disdain the appreciation for life that suffering brings about in the other convicts: “He looked at his fellow convicts and was amazed: how they, too, all loved life, how they valued it! It precisely seemed to him that in prison they loved and valued it even more, cherished it even more than in freedom.” But yet he remains empty and miserable.

It is not until his complete embracing of suffering, which happens literally with the embracing of Sonya’s feet, that Raskolnikov enters into the redemption suffering brings. While vicarious suffering left him only temporary peace, true suffering brings him “the dawn of a renewed future, of a complete resurrection into a new life.” Now, like Lazarus, “he was risen and he knew it” and the presence of Sonya’s Gospels under his pillow takes on an even greater significance. Now, at the novel’s close, Raskolnikov stands ready to accept the terms of his newly given resurrection, terms that suggest the suffering is far from over but will be worth it all: “He did not even know that a new life would not be given him for nothing, that it still had to be dearly bought, to be paid for with a great future deed.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Carter October 14, 2013 at 1:09 PM

Hi Adam,

I am currently jumping all over the timeline resulting from frustration over the third year plan, and a desire to read more fiction. I’ll be back on track soon, but I’ve found myself drifting all over the place.

Thanks,

Stephen

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lynette June 20, 2013 at 9:22 PM

Hmmm…I like this. What is “true” suffering vs. vicarious? How do we embrace it?

Reply

Adam June 13, 2013 at 11:51 AM

Stephen,

Are you following a reading plan? Your earlier posts seemed to follow the 10 year plan supplied by Adler, but your more recent posts seem to be jumping all over the timeline. Just curious.

Adam

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