The Power of Mercy
By Thea Keuning
Compassion can break down even the most hardened spiritual corruption.
Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s novel Crime and Punishment details the sufferings of a man named Raskolnikov, a lonely man tortured by the repulsive yet irresistible question, “Could I murder?” He answers the question by murdering someone—a horrific experience that causes him immense suffering in the forms of both conscious and unconscious self-loathing. But neither of these agonies bring him to repentance. Ultimately, only a friend’s incredible mercy and love have the power to free his tortured soul.
After the murder, Raskolnikov’s exhilarating hopes of being a conscience-less killer, of being a benefactor to humanity, of helping his beloved mother and sister, seem ridiculous. He realizes he only killed to prove to himself that he could. And he did kill, but in weakness and terror. So he avoids the feeling of his own emptiness and inadequacy by still trying to feel brilliant and in control, evading and confusing the police and skilfully putting himself in a position where he has control over whether he confesses or not. Why, he thinks, should he confess? Was that really a crime? Nonetheless, he is tortured by a compulsion to confess which intensifies until he realizes suicide would prove he is in control of himself. He tries it—and fails. He cannot get away from himself, and that is the thing he hates most. Finally compelled to confess to the police, he still convinces himself that he is in control.
Raskolnikov’s self-loathing keeps him from honest repentance, preventing him from admitting that he is confessing because he is sick of suffering, that perhaps he is actually guilty. Instead, he sees punishment in prison as a kind of brainwashing that he is consciously submitting to. He claims he is confessing because of his own vileness, which proves that some part of him is above the vileness, scorning it. If he can still hate himself, then a part of him is still that brilliant, cold man he thought he was.
Raskolnikov acknowledges that he is ashamed of being weak, but not that he is ashamed of being a murderer. Yet he does realize there is something horrible in his soul that he cannot get away from, an agony that intensifies in the presence of his family. Their love and concern for him irritate him, for he is not the brilliant, ambitious young man his mother and sister have put their hopes in, nor is he the falsely-accused victim that his friend Razumikhin wants to encourage and comfort. He knows they are loving something false; his true self, the murderer, does not deserve their love. In his secrecy and shame, “gloomy feelings of tormenting, unending loneliness and alienation suddenly and consciously took possession of his soul.”
What finally leads this tortured man to repentance? A young woman named Sonya, whose love and purity captivate and astonish Raskolnikov. She forces him to look beyond himself, causing him to experience “an immense, new feeling of full, powerful life surging within him,” a feeling like “that of a man condemned to death who is suddenly and unexpectedly pardoned.” Yet this euphoria fades, for the closer he becomes to Sonya, the more uncomfortable and wretched he feels beside her purity, and his shame at her love for him eventually provokes him to confess to her. And to Raskolnikov’s astonishment, her reaction is neither condemnation nor horror, but compassion.
“Just look, you’re crying and embracing me again—why are you embracing me? Because I myself couldn’t endure it and came to unburden myself on someone else: ‘you’ll suffer too, and it’ll be easier for me!’ Can you possibly love such a scoundrel?”
Sonya’s love is impossible. She knows his guilt and cruelty firsthand, as Raskolnikov has often lashed out at her and made her suffer; yet she loves him, and her love frees Raskolnikov from all his torments and fears, albeit in a painful and difficult process that starts with her compelling him to publicly confess his crime and leads to his imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp. Repentance is a complex and strange experience, and Raskolnikov feels no relief or freedom for many years. But Sonya follows him into his isolation and imprisonment, bestowing comfort on him, weeping for his dark experiences, and responding with mercy to his cruelty towards her, until suddenly a moment comes when the powerful reality of Sonya’s unfailing and lavish love fully overwhelms him and dispels his darkness, and he realizes he loves her too. He is finally free of himself because his love for Sonya is stronger than his agony. He truly repents now, not out of terror or guilt, but completely for love of her.
“Raskolnikov felt and realized at that moment, once and for all, that Sonya was with him now and forever; she would go with him to the ends of the earth, wherever fate might send him.” This realization is vital in empowering Raskolnikov to heal and receive grace. Sonya’s love echoes the text: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”
Thea Keuning is a junior at RiverTree School in Minneapolis, MN. She is planning to study psychology, sociology, or ethics, and is considering Cornell, Knox, and Carthage Colleges.
If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other material here at the Journal, like this author profile of Herodotus, this student art showcase from Veritas School, or these “Great Conversation” pieces on the idea of poetry and the history of oligarchy. And speaking of great conversations, be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored.