Some make the common remark that they are unimpressed when they hear of youths reading difficult works, because children and adolescents cannot understand all the intricacies of the works they read. I, as one of those youths, would always respond that understanding something is better than understanding nothing at all. For example, it is better to understand the Pacific Ocean to the degree wading around the shore allows than simply to know that there somewhere exists an ocean named Pacific.
And so, I gained a surface understanding of the novel Crime and Punishment around the age of 13 or 14. I followed what the novel told me: Raskolnikov felt weak and powerless “like a spider.” And so, he committed the crime to feel good about himself–to feel powerful like Napoleon. But, reading the work now, I feel like this desire insinuated itself in the place of his true desire: to reveal his inner self to other people. But, I should perhaps have understood this sooner. Notes from the Underground is very much related to Crime and Punishment. And what is the essential nature of that short story? It’s a confession.
After all, what is Raskolnikov seeking as he wanders the streets of St. Petersburg? Someone to whom to reveal himself! And he does meet someone who confesses to him–a drunk whom Raskolnikov meets at a tavern. The drunk confesses how he constantly disappointed his wife, his family’s situation drove his daughter into prostitution, and he himself, when given a second chance, threw it all away on drink. He also confesses his hope that Jesus Christ will see sinners and all their wickedness (bearing “the mark of the beast” as he put it) at the apocalypse and forgive them. This scene probably impressed itself deeply into Raskolnikov’s psyche.
Yet, it is not until after committing the crime–even while he is still at the scene of his murder–that the desire to confess his crime comes out most strongly. He wants to confess it to the people knocking outside the apartment door, who know that there is something amiss. He wants to confess it to the police. Repressing this desire causes Raskolnikov to become sick with fever, which reminds one of the line from Psalm 32: “I kept it secret and my frame wasted.”
Interestingly, he is summoned to the police station because of an IOU his landlady brought forth against him. There, he delivers a confession of sorts about how he used to be betrothed to the landlady’s daughter until this young lady died one year ago. At which point, his landlady became less forgiving of the tardiness of his payments. After hearing this story, the policemen look upon Raskolnikov with embarrassment and contempt. People don’t tell about their personal lives to strangers! At least, not unless they are seated at a bar or suffering from extreme loneliness as Raskolnikov is.
Raskolnikov again has a strong desire to confess his crime, but does so neither here nor in the telling scene in Razumihin’s apartment, where his aimless wanderings take him. Razumihin was his best friend while he studied at university. Even though Dostoyevsky does not explicitly write it, one feels that Raskolnikov, who remains tight lipped as Razumihin confesses what he has been up to and even gives Raskolnikov a share of the advance on a translation job if he will join him in it, went here to confess. Especially since Raskolnikov, after leaving the house with the payment and the project, stupidly returns back to the apartment and hands both the money and project back to Razumihin. To which Razumihin responds: “What the devil did you come here for?” To confess is the obvious answer, but the cold disdain Raskolnikov received from the police about his more minor confession has made him even more unwilling.
Razumihin, in the translation, basically says “Confound you if you won’t tell me anything!” And confusion certainly befalls Raskolnikov, as he no longer feels connected to his fellow men and falls into a delirious sickness. Why? Because no one knows him as he really is. No one knows his sins or how weak and crazed he has become. This delirium lasts until he is at last induced to confess his crime and lays everything bare in the trial.
But, confession is so hard! A particular genius of the Catholic faith is revealed in the confessional, where we reveal that dark part of ourselves which we would be ashamed to have our friends or family know. By confessing and placing our inner selves on display, both the good and the bad, we become more connected to reality and to others as they confirm what we think, tell us we think amiss, or admonish us to change, which is what Raskolnikov really wanted.