Rescuing Raskolnikov: Student Poverty in Crime and Punishment

Ewan Bowlby explains how reading Crime and Punishment can help us to understand and respond to the shame and loneliness caused by student poverty, for the first article in our important new series on the “Art of Poverty”. 

In times of financial instability and uncertainty, students often suffer. Whilst the pain and concern caused by the current economic crisis will be far reaching, touching almost all of us, students tend to be amongst the most vulnerable.[1] Laden with debt, students are left exposed to rising interest rates without the reassurance of employment and a guaranteed income.[2] The consequences of this are not just material, as there is a spiritual, emotional dimension to such deprivation. Amongst young people, mounting debt can cause shame and guilt, leading to loneliness and introversion.[3] And this exacerbates existing problems in the student population, in which isolation and mental health issues are already increasing.[4]

In the face of such profound, powerful challenges, it could sound impractical or naïve to suggest that the arts can offer some form of aid. Yet I believe that the imaginative, revelatory aspects of art have something to contribute. When it comes to penetrating, understanding and relieving the shame and loneliness surrounding student finance, literary fiction can help us to relate to those overwhelmed by anxiety. An excellent example of this is the notorious student Rodion Raskolnikov, a character created by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel Crime and Punishment. In a certain sense, Raskolnikov can be seen as a thought experiment exploring the impact of poverty on students. He is a young man ‘frustrated, humiliated and embittered by his poverty’.[5] This privation leads him to feel anger and resentment as he reflects on the plight of ‘the large number of promising young people who are going to rack and ruin without anyone lifting a finger to help them’.[6] Through the character of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky captures and conveys feelings of resentment, frustration and embarrassment that may resonate with many students today, highlighting the vulnerability of ‘promising young people’ who have no financial security. As well as capturing these negative, corrosive emotions, Dostoevsky also gradually reveals how poverty can begin to affect a young person’s mental and spiritual well-being. Raskolnikov is forced to live in cramped, dispiriting accommodation – an ordeal familiar to plenty of modern students – and he describes how ‘low ceilings and small poky little rooms warp both mind and soul’.[7] His complaints give readers insight into the ways that confinement, debt and deprivation can combine to trouble and unsettle souls, especially younger, less mature souls that are still developing.

Eventually, Raskolnikov takes drastic action. He robs and murders a moneylender he was indebted to, citing ‘his wretched material position, his poverty and helplessness’ as his motive.[8] Whilst any good Dostoevsky scholar will tell you that many other motives, missteps and misapprehensions lie behind this terrible crime, it is clear that poverty is part of what pushes Raskolnikov to act so recklessly and abhorrently. Dostoevsky, who was himself well acquainted with pecuniary problems, explains that the ‘exorbitant interest’ charged by the moneylender was one of the reasons Raskolnikov felt forced to resort to desperate measures.[9]

Distress and desperation caused by ‘exorbitant interest’ is another problem that will be painfully familiar to the current student body, but is the story of Raskolnikov’s crimes relevant or instructive today? Surely the extremity of this fictional case makes it too excessive to be useful to those trying to respond to the problems that students face. Despite the dark, Dostoevskian drama of Crime and Punishment, I still believe it has something to offer in this context. Dostoevsky’s novel gives us a chance to spend time within a mind that has been overwhelmed by shame and frustration. As Rowan Williams observes, we are given ‘direct insight’ into Raskolnikov’s mind, hearing his ‘stream of consciousness’ in defiance of the isolation and social ‘self-imprisonment’ that Raskolnikov has imposed on himself.[10] Even though Raskolnikov has become a lonely, embittered and repellent figure, having ‘retreated into the doomed enterprise of a self-sufficient world’,[11] the reader is still granted access to that world. We become a silent, passive companion alongside someone who has shut himself away from friendship, support and love, and who can see no other option than self-sufficiency. Far too often, young people (especially men) react to poverty by cutting themselves off from the world, retreating into an interior world of guilt and isolation. In this situation, there is often nobody there to provide companionship, and this can have tragic consequences. But Crime and Punishment gives us a rare chance to inhabit the perspective of a young man who has resorted to ‘self-imprisonment’ while struggling with poverty. And this can put us in a better position to act against such imprisonment, striving to understand and engage with someone who cannot see past bleak helplessness, and who feels too frightened to leave the shadows of their ‘pokey little room’.

Dostoevsky’s novel gives us a chance to spend time within a mind that has been overwhelmed by shame and frustration.

As well as this, Dostoevsky’s novel gives us a model for how to be a friend to the lonely and helpless, suggesting how we might be the one to break through self-imprisonment. Toward the end of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov shows signs of moving toward a fragile form of redemption. As he begins to emerge out from his lonely world of guilt, bitterness and sin, his tentative steps toward freedom are supported and encouraged by Sonya, a woman of spiritual depth and purity. Sonya is able to reach into the darkness suffocating Raskolnikov’s soul, giving him a vision of the love, grace and companionship that he has lost sight of in his spiritually and materially impoverished state. In theological terms, it is ‘Sonya’s presentation to him of the supremely ‘other’ voice, that of God’, that sets Raskolnikov’s new life in motion.[12] Dostoevsky makes this explicit in a famous and richly symbolic scene, in which Sonya reads Raskolnikov the biblical passage relating Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ call to Lazarus to ‘come forth’ becomes Sonya’s voice as she drags Raskolnikov into the light. She exposes him to the kind of forceful, transformative compassion that can breathe new life into a soul shrinking under the weight of poverty.[13]

As we try to prevent students from being crushed by desperate loneliness brought on by debt and poverty, Sonya stands as a paradigm of the active, powerful compassion that is required. While we watch her relationship with Raskolnikov taking shape, a moral and theological imperative gradually emerges: a literary, artistic call to action. Reading Crime and Punishment could be an important imaginative exercise that helps us both to understand the problem of student poverty, and to respond to it with grace and compassion.

[1] Bethany Garner, ‘Student News Update: Student Expenses Rise in Wake Of Cost Of Living Crisis,’ Forbes, September 2, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/uk/advisor/personal-finance/2022/09/01/student-updates/.

[2] Emilia Shovelin, ‘Students Warned of An Interest Rate ‘Rollercoaster Ride’,’ This is Money, April 13, 2022, https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/studentfinance/article-10715211/Student-loan-12-September-2022.html.

[3] Kat Tretina, ‘Student Loan Debt and Mental Health,’ Education Loan Finance, May 13, 2022, https://www.elfi.com/student-loan-debt-and-mental-health/.

[4] Judith Burns, ‘’Sharp Rise’ in Student Mental Illness Tests Universities,’ BBC News, September 4, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41148704.

[5] Vera Bergelson, ‘Crimes and Defenses of Rodion Raskolnikov,’ Kentucky Law Journal 85, no. 4 (1997): 919-53 (942).

[6] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. David Magarshack (London: Penguin Books, 1965), 84.

[7] Ibid., 430.

[8] Ibid., 543-44.

[9] Bergelson, ‘Crimes and Defenses’, 937.

[10] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2009), 115-20.

[11] Ibid., 119.

[12] Ibid., 119.

[13] Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, 370-400.

Author

  • Ewan is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) in St Andrews, under the supervision of George Corbett (ITIA) and John Swinton (University of Aberdeen). He is researching ways of using popular artworks (novels, films, and television series) to design new forms of art therapy which provide emotional, psychological and spiritual care for cancer patients. This involves using fictional narratives, characters, and imagery to reflect and reframe patients' experiences of living with cancer, helping them to understand and articulate the effect of cancer on their lives. He is developing the impact of his research through an ongoing collaboration with several Scottish centres run by the Maggie's cancer care charity. Other interests include theological engagement with popular culture, the relationship between theology and humour, and the use of narrative form for theological expression.

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