Articles Fyodor Dostoevsky 5


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3. Nice people do some terrible things
Sticking for the moment with Crime and Punishment, it’s very significant the way Dostoevsky gets us to like his murderous hero. Raskolnikov is clearly an attractive person. At the very start we’re told –
“By the way, Raskolnikov is handsome, above the average in height, slim, well-built, with lovely dark eyes and dark brown hair.”
Dostoevsky is lessening the imaginative distance between ‘us’ who live mainly law abiding and more of less manageable lives and ‘them’ – the ones who do terrible things and wreak havoc with their lives and those of others. That person, he is saying, is more like you than you might initially want to think – and therefore more accessible to sympathy.

The idea that you can be a good person, do something very bad and still deserve some compassion sounds very slight and obvious – until one has need of this kind of forgiveness in one’s own life (you may have to be over 30). This is where Dostoevsky wants to enter our inner conversation with ourselves – and tell us all about his character Raskolnikov – a serious, thoughtful, good-looking man who did worse then we have and still can be compassionately understood, as we can and must all be. This is Dostoevsky’s Christianity at work: no one is outside the circle of God’s love and understanding.
4. We must learn to appreciate the beauty of life
Dostoevsky’s next great book, The Idiot, takes off from his near-death experience before the firing squad. In the novel, he recounts what it was like. Three minutes before his expected death he is able to see life clearly for the first time. He notices the gilded spire of a nearby church, and how it glitters in the sun. He’d never before realised how entrancing a glint of sunlight could be. He is filled with an immense, deep love of the world. You might see a beggar and think how you would love to change places with them so as to be able to continue to breathe the air and feel the wind – merely to exist seems (at that moment of final revelation) infinitely precious. And then the revised order comes and it is not over at all.
What would it be like to go through one’s whole life in such a state of gratitude and generosity? You wouldn’t share any of the normal attitudes. You’d love everyone equally, you’d be enchanted by the simplest things, you’d never feel angry or frightened. You would seem to other people to be a kind of idiot. Hence the title of the book.

It’s an extreme version of a very interesting step. We’re continually surrounded by things which could delight us, if only we saw them the right way, if only we could learn to appreciate them. Dostoevsky was desperate to communicate the value of existence before death would overtake him – and us.