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Witness of the Holy Fool

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Dostoevsky’s task as a novelist is to portray the self-sacrifice of the holy fool in such a way that readers will recognize its beauty and want to participate in it.
—Harriet Murov

The moment I knew that grad school was getting to me was the moment that I found myself deeply identifying with the manic-depressive protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov. Throughout the novel, Raskolnikov’s troubled state of soul manifests itself in long, circular interior diatribes and labyrinthine monologues, clearly the entrails of a mind coming unhinged. Raskolnikov is no idiot. He is a sharp and intelligent young man. The modern intellectual milieu that he inhabits, however, is a world devoid of Christ, and accordingly, Raskolnikov’s ability to make sense of the world has begun to break down.

In trying to make sense of the world on the terms of his reason and his self alone, Raskolnikov has lost his mind. His intelligence, without the guide of charity or faith, leads him to a hellish despair and emptiness. It has led him to a negation of life itself, which he enacts through a murder—the titular crime. In trying to understand the world through terms of self, Raskolnikov commits a hellish deed, and the hellish deed has plunged him into a hell which is his own self, sans Christ.

As Harriet Murov suggests in the above quote, cited by Christopher Gattis in his recent essay on the Holy Fool, the task of literature is not only to record the experience of a human’s life, but also to immerse the reader in that vision. Nicholas Boyle agrees that the pleasure of literary representation, even in the representation of something tragic, is in the “sharing of grief and horror.”[1] We enjoy literature because it is “our truth being told to us,”[2] and we find, delightedly, that this truth is more common to the human condition than we may have expected. Literature plunges us into experiences not our own, which become our own through experiencing the literature, and that literary experience sheds light on our own lives. As I follow Raskolnikov into the pit of his own despair, through the feverish malaise that descends upon his body, I learn a bit about my own capacity for denying God, my own attempts to make the world in my image and likeness, and the unique infections of sin that afflict my soul. Raskolnikov is not an allegorical image of the soul darkened by sin, but is something greater than that: an imaginative portrait of a particular human who is captive by sin. And this particular portrait, like an intimate friend, reflects my own experience of life back to me, refracted through his unique story.

Halfway through the novel, the light of faith cuts through the haze of Raskolnikov’s intellectual contortions. Clarity arrives in the form of Sonya, a soul who has also been plunged into a hellish existence, but not of her own making. Sonya has sacrificed herself for her destitute family, supporting them as a prostitute. Sonya’s arrival is described as the arrival of “a small child,” who carries herself “with a modest and demure manner.”[3] Sonya’s entrance into the story is the advent of a holy simplicity, a simplicity unique to a soul of faith and goodness. Her arrival throws Raskolnikov “off -balance.” She disrupts Raskolnikov’s narrative, like a bolt of lightning-fresh grace.

In the novel, Sonya is the Holy Fool par excellence. Her love for Raskolnikov, entirely unmerited, leads her to descend, Christ-like, into the labor camps of Siberia with Raskolnikov. Her faith eventually, slowly, imbues him with faith as well. Critics and readers of the novel have criticized the epilogue for its privileging of an unabashed Christian faith and charity not emphasized throughout the rest of the book. Sonya’s love is not the practical love of a nineteenth century humanist. Sonya’s love is Christic, kenotic, and total self-gift, illogical outside of the economy of agape.

Haunted by his sin and gnawed by his beleaguered conscience, Raskolnikov resists Sonya the entire novel. He pushes away her simplicity, scorning her visits to him in prison, ignoring her, feigning indifference, and insulting her until, finally, her constant love, single-minded and uncomplicated in its intention, yet anything but simple, awakens a response. Sonya’s foolish faith, pellucid and shining, cuts through the dark complexity of Raskolnikov’s degenerated mind. After one final illness, Raskolnikov falls at Sonya’s feet, revived to new life and health by love, “the heart of the one containing an infinite source of life for the heart of the other.”[4]

Sonya is a brilliant example of the witness of the Holy Fool, and the Holy Fool’s effect on the Christian. Her effect is not limited to the confines of Dostoevsky’s constructed universe. We, the readers, are also touched by her profound self-gift and her limitless kindness. Her goodness is not only a salvific exemplar for Raskolnikov, but to us as well. As a Holy Fool, an image of the kenotic self-emptying of the Son of God, Sonya provides a medicine to Raskolnikov’s and our own preoccupation with self. Sonya reminds us that “If our love were but more simple,” as the hymn sings:

We should take him at his word,
And our lives would be thanksgiving
For the goodness of our Lord.

Featured Image: Jane Brewster, Crime and Punishment (1997); Photo: Justin Houk; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

[1] Nicholas Boyle, Sacred and Secular Scriptures: a Catholic Approach to Literature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 130.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. David McDuff (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 281.

[4] Ibid., 655.

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.