Confession and Reconciliation in the Works of Dostoevsky

  1. Introduction: One of the Greatest Questions of our Time

In The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky uses the mouth of a buffoon to phrase a question which the author himself deeply investigates in many of his greatest works: what is the motivation behind confession? Why do rational individuals voluntarily admit their own most troubling thoughts and publicly expose the baseness of their behavior? It does not appear socially advantageous to confess a hidden sin, and one would expect a rational mind to oppose self-incrimination. Lebedev, the buffoon, offers an unexpectedly wise proposal. Suppose there exists a thought that supersedes all notions of self-preservation and transcends the fear of punishment, torture, and even death. This is the thought that “binds people together.” It is the answer to “one of the greatest questions of our time” (The Idiot 379). Human beings cannot endure isolation. And for those who have been disconnected by hidden thoughts or actions, confession serves to re-establish the severed link.

Confession, in its fullest realization, not only mends divisions, but also brings about new life through reconciliation. The meaning of reconciliation in this context can be understood by its Latin root conciliare, which means to unite or assemble as equals. In the story of the Mysterious Visitor, Mikhail describes a “paradise” of new life that will come to pass when one has become “in actual fact, a brother to everyone” (Brothers Karamazov 261). The highest confession aims for such equality of brotherhood. It does not suffice to be lowered in complete humiliation nor to be raised in exaltation, since both serve only to further separate the individual. Instead, confession is fulfilled when one loves and is loved by all as equals, or as children of the same father.

It is pride that rejects the process of reconciliation. It is pride that longs to be distinguished or set apart from the brotherhood of humankind, either through praise or through shame. Dostoevsky demonstrates the destructive outcomes of such pride, which distort the aims of confession and bring his characters to ruin. In Notes from the Underground, the Underground Man is trapped in an unbreakable loop of contradictory statements. Throughout his confession, he attempts to prove his independence from the society he longs to rejoin. In The Devils, Stavrogin pridefully insists that his crime has set him outside the reach of forgiveness, and by this harsh judgment, he ultimately condemns himself to death. But in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky demonstrates the hope of reconciliation and new life, which spring up from Raskolnikov’s humble confession to Sonya. Here, confession’s highest goal is achieved.

  1. Underground: The Hell of Isolation

Like many of Dostoevsky’s characters, the Underground Man begins his confession in response to isolation. He has cut himself off from social contacts, burying himself alive in the dark and hidden spaces of his own consciousness. The weight of his self-criticism is a great burden for the man, and he compares it to a disease that consumes him (Notes from the Underground 6). Although the Notes are riddled with contradictions and reformulations, a lonely theme emerges to confirm the impossibility of joy in the underground. Despite the temporary “sweetness” of self-inflicted suffering, it will never satisfy the man’s basic hunger for human connection. This is what the Underground Man longs for and cannot find (27). His aching sense of separation propels his Notes forward, and with each new idea he asserts himself. From this pattern, confession’s purpose is revealed. Confession is a means through which detached and isolated individuals may establish their identity in relation to others.

Part II details the Underground Man’s unanswered pursuit of recognition, which inspires his confessional notes. He tells of one summary incident with an officer whose path he happened to be inadvertently blocking. The officer picked him up by the shoulders and moved him to the side like some misplaced object (34). Such blatant disregard for his presence aggravated the Underground Man’s sense of isolation and provoked in him a strong desire to fight. The bumping duel that followed may serve as a physical manifestation of the man’s antagonistic thoughts throughout the Notes. He wishes for a collision or a confrontation of minds to prove the reality of his own tormenting existence. He wants to assert his individuality by opposing and revising another’s ideas about him. As a result, his entire confession is oriented towards contradiction.

The contradictions in Notes from the Underground are the byproducts of an underlying confessional structure, which is characterized by the individual’s acute awareness of another’s interpretation. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, this structure, known as the “sideward glance,” is shared by all of Dostoevsky’s heroes, but its most “mathematical” formulation is in the Notes (Bakhtin 205, 230). Here, the Underground Man anticipates a potential response and escapes its judgment through a “loophole,” by reversing the meaning of his own claims (Bakhtin 233). The loophole is invoked within the very first line of the Notes, where the Underground Man begins mournfully, “I am a sick man,” and immediately reverses his call for sympathy with the phrase, “I am a spiteful man” (Notes 3). These perpetual oscillations immobilize the Underground Man and prevent him from actively engaging with those around him.

The Underground Man recognizes that his long-established habits of reversal will not support a meaningful life. He no longer has any foundation for action and so he has become inert, babbling on “in endless circles” (Notes 13). This setback is also compounded by his failure to justify himself through his confession. He sees that any attempt towards honest self-criticism might itself be criticized as a dishonest and “repugnant” scheme to gain approbation (41). In conclusion, the Underground Man is unable to free himself or establish his independence. Robert Louis Jackson observes how his attempts to free himself only deepen his “psychological dependence and humiliation” (68). The only way out of the underground is through what Jackson calls “reciprocal love” (74). He needs to be reunited with another human being, not through praise and approbation, nor through humiliation, but through the love that exists between equals.

The Underground Man’s confession is unfulfilled because he remains unable to escape the lonesome underground. He makes the equality of reconciliation impossible by insisting on being taken for “either a hero or dirt” (Notes 40). This is made clear by his prideful scorn for the woman who loves him. According to Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, an inability to love is the literal description of hell (278). And for the Underground Man, this hell is fully realized in the final pages of the Notes. The man begins with a great confession to Liza, admitting his envy, pride and nastiness, and lamenting his shameful condition. But he reverses this confession by blaming Liza for listening to him (Notes 86). When Liza sees his suffering, she embraces him compassionately, hoping to “resurrect” the unhappy man. But he understands only power and possession, and coldly reduces her loving embrace to the service of a prostitute. In his prideful reformulation of love, the Underground Man damns himself to the hell of isolation.

Dostoevsky’s Underground is a model for understanding isolation and the harmful recursion of self-definition outside of love. A similar tragedy unfolds in The Idiot, where Nastasya Filippovna abuses Prince Myshkin’s freely-given love. He proposes to marry her as “an honest woman,” but she insists that she would “ruin” him with her shameful past (The Idiot 163, 169). She too remains in isolation since, according to Bakhtin, she does not know “her final word on herself” (Bakhtin 234). Throughout the novel, Nastasya oscillates between Rogozhin and Myshkin, revising her marriage decisions and reformulating her self-definition until she brings about her own death, as well as the complete destruction of both men. Here, as well as in the Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky shows that, outside of love, the only conclusion to an endless loop is for it to be cut off.

Ippolite is another underground character who is tormented by feelings of separation and uncertainty. He remarks that even a fly “knows its place,” while he is like a “castaway” in the senselessness of his terminal illness (The Idiot 413). In his confessional manuscript, My Necessary Explanation, Ippolite anticipates the objections of those around him, and, like the Underground Man, reverses the meaning of his claims. However, unlike the Underground Man, Ippolite tries to break from inertia by starting and ending something “of his own will” (415). He wants to “override” his “endless regression of self-doubt” by enforcing a final judgment upon himself (Coetzee 224). This final judgment, he decides, will be an act of suicide.

  1. Suicide: A Final Judgment

Dostoevsky writes a compelling example of final judgment in the unpublished chapter of The Devils. Here, At Tikhon’s, Stavrogin makes his confession to reinforce his own sense of hopelessness and to justify his ultimate conviction. In doing so, he abandons the seeds of reconciliation and irrevocably secures an isolated death for himself, committing suicide at the end of the book. However, in contrast to this disastrous end, Stavrogin’s confession first appears well-formed in its honest, unadorned representation of the truth. He plans to accuse himself before the authorities, and as such, his confession bears some semblance to true repentance. Tikhon says, “it would be impossible to express a more perfectly Christian idea” (Stavrogin’s Confession 71). His idea is not a Christian one, however. The distinction Dostoevsky makes between repentance and self-condemnation is subtle, but it will explain the sinner’s capacity or incapacity for reconciliation.

Christian repentance begins when one resolves to admit and take responsibility for one’s sins, recognizing that one’s hidden thoughts and actions lead to division. To abide by such a fixed resolution was impossible for the ever-shifting mind of the Underground Man, but Stavrogin achieves it. He does not blame his crime on his environment nor on a state of madness (Stavrogin’s Confession 45). Instead, he confesses that he sexually abused Matryosha, being fully aware of the damage he would cause her. He takes responsibility for her illness and suicide as well, since, by his cold neglect, she was convinced that she had “killed God” (50). Now, his decision to seek punishment and suffering for his crime appears admirable. It would allow him to confront the divisive behavior that had been secretly tormenting him. However, Tikhon knows Stavrogin’s confession will not be successful.

Stavrogin’s greatest hurdle is a fence he has built for himself. By emphasizing the horror of his crime, he effectively shields himself from reconciliation. He is unwilling to be forgiven, except by maybe one or two individuals, and he challenges society to cast him out completely (Stavrogin’s Confession 76). It is not that he distorts or exaggerates his crime; he tells the naked truth. But, according to Tikhon, the real defiance is how he “clutch[es] at each detail,” painting himself to be “coarse” or “callous,” and essentially beyond all hope of redemption (72). Stavrogin notes “with perfect accuracy” the time and location of his crime, posing it like evidence in an irrefutable legal case (56). Afterwards, he adds a most astute detail about a little red spider on the leaf of a geranium, proving that he always maintained full possession of his mental faculties (57). Stavrogin does not, in fact, follow the Christian model of repentance by turning from sin and being reborn. Instead, he clings to his sin by defying all who might forgive him.

Some literary critics argue that Stavrogin’s confession is more than simple defiance – rather, it is an intentional ploy to glorify himself. The atrocity of his crime could serve as a pedestal to distinguish him from other men, much like in Raskolnikov’s Napoleonic dreams. Robin Feuer Miller notes that he “wants his crime to be thought impressive, horrible” (96). And Leonid Grossman observes that, despite its ugly syntax, Stavrogin’s confession conforms to the traditional literary style of the confessional genre, appearing most similar to the notorious, self-affirming Confessions of Rousseau (155, 156). At last, J.M. Coetzee suggests that Stavrogin is a “dissolute, rootless aristocrat” who “wants to attain fame” through this one rapidly-performed atrocity (229). While these analyses may oversimplify some of Stavrogin’s motives, they nonetheless expose the pride that prevents him from overcoming his sinful past and rejoining society.

The underlying need that unites Stavrogin’s prideful dreams with his defiance of others is his need to state the final judgment upon himself. Through the alienating language of his confession, he tries to “shut out the possibility of a free response from his readers” so that he can have the last word (Williams 111). Reinterpretation is an inescapable vulnerability of confession, however. Eventually, Stavrogin sees that he will be exposed to laughter and mockery, which will reverse the severity of his claims and invalidate his judgment (Stavrogin’s Confession 79). For this reason, Stavrogin is expected to commit an even greater crime in order that he might avoid publishing his confession (83). By the end of the novel, Stavrogin commits his greatest crime of all, laying hands on his own life in an irreconcilable act of self-condemnation.

Like the Underground Man, Stavrogin buried himself in his pride, which demanded that he be set apart, either as a “hero” or “dirt.” Dostoevsky continues this theme in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker to distinguish himself from “trembling creature[s]” and to prove his right to transgress boundaries (354). Stavrogin most strongly differs from these other two characters in his confession. Only Stavrogin shows a “demonic” interest in “ending history or silencing others” by the finality of his words (Williams 121). The Underground Man is at least willing to continue his constructed dialogue in endless banter, but the unfinalized nature of his confession immobilizes him. Raskolnikov, however, openly confesses to Sonya and permits himself to be redefined by his new life with her. In this novel, Dostoevsky unveils at last the joy of reconciliation. He offers his readers the model of a confession fulfilled by love.

  1. Reconciliation: A New Life Together

In his confession, Raskolnikov does not present Sonya with a sterile list of evidence for his crime. He actively engages her in conversation and prompts her to make her own judgments about him. This is where Raskolnikov first diverges from Stavrogin. Then, like an echo of Liza in The Notes from the Underground, Sonya embraces Raskolnikov, understanding his unhappiness even before she understands the specific details of his actions (Crime and Punishment 347). Raskolnikov opens himself responsively to her compassionate embrace, and so breaks from the Underground Man’s example as well. He understands that Sonya is his way out of isolation, and he implores her never to leave him (348). Most notably, he plans for them to “go together, by the same path” (278). Raskolnikov’s willingness to be reconciled with this woman is his first step in the long and arduous process of transformation.

The efficacy of Raskolnikov’s confession depends crucially on the subjugation of his pride and his willingness to surrender the final judgment. When Sonya criticizes Raskolnikov’s explanation, the man concedes, admitting that it has been a long time since he has “told or known the truth” (Crime and Punishment 351). By this confession, Raskolnikov relinquishes his authority and entrusts himself to Sonya’s correction. His words are decided, and he does not double back through the Underground Man’s loophole. Furthermore, he takes full responsibility for his crime, which he had committed “without casuistry” in an egotistical assertion of his will (354). But unlike Stavrogin, he gives all glory and credit to the Devil, who had “pulled him along” (354). Raskolnikov does not cling to the merits of his crime, nor does he condemn himself eternally. Instead, he trusts Sonya to suffer with him as she helps him rebuild his identity.

The greatest contrast between Raskolnikov’s confession and the tragic examples set around him is not in the accuracy or truth of the words he confesses. It is not in his humble cries, nor the boldness of his accusations against himself. Dostoevsky reveals instead that pride is the critical barrier which keeps some in bitter isolation, self-torment, and death. But here, the gate of life, which opens to joy, is found in an open reception to undeserved love. Coetzee identifies such transformative love by its Biblical name, “grace” (Coetzee 230). Grace alone can “reunite man with other men and with the whole universe” (Miller 98). By grace, the disconnected are taken back up into the connectedness of life and reborn.

Rebirth does not come with an immediate beginning, nor is confession fulfilled by an immediate end. It involves a long process of “labor and fortitude,” rooted in what Father Zosima calls “active love” (The Brothers Karamazov 55). As Sonya explains, the path to absolution will have to run through suffering (Crime and Punishment 355). Raskolnikov may have Sonya’s forgiveness, but if he continues to scorn all of society, he will be no better off than Stavrogin. He needs to be reconciled with them as well. It is only when Raskolnikov begins to suffer in prison that he confronts the “unbridgeable chasm” that lay between him and the rest of humankind (461). He grapples with this chasm viscerally in a dream and awakes to find his salvation standing outside the window of his cell. Sonya, who was admired by the other prisoners, would be his point of contact with them. Raskolnikov joins her hands in his and weeps with his vision of a new future (463). With Sonya by his side, his seven remaining years in prison could be for him like seven days of re-creation.

Within Dostoevsky’s narrative of shared suffering, the exchange of crosses is an important symbol, and it appears in both Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. After Sonya’s exchange with Raskolnikov, he who had hoped to “lay down a part of his suffering” now feels an even greater burden “to be so loved” by her (356). This burden of “active love” distinguishes Sonya’s exchange from that of Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin. The Prince takes Rogozhin’s cross, only passively recognizing their mutual responsibility for the chaos which unfolds in Nastasya Filippovna’s murder. But Sonya actively steps into Raskolnikov’s life and blocks his path to disaster. When he tries to walk away from his public confession at the police office, Sonya is standing at the foot of the stairs, urging him to turn around (449). She shows him that “he and she are part of an indivisible moral world” (Williams 154). Ultimately, she accompanies him to Siberia, proving that she will responsively struggle with his burden and carry his cross as if it were her own.

Sonya Marmeladova’s selfless acceptance of Raskolnikov’s suffering is an early model of what Father Zosima calls “responsibility for all.” When he says that “every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all mankind and every individual man,” he teaches that each person should bear the heavy burden of collective reconciliation through intentional acts of brotherly love (The Brothers Karamazov 146). If any individual has isolated himself in his doubts or in his sin, then the entire brotherhood is divided. But Dostoevsky shows that, through open confession and forgiveness, one can restore disparate individuals to brotherly communion. This is why Father Tikhon also asks Stavrogin to forgive him (Stavrogin’s Confession 76). He is not displaying false humility as Stavrogin suggests, but is instead acting on one of Dostoevsky’s most profound ideas: each individual is a highly-connected node, responsible for the unity of all mankind.

  1. Conclusion: Water the Earth with Your Tears

Collective unity is not only mankind’s great burden, but also its great need and joy. When Father Zosima speaks of watering the earth with tears, he does not promise a life of endless sorrow, but one of tearful ecstasy (The Brothers Karamazov 278). His image of kissing the earth first suggests, however, a need for reconciliation, not only with “other human agents” but also with “a larger order” found in the natural world (Williams 171). This is because isolation is an unnatural phenomenon, and because of it, the whole of nature groans with the suffering of a solitary individual. However, when by confession the individual breaks from the hell of isolation – when the endless regression of self-definition is terminated and the final judgment of self-condemnation is released – then, at last, the entire unity of creation is affirmed, and even the stars sing with joy.

Dostoevsky’s conclusion is not abstract philosophy, nor is it a mere literary experiment. His ideas of confession and reconciliation could radically transform a suffering world. He addresses suffering at its roots, hidden underground in the individual’s pride. He warns readers of the stubborn will, with its irrational and self-destructive judgments. And he promises that, by grace, an open confession will expose the individual to reconciliation and new life. Dostoevsky’s narrative style may be filled with unbelievably abhorrent crimes and stories of extreme transformation, but he is a realist at heart. Throughout his works, Dostoevsky reveals the truth of human suffering, the problem of isolation, and the hope of joyful communion when individuals engage with one another in active love.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. & trans. by Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Coetzee, J. M. “Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky.” Comparative Literature, vol. 37, no. 3, 1985, pp. 193–232., doi:10.2307/1771079.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment: the Coulson Translation, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism. Edited by George Gibian, Translated by Jessie Coulson, 3rd ed., W.W. Norton, 1989.

—. Notes from Underground: an Authoritative Translation, Backgrounds and Sources, Responses, Criticism. Translated by Michael Katz, 2nd ed., W.W. Norton, 2001.

—. Stavrogin’s Confession and the Plan of the Life of a Great Sinner: with Introductory and Explanatory Notes. Translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf, Hogarth Press, 1922.

—. The Brothers Karamazov: a Revised Translation, Contexts, Criticism. Edited by Susan McReynolds. Translated by Constance Garnett, 2nd ed., W.W. Norton, 2011.

—. The Idiot. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Books, 2003.

Grossman, Leonid. “The Stylistics of Stavrogin’s Confession: A Study of the New Chapter of The Possessed. In: Critical Essays on Dostoevsky, edited by Robin Feuer Miller, 148-158. G.K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1986.

Jackson, Robert L. “Aristotelian Movement and Design in Part Two of Notes from the Underground. In Dostoevsky: New Perspectives, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, 66-81. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Miller, Robin F. “Dostoevsky and Rousseau: The Morality of Confession Reconsidered.” In Dostoevsky: New Perspectives, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, 82-98. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction. Baylor University Press, 2008.