Crime, Sacrifice and Redemption

Quality literature is a great ally in understanding human dilemmas, as it allows us to reflect on various themes from the perspectives of characters with diverse characteristics. The works “Les Misérables” and “Crime and Punishment” share the common theme of the protagonists, Jean Valjean and Raskolnikov, grappling with issues of crime and redemption. 

It would be too pretentious to attempt to catalog characters or exhaust the analysis of such important and dense books. In works of such magnitude, each character has their own dilemmas and intractable complexities. With each rereading, the reader is surprised by previously unnoticed nuances. 

I have encountered these works on more than one occasion and at very different times in my life. I want to clarify that the approach I intend to take is related to what impacted me the most and is relevant to my area of interest: crime, the decision to commit the crime, and redemption afterward. 

If you, the reader, have not yet read the mentioned books, I will attempt to introduce the main elements of the plots, ensuring not to diminish your interest in seeking out the original texts in the future. For those who have already read one or both works, this will be an opportunity to revisit some of the characters and compare our perceptions of the books 

The two works are contemporary (1862 – “Les Misérables”; and 1866 – “Crime and Punishment”). The Russian work (Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky) features as its protagonist a young law student from the city of Saint Petersburg – Raskolnikov. Despite not coming from a wealthy family, the young man (as the author typically refers to him) relies on the sacrifices and dedication of his mother and sister to support his studies. 

The character is ambiguous, rejecting simplistic definitions. On one hand, he appears lazy, often rising after 10 am and failing to seek employment during his studies to alleviate his mother’s expenses. On the other hand, he demonstrates charity by readily assisting with the funeral of a mere acquaintance, the drunken Marmeladóv. It was this act of kindness that brought Raskolnikov closer to Sonia, the daughter of the deceased, who plays a fundamental role in the plot, as will be seen later. 

Raskolnikov’s reflection on the justification for committing a crime is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, if not the central one. The young man develops a theory that divides men into ordinary and extraordinary. The former are expected to adhere to all the rules imposed on them, while the latter are not bound by any rules, as they are bearers of superior designs –emissaries of good and virtue for humanity. 

Thus, his theory essentially posits that superior ends, known only to beings classified as extraordinary, would justify the use of any means to achieve them. This means that even if the means employed are criminal, as long as they aim at the initially sought end, they are considered justified. 

Here is an excerpt that summarizes the theory: 

All people are classified as “ordinary” and “extraordinary”. Ordinary people must obey the law and have no right to break it, precisely because they are ordinary. And extraordinary people have the right to perpetrate any crimes and to break the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary (Dostoiévski, 2013, p. 296). 

As he himself, Raskolnikov, was not sure which class of people he belonged to, he decided to test his extraordinariness. Then, armed with his theory and the hope of being extraordinary, like Napoleon Bonaparte, he murders an old moneylender who habitually lent him money. At the time of the crime, the elderly woman’s sister appears on the scene and is also murdered by the young man in the same manner – with an axe. 

Every psychological conflict experienced by the protagonist after the crime is portrayed by Dostoevsky in a profound manner. The fear of not being extraordinary enough to alter the course of humanity torments him. The character finds himself imprisoned by his own thoughts, afraid of the possibility of being discovered at any moment, and torn between remaining silent or surrendering to the authorities. 

In the midst of his anguish, he deepens his relationship with Sonia – a poor girl he met when he freely and inexplicably helped her family with the expenses for the funeral of her father, the drunken Marmeladóv. 

Sonia is the type of girl who maintains her purity, despite being in a very poor condition – she needs to work as a prostitute to support herself and her family. She provokes, in Raskolnikov, deep reflections on life after death, and on belief in God, making him reflect in a special way on the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus, performed by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. 

Sonia falls in love with Raskolnikov and convinces him to hand himself over to the police. After following the girl’s advice, Raskolnikov is arrested and sent to a forced labor camp in Siberia. Sonia accompanies him, provides him with material and spiritual support.  

Sonia’s sacrifice touches Raskolnikov and saves him. It cannot be said that the young man had never received love in the form of voluntary and full dedication, as his mother and sister fulfilled this role before Sonia entered his life. But Sonia’s Sacrifice was more effective, as it was accompanied by an appeal for spiritual regeneration. 

The Christian inspiration of Raskolnikov’s redemption becomes evident at the end of the novel. The character suffers from an illness that leads him to be admitted to a hospital, where he spent “the entire end of Lent and Holy Week” (Dostoiévski, 2013, p. 585). It was at the end of this period that 

Dialectics had given way to life, and from now on his consciousness would have to follow a very different path. There was a Gospel under his pillow. Raskolnikov caught it mechanically. The book belonged to Sonia, it was the same book in which Sonia had read the story of the resurrection of Lazarus to him (Dostoiévski, 2013, 588). 

At the end of the work, in its last lines, the author leaves the character’s future open, already regenerated and redeemed: 

But then another story begins, the story of a man’s gradual renewal, of his gradual conversion, of his slow passage from one world to another, the story of how he will come to know a new reality, previously completely unknown. This could form the subject of another narration, but our present account is finished (Dostoiévski, 2013, p. 589). 

Unexplored, therefore, remained the future of the criminal redeemed by the sacrifice of others. How many wonders could he perform? Would he replicate the sacrifice for the benefit of others? Would he live eternally devoted to Sonia? The mother? The sister? The author left all these possibilities to the reader’s free imagination. 

It could be said that Victor Hugo, had he not written his novel a few years earlier, might have started precisely from the open ending of ‘Crime and Punishment’ to describe the redemptive force of sacrifice and its inspiring potential in the redemption of those who have committed crimes. 

Jean Valjean, the protagonist of the French work, is a destitute man arrested for stealing bread to feed his niece’s hunger. For this reason, he is sentenced to forced labor in the galleys. His sentence is extended several times due to escape attempts. After serving 19 years of his sentence, he is released on parole. 

Outside the forced labor camp, his life is not easy. The personal identification form, which indicates his parole, closes the door to any honest relationship he tries to establish. 

Jean Valjean’s life, however, gains new meaning when he meets a Catholic bishop, who agrees to welcome him into his home and share his meal and spend the night with him. The charity practiced, however, was not enough to immediately redeem the protagonist, who, taking advantage of the hospitable situation, left in the middle of the night, stealing some of the bishop’s valuables (chalices and candlesticks). 

During the robbery, when he was caught in his stealthy escape, he attacked the victim (the bishop), who had just woken up. Pursued by the police, he was brought before the bishop to return his goods. 

It was then that the event that marks the story of the plot occurred, and which will only be fully explained in its final pages. The bishop, upon receiving the criminal, told the police that he had donated the goods, and that Jean had forgotten others, which were promptly handed over to the criminal in the presence of the police. Jean, obviously, did not understand the victim’s attitude. 

When bidding farewell to the guest who had betrayed his trust, the bishop uttered the following words: “Jean Valjean, my brother, remember that you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I have just purchased; I rescue it from evil thoughts and the spirit of perdition to deliver it to God” (Hugo, 2014, p. 145). Jean, who was not religious, then begins to reflect on the destiny of his soul and his behavior. Perhaps it was the first time in his life that he had reflected on moral values. 

In possession of the valuable goods received from the bishop, he changed his city and his name, and began to engage in profitable economic activities. Through creativity and hard work, he brought wealth to the small town where he lived, providing employment and wages for many people, and eventually rising to the position of mayor. 

Despite the wealth obtained, Jean never forgot the debt he owed to God and the episode of the bishop who “bought” his soul. This feeling of gratitude is demonstrated by the habit he maintained in distributing alms and in his cordial and dignified treatment of all his employees and the residents he managed. 

So, young Fantine enters the story. A single mother, she supported her daughter with the salary she received from Jean Valjean’s company. The daughter was cared for by a couple of freeloaders in a neighboring village (The Thénardiers), who charged a lot for the poor child’s stay, despite treating her as a servant and assigning tasks that were not suitable for her age and physical condition. 

After being harassed by one of the managers of the now mayor Jean Valjean (who had started using the name Mr. Madeleine), Fantine was unfairly fired. The injustice could not be rectified (as it was not directly witnessed) by the main character, who later found Fantine by chance in a brothel, living in poverty and sickness. She resorted to prostitution to support her daughter. 

After rescuing Fantine from that location, he placed her in a suitable place to regain her health, but Fantine was already close to death. That was when she recounted how she ended up in that situation, the unjust dismissal, and about her young daughter, Cosette, who needed her care and financial support. 

Madeleine (Jean) promises Fantine to bring her daughter to her, but at that moment, he discovers that someone else has been arrested in his place as Jean Valjean (who was formally on the run). He agonizes over the possibility of allowing an injustice to occur, so he goes to court and frees the alleged Jean Valjean, assuming his real identity. Without contesting the punishment to which he would be subject, but taking responsibility for the life of young Cosette, Jean escapes before being arrested and sets out in search of Fantine’s daughter. 

Jean does not allow the injustice of the condemnation of the one who impersonated him to be carried out, but he also does not shirk his responsibility to rectify the injustice committed against Fantine and her daughter Cosette. 

However, Jean’s efforts were not enough for Cosette to find her mother, who dies. From then on, Jean takes full responsibility for the life and care of the little child. He replicates the sacrifice he received from the Bishop in favor of Cosette. 

Hiding from the police, who have been on his trail since he fled the court, he takes refuge in a convent, where he works as a general service assistant in exchange for the child’s education. It is in this place that Cosette spends her childhood and adolescence. 

As she grows up, Cosette grows closer to and falls in love with Marius, a young man involved in revolutionary movements in France. The young couple exchanges promises of eternal love. However, Marius becomes embroiled in a battle after participating in a mutiny with a group of friends and is surrounded, along with his companions, in a barricade by official forces. He then sends a love letter to Cosette, which is received by her father, Jean. 

Upon receiving the letter and realizing the risk to the life of his adopted daughter’s love, Jean heads towards the barricade to help the young man. There, he takes part in the battle, and after the surrender of the rebel group, when there is no longer a chance to continue fighting, he escapes with the injured Marius through the city’s sewage system. 

After a long, risky, exhausting, and terrifying passage through the sewer systems, Jean saves Marius and escorts him away from the conflict zone. Saved, Marius does not know who his benefactor was. After recovering from the physical exhaustion resulting from the battle he participated in, he reunites with Cosette. Jean isolates himself, and despite persistent invitations, refuses to participate in the young couple’s lives or to live close to them. 

Cosette and Marius get married. Thanks to a coincidence, Marius discovers that the person who saved him is Jean Valjean, his wife’s father. Together, Cosette and Marius reflect on Jean Valjean’s sacrifice of his life in their favor. They seek out Jean to thank him for sacrificing himself and giving his own life for theirs. They find him on his deathbed. 

This meeting is, in my opinion, the culmination of the plot. Jean has his good deeds (or part of them) revealed. He receives, as a reward, love, affection, and admiration from people who are dear to him, especially the one he cared for as a daughter for most of his life. 

He is treated with distinction and extreme dignity. His honor and values are recognized. In response to the recognition he received from his daughter and son-in-law, and already on his deathbed.  

He walked with firm steps towards the wall, pushed aside Marius and the doctor, who wanted to help him, removed the small copper crucifix that was hanging there from the nail, sat down again with complete freedom of movement, as if he were in full health, and said aloud, placing the crucifix on the table: – Here is the great martyr (Hugo, 2014, p. 1504). 

On the next page, the caretaker of the building where Jean was staying asked him if he wanted the presence of a priest. Jean then stated that he already had one and pointed above his head, where he seemed to see someone. The author of the work concludes: “it is likely, indeed, that the bishop witnessed that agony”. The bishop referred to is none other than the cleric with whom Jean Valjean had contact at the beginning of the novel, and who, as his intercessor, came to witness the fruits of the virtue he had planted. 

The Bishop and Sonia regenerated Jean and Raskolnikov, sacrificing themselves on their behalf. While in the Russian work the redemptive effectiveness of sacrifice (or its description) was restricted to the main character, in the French work it flourished, remaining active and powerful throughout Jean’s life. 

Sonia’s sacrifice made Raskolnikov understand that love for the abstract idea of humanity has no value if one is not capable of loving others, giving oneself, and sacrificing oneself for them. 

The Bishop captivated Jean with the demonstration that there is a human vocation beyond material needs. Jean understood the Bishop’s actions and lived by sacrificing himself, first for the employees and citizens of the small town where he was mayor, and then for Cosette, his adopted daughter. 

Prison alone was unable to regenerate any of the protagonists. Only concrete charitable actions, carried out by supporting characters (the Bishop and Sonia), were able to reorient the lives of Jean and Raskolnikov. 

It is also possible to conclude from the novels that acts of charity, represented by true sacrifices, are not disconnected from the True Sacrifice, which redirected the course of humanity. The explicit reference, present in both works, to the inspiration of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice distinguishes simple sacrifices (such as the one practiced by Raskolnikov when assisting with the expenses of Sonia’s father’s wake) from the redeeming sacrifice. 

The True Sacrifice, then, cannot be far from the True Martyr, as expressly stated by Jean Valjean at the end of his life, just as “the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, if it does not remain on the vine” (Jn 15:4). The fruit of redemption can only be harvested if the sacrifice that provides it is directly linked to the Redeeming Sacrifice. 

JOÃO. In: Bíblia Sagrada. Tradução: Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil. 3. ed. Brasília: Edições CNBB, 2019. 
DOSTOIÉVSKI, Fiódor. Crime e Castigo. Tradução: Oleg Almeida. 1. ed. São Paulo: Martin Claret, 2013. 
HUGO, Victor. Os Miseráveis. Tradução e notas: Regina Célia de Oliveira. Edição Especial. São Paulo: Martin Claret, 2014. 

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