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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a novel whose plot reflects its title. It is about a terrible crime and punishment that is both reality - based and psychological. Along the way Dostoyevsky has fashioned a work filled great fictional characters. The book is also chock full of ideas and philosophical musing about life, death, God, government, crimes, punishment, and lots more. The novel was first published in 1866. I read the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation.


This is the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a young ex -college student. As part of an attempted theft, Raskolnikov plots and carries out the murder of pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna. He also kills her virtuous sister Lizaveta, who walks in on the crime. The murder takes place fairly early in the plot. Most of the novel concerns itself with the post - murder doings of Raskolnikov, his family and friends, as well as the police investigation that eventually ensures. 

The idea that Raskolnikov might be redeemed takes up a lot of the philosophizing in later parts of the book. Dostoyevsky explores ideas related to The Bible, Christianity as well as Raskolnikov’s psychological state and philosophy. 

As mentioned above, the novel is filled with superbly crafted characters. Razumikhin is Raskolnikov’s best friend who genuinely tries to help the protagonist. Dunya is Raskolnikov’s sister who is engaged in the unscrupulous government official Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin. Svidrigaïlov is a wealthy landowner who tried to seduce and later marry Dunya. Sonya is a young woman who is forced into prostitution to support her family. Raskolnikov is attracted to Sonya and forms an important relationship with her. Porfiry Petrovich is a police detective who uses psychological tactics and games to get at the truth. Those familiar with television’s Colombo character will find a lot that is familiar in Porfiry. The television character was partially based upon him. 

There is a lot going on here. Throughout the book all these characters, as well as many others, interact as Dostoevsky tries to portray something about life. I have previously read Dostoevsky’s The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov. As was typical with those books, this novel is characterized by lots of characters and interacting plot threads. I thought that this had a less complex plot then those novels however. With that, it is impossible to share my thoughts about every aspect of this novel in a single post. Dostoyevsky goes off in a lot of directions within these pages. Instead, as I have done in the past, I will write a few things about one interesting point here. 

Something that this work shares with the other Dostoyevsky books that I have read is the tendency for characters to embrace bad, radical ideas that lead to catastrophe. In this novel, these bad ideas tie in with the murders. Early on, Raskolnikov rationalizes his crime on the presumption that he will use the money that he is planning to steal for good. Furthermore, he has written pieces arguing that certain people should be exempt from punishment if they commit crime. These people should be exempt from the rules of society as they are “extraordinary”. Later he compares himself with Napoleon Bonaparte who he considers another extraordinary person. 

At one point Razumikhin is describing and article that Raskolnikov has written. 

there supposedly exist in the world certain persons who can … that is , who not only can but are fully entitled to commit all sorts of crimes and excesses and to whom the law supposedly does not apply . The whole point is that in his article all people are somehow divided into the ‘ordinary ’ and the ‘ extraordinary . ’ The ordinary must live in obedience and have no right to transgress the law, because they are, after all , ordinary . While the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary.

Later Raskolnikov further elaborates on his own theory,

Those of the second category all transgress the law, are destroyers or inclined to destroy, depending on their abilities. The crimes of these people, naturally, are relative and variegated; for the most part they call, in quite diverse declarations, for the destruction of the present in the name of the better. But if such a one needs, for the sake of his idea, to step even over a dead body, over blood, then within himself, in his conscience, he can, in my opinion, allow himself to step over blood—depending, however, on the idea and its scale—

The above quotation illustrates how Dostoyevsky has a knack for digging into ghastly ideas and how these ideas might influence people. Often radicals want to destroy the norms and rules of society. These radicals often put themselves in a special position. The metaphor of stepping over blood, which becomes a reality for Raskolnikov’s murderous actions are so well described. As in Dostoyevsky’s time, some people today have a greater tendency to play with very bad theories. Though most do not go as far as Raskolnikov, I think that it would be interesting to see what would make of some of our current intellectual trends. 

Raskolnikov is not hopeless however. A major theme of the book involves his redemption. Later on, the exploration of these awful theories intertwine themselves with Raskolnikov’srecovery from immorality. Porfiry points out that Raskolnikov’svacuous beliefs have fallen flat but that it is not to late for him,

He came up with a theory, and now he’s ashamed because it didn’t work, because it came out too unoriginally! True, it did come out meanly, but even so you’re not such a hopeless scoundrel. Not such a scoundrel at all! At least you didn’t addle your brain for long, you went all at once to the outermost pillars. Do you know how I regard you? I regard you as one of those men who could have their guts cut out, and would stand and look at his torturers with a smile—provided he’s found faith, or God. Well, go and find it, and you will live.

Raskolnikov is not a hopeless sociopath, so according to Porfiry, his humanity can still redeem him, despite having come under the influence of his own terrible theories. 

Dostoevsky wrote incredible books filled with amazing characters, themes and story lines. I have only summarized this above and touched on one of many interesting things that I found. This novel is bursting with all those things. This is a must read for those who appreciate Russian literature.

55 comments:

mudpuddle said...

i read the Constance Garnett translation which i thought was okay... and i recall wondering at the time if the whole novel was intended to be a sarcastic reflection of government policies... i guess i still wonder about that. great post with enticing details making me thing i ought to reread it... tx...

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov when I was in my late teens. I loved both books at the time. But now I think I should re-read them again with the benefit of decades of living under my belt to see what I think of them now.

R.T. said...

Do the religious and philosophical elements put you off? Hmmm.
BTW, I have to find an easier way to read your blog; the light font and dark background are not friendly to me cataracts...
Tim

Dorothy Borders said...

I read this so many years ago... It is a magnificent work. The connection between Columbo and Porfiry is interesting. I see it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi RT - I find religious and philosophical musings, when they are well presented, to be fascinating.

Sorry to hear about your difficulty reading the blog. My site could really use a refresh. I just need to but together a vision package that is an improvement.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - I think that there is a lot happening in this book. Dostoevsky was certainly taking some shots at the government.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - I am not sure if I would have liked Dostoevsky when I was very young.

Even when it comes to books that I liked, I look at things so differently now that I am a little older.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dorothy- The Porfiry character is so well done. I am glad that he had something of a second life in Colombo.

Susan Kane said...

The idea of Columbo and his relationship to Porifiry has me nodding my head.

Also the whole idea that simple and not to bright are of course punished. And they can't express their opinions because they are in lower ranks is so prevalent now. An actor who frequently visited Venezuela and was a friend to Hugo Chavez. Each time he returned he sang the praises of this dictator, and was interviewed by an American commentator and frequently stated that people who were the same should not have freedom of speech. He sorta disappeared from the movie industry after that.

I read the Brothers Karamazov decades ago. Very interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The Porifiry - Colombo thing is interesting.

The actor that you are referring to, was it Sean Penn? I agree that his statements about Chavez and freedom of speech were reprehensible. I would classify them as garden variety authoritarianism. Though I am not familiar with all his actions and words. Did he express opinions that only the elite should have freedom of speech?

James said...

I have read and reread this book along with most of Dostoevsky's major works. They all resonate with me and are deep and rich in character and thematic material. I particularly am fascinated by the relationship that develops between Raskolnikov and the investigator Porfiry. Part of the driving force behind Dostoevsky's psychological analysis of Raskolnikov in the novel is this Porfiry, who becomes more than just an investigator. There is more to his character than the means by which Dostoevsky torments the protagonist of his novel. As you say there are a lot of ideas and themes to think about in this great novel.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I read Crime and Punishment when I was young and the other characters in the novel I have trouble recalling because I was so blown away by Raskolnikov, specifically the tremendous guilt he feels after the murder. It hits him like a ton of bricks, he can't eat, he can't sleep or find any sort of peace. This book is so psychologically complex. Time for a reread.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Indeed. In some ways Porfiry becomes Radkolinkov’s guide to getting out of the abyss.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - Raskolnikov‘s character was that powerful. I think that he is also realistic. I think that some people do act this way when exposed to guilt.

JacquiWine said...

Thoughtful commentary as ever, Brian. I've read others by Dostoevsky but not this one. There's something very intellectually stimulating about these great Russian novels, all those philosophical ideas and concepts women into the narrative.
Out of interest, how did yo find the translation. I've heard mixed reviews of some of P&V's other translations, so any thoughts on that front would be interesting to hear.

Sue Bursztynski said...

There are certainly people in our own world whose idea of “freedom of speech” is “my right to say any nasty, racist stuff I want” but anyone who calls them out on it is accused of censorship. Things have not changed much, it seems!

I admit I'm not a great fan of Russian literature in general. I find it rather too depressing, though I haven’t read this one. Heard of it, yes, not read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Intellectually stimulating is a good term for Dostoevsky. These books take the reader on an intellectual adventure.

I know the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations have generated disagreement. It is hard for me to evaluate not having read other translations I know that people who I respect, such as the late Harold Bloom recommended them. For what it is worth. I found the book very readable.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Indeed, there are folks who like not want freedom of speech for their own side. These are various variations on this.

In terms of Russian literature, I think Dostoevsky is a challenging writer. The limited amount of Tolstoy that have read was much more accessible.

Susan Kane said...

Hey, Brian. You are probably one of the few people who knows the Sean Penn reference! I am so glad. thanks for making my otherwise dismal day!

Judy Krueger said...

I read this about four years ago for a reading group. As you point out, there are so many fascinating ideas in the novel and that gave us much to discuss. I agree with everything you bring up in your review. Someday I hope to get to The Brothers K! Russia sure did produce great writers.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Great review,Brian!

Dostoevsky is a favorite of mine. I agree with you that he takes certain philosophies and brings them to their logical conclusion. R (I'm not going to try to spell his name) thought that the old woman wasn't worth living so he was not wrong in killing her. But then he had to kill her sister too to remove a witness. The sister was known to be a good, caring person. Now what?

Also, a bit of trivia: the detective who talks to R was the inspiration for the detective Columbo in the TV series. The way they seem to play mind games with the criminal.

Be safe!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Sorry. I saw you wrote about the Columbo connection. That didn't register.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon - Dostoevsky playing with these ideas and philosophies is a joy to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Yes. Indeed. Penn’s comments and views on this were so disappointing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - The Brothers Karamazov was a great book. But it was very dense. Russel and Great Britain produced such brilliant writings during the Nineteenth Century.

Paula Vince said...

Great wrap-up! I read and reviewed this one not all that long ago. It sure is a fascinating character study and your Porfiry/Colombo link is pretty cool. It's a very tense reading moment when we realise that Dostoevsky is actually taking us in with Raskolnikov to commit the deed. And how dangerous his reasoning behind it is. I think I still prefer The Brothers K out of the pair of them, although C&P does flow easier.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Paula - I indeed. I think that The Bothers Karamazov is a more intricate book. This one moves in more of a linear way.

If one did not know the plot of this one beforehand, the murder would really be shocking.

thecuecard said...

Yeah I read this in 10th grade so it's been a long while, ha. Still I was blown away by it at the time ... and still consider it my favorite of his works. It was psychological and analytical and had everything in it about this crime! Not sure if anyone's analyzed a crime so well and the feelings & thoughts after it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Dostoevsky did indeed dig into crime like no one else ever did.

I am not sure if I would have appreciated this in the 10th grade.

Carol said...

I found C & P much more engaging than the Brothers K & I would read it again but probably not the Brothers.
It was fascinating to read of his arrogance in thinking that some people are above the law. I agrre with you that Tolstoy is much more accessible but I’m really attracted to any of these Russian writers even though I have to push myself to get started with any of them!
Excellent review, thanks Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Carol - One can really form more of a connection with this book then one can with The Brothers Karamazov.

The major Russian writers are really incomparably great.

baili said...

once again your review proved "captivating" dear Brain

i found this very intriguing subject with mighty vibrant characters ,your way of introducing the book and sharing the main points is always INSPIRING
no corner is left to leave with query but a clam understanding and longing for knowing more about it which i adore a lot for sure

human psychology is my deepest interest , diversity of human nature and complexity of people's psyche is responsible for all the variation of "happenings" in this world and i think this diversity serves some really important purposes of Nature in this world
i enjoy the witty conversations of intellectual villain as writer tries to convince here though shared passage
i think he is trying to point out the gift that every person has ,how this gift of intellect and skill is used negatively or positively is different story and depends basically how people conceive idea from realities they encounter in life ,i enjoyed insight of writer as well ,i have read some translations from Russian literature long ago and i liked them a lot

thank you for another Rich poignant commentary my friend!
stay well and healthy!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili. People’s way of thinking and personalities are indeed diverse. You have a point about writers like Dostoevsky. They were so good at digging into that diversity. So many of the Eighteenth Century Russian writer were so skilled at this.

Himawan Sant said...

Unfortunately this interesting book about crime and punishment I have never read. Hopefully this book is also easy to find in online library.

Thank you for the interesting reviews you made.

Regards from Indonesia

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Himawan - I think that this book should be fairly easy to find.

JaneGS said...

I’m not sure why but Russian novels are never on my TBR list—I did read Anna Karenina meh!) and War and Peace (fantastic), but much as I love the classics, and can deal with a fair amount of tragedy and angst—Dostyeovsky just never makes the cut. That said, you provided an excellent review, which I appreciate. Maybe someday...

Marian H said...

That's a good observation, about Dostoyevsky confronting the power of ideas. And he does it from a moral context, not just "horror for horror's sake." People can rationalize basically anything.

This was the first Russian novel I tried to read, and it was so bleak I didn't make it past halfway. I'm going to try it again, viewing it from a more philosophical standpoint and in light of other Dostoyevsky novels.

the bookworm said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this classic. Interesting quote about the people who are extraordinary and somewhat above the law.
Fantastic commentary as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane - I find Dostyeovsky to be very different from the limited amount of Tolstoy that I have read so you may want to give him a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian - Dostyeovsky really did take on and dig into these ideas.

The book actually concluded on a positive note do there was relief from the bleakness.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida. The belief that some people are superior and thus exempt from the rules comes up a lot throughout history. It is a very bad trend.

Whispering Gums said...

I enjoyed your review Brian. Coincidentally, I have read and reviewed this book but back in 2015. I remember really enjoying writing my review because he is such a complex, paradoxical character.

I loved your comment about Dostoevsky's writing having characters that tend "to embrace bad, radical ideas that lead to catastrophe". I really must read more Dostoevsky. I haven't read enough Russian literature.

(Sorry about the delayed reply to this. I have rather intense elder care issues going on that are limiting my reading, blissing and clog-commeting time.)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanhs WG. There is never a rush to comment. Someone just left a comment on a 4 year old post.

I have read a few Dostoevsky books now. He tends to be different from the other Russian writers that I have read. There are certain common themes and patterns to his books like this exploration of bad ideas.

Suko said...

Wow! You certainly don't shy away from the heavyweights. Your presentation of some of the themes and ideas in this book is truly fascinating. Wonderful commentary, as usual, Brian Joseph!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - I do try to read the big books. Big in both length and themes.

bookertalk said...

I was reading this on a flight to the USA. The only time in my life I didn't want the flight to end - I was so wrapped up in this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Karen - This can be really engrossing. Especially for those of us who love it when writers play with ideas and characters to this extent.

The Liberty Belle said...

Fantastic review. The characters and plot are intriguing. I'm adding this one to my list.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Belle. If you read this, I would love to know what you thought of it.

HKatz said...

The "great human" who feels they're above the common application of law or morality is fascinating, especially how they're treated by others who may also bend over backwards to excuse their cruelties.

There's a short story I think you'll like called "Portrait of the Avant-Garde" (by Peter Høeg) about an artist in the years before WWII who supports vicious, extremist policies merely because he's comfortable remaking the world... and not thinking about who will have to live with the consequences, because somehow he's untouchable.

Anyway, I enjoyed your review. I read Crime and Punishment in college and should revisit it as a more mature adult.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila. The idea of a superior class having the right to do whatever they want keeps popping up. I will search out that short story. Thanks for the recommendation.

Rachel said...

My FAVORITE book of my teenage years. I'm certain THIS one would hold up as an adult. I'll probably even enjoy it more as I imagine there's a lot I missed because I read it in the 9th grade.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I give you credit. I am not sure if I would have liked this as a teen.

Fanda Classiclit said...

I remember reading this some years ago - didn't really liked it as I have expected. I found a difficulty to form my idea of what it's all about. The Brothers Karamazov, on the contrary, turned to be one of my favorites.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fanda - Dostoevsky can be challenging. I think that if I read this when young I would not have liked it as much.