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.