Crime and Punishment is a widely known novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a giant of Russian literature, published in 1866. The book is not a crime novel: instead it is a novel where crime has happened. It is not a fast-paced thriller, but rather a fascinating slow-burner. Almost immediately the identity of the criminal is revealed, there is no ambiguity of ‘who-dunnit’. In short, the novel is more about the punishment than the crime. The philosophical and psychological after effects that Raskolnikov (the protagonist and criminal) faces become the main focus of the story.
Raskolnikov, a uniquely complex and troubled character, is an impoverished student who conceives of himself as being an extraordinary young man. He then formulates a theory whereby all of the extraordinary men of the world have a right to commit any crime as long as they have something of worth to offer humanity, in the form of redemption. Therefore, to prove his theory, he commits a murder.
The victims of his crime are an old, despicable pawnbroker and her half-sister. But Raskolnikov is no psychopathic murderer, instead his conscience is devouring him from within. The enormity of his crime makes him ill and leaves all the people around him questioning his sanity, especially those closest to him, like his friend, Razumihkin. Raskolnikov’s deterioration spirals almost out of control, leading him to almost confess his crime to a suspicious inspector, Porfiry.
The story is told by an omniscient narrator, but the troubled voice of Raskolnikov possesses large parts of the narrative. This control mirrors the guilt and internal debate that dominates his conscience. However, Raskolnikov’s story crosses paths with two others: one of his sister, Dunya, and her engagement to Luzhin in an attempt to restore her reputation. The other, of Sonya, the daughter of the town’s drunkard, who resorts to immoral conduct to support her family.
These narratives alongside Raskolnikov’s represent the two overarching themes of the novel: poverty and psychology. Poverty allows friendship, generosity and kindness to grow, as Razumihkin helps Raskolnikov, when he believes his illness is due to his poverty. Whilst psychology permeates the novel, it helps to understand character’s motives and explain their actions.
This being said, it seems at times almost impossible to understand Raskolnikov’s mind and conscience. He is distinctively multifaceted and confusing, but also extremely interesting. Throughout the novel he utters some thought-provoking statements,
“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”
His philosophical musings not only allow us a glimpse into his psyche, but they also raise interesting questions about how we can portray a mind in literature. Taking this one step further, as Garry L. Hagberg says, “to show within the larger context of that portrayal how one mind can come to interpret, to fathom, to understand another” (39). The portrayal of Raskolnikov’s mind therefore allows us to see first-hand the effects of guilt, doubt and the internal battle between good and evil in the mind. Raskolnikov’s starting point is one of general antipathy to human existence which leads to his murder,
“The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she’s not the point! The old woman was merely a sickness… I was in a hurry to step over… it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle! So I killed the principle, but I didn’t step over, I stayed on this side…All I managed to do was kill. And I didn’t even manage that, as it turns out…”Raskolnikov, Part III, Chapter VI
But it’s clear he is confused, lost and struggling to come to terms with his crime and how justice should consequently play out. One of the main problems of the novel therefore is, Raskolnikov’s development of a mature moral perspective. Rick Anthony Furtak in his essay, “Love, Suffering, and Gratitude for Existence: Moral and Existential Emotions in Crime and Punishment” expresses this problem eloquently,
“Raskolnikov is thoughtful and prone to compassion and generosity, but it takes him the length of the novel to acknowledge his crime as such and arrive at an empathetic connection to others. Strangely, then, it remains puzzling both how it could have taken him so long to achieve moral growth and how he managed to do so at all.”
It remains up for debate whether Raskolnikov has truly faced his internal battle, despite his ultimate decision (no spoilers!) Perhaps it ultimately doesn’t matter that much, as what makes Raskolnikov and the novel, so fascinating, complex and rich – is the deep insight into the human mind. It reminds us that actions have consequences, and as Dostoevsky explains himself, “the mystery of the human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Philosophical Perspectives. Ed. Guay, Robert.: Oxford University Press, May 23, 2019. Oxford Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 7 Feb. 2021 <https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780190464011.001.0001/oso-9780190464011>.
Hagberg, Garry L. “Portrayals of Mind: Raskolnikov, Porfiry, and Psychological Investigation in Crime and Punishment.” Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Philosophical Perspectives.: Oxford University Press, May 23, 2019. Oxford Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 7 Feb. 2021 <https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780190464011.001.0001/oso-9780190464011-chapter-2>.
Furtak, Rick Anthony. “Love, Suffering, and Gratitude for Existence: Moral and Existential Emotions in Crime and Punishment.” Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Philosophical Perspectives.: Oxford University Press, May 23, 2019. Oxford Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 7 Feb. 2021 <https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780190464011.001.0001/oso-9780190464011-chapter-3>.