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Few authors have been as personally familiar with desperation as Fyodor Dostoevsky, and none have been so adept at describing it. Crime and Punishmentthe novel that heralded the author’s period of masterworkstells the story of the poor and talented student Raskolnikov, a character of unparalleled psychological depth and complexity. Raskolnikov reasons that men like himself, by virtue of their intellectual superiority, can and must transcend societal law. To test his theory, he devises the perfect crimethe murder of a spiteful pawnbroker living in St. Petersburg.
In one of the most gripping crime stories of all time, Raskolnikov soon realizes the folly of his abstractions. Haunted by vivid hallucinations and the torments of his conscience, he seeks relief from his terror and moral isolationfirst from Sonia, the pious streetwalker who urges him to confess, then in a tense game of cat and mouse with Porfiry, the brilliant magistrate assigned to the murder investigation. A tour de force of suspense, Crime and Punishment delineates the theories and motivations that underlie a bankrupt morality.
Priscilla Meyer is Professor of Russian Language and Literature at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut. She published Find What the Sailor Has Hidden, the first monograph on Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and edited the first English translation of Andrei Bitov’s collection of short stories, Life in Windy Weather.
About the Author
Few authors have been as personally familiar with desperation as Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), and none have been so adept at describing it. His harrowing experiences in Russian prisons, combined with a profound religious philosophy, formed the basis for his greatest books: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov. When Dostoevsky died in 1881, he left a legacy of masterful novels that immortalized him as a giant of Russian literature.
Read an Excerpt
From Priscilla Meyer’s Introduction to Crime and Punishment
In Russia prose fiction came into its own in the 1830s, centuries later than in Western Europe. The first Russian work that can be called a novel, Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, was published in 1840; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece of world literature, Crime and Punishment, appeared only twenty-six years later—a remarkably compressed development. Dostoevsky was aided by his intense reading of Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Johann Goethe, and other masters of European literature, while the extraordinarily dramatic events of his life—arrest, imprisonment, a death sentence, four years in a labor camp, exile from the capital—were part of the experiential basis for his thought about the philosophical, social, and religious issues of his time.
Russian censorship restricted discussion of social and political questions, which could be treated only indirectly in prose fiction. Russia was governed by an autocracy; there was no bourgeoisie, and the small educated class was cut off from the rest of the (largely illiterate) population. Serfdom was abolished only in 1861, as part of the reforms effected by Alexander II; his legal reforms introduced trial by jury in criminal cases in 1864. Dostoevsky implicitly comments on the reforms in the investigation, trial, and sentencing of Crime and Punishment’s protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov.
Dostoevsky began writing Crime and Punishment as the confession of a young criminal. But in November 1865 he found the first-person narrative too constricting, and he burned the entire manuscript and began again in December, completing it a year later. The third-person narrative of the final version creates an interplay between Raskolnikov’s consciousness and the narrator’s viewpoint: At some points the two are in dialogue with each other; at others the narrator is within Raskolnikov’s mind, so much so that he conveys the hero’s internal dialogue. On the first page the narrator tells us, “[Raskolnikov] was hopelessly in debt to his landlady and was afraid of meeting her. This was not because he was cowardly and browbeaten, quite the contrary.” It is as if in the second sentence Raskolnikov is defending himself against the narrator’s charge of cowardice in the first.
Raskolnikov’s dual consciousness governs the structure of the entire book. In part one he oscillates between resolving to commit murder and renouncing his vile scheme; in the next five parts he alternates between asserting his right to murder and his anguish at having cut himself off from everyone by his act. These alternations reveal the conflict between Raskolnikov’s prideful intellect and his compassionate nature, which we see in his first dream, based on a childhood memory, in which he kisses the muzzle of a poor mare that is being beaten. In part one he twice acts on generous impulses, and each time subsequently disavows his acts with a rational argument: He leaves money on the Marmeladov family’s windowsill when he brings the drunken head of the household home, but then thinks, “What a stupid thing I’ve done . . . they have Sonia and I need it myself”; and he tries to help a seduced girl but then suddenly regrets it—“What is it to me?” In another alternation, he renounces his plan to murder the pawnbroker after he dreams of the mare, but then overhears the conversation in Haymarket Square that presents him with a perfect opportunity for his crime.
American readers have seen this duality as a kind of schizophrenia in the psychological sense, and Dostoevsky certainly explores that dimension of human ambivalence. But Russian readers see another aspect crucial to Dostoevsky’s concerns: the religious argument present in the smallest details of the novel. Raskolnikov’s name, not a common one, is Dostoevsky’s invention, based on the Russian word raskolnik (schismatic), one who has broken off from the church. The Russian Orthodox Church, which had undergone a schism in the seventeenth century, is a descendant of Greek Orthodoxy. Russians in the nineteenth century distinguished themselves from Western Europeans in part through their Eastern Christianity. They contrasted the more mystical tradition of the Orthodox church to the Western, Roman Catholic one, which they held to be legalistic in the tradition of Roman law and devoid of the spirit of Christian love they considered characteristic of the Russian peasantry, a spirit that united the Russian church and created a national religious community. Raskolnikov’s patronymic (the father’s name that Russians use in the place of a middle name), Romanovich, suggests that he has cut himself off from Orthodoxy and embraced a Western (Roman) worldview, characterized by faith in reason and a focus on the material world.
This opposition of Russian spiritual values to Western rationalism underlies the duality of Raskolnikov’s personality. This conflict was Dostoevsky’s deepest concern after his release from prison, at a time when Russian radicals began propagating Western ideas that Dostoevsky believed were based on a false vision of human nature. Raskolnikov is one of the bright young men from the provinces who has come to the capital to attend the university, where he is exposed to discussions of Western theories of economics and politics. These theories are based in a social-scientific approach that studies the material, knowable world using statistics and mathematical calculation—as in, for example, the enlightened self-interest and utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). The author of Utilitarianism (1863), Mill considered the goal of social legislation to be to provide “the greatest good for the greatest number,” calling it a “felicific calculus.” Dostoevsky takes up these ideas through the character of Peter Petrovich Luzhin, Raskolnikov’s prospective brother-in-law, who argues for enlightened self-interest: “Up until now, for instance, if I were told, ’love thy neighbor,’ what came of it? . . . It meant I had to tear my coat in half to share it with my neighbor and we both were left half naked.” Raskolnikov reduces this parody of economic theory to its essence: “If you carry out logically the theory you were advocating just now, it follows that people may be killed”—in other words, that human compassion can be replaced by economic utility and enlightened self-interest. Luzhin, whose name comes for the Russian word for puddle (luzha) embodies the economic principle, the primacy of monetary relations in social thought; he provides one of the ideas that influences Raskolnikov’s thinking. One of Raskolnikov’s initial reasons for his crime is (murkily) associated with the “good” of redistributing the pawnbroker’s wealth to the poor.