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[182a] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

crime“It was dark in the corridor; they were standing near a light. For a minute they looked silently at each other. Razumikhin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and fixed look seemed to grow more intense every moment, penetrating his soul, his consciousness. All at once Razumikhin gave a start. Something strange seemed to pass between them . . . as if the hint of some idea, something horrible, hideous, flitted by and was suddenly understood on both sides . . . Razumikhin turned pale as a corpse.” [314]

Crime and Punishment is a novel told from the perspective of a murderer, Rodion Raskolnikov, who is under a temporary insanity and some morbid monomania of murder and robbery, kills a pawn-woman with an axe. The impoverished university drop-out, however, is no ordinary murderer. That he has not made use of what he has stolen and has given his last penny to a widow eliminate monetary motive of murder. Dostoevsky, in a writing style that resembles to polemic more than story-telling, delineates a picture, a psychological labyrinth, of the criminal’s illness and distress prior to committing the murder. He creates the deception that Raskolnikov has resolved on the murder as a result of his frivolous and fainthearted nature, further exasperated by hardship and failure. Readers would soon encounter the difficulty to fir Raskolnikov into the “normality theory” in which a criminal must perpetrate for personal gain.

Raskolnikov’s problem, which justifies his killing, is that he does not see it as a crime. At best it is the darkening of reason and failure of will that take hold of a man like a disaster. His hardened conscience does not find especially any terrible guilt in his past because he believes an isolated act of criminality is permissible if the main purpose is good. His theory is one according to which people are divided, into raw material (ordinary) and special people (extraordinary), people for whom, owing to their superior position, the law does not exist. Like a reborn Napoleon, a genius who disregards isolated evil and steps over it without reluctance, he assumes the role of mankind’s benefactor who rids of the louses for the sake of society. His transgression confronts him with dimensions of the world and of himself that he does not anticipate and cannot understand; because he is a neurotic with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. This justifies his not being in repentance even after he is sentenced. His reason, which exists outside of society’s rationality and which the law condemns, leads him to murder. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization. Even at the end, in penal servitude, his (wounded) pride rises up against the world that he thinks has defeated him by means of some blind mechanism.

Crime and Punishment concretizes the complex dialectic of Notes from Underground, in which an anonymous man lashes out with such sarcastic wit at the most self-evident truths of society and human reason. He recognizes that life cannot be accounted for by any laws or with any logical consistency. Whereas the underground man transgresses only inwardly and philosophically, for the sake of a truth that he clings to but fails to define, in the current novel, Raskolnikov is the actual transgressor, who even has good inclinations and kills under the influence of some strange, will-o’-the-wisp that endanger social order. The psychological account of the crime elaborates on this paradoxical claim on reason and logic, which as the inspector Porfiry has said, is unique for each case. What drive the plot forward are the three story-lines Dostoevsky juxtaposes with the cat-and-mouse game with artistry and coherence. The story of the unemployed official Marmeladov, whose acquaintance Raskolnikov makes at the beginning, his consumptive wife Katerina Ivanovna, and their family provides Raskolnikov the crucial link to Sonya, who sells herself as a prostitute for her family. A letter from Raskolnikov’s mother unfolds the entangled affairs between his sister Dunya, the official Luzhin, and the sinister Svidrigailov–both of whom have immediate intentions and designs on her. As Raskolnikov turns to Sonya, and with painfully slow steps begins to move toward a “new, hitherto completely unknown reality,” owing to Sonya’s faith and compassion, Dostoevsky grants the vision of evil, which has not been allured to directly throughout the book, to Svidrigailov at the end. Even though Raskolnikov has moved through the dense element of evil without recognition, has has resolved his life in a way that will awaken his repentance. Sonia’s persistent love finally breaks through to Raskolnikov. After nearly a year in Siberia, something comes over Raskolnikov and he falls down at Sonia’s feet. At that moment, they both realize that they love each other. It is after Easter. The story of Lazarus has taken place inside of Raskolnikov; he has been resurrected. 564pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Vintage edition. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Part (a), more to follow.

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14 Responses

  1. Thank you for reading this for me!!! I will be honest here and say that I don’t feel I could ever make it through this book without somebody holding my hand.

  2. Now this is a book! Your commentary tempts me to brave these pages once again after 40+ years.

  3. P. S. Do you favor the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, or would you recommend another?

  4. “His transgression confronts him with dimensions of the world and of himself that he does not anticipate and cannot understand; because he is a neurotic with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people.”

    What an excellent review. I see that this is just the first part? I have always been in awe of this novel, making excuses and putting it aside. This quote is more than enough to convince me to read it.

  5. I sometimes think that I am a really odd person because I really enjoyed this novel – at least as much as you can enjoy a novel like this. I went through a phase in my mid 20s where I craved novels like Crime and Punishment. Thanks so much for posting this review, Matt. I need to go and revisit this novel in my late 30s to see if it still hits me in the same way.

  6. Staci:
    I hope you enjoy reading it now. :)

  7. Greg S:
    I favor Pevear/Volorhonksy and Constance Garret translations. I do think that this book is written to be re-read, because, like The Master and Margarita, every reading affords new nuances of the character and Raskolnikov’s state of mind. Much of the interactions, I realize upon this reading, verge on comedy.

  8. John:
    Raskolnikov is streaming through this dense cloud of bad with no recognition. All the characters around him have seen and recognized the evil except in other forms. You’ll enjoy reading this a lot because it’s both a thriller and literary fiction.

  9. Jennifer:
    The re-readings allow me to see Raskolnikov’s impact of the surrounding characters. It’s no longer the plot that drives me but the artistry and its intricacy and craftmanship.

  10. [...] [182a] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky [...]

  11. [...] [182a] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky [...]

  12. My desert island book. You are spot on about the dark humour inherent throughout. This is one of two books that I revisit annually.

  13. [...] [182a] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky [...]

  14. [...] Michael Cunningham, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. [...]

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