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[182b] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

crimeMost readers, especially the first-timers, would probably disagree that Crime and Punishment is humorous. Given the seriousness of its subject matter, it is most obvious that the scenes surrounding death of Marmeladov and the memorial meal following his funeral are most comical, even farcical and scandalous.

” ‘It’s all this cuckoo-bird’s fault [Katerina Ivanovna calling the German landlady]. You know who I’m talking about—her, her!’ and Katerina Ivanovna nodded towards the landlady. ‘Look at her eyes popping out! She feels we’re talking about her, but she can’t catch anything, so she’s gawking at us. Pah, what an owl! Ha, ha, ha! . . . Hem, hem, hem! Have you noticed, she keeps wanting everyone to think she’s patronizing me and doing me a great honor by her presence! I asked her, as a decent woman, to invite the better sort of people—namely, my late husband’s acquaintances—and look who she’s brought! Clowns! Sluts! Look at the one with the pimply face: some sort of snot on two legs!’ ” [383]

Even the central story of Raskolnikov and his struggle with fate keeps verging on comedy. Lots of punchy humor, and physical comedy, even in dark moments, percolate this novel. like when Raskolnikov slips around in Alyona’s blood, or when Katerina pulls Marmeladov around by his hair while he screams that he loves it. These three elements work together to creep us out while hopefully keeping us from getting too depressed. Pulcheria and Dunya crowded the room of Raskolnikov, bickering over how it’s the best way for Raskolnikov to be delivered from his illness. Luzhin’s ulterior designs on Dunya and his hoax on Sonya. Dostoevsky almost portrays these people as if they some actors in some sort of show. Are these people real?

It is essential and typical of Dostoevsky to shift his omnipresent view of the siuation of a novel. His view is constantly shifting but without losing its scope on the main plot. He may drop into horror, like a death, as we have seen in Marmeladov and later his consumptive wife, or rise into laughter at any moment. Yet this ambiguity, which is not incidental to Dostoevsky’s vision, but only most obvious in the comical sense, does not make light of suffering. On the contrary, what authors have ever revealed it so nakedly. Maybe Toni Morrison does as I’m reading Beloved. And that precisely because Dostoevsky does not allow us our usual rational or sentimental evasions. Suffering is unmitigated and there is no answer to it in this novel.

Further Reading
[182a] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

[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.

Booking Through Wintry Books

btt buttonNo, no … this isn’t the question you’re probably expecting, that asks about your winter reading habits.

What I want to know today is … what are the most “wintery” books you can think of? The ones that almost embody Winter?

I thought there won’t be Booking Through Thursday this week but am glad to find otherwise. The advocate of Russian literature in me compels me to pick the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. I read his short story, The Heavenly Christmas Tree last night in lieu of having set up a Christmas tree, which I’m afraid my dog will maraud before Christmas Eve even comes around. It’s an extremely short story, easily read in ten minutes, probably five. It begins with a poor boy, “six years old or even younger,” whose mother has passed away during a cold night. With nobody to care for him, the boy wanders about the city, seeing others revel in the Christmas season. Alas, none of the city’s celebration is for him.

Dostoevsky’s White Nights is told in first person by a nameless narrator who lives alone in a city and suffers from loneliness. The short story is divided into six sections. The title, “White Nights,” refers to the fact that St. Petersburg is so far north that there are short seasons in which it never gets totally dark at night; these are seen as magical, romantic times, and this romanticism is masterfully conveyed in Dostoevsky’s prose. Finally, A Christmas Tree and a Wedding is narrated by an awkward outcast attending a Christmas party. The man, although invited, knows only the host and talks to no one. He observes the party’s guest of honor and takes special interest in one of the children.


Existentialism is not really a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who invariably appear on every list of “existentialists”, Jaspers, Heideger, and Sartre, are not in agreement on essentials. Their alleged precursors, Pascal and Kierkegaard, differed from all three men by being dedicated Christians; and Pascal was a Catholic of sorts while Kierkegaard was a Protestant’s Protestant. If, as is often done, Nietzche and Dostoevsky are included in the fold, one must make room for an impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all three men is their perfervid individualism.

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism. Existentialism is a timeless sensibility (again, not a school of thought) that can be discerned here and there in the past; but it is only in recent times that it has solidified into a sustained protest and preoccupation. In Notes From Underground no good society can rid man of depravity: the book is among other things an inspired polemic against Rousseau and the whole tradition of social philosophy from Plato and Aristotle through Hobbes and Locke to Bentham, Hegel, and John Stuart Mill. The man whom Dostoevsky has created in this book holds out for what traditional Christianity has called depravity; but he believes neither in original sin nor in God, and for him man’s self-will is not depravity; it is only perverse from the point of view of rationalities and others who value neat schemes above the rich texture of individuality.

Dostoevsky himself was a Christian, to be sure, and for that matter also a rabid anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and anti-Western Russian nationalist. We have no right whatsoever to attribute to him the opinions of all of his most interesting characters. Unfortunately, most readers fail to distinguish between Dostoevsky’s views and those of the Grand Inquisitor in Ivan’s story in The Brothers Karamazov, though it is patent that this figure was inspired by the author’s hatred of the Church of Rome; and many critics take for Dostoevsky’s reasoned judgments the strange views of Kirilov, though he is mad. As a human being, Dostoevsky was as fascinating as any of his characters; but we must not ascribe to him, who after all believed in God, the outlook and ideas of his underground man.

Propagated Misattribution about Dostoevsky

Possibly the best-known quote from the works of Dostoevsky is from The Brothers Karamazov:

“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

The sentence does not appear, nor anything close to it. Nor does it appear in any of the other four Dostoevsky novels whose complete English texts are available online. The fact that a nonexistent text can be widely attributed to a famous author reveals the limitations of pre-computer scholarship. The fact that I could so quickly prove it erroneous highlights the opportunities for modern scholars. It is true that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” is an accurate capsule description of the belief espoused by Ivan Karamazov in the early chapters of The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan has concluded, or pretends to conclude, that there is no God, no immortality. As what he claims is a logical consequence, “everything is lawful.” However, Ivan never speaks the sentence in question, and neither does any other character in the novel! The phrase, “everything is lawful,” is used frequently by other characters as an idea that they got from Ivan. And once, Ivan says “If there is no immortality, there is no virtue.” But the magic sound-bite sentence is not to be found. Jean Paul Sartre has said that all of French Existentialism is to be found in Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted. But what did Dostoevsky say?

While it is undeniable that Ivan advances this view, that does not mean it is Dostoevsky’s view, and it is wrong to imply that it is — at least, without more support. In this respect, note that the sentence is a logical implication, if A then B. Ivan advances the truth of the implication as a whole, apparently as an intellectual proposition.In common talk, people assume that a claim if A then B automatically implies the contrary claim …and if not-A then not-B. However, logic is not common-sensical. When the antecedent A is not true, an implication is not automatically false; it becomes null — the truth of B is simply unknown.

To my rather casual reading, it appears that the whole irony of The Brothers Karamazov is that Ivan advances this logical statement, but later admits to Alyosha that, in fact, he believes in God. Hence Ivan has believed right from the start that the antecedent is false and, therefore, that the implication is null — it was never more than an intellectual toy. Alas, other characters take the succedent B seriously and act on it, resulting in great evil, for which Ivan must feel indirectly responsible. In any case, did Dostoevsky himself mean to argue the truth of the logical implication? Or to argue either the antecedent (God does not exist) or the succedent (everything is lawful) separately? Did Dostoevsky believe the inverse statement (“If God does exist, then not everything is lawful”)? Or did he only believe mean to show that almost everyone else believes it true, without examination? From David E. Cortesi

Booking Through Thursday | May I Introduce…

1. How did you come across your favorite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?
2. Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?


Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

My first edition of Booking Through Thursday in 2008 concerns a couple of my favorite authors. It goes way back to undergraduate study when I decided to enroll in a comparative literature course despite the demanding lab schedule of my major. Up to that point I have always been fascinated by certain landmark authors like Dostoevsky (Russia), Saramago (Portugal), and Dickens (England), to name a few. Growing up in then-colonized Hong Kong and was educated under the Brit system, I read a lot of Shakespeare and Dickens. But Dostoevsky appealed to me. My mentor at that time, a Catholic priest who has been living in Hong Kong for 15 years, recommended Crime and Punishment to me, which another 15 years later has laid the formation of my thesis! It wasn’t until I read The Brothers Karamazov did I truly fall in love with Dostoevsky.

Strict analysis of his character and actions in The Brothers Karamazov consists of psychological insights that penetration to such depths could have taken place even at the slightest amount of deliberate and malicious prejudice with regard to the person of the defendant. It’s under this point that Dostoevsky asserts man should not have the right to decide about the rest of the mankind, who is worthy to live and who is more unworthy. This evokes the theme in Crime and Punishment and the obscure Notes from Underground, his final judgment of mankind.

Crime and Punishment was written when he was at the zenith of his power. His remaining works exhibit frequently a marvelous tragic and analytic power, but they are unequal, and deficient in measure and in balance, except for his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Spiritually speaking, Dostoevsky worked on The Brothers Karamazov his entire life. The novel is one artistic embodiment riddled with everything he experienced, thought, and created. The central theme is a familiar motif: the conflict between faith and disbelief. This conflict is most accentuated by the personality duality of Ivan Karamazov and his dreamy encounter with the devil. The novel is a cumulation of Dostoevsky’s life that in the topography of which his memories of childhood are united with the impressions of his final years.