Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and punishment (Review, hmm)

DostoevskyCrimePenguinPart way through my reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and punishment I wrote in my book – because, yes, I am a marginalia writer – “Who does Dostoevsky agree with?” It’s a somewhat naive question, I know, because the author doesn’t have to agree with anyone – and very often doesn’t. You just have to look at Humbert Humbert for example, or Patrick Süskind’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. But, in those novels, you can assume the authorial viewpoint. Crime and punishment, however, seems to me to be very different. What is Dostoevsky’s viewpoint? Does he have one?


This brings me to why I read classics. There are two main reasons: one being simply that I’m interested in our literary heritage, and the other is because they still have something to say. I guess this partly answers the question I posed a couple of posts ago doesn’t it? I read for insight into “the human condition”, to understand what makes us tick, and therefore, I suppose, to know myself and others better. Anyhow, back to Crime and punishment and my marginalia comment. The central question in the novel is, really, why did Raskolnikov do it? And his reasons are so ambiguous, so paradoxical, that he slots pretty comfortably into our post-modern world of uncertainty, self-consciousness and fluidity. Of course, he’s not modern (or post-modern). He’s a 19th century creation (and this is a mid-19th century novel with a happy ending). But he’s a creation who is hard to pin down, because he’s the creation of a writer from a society in flux, and of a writer who was perhaps himself in flux. Indeed, Raskolnikov’s name, so the translator of my edition tells me, derives from “raskol” meaning “a split or schism”.

So, Raskolnikov commits his crime. He murders not only the “old hag”, a pawnbroker with whom he’d had several problematic dealings, but her sweet, simple-minded sister Lizaveta, who surprised him in the act. Raskolnikov evinces little or no obvious guilt for his actions, though his physical illness and mental disarray post-murder are surely a psychosomatic response to what he’d done. His behaviour is quite schizoid, at one moment warm and generous, and then suddenly cold and calculating. No wonder those close to him can’t make him out. He’s a slippery beast.

And he’s a slippery beast because it seems – if I understand the various end-notes included in my edition – he’s a vehicle for Dostoevsky’s views on Russian society and intellectual life at the time. So, here I’m answering my opening question: Raskolnikov represents Dostoevsky in that he speaks to Dostoevsky’s concerns about some critical issues, but these concerns are multifarious so cannot be pinned down to one main idea. In some ways Crime and punishment could be seen as Dickensian, in its description of the grime and poverty of St Petersburg, but I don’t see Dostoevsky as a Russian Dickens. His main focus is not social justice, though the idea of “justice” features frequently in the novel, but more intellectual, political and psychological. Raskolnikov’s “motives” range from utilitarian ones (the world will be better off without the “hag”, “a useless, foul, noxious louse”) through philanthropic ones (her money could be used to help others) to megalomaniac and egotistic ones (“I wanted to become a Napoleon”, am I one of the “extraordinary” people “who dares to stoop and grab”, one who “moves the world and leads it towards a goal”?). These motives address many of the debates that were occurring in contemporary Russia, debates about socialism, Westernisation, moral responsibility versus environmental impact on human behaviour, and social Darwinism. Overlaying all this is Dostoevsky’s Christian belief. Sonya, the young girl who takes up prostitution to provide for her step-mother and siblings, is the person to whom Raskolnikov first confesses. While shocked, she listens and refuses to believe, or at least accept, his baser motives. Her solution is a Christian one, to “accept suffering and atone”.

In the end, at his trial, Raskolnikov gives practical reasons for the crime to do with his poverty and desire to use the victim’s money to help his career (except he didn’t touch the money), and admits he turned himself in because of “heartfelt remorse”. He receives a relatively light sentence (only eight years in Siberia) for various reasons, including his sickness before the crime, his generous character, and the fact he did not use the money.

Raskolnikov is one of literature’s great anti-heroes, alongside the likes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Camus’ Meursault, to whom he has been compared. I can see why – though he doesn’t have the clear motivation of Macbeth, nor the absence of motivation of Meursault. Like Meursault in particular, Raskolnikov is complex and engenders endless debates that are as affected by the reader’s beliefs, experiences and attitudes, and dare I say by the reader’s times, as they are by the text itself.

The novel’s ending suggests “renewal” and “rebirth”, but what exactly Dostoevsky meant by it all is not completely resolved, at least in my mind. There has been enough ambiguity and paradox throughout – for example, Raskolnikov argues that if he has to question whether he has “a right to power” then he doesn’t because one who does wouldn’t ask – and the trial is covered with such brevity to undermine complete confidence in the resolution. I like this sort of openness. It seems appropriate, therefore, to conclude with Raskolnikov’s loyal friend Razumikhin who says to Razkolnikov’s mother and sister:

Keep fibbing, and you’ll end up with the truth! I’m only human because I lie. No truth’s ever been discovered without fourteen fibs along the way … Name anything you like: science, development, thought, inventions, ideals, desires, liberalism, rationalism, experience, anything at all, anything, anything – and we are all, without exception, still stuck in the first years of preparatory school! We just love making do with other people’s thoughts.

Is Raskolnikov an original, a creative truth-teller, or just another confused human being prattling off ideas he’s heard from others? That is the question.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Crime and punishment
(Trans. by Oliver Ready)
London: Penguin Books, 2014 (Orig. ed. 1866)
ISBN: 9780141192802

32 thoughts on “Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and punishment (Review, hmm)

  1. So this is the big novel you’ve been reading, the one you referred to the other day! I was so curious to see what it was going to be.
    It is so long since I read this that I can’t even really remember when it was, but I still remember the grime and poverty vividly. When we visited Dostoyevsky’s house in St Petersburg, we saw a display of photos of St Petersburg grunge on the ground floor that showed the kind of atmosphere that he was evoking. They were all in B&W, well restored from the period, but very gloomy and Dickensian indeed! I had got the impression from his writing that he too was starving in a garret, but no, his house was quite respectable and cheery, due, they said, in no small part to his wife who somehow kept house despite his gambling and uncertain income.
    You can see my photos of the house interior on my travel blog at https://hillfamilysoutherndivision.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/dostoyevsky-museum-st-petersburg/
    Behind every great man, eh?

  2. Wow, great review Sue, really clarified some of my own thinking. I agree he is such a complex character, and is torn by the world around him. I have the strong image of him wandering the streets being drawn into different worlds, and following paths as a result of it. It’s certainly a world in flux, and I’m not really convinced that he is a follower of religious orthodoxy. He sees the need for transcending the material world, but is torn between the chaos and excitement of new ideas and the spiritual comfort of the religious tradition.
    I think Many of us are still trying to find that place!

    • Thanks Kate. It’s taken me three days to write it, as it’s taken a lot of mulling. I agree about having a strong image of him walking around the streets, past the Ditch etc. As I commented to Lisa I might do another post quoting a description of place – but then again I may not. I agree re the religion too, and like your description of his being torn.

  3. Thanks for this fantastic post. Macbeth and Meursault are two of my favourite characters in fiction, so while having always wanted to read this book, to hear of the comparison lying within this book, on reading your review I realised I need to read it. Thank you.

    • Why thanks Andrew! You know who has a copy you can read!! Macbeth and Meursault are two of my favourites too. “I am in blood, stepp’d so far …” etc! If you do get around to reading, come back and say what you think.

  4. Dostoevsky was inspired by the crimes and attitudes towards crimes of Lacenaire whose memoirs were published after his spectacular trial and his death. D published the memoirs in a magazine he edited.

    • Thanks Guy. My end-notes talk about several crimes that “inspired” home. He apparently said that these accounts convinced him that his plot was “far from eccentric”. One was an expelled student who decided to rob the mail and kill the postman. I checked Lacenaire in Wikipedia. This particular example doesn’t sound like Lacenaire, but the article says, as you say, that he inspired writers like Balzac and Dostoevsky.

  5. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I read the book in high school and was floored by it but the years have gradually eaten away at my memory of everything but that and the basic plot. I should probably read it again sometime. You make me want to!

    • Oh good, Stefanie … that’s great praise for a “review” (not that what I’ve written is a review as much as a response to Raskolnikov. Too hard to write a full review, and not really necessary, I decided!)

  6. This is a book that has defeated me before the end of part one 3 times. I have been eyeing this new translation wondering if that was part of the problem. How did you find it? As much as I admire the writing each time I venture in I shudder at the thought of spending the rest of the book with the characters (and I do not believe characters need to be likable). By contrast I loved the premise, successful or not, of The Idiot which remains a favourite. I even have Kurosawa’s underrated film version on DVD. One of my goals for the year was to give this classic beast one more go.

    • Thanks, ghostly one. This translation is getting good reviews I believe. I liked it, and have read some comparisons with the early Garnett version. I’m thinking of quoting a descriptive section from my translation and Garnett, though I have to find time to find the one I’d like to share so I may not get around to it. I found the characters so intriguing, that I didn’t find it tedious reading at all. It was slow reading though because my edition had good end-notes and I read them all as I went (not that they all made sense to me as I didn’t then go and research all the references there). Most made sense though and they were elucidating (in many cases).

  7. “Crime and Punishment” was one of the prescribed texts in my college studies of English in Sierra Leone in the 1980s. The review is quite informative. Thanks for bringing my memory back to this worthy classic.

    • Thanks Nyam. How lovely of you to comment and tell me so. Did you enjoy it when you read it in the 1980s? I wonder how differently we perceive this book depending on our own geographical and political place and circumstances?

      • I did enjoy reading the book. It was one of the numerous prescribed texts we had to read in readiness for end-of-year tests (among which were Shakespeare plays, Dickens, Hemmingway, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot, Ralf Ellison, old and modern poets, African novels and plays, etc.). Among the numerous texts lined up for us, Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” stood out as one of the favourites of most of the students. As far as I can remember, our perception of the book could not have been different from those in other geographical and/or political environments. This may have been due to our belief that literature has no boundaries and cuts across political divide – a book written, read and debated in France, for example, could be read and expertly debated in a university in tiny Sierra Leone or in some other place that is hardly visible on the world map. It all depends on the enthusiasm of the people involved. Our lecturer by then, Prof. Eustace Palmer, was/is a renowned literature critic and had a wide knowledge of all types of literature written in English. His lectures were a lively buzz of discussions surrounding, for example, “Crime and Punishment”: characterisation, imagery, etc., and the life of Dostoevsky vis-à-vis the social and political era in which he wrote the book, and other matters. Once more, thanks a lot for your wonderful review and looking forward to reading more.

  8. I think he is a creative truth teller, with a confused mind. His writings were deep and puzzling, and I found his novels hard going at times. Yet, I always found myself agreeing or questioning what he was saying. So I really appreciated your review.

    • Thanks Meg … I’m glad you agree. “Creative truth teller with a confused mind”! I think this is what I like about it. We can all respond differently – and validly – and yet it’s not wishy-washy. It’s just that there are so many interesting ideas and points of view being explored.

      • Nabokov was contemptuous of Crime And Punishment (in his lectures he gave on the Novel for a university) and he made a telling point about the absurdity of the scene where Raskolnikov and Sonya pray together over the Bible. There is no comparison in iniquity in what Sonya has to do to survive and Raskolnikov’s murder. For all that Crime And Punishment is a great and unforgettable novel which is still difficult to tame.

        • Thanks Ian. I read – in my introduction I think – that neither Nabokov nor Chekhov liked it. I must say that in my marginalia I wrote “melodramatic” a couple of times, one of them being that scene. I tend though to accept a bit of melodrama in books of this ilk from that time, so I agree with you re its being a great novel “difficult to tame”. (I will check out Nabokov’s lectures.)

  9. I agree with your opening statement, that classics still have something to say. There’s many I’ve had to force myself to pursue to the end, but I’ve nonetheless got something out of all of them. One of my greatest triumphs was convincing a sci-fi/fantasy fan to read A Tale of Two Cities based on my insistence that the ending would change his book-loving life forever. He now rates it among his favourite books of all time.

    • Thanks 36views. I love that you managed to encourage a reader to try something new. You chose a good book to do it for a sci-fi reader, as it has such a strong narrative and moving theme doesn’t it.

  10. Reading this was a revelation – I’d dabbled with Russian fiction before but always held back from Dostoevsky thinking he would be somewhat impenetrable. How wrong could I be? I was supposed to be reading it as part of a read long but was so wrapped up in it I couldn’t restrict myself to the miserly few chapters assigned for each week.

    The sections dealing with the theory of the Superman were chilling. I kept thinking how it resonated with the actions of people like Stalin and Hitler.

    • Funny isn’t it Karen, how we get these ideas. I agree that it’s not impenetrable, though I feared that a little too, and is in fact quite the page turner. And yes, that theory of special people, was very creepy to read.

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