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