I seem to be on a bit of a Russian kick these days. Many years ago, I read several Dostoyevsky novels but I really don’t remember a thing about them. I decided to revisit Crime and Punishment not only because it is, perhaps, the best known of his novels but also because it’s less than 300 pages long. Turns out, it’s also quite the page turner — a psychological drama involving a murderer whose physical and mental health deteriorate as an investigator closes in on him. C&P is also a novel about spirituality and morality, and the effect on men’s souls of selfish self-interest and attachment to worldly things.
The main character is Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, a 23-year-old student living in poverty in St. Petersburg. He has taken a leave from his studies in order to tutor but his jobs are few and far between. Raskolnikov is a bitter young man, full of contempt for others and pride in himself, and yet he can also be unexpectedly generous, giving what little money he has to beggars on the street. He is a loner and tries his best to avoid his landlady, to whom he owes rent. His sister Dounia and his mother, who live out in the country, are poor themselves. Dounia had been a governess, unjustly accused of romantic entanglement with her employer’s husband only to be exonerated and betrothed to her employer’s brother Luzhin, whose motives in proposing to Dounia seem suspicious to Raskolnikov. He resolves to forbid this marriage from happening but he is preoccupied with a plan. The reader discovers that Raskolnikov’s plan is to murder the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna. He walks the streets of Petersburg, agitated and distracted by his planning, making sure that every detail is worked out. When he finally seizes his opportunity to murder the woman, several unforeseen problems arise, nearly leading to Raskolnikov’s capture and shaking him to the core.
At the heart of the novel is Raskolnikov’s reason for murdering the woman. He is not motivated by economic reasons or personal vendetta, but rather a philosophy of “extraordinary men” versus ordinary men. The extraordinary man, such as Napoleon, can violate the law with impunity in the service of some greater goal, and the fact that he gets away with it is proof of his genius, his right to do so. One sin or transgression is forgiven of the man who then goes on to perform many other great deeds for humanity. When he discusses his philosophy with others, he often posits his ideas thusly: what if Newton could only have made his great scientific discoveries if he had had to murder someone first? Wouldn’t that justify or forgive the murder? Raskolnikov believes he himself is perhaps one of these extraordinary men, but when his plan unravels, so does his physical and mental health.
Dostoyevsky peoples his novel with a good number of characters who exemplify the sort of selfish man who causes suffering in his pursuit of what he wants, and with characters who would sacrifice themselves rather than let others suffer. There’s Marmeladov, the government servant whose alcoholism impoverishes his family and forces his daughter Sonia into prostitution. Svidrigailov, the man who nearly ruined Dounia, may have killed his wife, may have ruined other young girls, and has no qualms about any of it whatsoever. He finds himself drawn to Raskolnikov and will become a problem for him later. Whenever Raskolnikov encounters the men who actually seem to embody his philosophy, he is disgusted by them and is incapable of seeing how similar they are to him. Luzhin, his sister’s suitor, is especially despicable in his pursuit of Dounia, willingly sacrificing innocent victims (usually women and children) not just to win her over but also to break off her relationship with Raskolnikov. Luzhin expresses his “extraordinary man” theory in economic terms, and it sounds a lot like trickle down economics:
Economic truth adds that the better private affairs are organized in society …the firmer are its foundations, and the better is the common welfare organized too. Therefore, in acquiring wealth solely and exclusively for myself, I am acquiring, so to speak, for all, and helping to bring to pass my neighbors getting a little more than a torn coat …as a consequence of the general advance.
Standing in contrast to these men are the women in Raskolnikov’s life: his mother, sister and Sonia, with whom he falls in love. Dostoyevsky draws a painfully accurate portrait of the difficult life of women and children who are without rights and must rely on men, often despicable men, to help them. And yet these women do not succumb to Raskolnikov’s bitter view of the world, not even when he tries to seduce them (Sonia) to it. Instead, these women embody the virtues that matter to Dostoyevsky: faith, unconditional love, and willingness to suffer for what is good rather than give in to evil. Raskolnikov does not understand these values and is often irritated by them, but he loves these three women deeply and worries about losing their love should the truth of his actions come out. These women, in turn, always see the good in Raskolnikov and believe in the power of God’s love and redemption. And redemption, not just punishment, is Dostoyevsky’s goal for his main character.
This leaves us with two important characters on Raskolnikov’s journey toward justice and redemption: Razumihin and Profiry. Razumihin is one of Raskolnikov’s fellow university students, as close to a friend as he has had. Razumihin always welcomes Raskolnikov, tries to help him find employment and is forgiving of his friend’s eccentricities. He also falls in love with Dounia. Porfiry is Razumihin’s cousin and a police investigator working on the case of Alyona Ivanovna’s murder. Raskolnikov’s bizarre behavior in the wake of the murder has drawn attention to him, but Porfiy is smart; he knows how to use psychology to smoke out suspects and plays a cat and mouse game with Raskolnikov that pushes the man to the edge. Porfiry, however, also seems to like Raskolnikov, even though he is sure the man is guilty. Again, Dostoeyevsky gives us characters who can hate the sin but love the sinner and who see the chance for redemption for Raskolnikov if he would only get over his pride and admit his crime.
Whether or not Raskolnikov gives himself up, admits his crime and is redeemed is for you to find out, should you choose to read Crime and Punishment. And you should! It’s a riveting novel, full of suspense and drama. If you enjoy dark psychological novels like Gone Girl or The Dinner, then Crime and Punishment is for you.