Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment

I see by the inscription inside my copy that it has been nearly ten years to the month since my last reading of Crime And Punishment. I perfectly remember where I was when I first sat down to read it, and how simultaneously challenging and absorbing I found it. That initial reading took the better part of a month; this second reading, just five days, and having now made a larger survey of Dostoevsky’s novels, the reputation of Crime And Punishment as being his most approachable novel seems to me amply justified. It is expertly plotted, ensnaring the reader from the opening pages, and though it is much more than a detective story, if it were to be read only as that, it contains enough tension and suspense to satisfy that meagre reading.

The plot should need no introduction, but I will sketch it in the barest outline nonetheless. Our protagonist is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a young man from the country who has arrived in Saint Petersburg to study the law, but whose poverty and indolence have caused him to drop out of his courses and sell his textbooks. “He had entirely given up attending to his daily affairs and did not want to attend to them.” He has been reduced to avoiding his landlady, whose demands for the rent of even his small closet of a room he cannot meet, and eats only thanks to the mercies of the serving girl, who brings him reheated tea and leftover food from time to time. Raskolnikov has reached such an abject state of wretchedness that he takes a kind of perverse pleasure in his poverty and his isolation. “To become more degraded and slovenly would have been difficult; but Raskolnikov even enjoyed it in his present state of mind.” But it is not his poverty alone that degrades him; rather, it is the terrible juxtaposition between his talents and potential – particularly at the high estimate he has of them – and his station in life. In 19th century Saint Petersburg, the “young student from the country” was something of a trope of popular fiction, but history has furnished us many more examples of the social problems that arise from producing an educated class of young people without remunerative outlet for their talents: Russia under the tsars, France and Cambodia in the 1960s, and the United States in the 2010s all come to mind… When the serving girl Nastasya chides Raskolnikov for being a layabout, he responds defensively:

“I do something …” Raslkonikov said, reluctantly and sternly.
“What do you do?”
“Work …”
“Which work?”
“I think,” he replied seriously, after a pause.

Nastasya “dissolves into laughter,” but as the above historical examples make clear, boredom and an intellect with a penchant for abstract theorizing are a potent combination, and soon Raskolnikov’s thoughts overmaster him.

Ultimately, Raskolnikov becomes a type described by Nietzsche, a “thinker who is not the gardener but the soil of his plants,” and the thought he is driven to is murder. There is a landlady and pawnshop broker, an old woman with a reputation for charging steep interest and hoarding her money. Worse, she abuses her younger half-sister, working her to the bone and stealing her wages in return for the lodging she provides her. In one of those moments of abstract theorizing, we catch Raskolnikov articulating the logic that will lead him to murder: “On the one hand you have a stupid, meaningless, worthless, wicked, sick old crone, no good to anyone and, on the contrary, harmful to everyone, who doesn’t know herself why she’s alive, and who will die on her own tomorrow. Understand? Understand?” This is the ethics of utilitarianism, of “scientific” rationalism, and it leads, according to Dostoevsky, in only one direction:

Kill her and take her money, so that afterwards with its help you can devote yourself to the service of all mankind and the common cause: what do you think, wouldn’t thousands of good deeds make up for one tiny little crime? For one life, thousands of lives saved from decay and corruption. One death for hundreds of lives – it’s simple arithmetic. And what does the life of this stupid, consumptive, and wicked old crone mean in the general balance? No more than the life of a louse, a cockroach, and not even that much, because the old crone is harmful. She’s eating up someone else’s life […].

Raskolnikov is an entirely fictional creation, but the logic he employs here was, according to Dostoevsky, latent in much of the revolutionary thinking of his day, and not a half-century would pass before Lenin and Stalin proved him correct. What are a million dead, ten million dead, compared to an eternal utopia?

The murder happens almost in a state of delirium, but despite Raskolnikov’s careful planning and some propitious timing, he cannot control all the variables, cannot make a clean murder, and after he has dispatched the old crone, her innocent and blameless half-sister walks into the apartment, and she too must be killed. From this moment on, Raskolnikov is a marked man. He neglects to break open the moneylender’s chest, where thousands of rubles are hidden, and though he does pilfer some of the pawned items, he soon hides them under a rock, never to look at them again. The murder that was to free him from his burdens has only increased them a thousandfold. I was reminded, reading of Raskolnikov’s ambitions, of Macbeth, who is presented with a similar bargain, and expresses a similar wish to cut out his conscience:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

Of course, for both Macbeth and Raskolnikov, it is never just “this blow,” and as Banquo must die, and Macduff’s children, so too must Lizaveta die, and Lady Macbeth. And what of that pregnant word, “consequence”? Both Macbeth and Raskolnikov delude themselves into believing they can fathom the consequences of committing a murder, that they can rationalize away their guilt or even sacrifice “the life to come.”

In one of Crime And Punishment‘s most powerful scenes, Raskolnikov finally confesses to his crime, choosing for his confessor Sonya, the orphaned daughter of a drunk, who had been prostituting herself to help feed her destitute family. But Dostoevsky, in his infinite psychological acumen, does not merely have Raskolnikov confess, even though he professes the desire to confess. At first, he has Raskolnikov look for justification, and who better to justify him in his crime than the book’s most innocent and blameless character, the only character with more cause than he to curse god and fate and the unjustness of the universe? He puts a proposition towards her: what if, by killing a wicked man, a man eminently unworthy of life, she could spare her mother and her family harm – would she not then be capable of murder? Her simple reply enrages Raskolnikov: “And who put me here to judge who is to live and who is not to live?”

And suddenly a strange, unexpected feeling of corrosive hatred for Sonya came over his heart. As if surprised and frightened by this feeling, he suddenly raised his head and looked at her intently, but he met her anxious and painfully caring eyes fixed upon him; here was love; his hatred vanished like a phantom. That was not it; he had mistaken one feeling for another. All it meant was that the moment had come.

Having been denied a rationale for his crime, Raskolnikov must face his culpability head on, and the immediate and instinctive response he has is to hate the person who has forced such an ugly conclusion upon him. But the moment has come, and see again how Dostoevsky describes it:

This moment, as it felt to him, was terribly like the one when he had stood behind the old woman, having already freed the axe from its loop, and realized that “there was not another moment to lose.”

From a psychological (or perhaps spiritual?) perspective, Dostoevsky refuses to distinguish between the anguish of the crime and the confession. Here, in these powerful paragraphs, he balances the scales between crime and punishment.

I am rapidly running out of superlatives with which to compliment Dostoevsky. His novels have the same dynamic qualities of Shakespeare’s best tragedies, and I think the comparison between Macbeth and Crime And Punishment is justified, not only for the obvious similarities in theme, but for the perfection of their design. Hamlet and King Lear seem to expand beyond their five-act structure, their themes too weighty for even Shakespeare to contain, but Macbeth is drum-tight. Similarly, Demons and The Idiot are unwieldy, powerful in spite of their collapsing structure, not because of it, whereas Crime And Punishment achieves a perfect unity of form and theme. At no point in this book’s 500-plus pages is Dostoevsky not in total command of his plot, his theme and his characters, and therefore also his readers, who are borne across its vast structure as riders on some powerful wave, helpless to resist the impending crash of the waters on the shore.