Crime and Punishment was Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski’s first popularly successful novel after his nine-year imprisonment and exile for alleged political crimes (the charges were of doubtful validity) against the czar. After his release from penal servitude, Dostoevski published novels, short stories, novellas, and journalistic pieces, but none of these brought him the critical and popular acclaim which in 1866 greeted Crime and Punishment—possibly his most popular novel. This book is no simple precursor of the detective novel, no simplistic mystery story to challenge the minds of Russian counterparts to Sherlock Holmes’s fans. It is a complex story of a man’s turbulent inner life and his relationship to others and to society at large. The book must be considered within the context of Dostoevski’s convictions at the time he wrote the novel, because Dostoevski’s experience with czarist power made a lasting impression on his thinking. Indeed, Dostoevski himself made such an evaluation possible by keeping detailed notebooks on the development of his novels and on his problems with fleshing out plots and characters.
Chastened by his imprisonment and exile, Dostoevski shifted his position from the youthful liberalism (certainly not radicalism) that seemed to have precipitated his incarceration to a mature conservatism that embraced many, perhaps most, of the traditional views of his time. Thus, Dostoevski came to believe that legal punishment was not a deterrent to crime because he was convinced that criminals demanded to be punished; that is, they had a spiritual need to be punished. Today, that compulsion might be called masochistic; but Dostoevski, in his time, related the tendency to mystical concepts of the Eastern Orthodox Church. With a skeptical hostility toward Western religion and culture, born of several years of living abroad, Dostoevski became convinced that the Western soul was bankrupt and that salvation—one of his major preoccupations—was possible only under the influence of the church and an ineffable love for Mother Russia, a devotion to homeland and to the native soil that would brook neither logic nor common sense: a dedication beyond reason or analysis. Thus, expiation for sins was attained through atonement, a rite of purification.
The required expiation, however, is complicated in Crime and Punishment by the split personality—a typically Dostoevskian ploy—of the protagonist. The schizophrenia of Raskolnikov is best illustrated by his ambivalent motives for murdering the pawnbroker. At first, Raskolnikov views his heinous crime as an altruistic act that puts the pawnbroker and her sister out of their misery while providing him the necessary financial support to further his education and mitigate his family’s poverty, thus relieving unbearable pressures on him. He does intend to atone for his misdeed by subsequently living an upright life dedicated to humanitarian enterprises. Raskolnikov, however, shortly becomes convinced of his own superiority. Indeed, he divides the human race into “losers” and “winners”: the former, meek and submissive; the latter, Nietzschean supermen who can violate any law or principle to attain their legitimately innovative and presumably beneficial ends. Raskolnikov allies himself with the “superman” faction. He intends to prove his superiority by committing murder and justifying it on the basis of his own superiority. This psychological configuration is common enough, but, unlike most paranoid schizophrenics, Raskolnikov carries his design through—a signal tribute to the depth of his convictions.
The results are predictably confusing. The reader is as puzzled about Raskolnikov’s motives as he is. Is it justifiable to commit an atrocity in the name of improvement of the human condition? This essential question remains unanswered in Crime and Punishment; Raskolnikov, egocentrically impelled by pride, cannot decide whether or not he is superior, one of those supermen entitled to violate any law or any principle to serve the cause of ultimate justice, however justice might be construed. Likewise, in his notebooks, Dostoevski implied that he, too, was ambivalent about Raskolnikov’s motives. He added, however, that he was not a psychologist but a novelist. He was thus more concerned with consequences than with causality. This carefully planned novel therefore expands upon a philosophical problem embodied in the protagonist.
The philosophical problem in Crime and Punishment constitutes the central theme of the novel: the lesson Raskolnikov has to learn, the precept he has to master in order to redeem himself. The protagonist finally has to concede that free will is limited. He has to discover and admit that he cannot control and direct his life solely with his reason and intellect, as he tried to do, for such a plan leads only to emptiness and to sinful intellectual pride. Abstract reason takes the place of a fully lived life and precludes the happiness of a fully lived life; happiness must be earned, and it can be earned only through suffering. Thus, Raskolnikov has to learn that happiness is achieved through suffering—another typically Dostoevskian mystical concept. The climactic moment in the novel, therefore, comes when Raskolnikov confesses his guilt at the police station, for Raskolnikov’s confession is tantamount to a request for punishment for the crime and acceptance of his need to suffer. In this way, Raskolnikov demonstrates the basic message of Crime and Punishment: that reason does not bring happiness; happiness is earned through suffering.
The epilogue—summarizing the fates of other characters; Raskolnikov’s trial, his sentencing, and his prison term; and Sonia’s devotion to Raskolnikov during his imprisonment—confirms the novel’s central theme. Artistically, however, the epilogue is somewhat less than satisfactory. First, Dostoevski’s notes indicate that he had considered and rejected an alternate ending in which Raskolnikov commits suicide. Such a conclusion would have been psychologically sound. The very logicality of Raskolnikov’s suicide, however, would have suggested a triumph of reason over the soul. That idea was not consonant with Dostoevski’s convictions; thus, he dropped the plan. Second, the ending that Dostoevski finally wrote in the epilogue implies that the meek and submissive side of Raskolnikov’s personality emerged completely victorious over the superman. Such an ending contradicts Raskolnikov’s persistent duality throughout the novel. Raskolnikov’s dramatic conversion thus strains credulity, for it seems too pat a resolution of the plot. For the sophisticated reader, however, it does not greatly detract from the powerful psychological impact of the novel proper or diminish the quality of a genuinely serious attempt to confront simultaneously a crucial social problem and a deeply profound individual, human one.