Study Guide

Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821, the second child of an overly domineering father and an extremely subservient mother. The father, an upper-class doctor, forced the young boy into studying military engineering. Until the father's murder by one of his own serfs, Dostoevsky willingly obeyed; the killing, however, provided fodder for the young man's imagination.

In the mid-1840's, Dostoevsky began writing, and after the publication of The Double in 1846, he joined a group of radical intellectuals, known as the Petrashevsky Circle. Czar Nicholas, however, would not allow freedom of thought in Russia, and this group was sentenced to death by firing squad; at the last moment, while they were lined up to be executed, the Czar commuted the sentences to five years' hard labor in a camp in Siberia. There, Dostoevsky encountered people from all segments of Russian society and developed some of the ideas incorporated into his later books, including The House of the Dead, The Insulted and Injured, The Idiot, and Notes from the Underground.

In 1854, he left prison, moved to St. Petersburg, and resumed his interrupted literary career. Health problems, including frequent attacks of epilepsy, and a serious gambling addiction took their toll on him, and, consequently, the need for money became paramount. Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment between 1865 and 1866, and it became an instant success, both with ordinary Russians and with critics, who hailed it as a masterpiece. Dostoevsky's problems continued to plague him, and writing was his way out of stifling poverty. In the last fifteen years of his life, Dostoyevsky produced works such as The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov, all of which express Dostoevsky's view of the Russian soul and his social and moral outlook. He is considered among the greatest of Russia's literary geniuses.

Dostoevsky died in 1881 of a lung hemorrhage; it is unknown whether his epilepsy contributed to his death.