Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*St. Petersburg. Capital of Imperial Russia. Deep within the glittering outer facade of St. Petersburg’s state buildings, elegant promenades, and gilded mansions is a central core of filth, stench, poverty, despair, and depravity. The outside order is mere cover for the horror and disorder within. Dostoevski lived in St. Petersburg for twenty-eight years, moving during this period into twenty different apartments. Minute details about places where Dostoevski lived appear in Crime and Punishment to provide descriptive realism along with significant symbolism. On the micro level, the scenes of Dostoevski’s novel unfold in the vicinity of the apartment he was renting at the time. On the macro level, St. Petersburg is symptomatic of the split in the Russian psyche between the cold Western rationalism and capitalistic materialism of the new Russia and the traditional Muscovite values of the old Russia. Like the city itself, the major character Raskolnikov (whose name means “split” or “schism”) must struggle to discover his identity in a battle between cold rationalism, which leads him to double murder, and his Russian soul, which seeks repentance and resurrection. As a student, Dostoevski himself fell into Western-style radicalism and was sentenced to death in 1849 by the repressive regime of Czar Nicholas I. After being placed before a firing squad in St. Petersburg, Dostoevski was pardoned and his sentence commuted...
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Dostoyevsky's Russia: Social and Political Background
For most modern Americans, the Russia of Dostoyevsky's time is almost incomprehensible. Sir Winston Churchill's comment in 1939 that Russia "is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" can apply equally to the Russia of the 1860s when Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment. In the most simple terms, much of Russia's historical difference from the West has to do with the fact that for centuries it was cut off from Western Europe. The Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment that helped transform the countries of Western Europe from feudalism to modern nations with well-educated citizens and important cultural institutions barely touched Russia. Moreover, large-scale foreign invasions (from the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to the Nazi armies in the early 1940s) periodically devastated the country. As a result, Russia has historically been suspicious of other nations. Also, early in its national history, Russia developed a tradition of government that centralized immense power in the hands of an emperor—the tsar—and a handful of his advisors. (The Russian title "tsar" derives from the Latin word "Caesar.") In the mid-1500s, Tsar Ivan IV (known as Ivan the Terrible) established what for more than the next four hundred years became the model for Russian government, alternating short-lived periods of ineffectual reform with periods of severe repression....
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Crime and Punishment is a fairly traditional nineteenth-century novel is some ways. The plot starts with the main character whose intentions are made clear. Then, antecedent information is supplied, so that the reader may understand how things came to be as they are. The main difference between this approach and that of dozens of Victorian novels is that the latter usually place the antecedent information first. But, the effect is the same, and the plot strands are laid out clearly, with the Dunya/Luzhin/Svidrigaylov subplot worked in smoothly and credibly. Also, the use of the "Epilogue" to bring the plot to a clear and satisfying (at least morally) conclusion is not an uncommon device—one may be reminded of the final chapters of many Dickens novels.
The setting is also presented clearly and traditionally, although there is a heavy emphasis on darkness and fog and nocturnal activities. Dostoevsky tends to employ urban settings; and, his use of St. Petersburg is accurate and realistic: there are the relevant streets; there are the Neva River and the bridges. The indoor scenes are usually marked by disorder and gloom (and even, as in the case of Svidrigaylov's hotel room, horror; the mouse running over him in the ugly chamber is revolting), creating an appropriately negative tone for the book.
The real innovation is in point of view. As a number of commentators have noted, both Joyce and Proust (and others like them) owe much to...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Study of the penal code of Russia during the later nineteenth century will help to explain the moral dilemmas, Raskolnikov considers. The behavior of the police in Crime and Punishment strikes some readers as peculiar. For instance, does it seem odd that Porfiry accuses Raskolnikov and then jokes with him and releases him (the young man is never taken into custody until he confesses), with only the suggestion that he will be arrested in a few days? Porfiry knows that Raskolnikov committed the crime, but he cannot prove it—indeed, it seems likely that he never could have proved it, if Raskolnikov had not confessed.
Also, a reading of Notes from the Underground would be helpful, to determine if what has been called Dostoevsky's "philosophy of life" (although he always denied having one) is in any way consistently carried through both of these works. Further, a study of Dostoevsky's life might reveal autobiographical elements in Crime and Punishment, special attention should be paid to the author's attitude towards women, as in the cases of his wives and his mistress Polina Suslova—does this attitude find reflection in Raskolnikov's dealings with his family and with Sonia?
1. Does Raskolnikov's eight-year sentence seem light, in view of the bloody crimes that he committed? Since the trial is only summarized near the close of the book, the reasons offered for the clemency may appear too sketchy.
2. Is, as has...
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As the title suggests, the principal social emphasis in Crime and Punishment is on crime, both as a social phenomenon and as a personal action. Also, social class appears importantly, especially the problems created by abject poverty, as does the matter of the abuse of power.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was fascinated by the impulses that cause people to commit crimes (an interest that was intensified by his imprisonment with countless hardened criminals in Siberia) and the resulting emotional and psychological effects of the act. His protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, has already made up his mind to kill the old female pawnbroker, whose life he considers worthless, when the novel opens. The brutal murder is done with an ax, which he also uses on the pawnbroker's stepsister, who comes upon him by accident.
The whole question of what really constitutes guilt in such a case is explored chiefly from the standpoint of the murderer himself. Raskolnikov reviews to himself the reasons (which could be seen as only rationalizations) for the act's being justifiable. Perhaps the most important one is his "Napoleonic" theory: Some people, usually men, are above the usual morals and laws of society and may thus act in "illegal" ways, with valid cause. He thinks of the "great" men of history who have done lofty deeds while killing off large numbers of human beings- —they are regarded as heroes. He also "reasons" that the world would be better off without the...
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Compare and Contrast
1860s: Russia's government is a monarchy, with a head of state called the "tsar." But even at the time of Crime and Punishment's publication, changes in government were beginning to be seen with Tsar Alexander II's introduuction of reforms in the Russian military, the law courts, and local government.
Today: The Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to decades of oppressive rule under a communist government, has given way to a struggling democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. President Boris Yeltsin has since introduced economic reforms, though his country's economy is still unstable.
1860s: The Russian novelists Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev spend much of their time travelling abroad. Dostoyevsky eventually returns to Russia, but Turgenev decides to remain an expatriate.
Today: Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, exiled from Russia in the early 1970s because of his opposition to the communist government, has returned to his native country. However, his calls for spiritual rebirth and a return to traditional Russian values have been met with little support.
1860s: Dostoyevsky notes widespread drunkeness is a major problem in Russian society.
Today: Alcoholism remains a serious national problem, affecting at least half of all Russian households, according to one survey. Government attempts to curb drinking face strong resistance from the...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the city of St. Petersburg, Russia. How did the city arise and develop? What are St. Petersburg's main features and landmarks?
Research the main political movements in Russia in the mid-1800s. Is there any similarity between the kind of political groups that existed then and political parties as they are known in America?
Research the condition of serfs (peasants who worked for landowners) in nineteenth-century Russia. Compare serfdom in Russia to slavery in America. What were the main similarities and differences between the two institutions?
Research the plea of insanity as a legal defense in murder cases. What circumstances are usually necessary for a jury to find a defendant insane? Why does a defendant's claim of insanity often cause controversy?
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It could be said that everything that Dostoevsky wrote was original, but he was indebted to Gogol and a few other earlier writers. Dostoevsky readily admitted the debt, remarking that he and his compeers all came out of the "folds" of Gogol's story "The Overcoat" (also translated as "The Greatcoat"). However, Dostoevsky broke so much new ground that he must be regarded as an original. "While Tolstoy and Turgenev were dealing with "high life" and often country settings, Dostoevsky was focusing on the poor and downtrodden in cities. Also, his attention to crime (especially murder) finds parallels in some of Dickens's works, but these can hardly be called precedents.
Like Dickens, Dostoevsky published this work in installments (as were almost all of Dickens's novels). Unlike Dickens, in the view of most readers, he did not let this phenomenon, nor his considerable debts (chiefly the result of his addiction to gambling), prevent him from creating a far more fully integrated text than, say, Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Martin Chussleivit (1844), in which the author sends Martin to America in order to bolster the flagging sales of the periodical in which it was appearing. It is true that Crime and Punishment is long and complex; however, most readers recognize it as a masterpiece, especially of its type: the psychological study of an anti-social personality. The several subplots and divergent scenes always serve to enhance the tone and...
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Some critics have observed that all Dostoevsky's works are related. Of course, it might be observed that his study of grinding poverty in Poor Folk (1846) prepared the way for Raskolnikov's situation: On the first page, the author says, "He was crushed by poverty . . . . "The other most likely associated work is Notes from the Underground (1864). The Underground Man, with his defiance of and isolation from society, prefigures Raskolnikov; also, these two characters share a concern for free will, very forcefully presented in Notes from the Underground by the Underground Man's insistence that he must act freely, even performing actions that are against his own self-interest, so as to prove that he is not "an organ stop" at the mercy of circumstances and fate. So, Raskolnikov is deeply concerned about his freedom and the necessity of action, even criminal behavior.
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The appeal of this story can be estimated by the number and variety of stage and motion picture adaptations. Among these, the most prominent are a Polish stage adaptation by L. Schiller; a 1932 French version by Gaston Baty; and the 1946 adaptation by R. Ackland and L. Irving—this British version starred John Gielgud as Raskolnikov and was performed in the United States. There is also an opera by Prokofiev taken from the novel.
Motion picture versions are numerous. The two English language adaptations of note are the 1935 movie written by S. K. Lauren and Joseph Anthony, and directed by Josef von Sternberg—it starred Peter Lorre and Edward Arnold. Columbia was the producing studio. In 1958, Allied Artists/Sanders Associates produced a treatment written by Walter Newman, directed by Denis Sanders, and starring George Hamilton and Mary Murphy (some critics found an "aimlessness" in this version).
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The earliest film adaptation of Crime and Punishment was produced in France, released in 1935, and remade in 1958. The original title of this French-language black-and-white film was Crime et Chatiment. Written by Marcel Ayme, Pierre Chenal, Christian Stengel, and Wladimir Strijewski (based on Dostoyevsky's book), it was directed by Chenal. It starred Pierre Blanchar, Madeleine Ozeray, Harry Baur, Lucienne Lemarchand, and Marcelle Geniat. Available from Facets Multimedia, Inc.
An American film version of Crime and Punishment was released one week after the French film mentioned above. Adapted from Dostoyevsky's novel by Joseph Anthony and S. K. Lauren, it was directed by Josef von Sternberg. The cast included Peter Lorre, Marian Marsh, Edward Arnold, Tala Birell, Elisabeth Risdon, Robert Allen, Douglas Dumbrille, Gene Lockhart, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Available from Columbia Tristar Home Video.
A Swedish film of Crime and Punishment was released in 1948. Adapted by Bertil Malmsberg and Sven Stolpe, it was directed by Hampe Faustman. It starred Faustman, Gann Wallgren, Hugo Bjorne, and Sigurd Wallen. Distributed by Firm Rights.
A Russian-language film of Crime and Punishment was produced in the Soviet Union in 1970. Written and directed by Lev Kulidzhanov, it featured Georgi Taratorkin, Victoria Fyodorova, and Innokenty Smoktunovsky. Distributed by Ingram International Films, Discount Video...
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What Do I Read Next?
Dostoyevsky wrote Notes from Underground (1864) just before Crime and Punishment. Narrated by a tormented, alienated anti-hero, it introduces the moral, political, and social ideas developed in Crime and Punishment. Among Dostoyevsky's later novels, The Possessed (1871-72) is noteworthy for its critical portrayal of young Russian revolutionaries.
Dostoyevsky's last novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), is generally considered his masterpiece. A family tragedy of epic proportions, it too involves a murder. However, it is best known for its philosophical treatment of the nature of good and evil and the existence of God.
The hero of Fathers and Sons by Dostoyevsky's contemporary, Ivan Turgenev, is a young radical. Turgenev's political and social views were the opposite of Dostoyevsky's. This novel aroused much controversy when it was published in 1862.
Leo Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace (1863-69) came out in serial form at about the same time as Crime and Punishment. It portrays upper-class Russian society during the Napoleonic wars. Tolstoy's clear, lucid style is often contrasted with Dostoyevsky's more intense and abrupt writing style.
The American scholar Joseph Frank has written a definitive multivolume biography of Dostoyevsky. Volume One, Dostoyevsky: The Seeds of Revolt (1976), covers the novelist's early life and his involvement in radical Russian...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky''s Poetics, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Bakhtin's analysis of language and point of view gives particular attention to the way in which voices and perspectives intersect and intermingle in Dostoevsky's novel.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, edited by George Gibian, Norton, 1989.
This edition of the novel contains numerous essays and documents that illuminate various aspects of the novel, from its critical reception to its symbolic and literary attributes.
"Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich," in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, fifth edition, edited by Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 286.
Summarizes Dostoyevsky's relationship to English literature, including his travels in England, his admiration of Shakespeare, Dickens, and others, and British reactions to his own works.
Donald Fanger, Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism. A Study of Dostoevsky in Relation to Balzac, Dickens, and Gogol, Harvard University Press, 1965.
Fanger explores the relation of Dostoevsky's novel to the literary tradition which preceded it, and he focuses on the treatment of the setting of the novel, the city of St Petersburg.
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky The Miraculous Years, 1865-71, Princeton University Press, 1995.
Frank provides a detailed account of the novel's themes, its genesis, and its relation to...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Jackson, Robert Louis, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Crime and Punishment.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Includes an essay by Dostoevski on Crime and Punishment. Offers many theories on Raskolnikov’s personality. Considers the metaphysical point of view in Crime and Punishment.
Johnson, Leslie A. The Experience of Time in “Crime and Punishment.” Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1984. Explains the use of time in the novel as a means for building anxiety and suffering in the characters. Shows how time is manipulated in Crime and Punishment and how the treatment of time in other works by Dostoevski is different.
Jones, Malcolm V. Dostoyevsky: The Novel of Discord. London: Elek Books Limited, 1976. Gives an overview of the complexity and chaos that are to be expected in Dostoevski. Extended selection on Crime and Punishment.
Leatherbarrow, William J. Fedor Dostoevsky. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Includes a biographical sketch of Dostoevski. Commentary on his works, including Crime and Punishment. Bibliography, index.
Miller, Robin Feuer. Critical Essays on Dostoevsky. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Contains an essay by Leo Tolstoy and criticism and commentary on Dostoevski. Indicates how perceptions...
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