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...
(The entire section is 1,067 words.)