Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885

Crime and Punishment excited much attention when it started to appear in serial form in a Russian literary journal in early 1866. Reviewing the first installment, an anonymous critic declared that "the novel promises to be one of the most important works of [Dostoyevsky]." The British scholar and translator David...

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Crime and Punishment excited much attention when it started to appear in serial form in a Russian literary journal in early 1866. Reviewing the first installment, an anonymous critic declared that "the novel promises to be one of the most important works of [Dostoyevsky]." The British scholar and translator David McDuff notes that "as the subsequent parts of the novel began to appear it acquired the status of a social and public event." A Russian critic of the time, N. N. Strakhov, later recalled that Crime and Punishment was "the only book the addicts of reading talked about." Strakhov noted that the novel was so powerful that people became agitated when they read it.

Some Russian critics—especially liberals and "Westernizers"—disapproved of the book because of its implicit, controversial political viewpoint. They viewed the novel as an attack on the younger generation in Russia. One reviewer, G. Z. Yeliseyev, accused Dostoyevsky of "fanaticism." An anonymous reviewer in the journal the Week criticized Dostoyevsky for implying "that liberal ideas and the natural sciences lead young men to murder and young women to prostitution." D. I. Pisarev, a leading nihilist critic of the time, wrote an in-depth analysis of Raskolnikov's motives. Pisarev understood the conflicting emotions that drove Raskolnikov, but believed that Raskolmkov was basically a product of his environment. Emphasizing a social view of the novel, Pisarev rejected Dostoyevsky's insistence on redemption through suffering. Instead, he called for social change through a revolution.

N. N. Strakhov, mentioned above, praised the novel for its important treatment of universal themes and disagreed with the interpretations offered by the Westernizers. The book did not mock young Russian idealists, said Strakhov, but was a "lament" over the way that these young people were the victims of nihilistic ideas. When Strakhov's article appeared, Dostoyevsky wrote to him and told him that "you alone have understood me."

After Dostoyevsky's death, his philosopher friend Vladimir Soloviev gave several speeches about the meaning of Dostoyevsky's work. Soloviev distinguished between the outward (legal) and inward (moral) definitions of the terms "crime" and "punishment." Soloviev interpreted Raskolnikov's inward sins as "pride" and "self-idolatry, which can only be redeemed by an inner moral act of self-renunciation." Another important assessment of the novel was given by Russian critic Vasily Rozanov in 1893. Rozanov remarked on the power with which Dostoyevsky gave readers a glimpse into the criminal soul. According to Rozanov, the book "lets us feel criminality with all the inner fibers of our being." Rozanov found that "the general mood of the novel... is far more remarkable than any of its individual episodes."

As Dostoyevsky's work became more widely known, it began to influence writers outside of Russia. Robert Louis Stevenson was an early British admirer of Dostoyevsky. In 1886 he declared that Crime and Punishment was "the greatest book I have read in ten years." (Coincidentally, that same year Stevenson published The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which embodies the Dostoyevskyan theme of the double.) Stevenson went on to note, however, that "many find [Crime and Punishment ] dull; Henry James could not finish it." James's dislike was shared by such British authors as Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, and D. H. Lawrence. However, Dostoyevsky was championed in England by the translator Constance Garnett (1862-1946). Between 1912 and 1920, Garnett translated Crime and Punishment and Dostoyevsky's other major novels into English. Despite the criticism of James, Conrad, and others, mentioned above, Garnett's translation proved enormously influential. It introduced this novel to a new generation of British and American readers, and the book's reputation soared. For many years, Garnett's translation remained the standard English-language version of Crime and Punishment. (Garnett's translation is now considered to be somewhat flawed and has been largely superseded by others, including the 1991 translation by David McDuff published by Penguin.)

Debate over the interpretation of Crime and Punishment has continued throughout the twentieth century to the present. Writing in 1939, scholar Helen Muchnic observed that what critics say about Dostoyevsky really tells more about those critics than about Dostoyevsky. McDuff agrees that "in many of the critical analyses of his work the operative factors are of an ideological rather than a purely aesthetic nature." Thus, Russian critics during the Soviet period hailed Dostoyevsky as a great writer, but they tended to overlook the book's Christian, anti-revolutionary, and anti-materialist sentiments. Instead, they praised it as an attack on the decadent bourgeoise society of pre-Revolutionary tsarist Russia. Similarly, the American critic Philip Rahv believed that the book's epilogue did not offer a satisfactory resolution. On the other hand, critics like Konstantin Mochulsky and Nicholas Berdyaev have emphasized the book's Christian and existentialist ideals. The French novelist Andre Gide believed that the ideas Dostoyevsky worked out in Crime and Punishment led directly to the author's subsequent novels. The Scottish poet and critic Edwin Muir wrote that "Dostoyevsky wrote of the unconscious as if it were conscious; that is ... why his characters seem 'pathological,' while they are only visualized more clearly than any other figures in imaginative literature." Translator McDuff believes that "Raskolnikov, far from being a madman or psychopathic outcast, is an image of Everyman." And Ernest J. Simmons lauds the novel for "the characteristic spiritual glow that radiates through all the action and illuminates the darkest recesses of the minds of these tormented and suffering men and women."

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