Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment

As a rule we read the Introduction after completing the book. Of course this means the scene is not set, but we avoid the assessment of the book until we have formed our own opinions. Also the casual give-aways do not detract from the impact of the scenes as we read them. While the murder of the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna is not a surprise for an educated reader, there is much, even on the second reading, that should be left to the author not a literary critic. After finishing the book, of course there are insights in the Introduction that can illuminate the book.

So Rodion Romanovich, known as Raskolnikov, is a poor, hungry, student drop-out. His father had died and he was the centre of attention for his mother Pulkheria Raskolnikova and his sister Dunya. To them and many others, he was good-looking, very intelligent and with a great future. This had influenced Raskolnikov’s high perception of his own worth: “why do they love me so much, if I don’t deserve it?” He preserves this certainty throughout the book (though possibly doubts are shown to emerge in the Epilogue). As a superior being he decides to take the life of the pawnbroker both to show that he is able to murder lesser beings and also because her wealth may be used better by him as a great soul.

The murder (and the unplanned killing of the pawnbroker’s sister) prompted the obvious debate as to why? The reasons given above are amended and refined in direct conversations with characters in the book and in Raskolnikov’s subsequent thoughts and agonies. This is the heart of the book. However, the literal translation of the title is “Stepping Across”, which suggests the long journey he has before in the end he has crossed and achieved peace. This matter of translation is always difficult unless one knows the language of the author. There have been eleven known translations into English of the book, published in Russia in 1866, starting with Whitshaw in 1885, then Garnett in 1914 and so far finishing with Ready in 2014. The first two may well have recognised this as a mid 19th century book. This would have been helpful as the reader expects the flavour of other authors of the same period. The more recent translations have sought to give the flavour of Russia. As a detail “I do not give a spit” is clearly a Russian idiom and works. To refer to “pubs”sounds 20th century British and is, we thought, a mistake.

Some clues are lost to the English speaker. Thus the characters’ names have in some cases other meanings in Russian. And also colours are clues: yellow denotes suffering. Blue eyes suggest genuineness. So Raskolnikov’s inspiration and spiritual rescuer Sonya has blue eyes and dresses in yellow. However, one of the most interesting figures, Svidrigailov also has blue eyes. We debated what this was about. Mostly the group thought he was a murderer and a sexual predator. A few simply concluded that he was a great literary creation who had generous impulses suggesting compassion and who killed himself out of guilt. There is a fascinating comparison between him and Raskolnikov. A notebook entry by Dostoevsky is that: “Svidrigailov is despair, the most cynical. Sonia is hope, the most unrealizable…. He [Raskolnikov] became passionately attached to both”. But there can be a big gap between the simplicity of the original idea and the subtleties of the finished work. To an extent artists create characters and then struggle with them to bring the book to the intended conclusion!

The novel may be seen as a group of incidents developing from minute detail through a very gradual build up of tension into dramatic conclusions. This is obvious with the central murders, but may also be seen in the funeral banquet leading to the death of Katerina Ivanovna, and also seen in the interrogations of Raskolnikov by the detective Porfiry Petrovich. The same applies to the meeting between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov leading to the latter’s encounter with Dunya, Sonya, and his bride-to-be, and culminating in his suicide. This is how the novel moves, from a slow pace until one is totally immersed and then on to a quite different mood. We discussed how this happened, and noted that “Crime and Punishment” may have started as a novella. Then Dostoyevsky incorporated much of an earlier book “The Drunkards”, and parts of a Pushkin story, and finally adapted it for serialisation. The end product is a complex but brilliant work of art.

We pondered the impact of Religion. Here Sonia, despite having her “yellow ticket” as a prostitute, is the committed Christian. Others adopt only the form. The priests seem to be functionaries. Raskolnikov is asked to read the Biblical passage about the resurrection of Lazarus in a moving scene with Sonya. In prison he has the Bible unread under his pillow. But this surely reflects Russian society at that time. It is claimed that Sonya is the vehicle of divine intervention and that God guides him through self-discovery, confession, punishment and finally peace. Evidently Dostoyevsky claimed this was his intention, and also had very much in his sights the fashionable English utilitarian philosophies which he saw as inimical to the truths of the Russian Orthodox Church. But was that what actually inspired his imagination when he was writing it? If it were a work of art we would say that it is not what the artist intended with his conscious mind, but how we see the work of art, shaped by the artist’s imagination, feelings and unconscious, that matters. And the same applies to literature (a simple idea enshrined in the grand-sounding critical concept of “The Intentional Fallacy”).

There can be no disputing that the opposition of utilitarian and Christian thinking informed some of the plotting and the characters (the ruthlessly mocked Luzhin, for example, is a fan of utilitarian thinking, and Raskolnikov’s ghastly and arrogant belief about his superiority and right to murder is at some points attributed to utilitarian thinking). But we do not read this novel for an exposition of nineteenth century philosophy. We read it for its unremitting tension, for its brilliant cast of characters, for its insights into human psychology, morals and foibles, for its evocation of immense poverty and what it drives people to: in a nutshell, for its insight into the human condition.

We also noted the shaping and balance of the book, which shows, in addition to all his other talents, a superb craftsman at work. Parts I-III present the rational, proud Raskolnikov, and parts IV-VI the emerging irrational, humble Raskolnikov. The first half shows the progressive death of the first ruling principle, and the second the progressive birth of the new ruling principle. The change happens half way through giving a mirror like image. Parts I, III and V deal with his family life, and II, IV and VI with his dealings with the authorities and his father figures.

What then of psychology? Here Raskolnikov is a victim both in his own thoughts and in his debates with Porfiry. However, while he changed his account of his motives, was this a progress towards self-awareness?  It seems more an attempt to fob off others, in particular Sonya. However, few novels are so rooted in the soul of the main character. It may have influenced Camus in his book “L’Etranger”.

And politics? Dostoyevsky was sentenced to face the firing squad as a result of political associations (although the sentence was commuted at the last minute by the Tsar). He was not writing as a casual observer. The great changes that affected Russia at the time figure in a number of conversations. Off stage there is a commune linked to Lebezyatnikov. This adds spice, but is only illuminating in a historical context. St Petersburg was busy to the point of turmoil and the main characters were also in turmoil. Did one reflect the other? The point was made that the poor were mostly good and the rich were a bit naughty.

However, the conclusion of the book is strictly moral. If critics at the time did not think so they have not given proper attention to it. Had the ending been with Raskolnikov simply giving himself up, we would possibly conclude that he thought he was right to murder, but had been too weak in living through the consequences. In the Epilogue Dostoyevsky makes quite clear that a good woman saves him. The style here is different. Some thought a modern novel would have been better without it. The message is delivered in a perfunctory manner. So far as we know nobody has suggested that his publisher or a friend told him to make sure the message was a wholesome one. He was possibly in the process of moving to the political right at the time he wrote it. Possibly he was simply convincing himself that Sonya was the saint, and Raskolnikov had come to heel.


Postscript: after the meeting, there was further reflection on the relationship between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov. In the last meeting between them Raskolnikov felt Svidrigailov had “some hidden power that held sway over him“. Fairly obviously he could go to the police but possibly Raskolnikov saw more than that. As it happened Svidrigailov offered a plan to get him off to America. Svidrigailov used the meeting to explain his actions.

Why? The retrospective view is that possibly he really still hoped to form a friendship with Raskolnikov. Had he succeeded Raskolnikov might have heard a fuller confession and acted as some kind of Sonja. This may seem far fetched but what happens is that because of Sonja Raskolnikov does not commit suicide while Svidrigailov does. There is a rather tiresome piece by Svidrigailov about lechery [part VI chapter 3]. Svidrigailov thinks it is acceptable in moderation but to fail to control the desire might lead to suicide. Everything has to be in moderation. So Raskolnikov, revealing his state of mind, asks if Svidrigailov would be able to kill himself. “That’s enough! Svidrigailov countered in revulsion.”

Svidrigailov was interested in Raskolnikov and those associated with him. In the case of his sister the interest was wider, but he took particular care to help Sonya. Was dealing with her siblings and paying her 3000 roubles to help Sonya or to help Raskolnikov? It is possible that he genuinely loved Dunya and saw something of her in Raskolnikov. Many times the two are compared and were both of course good looking.

So he found that he could get nowhere with Raskolnikov. He had his planned meeting with Dunya, but possibly he would have expressed himself differently had he found some bond with her brother. He lost his nerve in dealing with her, but without Raskolnikov’s support he had no chance with her other than by force.

Another strange element in his last day on earth was his 16 year old bride. He said this attachment was because he had (early in the novel) given up on Dunya. 15,000 roubles is a large gift, and on top of other earlier purchases. Did he feel enormous guilt that he was not going to marry her? His actions are confused throughout. Most prospective suicides do not have such a varied and constructive last day on earth!