“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Title: Crime and Punishment
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
ISBN: 9780140449136
Pages: 718
Release date: 1866
Publisher: The Russian Messenger (journal); reprinted by Penguin Classics
Genre: Russian literature
Formats: Audiobook and paperback
Sources: Lit2Go and library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Raskalnikov felt sick
But he couldn’t say why
When he saw his face reflected
In his victim’s twinkling eye
Some things you do for money
And some you’ll do for fun
But the things you do for love
Are gonna come back to you one by one

-The Mountain Goats, “Love, Love, Love”

Summary

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a former student in St. Petersburg who has cut himself off from almost everyone he once knew, has concocted a terrible scheme. Tired of depending upon his mother for money and verging constantly on eviction, he plans to murder the merciless old pawnbroker who keeps ripping him and others off.

When the day finally arrives, Raskolnikov is still not convinced that he will bear the plan to fruition, but he is seized by wild impulse at the woman’s door and he easily pulls out his axe and murders her as planned. With no thought to what he has just done, he ransacks her room, but he only steals a few trinkets and a pouch, presumably stuffed with money, pulled from the old pawnbroker’s neck. He is interrupted by Lizaveta, the old woman’s sweet sister, whom he also chops up with nary a pause.

He escapes through sheer luck, and, returning to his apartment, thoroughly searches himself for any sign of blood or guilt. He then collapses onto his bed in a fever, and when he comes to several days later, he is attended by his friend from school, Dmitri Prokofich Razumikhin, and a young doctor.

Raskolnikov’s mother and sister arrive in St. Petersburg, and they are flummoxed to find him in such a despicable and feverish state. Raskolnikov remembers the letter he had received before the murders from his mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, announcing the she and his sister, Avdotya Romanovna (or Dounia), will be visiting soon. Dounia had been working as a governess, but due to unwelcome advances from her employer, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov, she quits her job. Though Svidrigaïlov’s wife, Marfa, initially set out to ruin Dounia’s good name, Marfa realizes her mistake and arranges for Dounia to marry Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, a man of some wealth and prestige.

Raskolnikov is quite rude to his family when they arrive in his home; much of his communication consists of telling Dounia that Luzhin is a scoundrel whom she should not wed. Eventually, he is proven right, and Razumikhin steps up as Dounia’s newest love interest. Raskolnikov also begins pursuing Sofia (Sonya) Semyonovna Marmeladova, the daughter of a drunk that Raskolnikov befriends briefly. Though Sonya is a prostitute, the two develop a very platonic relationship, preferring to argue about Sonya’s deep religious beliefs and Raskolnikov’s cynical nihilism.

Meanwhile, Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in charge of the murder investigation, begins suspecting Raskolnikov on purely psychological grounds, and sets out to find more tangible evidence. Raskolnikov must face his guilty conscience, come clean to his loved ones, and accept his punishment.

Analysis

I was drawn into the book from the beginning by Dostoevsky’s unique and powerful voice and by the inevitability of Raskolnikov’s story. However, I found my patience wearing thin about halfway through; I had a pretty clear idea of where the story was going, but it took its sweet time getting there. My impatience with the length made me reminisce about the Dickens novels I’ve read—sure, the man is clearly a superb writer, but is he being paid by the word?

In addition, I found the many names and nicknames of the characters to be very confusing. I mostly listened to the book on audiobook, and kept forgetting who was who at later stages in the story. However, the narrator helped eliminate some confusion by adopting different tones for the different characters.

Other than that, I liked the story. Crime and Punishment discusses the effects of mental anguish, morality, and social and fiscal responsibility. Dostoevsky carefully studies the intricate relations between characters rich and poor, male and female, powerful and powerless, sane and mentally ill.

There is no question that Dostoevsky was a masterful storyteller. At one point, Dounia exclaims to her brother, “Why do you demand of me a heroism that perhaps you have not either? It is despotism, it is tyranny. If I ruin anyone, it is only myself… I am not committing a murder.” The truth of Raskolnikov’s hypocrisy strikes him then, but he is still not recalcitrant.

Raskolnikov maintains throughout most of the story that the old pawnbroker was just a parasite that deserved to be murdered; his guilt and regret center mostly on his failure to be “great man”:

Oh, how happy he would have been if he could have heaped blame upon himself! Then he would have been able to endure anything, even shame and disgrace. But he was his own severest judge, and his embittered conscience could find no particularly dreadful guilt in his past, except for perhaps a simple blunder which might have happened to anyone.

Raskolnikov has hypothesized that a very few people are able to murder without smirching their consciences, thus proving their right to murder. Raskolnikov attempts to compare himself to figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose. As Porfiry explains to him, “If [the murderer] has a conscience, he will suffer from his mistake. That will be his punishment—as well as the prison.” When Raskolnikov’s conscience begins to plague him, he realizes that he is no such “great man.”

Raskolnikov is tormented particularly by the unalterable affection that the women in his life, and Razumikhin, have for him, stating, “But why do they love me so much, if I don’t deserve it? Oh, if I were alone and no one loved me and I had never loved anyone! All this would never have taken place!

Even as he curses their kindness, however, he desperately needs their pity. Before he decides to confess, he visits Sonya. He is cruel to her, and he admits to himself,

[I]t was her tears I wanted, I wanted to see her fright, to watch her heart ache and torment itself! I needed to have something to catch on to, I wanted to play for a time, to watch another human being!

However, Sonya stays by his side, even through his Siberian imprisonment. Eventually he is won over by her love and piety, and he is able to see a new promise in life. Sonya’s unflinching optimism, even in the face of her precarious moral position, saves both of them: “What had revived them was love, the heart of the one containing an infinite source of life for the heart of the other.”

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