Review of Fyodor
Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/20/06
There are perhaps no more valuable publishing houses on the planet than Great Britain’s Wordsworth Editions and America’s Dover Thrift Editions. In an era where literature is at a low ebb, these two houses have released great works of public domain classic literature at very affordable prices- usually at anywhere from 10-50% off the prices that the same titles can be gotten at larger publishing houses. Among the great titles that I was to get from Dover was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, the definitive 1914 Constance Garnett translation. So much has been written about this book that I find it difficult to comprehend how so much of it is wrong- and I’m not talking about whether it’s a great piece of literature or not. I am talking about the misperceptions of the religiosity in the tale’s morals and the very nature of the lead character’s supposed ethical reclamation.
The novel is a very good one, and compared to the crap that passes as literature these days it is a classic, however, it is not a great piece of literature. The book has too many manifest flaws, such as being far too long, far too ‘talky’, and most of all, aside from the belief that it’s a ‘Christian tract’, the biggest misread of the book is that it is somehow a work of ‘social realism’. Nothing could be less true- it is primarily a work of symbolism. This is evident from its title, as the very punishment referred to is not that of the legal variety, but that of internal guilt. Yes, when it was first published, in pre-Freudian 1866, it may have seemed a work of psychological depth, but even compared to the fiction of Anton Chekhov, just a few decades later, it is utterly Neolithic in its approach to the human psyche.
The best example of this is that its lead character, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, is not a realistic villain, but an archetype- and really a symbol. The sound of his name connotes his being a rascal or rapscallion, and in Russian raskolnik even means to be divided, or schismatic. His swings between guilt and mendacious evil are better seen as devices serving the drama of the narrative than as any true portrait of a sociopath- be it a modern serial killer, a gangster, or any other form. Raskolnikov has many seeming virtues- he loves his mother and sister, he has saved people from death, he protects a young girl from a would-be john, and treats the drunken Marmeladov and his clan with respect. Yet, he also views himself as above the law of man, perhaps because of these virtues, and his undoing and seeming acceptance of Christianity by tale’s end has been seen as suggesting that he has submitted only to the higher law of God, one which even Napoleonic supermen, as he fancies himself to be, must give in to. This idea of the higher man has also led to a Nietszchean interpretation of the book, even though it preceded that philosophy. Critics who hold this point of view will point to such passages as this, from Part Three, Chapter Five:
‘That wasn’t quite my contention,’ he began simply and modestly.
‘Yet I admit that you have stated it almost correctly; perhaps, if you like,
perfectly so.’ (It almost gave him pleasure to admit this.) ‘The only
difference is that I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound
to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an
argument could be published. I simply hinted that an ‘extraordinary’ man has
the right … that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his
own conscience to overstep … certain obstacles, and only in case it is
essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of
benefit to the whole of humanity). You say that my article isn’t definite; I
am ready to make it as clear as I can. Perhaps I am right in thinking you want
me to; very well. I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could
not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a
hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in
duty bound … to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of
making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow
from that that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal
every day in the market. Then, I remember, I maintain in my article that all …
well, legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet,
Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals….’
Raskolnikov has also been seen as something of a representative of the wrongheadedness of atheistic socialism, for much of the social utilitarianism that Raskolnikov tries to rationalize his murders with are easily compared to modern Leftist intellectuals’ naïve and/or nihilistic dismissal of the horrors of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. By book’s end Raskolnikov still believes his murder of the pawnbroker was justified, even after he seemingly accepts Christianity. His perverse contempt for and admiration of the pedophilic Svidrigaïlov also suggests that there are levels to Raskolnikov that Dostoevsky either chose not to plumb, or simply was incapable of realizing, either within his own art or in the realities of his time, for much of the book reads as a complex morality play, rather than the realistic unfolding of a crime and its aftermath.
His love, Sonia, is the classic hooker with a heart of gold. Why she feels anything positive for Raskolnikov is never made clear, save the redemptive power of Christ, which she holds out to him, in the form of her cross. Dostoevsky also makes an interesting dramatic choice to portray her on a somewhat morally equivalent level with a murderer. This may have seemed realistic in its Victorian day, but now it can only be read symbolically, as her inhuman, in the best sense, decency- from prostituting herself for her family, to her boundless forgiveness- makes her a symbol, not a character with any footing in reality. If she is a counterpart to Raskolnikov, so is Dounia, his sister. Where he is self-centered, cruel, and an intellectual boor, she is selfless, kind, and almost as compassionate as Sonia. She is, in fact, the only realistic major and female character in the novel. Only her brother’s friend, Razumikhin, is nearly as realistically variegated- but only in his displays of intellect, not in his actions, and her marriage to him at the end of the book is therefore an appropriate and realistic love, unlike Raskolnikov’s and Sonia’s.
If the two younger women are counterparts of a sort to Raskolnikov, then Svidrigaïlov is both his doppelganger and mitigator. He is clearly the representation of an evil that Dostoevsky sees as even worse than his lead murderer’s, which makes his eventual suicide the only way for his character to end, for even in death he needs to ‘sin’. Yet, he is not as evil as Raskolnikov, for after Svidrigaïlov foresees a descent into irredeemable pedophilia, he does bring justice upon himself, while even after being imprisoned Raskolnikov still clings to his beliefs of his and others’ possible superiority to man’s laws, even as he mouths Christian banalities to the world and Sonia. We see this recapitulated even in their actions, as well. Svidrigaïlov acknowledges he will never have Dounia, after he gives up on raping her, while Raskolnikov clings to his belief that Alyona Ivanovna’s murder is justifiable.
Many believe that the primary themes of Crime And Punishment are either the redemptive power of Christianity, or, more generally, faith in higher powers, while others contend that it is alienation. While I believe Dostoevsky primarily was attempting to work those themes within his allegory, clearly, since Raskolnikov is not redeemed fundamentally, there needs to be a reassessment of these two dominant claims. The very thinness of Raskolnikov’s presumed prison conversion, in the epilogues, argues powerfully against the pro-religion posit for the book, but the alienation theme is harder to deny, so I shall not. I will only claim that alienation is not the primary theme. I would argue that the main theme of the book is the immutability of the fundaments of a human being. In short, none of the characters undergoes any significant growth in the novel. Raskolnikov seemingly becomes merely a more devious manipulator. Sonia becomes even more selfless, giving up her youth for her family, and the rest of her life to save a man she may not even truly love. Raskolnikov’s mother is a rather underdeveloped character, but all the rest of the minor actors in the book are clearly either caricatures, or representative of a fundamental stasis that Dostoevsky- or, rather this work (as I would have to compare it to his other works)- subscribes to. Marmeladov is a drunk, and that’s it. Alyona, despite being murdered, is correctly diagnosed by Raskolnikov as a social leech. Even Porfiry Petrovitch, the detective who hounds Raskolnikov, shows no subtlety. Despite his failures, he continues to assail Raskolnikov by appealing to guilt, whereas Raskolnikov is finally undone by Sonia- but not for his guilt. Rather, he confesses to manifestly gain something- that is her loyalty and companionship, even though Lizaveta, the other murder victim, was a friend of hers. The epilogues make it abundantly clear that Raskolnikov is in the process of learning how to game the 19th Century Russian legal system to his advantage, and the love of Bible thumping woman, even an ex-prostitute, can do no harm. Only his sister, Dounia, and her eventual husband, Razumihin, show even the barest signs of personal growth- to borrow that modern buzz phrase. While alienation is a theme, it is unresolved at the book’s end, as Raskolnikov is still scheming, whereas, since that is clearly his essential nature, the more powerful argument is that people are fixed into their essences at a certain age, and very little can be done to alter that state of being.
Psychology, especially in the almost proto-embryonic form that it is portrayed in this novel, is also seen as a major theme, given that, despite the title, the two titular nouns are separated by hundreds of pages of Raskolnikov’s inner angst. The murders and their effects and ramifications to anyone other than Raskolnikov are of little concern to Dostoevsky. This is clear, as in this scene where Raskolnikov rationalizes to Sonia in Part Five, Chapter Four:
‘Whether I can step over barriers or not, whether I dare stoop to pick up or not, whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right.…’
‘To kill? Have the right to kill?’ Sonia clasped her hands.
‘Ach, Sonia!’ he cried irritably and seemed about to make some retort, but was contemptuously silent. ‘Don’t interrupt me, Sonia. I want to prove one thing only, that the devil led me on then and he has shown me since that I had not the right to take that path, because I am just such a louse as all the rest. He was mocking me and here I’ve come to you now! Welcome your guest! If I were not a louse, should I have come to you? Listen: when I went then to the old woman’s I only went to try.…You may be sure of that!’
‘And you murdered her!’
‘But how did I murder her? Is that how men do murders? Do men go to commit a murder as I went then? I will tell you some day how I went! Did I murder the old woman? I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever.…But it was the devil that killed that old woman, not I. Enough, enough, Sonia, enough! Let me be!’ he cried in a sudden spasm of agony, ‘let me be!’
Having had intimate knowledge of the inner workings of many sorts of criminal minds, however, I can clearly state, with no fear of contradiction, that Raskolnikov is almost a laughably absurd mélange of criminal aspects, and clearly not a realistic character. More to the point he is a bunch of hypotheses tossed into a stew of a character. Yes, he doubts himself, reinforces, suffers fainting spells and deliria, and might be classed as a manic depressive or schizophrenic, given his desire to best Petrovitch and the others whom he feels are on to him, to prove his superiority, alternating with his great despair. Yet, Dostoevsky clearly posits the idea that Raskolnikov’s guilt is a far greater punishment than that the legal system could dispense, for that is the raison d’être of the tale, and here is where Raskolnikov’s schism and unreality as a character comes into play. Dostoevsky cannot seem to decide whether Raskolnikov is a good person with a conscience, who was merely misguided, or an amoral sociopath, and therefore ends up with a character who is convincingly neither. By splitting the difference between the two possibilities he delivers a flawed character (literarily), not merely a character with flaws. This error in Dostoevsky’s construction of Raskolnikov is manifested in the upsmanship games Petrovitch and Raskolnikov play. A true sociopath would fly by the claims and not be bothered in the least, yet a truly repentant individual would not have taken hundreds of pages to crack- albeit it is arguable whether that is the correct term, since he seems to be using both Sonia and the legal system to his advantage. Whether Dostoevsky would have conceived of and executed a more realistic protagonist/antihero were Crime And Punishment written today I do not know, but that, of course, has nothing to do with what must be dealt with in the actual novel.
Let me now deal with the novel, itself. The book is broken up into six parts, totaling thirty-nine chapters, and ends with two epilogues. Here, I will attempt to give concise summaries of the actions in each section and chapter, and an overview of the action, which is confined to the day of the murder and short times before and after it:
We meet Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, a handsome college student in St. Petersburg, with a big ego, who is endebted to his landlady, Praskovya Pavlovna, and selling to an old pawnmistress, named Alyona Ivanovna. Much in the fashion of the later real life Leopold and Loeb, he plans the pawnbroker’s murder, just to see if he could do it. Yet, he is repulsed by himself and goes to a bar.
Raskolnikov meets Semyon Zakharovitch Marmeladov, who tells him he lost his job for drinking, but got it back. Marmeladov mentions his wife’s beating a month ago by a man named Andrey Semyonovitch Lebeziatnikov, and admits he is afraid to go home and face his wife, Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladov, for he drank all their money. He says their oldest daughter, Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov (also called Sonia), has been forced into prostitution. Raskolnikov takes Marmeladov home and sees the family’s low state. He leaves some money on their windowsill, despite his own debts.
Raskolnikov goes to his flat. A maid, Nastasya Petrovna, tells him his landlady is filing a complaint because he owes rent. His mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikov, writes him of his sister, Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov (also called Dounia). She worked as a tutor for the Svidrigaïlov clan. The father, Arkady Ivanovitch Svidrigaïlov, is an amoral cad, who tried to seduce Dounia, but failed, and may have been behind some deaths. Svdrigailov’s wife, Marfa Petrovna Svdrigailov, spread rumors about Dounia about town, then recanted. Dounia will marry Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin in St. Petersburg, and she and Dounia will visit him soon. She wants Raskolnikov to work with Luzhin. Raskolnikov is not pleased.
Raskolnikov decides he must stop Dounia’s wedding. He thinks Dounia is prostituting herself to her future husband. He meets a drunken underage girl, approached by a man. He gets a cop to protect the girl, then decides to leave them be. Raskolnikov will visit an old college chum, Dmitri Prokofitch Razumihin.
Raskolnikov delays his visit to Razumihin until after he murders the pawnbroker. He dreams he is seven, visiting his mother’s grave with his father. Drunken peasants attack a wagon and kill a horse. Raskolnikov thinks this is about his murder plot. He is not deterred, though, and finds out when Lizaveta Ivanovna, Alyona’s retarded sister who lives with her, will be gone.
Raskolnikov rationalizes his coming crime by recalling a hypothetical where students he knew discussed the ethics of killing Alyona, to use her riches to do good. He reckons many good acts outweigh one crime and she and her kind prey off the vulnerable. Her money will aid him to become a man of consequence who will benefit humanity. Raskolnikov believes criminals get caught because of a ‘disease of will’ and he will not be weighed down by it. He gets to Alyona’s apartment at 7:30 pm, later than planned. Despite his rationales, he is panicky.
Raskolnikov murders Alyona with an ax. He tries to find money, to make it seem a robbery. But his lateness means Lizaveta returns and sees him. He kills her, too. He panics and tries to clean the scene. Two visitors ring the doorbell. The door is locked from the inside, so they leave to get help, allowing Raskolnikov’s escape. He gets home and falls asleep.
Dramatically, we get a good portrait of a confused young man. But, in terms of real world psychology the portrait is hopelessly outdated and antiquated. Raskolnikov is clearly a psychopath, or sociopath, by modern nomenclature, and the acts he commits, yet his actions do not show this. Does he kill because he is amoral, or because of a twisted sense of morals? It is always stated in most criticism that he kills for a political or philosophical reason, yet it is just as plausible to posit that he kills to protect his sister. Later, in Part Five, Chapter Four, he tells Sonia, ‘I will try to manage somehow to put it to my mother and sister so that they won’t be frightened.…My sister’s future is secure, however, now, I believe….and my mother’s must be too.…Well, that’s all.’ He does not want his sister to marry a man he disapproves of, and requires money to forestall that outcome. Thus, another motive for his killings, and one never touched upon in criticism. Yet, read this section describing the murder of Alyona, from Part One, Chapter Seven:
The old woman was as always bareheaded. Her thin, light hair, streaked with grey, thickly smeared with grease, was plaited in a rat’s tail and fastened by a broken horn comb which stood out on the nape of her neck. As she was so short, the blow fell on the very top of her skull. She cried out, but very faintly, and suddenly sank all of a heap on the floor, raising her hands to her head. In one hand she still held ‘the pledge.’ Then he dealt her another and another blow with the blunt side and on the same spot. The blood gushed as from an overturned glass, the body fell back. He stepped back, let it fall, and at once bent over her face; she was dead. Her eyes seemed to be starting out of their sockets, the brow and the whole face were drawn and contorted convulsively.
He laid the axe on the ground near the dead body and felt at once in her pocket (trying to avoid the streaming body)—the same right-hand pocket from which she had taken the key on his last visit. He was in full possession of his faculties, free from confusion or giddiness, but his hands were still trembling. He remembered afterwards that he had been particularly collected and careful, trying all the time not to get smeared with blood….
Not only is there a schism in the lead character, as represented by his name, but there is a schism in Dostoevsky and his handling of the scene. Is he a sociopath (He was in full possession of his faculties, free from confusion or giddiness….) or is he a bumbling man with misguided morals? He clearly is one or the other, for they cannot be mutually coexistent, and a third choice is simply not dictated by the descriptions of Raskolnikov, nor modern criminal psychology. Here is also where some of the confusion comes in regarding the supposed later intervention of religion as an ameliorative. Clearly, although Crime And Punishment was written to seem realistic, as a work of art in the 21st Century we have to view it primarily on symbolic or mythic terms, for Raskolnikov is clearly not acting in believable and known human ways- normal nor aberrant. Another failure comes in Raskolnikov’s conversation with Marmeladov- it is far too long, could have been pared to its essence, to give the illusion of ‘reality’ while coring into the offhand poetry that all people stumble upon on occasion. This tendency to go on and on occurs in almost all the conversational scenes, and Dostoevsky’s desire to hammer manifest points home to a reader is one of the great flaws of this book, and all Russian literature- this over-didacticism, and need to wallow in despair. Some say that Dostoevsky captures everyday speech patterns, and he does, at times- but a work of art is not reality, and he gives far too much of the banality and irrelevancy of the colloquial, when well-chosen nuggets would have sufficed. Yet, for every droning overly long unnecessary conversation that is boringly ‘real’, there is another that is almost Shakespearean in its soliloquizing. These are characters of the lowest classes, who cannot even make the most basic decisions for themselves, yet they are apt to spout apothegms clearly beyond their intellectual ability to grasp. This is more evidence that they are not meant to be ‘real’, merely act as symbols. Yet, the first section is by far the best in the book.
Raskolnikov wakes and is angry with himself for his blunders and fears discovery. Nastasya comes into his room with a cop, and a summons. He thinks the summons is a trick to get him to confess, and mocks the interrogator at the station, who only wanted him to sign an IOU for the money owed his landlady. As he leaves he overhears a conversation about the murders and passes out. He wakes and feels they suspect him.
Raskolnikov hides the stolen money under a large rock. He finally visits Razumihin, who offers him a translating job he turns down. Raskolnikov is in a daze and almost run down by a coach. An old woman pities him and gives him money. He tosses it away. Once home he thinks he hears Ilya Petrovich, a cop, beating his landlady. Nastasya tells him he is sick and hallucinating.
Raskolnikov is febrile and forgets the murder. Razumihin is taking care of him, and some money comes from a stranger. Raskolnikov fears others know he is guilty, and considers leaving for America.
A doctor, Zossimov, and police investigator, Petrovich Petrovich, talk of the murder with Razumihin and Raskolnikov. Some house painters, Dimitri and Nikolai Dementiev, have been accused of the murders.
Luzhin sees Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov dislikes him, but Luzhin ignores it. Luzhin has made arrangements for Dounia’s and Pulcheria’s visit. Raskolnikov hears all of Alyona’s pawn customers are suspects. Razumihin claims the murderer was a novice. Raskolnikov and Luzhin argue violently and Luzhin takes offense.
Raskolnikov leaves his apartment despite illness. He reads newspapers and meets Alexandr Grigorievitch Zametov, a cop and friend of Razumihin, who agrees an amateur committed the murders. Raskolnikov then talks of the perfect execution of the murder and theft, the way he did it. He asks Zametov if he could be the murderer, but Zametov does not believe it. Raskolnikov takes off and sees a woman attempt to drown herself. He aims to confess and heads to the police station.
On his way to the police station, Raskolnikov finds Marmeladov run over by a carriage. Raskolnikov brings him back to his apartment and calls for a doctor. Sonia comes in dressed as a prostitute, and Marmeladov dies in her arms. Raskolnikov gives Katerina twenty rubles and asks Polenka Marmeladov, the youngest daughter, to pray for him. The doctor, Zossimov, believes Raskolnikov might be insane. Raskolnikov goes home, and his mother and sister are waiting for him.
This section documents Raskolnikov’s recovery from his depravity. The cracks are already beginning to appear in his rationalizations, and his actions are clearly that of a guilty person. There are some nice touches within this section, but paring is needed.
Raskolnikov says he won’t allow Dounia to marry Luzhin. She’s grateful to Razumihin for helping Raskolnikov. Razumihin and Zossimov find Dounia attractive.
Razumihin visits Dounia and Pulcheria. He tells them of Raskolnikov’s life. They show him a letter from Luzhin requesting Raskolnikov not be present at their first meeting.
Dounia and her mother visit Raskolnikov, and find him offputting. Raskolnikov realizes he can’t speak freely without confessing his crime. Raskolnikov believes Dounia is a prostitute and demands she dump Luzhin.
Sonia asks Raskolnikov to come to Marmeladov’s funeral. Dounia and Luzhin argue. She and her mother leave. Raskolnikov tells Razumihin he wants to speak with Petrovich the detective. Sonia leaves and a man follows her to her place.
Petrovich tells Raskolnikov he knows of his life and asks Raskolnikov about an article he wrote about crime. Raskolnikov believes there is a difference between ordinary men who must obey the law, and extraordinary men who can break it under certain circumstances, what he calls ‘bloodshed by conscience.’ Petrovich tries to trick Raskolnikov into an admission.
Raskolnikov and Razumihin discuss Petrovich. A stranger tells Raskolnikov he knows Raskolnikov is the murderer. Raskolnikov rationalizes the murder, and dismisses the stranger’s claim. He dreams he tries to kill Alyona but she does not die, and laughs at him. He wakes, and Svidrigaïlov is standing in his doorway.
The guilt starts to spread, and more of Raskolnikov’s past comes to life. His claims of ‘bloodshed by conscience’ have led many to view the novel as a pre-Nietzschean document, even though the claims of classist superiority long predated the book. Too much backgrounding of minor characters occurs, and this causes the novel to lose its focus at times, with no counterbalance of enhanced realism, nor narrative depth.
Svidrigaïlov appears to Raskolnikov to be that extraordinary man he wants to be. Svidrigaïlov came to St. Petersburg because of Dounia. He offers to pay her 10,000 rubles if she won’t marry Luzhin.
Luzhin and Dounia break up. Razumihin defends Dounia.
Raskolnikov leaves responsibility for his family to Razumihin. He has found the right man to take care of his family.
Raskolnikov goes to Sonia, and taunts her. Sonia’s faith emerges in the narrative. She reads of Lazarus in a Bible Lizaveta gave her. Raskolnikov tells her he knows who committed the murder. Svidrigaïlov eavesdrops.
Raskolnikov and Petrovich again play a game of wits. Petrovich almost gets a confession from Raskolnikov, but is interrupted.
Nikolay, a house painter at Lizaveta’s and Alyona’s home, confesses to the murder, along with his partner Dimitri. Raskolnikov learns the witness Petrovich had was the stranger who accused him of the murders. Petrovich was bluffing.
This section is the one, above all others, which has led to misinterpretations of the novel. The long conversations with Svidrigaïlov, Sonia, and Petrovich, have led to much of the imbuing of religion and amorality into the work. Seen symbolically, though, the conversations are little more than plot devices to move along what is, in essence, not a whodunit, but a willhegetawaywithit. They could be trimmed severely to benefit the novel’s power.
Luzhin gives ten rubles to Marmeladov’s family. Lebeziatnikov compliments Luzhin on his kindness.
Katerina has a funeral banquet and invites everyone she knows. She feels insulted by who shows up and argues with her landlady.
Luzhin accuses Sonia of stealing a hundred rubles he plants on her. Lebeziatnikov proves Sonia’s innocence. Luzhin leaves in disgrace. Katerina is evicted after her landlady gets involved in a melee.
Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sonia. Sonya asks him to ask for forgiveness but he refuses her cross and suggestion. She loves him and promises to follow him to Siberia. Svidrigaïlov eavesdrops again.
Lebeziatnikov tells Sonia Katerina and her children are on the streets. Sonia finds them and Katerina collapses and dies. Svidrigaïlov offers financial help. Raskolnikov is still haunted and learns Svidrigaïlov knows his secret.
This section strays too much from the main character, Raskolnikov, as Dostoevsky attempts to widen his ‘realistic’ palette. Unfortunately, given the symbolism throughout, this section really adds little to the book, and a good editor would have excised it, and scattered the few key moments through the preceding and proceeding sections. Save for Raskolnikov’s confession, and Svidrigaïlov’s manipulations, this section is a totally needless digression.
Raskolnikov again asks Razumihin to look after his family. Dounia gets a letter from Svidrigaïlov and goes to meet him. Petrovich confronts Raskolnikov, who remains calm.
Petrovich again tries to ensnare Raskolnikov by explaining why Nikolay and Dimitri could not have committed the crime and offers him a chance to confess.
Raskolnikov leaves Petrovich and sees Svidrigaïlov drinking with a prostitute. He threatens Svidrigaïlov not to see Dounia.
Raskolnikov and Svidrigaïlov converse. Svidrigaïlov tells Raskolnikov about his wife Marfa, his lustful obsession with Dounia, possible pedophilia, and other crimes.
Svidrigaïlov tricks Dounia into going to his apartment. He tells her Raskolnikov is the murderer and tries to blackmail her- his silence for her body. Dounia is shocked, and tries to leave. Svidrigaïlov has locked the door and threatens to rape her. She takes a gun and shoots him twice, but misses. The third time, at close range, she refuses to kill him. Svidrigaïlov realizes she’ll never love him, and lets her go.
Svidrigaïlov gives money to Sonia for her trip to Siberia with Raskolnikov, then has a perverse sexual dream about a five year old girl. He decides to kill himself before his descent to evil is complete.
Raskolnikov confesses to Dounia. He goes to Sonia, then confesses his crimes in public.
Raskolnikov accepts Sonia’s cross. He asks forgiveness of God and confesses his crimes to the police. Sonia sticks by him.
This section is seen as a bolster to the idea that the book is a paean to the redemptive power of religion- specifically Christianity, but really this section serves as a sort of mitigation of Raskolnikov vis-à-vis Svidrigaïlov, who even commits a sin, suicide, to escape his evil. Yet the two epilogues, which are mostly unnecessary, tying up ends of minor plot points, and very deleterious to the overall work, make it clear that Raskolnikov is not saved, and merely an actor, and a better one than even he might have suspected. He still does not accept that his murder of the pawnbroker was evil. He also is likely using Sonia, for he has already deemed her a moral suicide for her prostitution, despite her faith, which means using her is not a transgression. They also demean much of the superior portions of the novel by trivializing it with specious moralizing, as well the discussed flaws in its attempt to delve into the mind of a murderer.
If Dostoevsky’s novel can be considered great, by some, it is not because of the things he intended within it that manifest its greatness, but that which was unwitting, and beyond him at the time, such as the real key to understanding the work, its great insight, that people do not change at a fundamental level. I was recently watching the Up documentary film series, by Michael Apted, on DVD, and those films are premised on the very notion that Crime And Punishment is, the Jesuit saying of ‘Give me the child till he is seven, and I shall give you the man.’ We do not glimpse Raskolnikov at seven, but given what we know becomes of him it is not difficult to extrapolate that he was as amoral then as his twentysomething self appears in the book. If Dostoevsky intended this work to be an allegory on Christianity’s redemptive power he clearly failed, so I posit that that was not his intent at all, and that the psychological and ethical stasis of most human beings was his major theme.
Regardless, the book is not a great piece of art. It contains great moments, some brilliant writing, and is a very good work of art, however primitive, but it is certainly not great. A modern reader can simply not ignore all its manifest flaws, such as the awkward and heavy-handed symbolism, the stilted and unrealistic dialogue, which reinforces the truth of the characters’ symbolism, as it veers between mawkishness during some of the death scenes and Raskolnikov’s several confession scenes, and preachiness in many of the philosophical engagements. Again, these characters are uneducated plebes, for the most part, yet they often speak like high philosophes. This undermines the claims to realism in the novel. More problems arise with the over-usage of ‘coincidence’ to propel the plot along, as if it were a fifth rate soap opera. Just how many times do people overhear things accidentally, or eavesdrop, or dramatically appear to someone out of the dark? Here is the first such instance:
There are chance meetings with strangers that interest us from the first moment, before a word is spoken. Such was the impression made on Raskolnikov by the person sitting a little distance from him, who looked like a retired clerk. The young man often recalled this impression afterwards, and even ascribed it to presentiment. He looked repeatedly at the clerk, partly no doubt because the latter was staring persistently at him, obviously anxious to enter into conversation.
This is rather well written, and a canny observation that holds true. But, this is from Part One, Chapter Two. The dozen or more times such encounters subsequently occur stretch the realistic point past breaking. Such wanton over-usage of coincidence is a sure sign that there is an over-reliance on plot over characterization. Another problem is the typically Russian overuse of meditation on a small or single event or thing. Like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky tends to go far too deeply into minor things, while American writers, even the past Masters, tend to skim surfaces- a happy medium is needed in these classics. Of the major Russian Masters, only Chekhov seemed to learn the value of concision. The book could easily lose 150 of the 430 pages in my volume, and not lose a single scene. In short, most of the writing has flab that is inessential. Dostoevsky’s shifts between first person subjective and third person omniscient narration also drag the plot down, and reveal far too much extraneous information that a first person subjective narrative could not have revealed, for the better.
On the minor side, Dostoevsky also makes a big error in his use of character names. First, rather than merely using the characters’ first names he uses their first, middle, surnames, and familiar names in different combinations, as well as multiple nicknames, which often confuse readers into not knowing who is doing what, since many of the names are similar, or exactly the same, even if the characters are not related. Secondly, while the use of symbolism for the main character is fine, Dostoevsky goes overboard in the use of symbolism for minor characters. Among the many examples are Razumihin (intellect or reason), Zametov (he who notices), Marmeladov (which connotes a sort of candy or marmalade), and Luzhin (from luzha, which means a puddle). Svidrigaïlov is apparently the name of a wicked medieval prince from a Russian fairy tale.
Another problem with the work, one not in the actual work, but in its willful misinterpretation by critics with axes to grind, is that, aside from the confusion over the literary value of the work, all the poor theories regarding psychology and the fundaments of criminality have somehow found their way into pop culture, and done much to lead people astray in their ideas of true good and evil. Yet, the many fundamental questions that Raskolnikov deals with are never directly addressed, and are only used as a flawed premise for the main action of the novel to go off on. Raskolnikov ponders why those who have power or mass murder in war are labeled heroes, gain fame and respect, have paeans and monuments made for them while the low born, who have to struggle with and against each other, are jailed if they kill. In Part Five, Chapter Four, he rationalizes not confessing to the murders by using this defense: ‘What wrong have I done them? Why should I go to them? What should I say to them? That’s only a phantom.…They destroy men by millions themselves and look on it as a virtue. They are knaves and scoundrels, Sonia! I am not going to them. And what should I say to them- that I murdered her, but did not dare to take the money and hid it under a stone?’ he added with a bitter smile. ‘Why, they would laugh at me, and would call me a fool for not getting it. A coward and a fool! They wouldn’t understand and they don’t deserve to understand. Why should I go to them?’ This is a philosophically legitimate point, yet, instead of plumbing this, and applying it to the social caste he exists within, Raskolnikov flies off into mere pop sociological dementia with his ideas on supermen and exceptionalism, never realizing that exceptionalism in one or two fields, no matter how exceeding, brilliant, nor gifted, does not imply any sort of reciprocal ethical exceptionalism.
Yet, throughout the book, despite moments of brilliance, whenever Dostoevsky gets too close to the core, the nub of what the book is really about, he backs away. Whether because he lacked the answer or lacked the desire to deal with its clash with his own belief systems I do not know. But it is a flaw, and one that results in banal and bland sermonizing, such as that which ends the book in a very trite Hollywood film fashion:
He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.
But that is the beginning of a new story- the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.
To end, Crime And Punishment is certainly a milestone work in the development of both Dostoevsky and the art of the novel, but a work’s cultural or artistic import is not equivalent to its artistic excellence. Therefore, while it may be a great representation of its time, artistically and culturally, it is not a great book- neither as a social tract nor as a novel. It reads more like a mid-stage version of better models to come, which is exactly what it really is. The very fact that such gross misreadings of it has taken root is a testament to the laziness of most readers, and the unwillingness of most to think for themselves. It is this problem with readers, their own anomic stasis, writ into the larger society, that Dostoevsky actually deals with. Raskolnikov, however, still smiles.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Retort website.]
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