Crime And Punishment Critical Review Essay

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 those supermen entitled to violate any law or any principle to serve the cause of ultimate justice, however justice might be construed. Likewise, in his notebooks, Dostoevski implied that he, too, was ambivalent about Raskolnikov’s motives. He added, however, that he was not a psychologist but a novelist. He was thus more concerned with consequences than with causality. This carefully planned novel therefore expands upon a philosophical problem embodied in the protagonist.

The philosophical problem in Crime and Punishment constitutes the central theme of the novel: the lesson Raskolnikov has to learn, the precept he has to master in order to redeem himself. The protagonist finally has to concede that free will is limited. He has to discover and admit that he cannot control and direct his life solely with his reason and intellect, as he tried to do, for such a plan leads only to emptiness and to sinful intellectual pride. Abstract reason takes the place of a fully lived life and precludes the happiness of a fully lived life; happiness must be earned, and it can be earned only through suffering. Thus, Raskolnikov has to learn that happiness is achieved through suffering—another typically Dostoevskian mystical concept. The climactic moment in the novel, therefore, comes when Raskolnikov confesses his guilt at the police station, for Raskolnikov’s confession is tantamount to a request for punishment for the crime and acceptance of his need to suffer. In this way, Raskolnikov demonstrates the basic message of Crime and Punishment: that reason does not bring happiness; happiness is earned through suffering.

The epilogue—summarizing the fates of other characters; Raskolnikov’s trial, his sentencing, and his prison term; and Sonia’s devotion to Raskolnikov during his imprisonment—confirms the novel’s central theme. Artistically, however, the epilogue is somewhat less than satisfactory. First, Dostoevski’s notes indicate that he had considered and rejected an alternate ending in which Raskolnikov commits suicide. Such a conclusion would have been psychologically sound. The very logicality of Raskolnikov’s suicide, however, would have suggested a triumph of reason over the soul. That idea was not consonant with Dostoevski’s convictions; thus, he dropped the plan. Second, the ending that Dostoevski finally wrote in the epilogue implies that the meek and submissive side of Raskolnikov’s personality emerged completely victorious over the superman. Such an ending contradicts Raskolnikov’s persistent duality throughout the novel. Raskolnikov’s dramatic conversion thus strains credulity, for it seems too pat a resolution of the plot. For the sophisticated reader, however, it does not greatly detract from the powerful psychological impact of the novel proper or diminish the quality of a genuinely serious attempt to confront simultaneously a crucial social problem and a deeply profound individual, human one.

Fyodor Dostoevsky   Crime and Punishment.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.  
  
  
R the student who claims the right to murder and steal by virtue of his ill-applied scientific theories, is not a figure the invention of which can be claimed by the Russian novelist. It is probable that before or after reading the works of Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky had perused those of Bulwer Lytton. Eugene Aram, the English novelist’s hero, is a criminal of a very different order, and of a superior species. When he commits his crime, he not only thinks, like Raskolnikov, of a rapid means of attaining fortune, but also, and more nobly, of a great and solemn sacrifice to science, of which he feels himself to be the high priest. Like Raskolnikov, he draws no benefit from his booty. Like him, too, he hides it, and like him, he is pursued, not by remorse, but by regret—haunted by the painful thought that men now have the advantage over him, and that he no longer stands above their curiosity and their spite—tortured by his consciousness of the total change in his relations with the world. In both cases, the subject and the story, save for the voluntary expiation at the close, appear identical in their essential lines. This features stands apart. Yet, properly speaking, it does not belong to Dostoevsky. In Turgenev’s “The Tavern” (Postoïalyï Dvor), the peasant Akime, whom his wife has driven into crime, punishes himself by going out to beg, in all gentleness and humble submission
  The “first cause” in this book, psychologically speaking, is that individualism which the Slavophil School has chosen to erect into a principle of the national life—an unbounded selfishness, in other words, which, when crossed by circumstances, takes refuge in violent and monstrous reaction. And indeed, Raskolnikov, like Bazarov, is so full of contradictions, some of them grossly improbable, that one is almost driven to inquire whether the author has not intended to depict a condition of madness. We see this selfish being spending his last coins to bury Marmeladov, a drunkard picked up in the street, whom he had seen for the first time in his life only a few hours previously. From this point of view Eugene Aram has more psychological consistency, and a great deal more moral dignity. Raskolnikov is nothing but a poor half-crazed creature, soft in temperament, confused in intellect, who carries about a big ideas in a head that is too small to hold it. He becomes aware of this after he has committed his crime, when he is haunted by hallucinations and wild terrors, which convince him that his pretension to rank as a man of power
  This figure of Sonia is a very ordinary Russian type, and strangely chosen for the purpose of teaching Raskolnikov the virtue of expiation. She is a woman of the town, chaste in mind though not in deed, and is redeemed by one really original feature, her absolute humility. It may be inquired whether this element of moral redemption, in so far as it differs from those which so constantly occur to the imagination of the author of “Manon Lescaut,” and to that of all Dostoevsky’s literary forerunners, is more truthful than the rest, and whether it must not be admitted that certain moral, like certain physical conditions, necessarily result in an organic and quite incurable deformation of character. Sonia is like an angel who rolls in the gutter every night and whitens her wings each morning by perusing the Holy Gospels. We may just as well fancy that a coal-heaver could straighten the back bowed by the weight of countless sacks of charcoal by practising Swedish gymnastic!
  The author’s power of evocation, and his gift for analysing feeling, and the impressions which produce it, are very great, and the effects of terror and compassion he obtains cannot be denied. Yet, whether from the artistic or from the scientific point of view (since some of his admirers insist on this last), his method is open to numerous objections. It consists in reproducing, or very nearly, the conditions of ordinary life whereby we gain acquaintance with a particular character. Therefore, without taking the trouble of telling us who Raskolnikov is, and in what his qualities consist, the story relates a thousand little incidents out of which the personal individuality of the hero is gradually evolved. And as these incidents do not necessarily present themselves, in real life, in any logical sequence, beginning with the most instructive of the series, the novelist does not attempt to follow any such course. As



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