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Author Fyodor Dostoevsky
Title Crime and punishment
Year 1866
Original title Преступление и наказание
Translation Crime and punishment, English translation by Constance Garnett

Fyodor Dostoevsky - Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1861) was a Russian novelist. His novels depict life in 19th century urban Russia. His characters are often poor, working class people (unlike Tolstoy’s characters, who are usually aristocrats). Dostoevsky is especially strong in character analysis.

In Crime and punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in the slums of St. Petersburg, kills an unscrupulous pawnbroker, apparently to solve his financial problems. The novel deals with the aftermath of this murder, the emotional and mental effects of the crime and its investigation on Raskolnikov.

We get to know Raskolnikov as morose, self-centered, intellectual, proud and haughty, but occasionally also as spontaneous, generous and self-sacrificing. A split personality with more than a hint of madness. As the novel is largely told from his point of view, we cannot help but identify with Raskolnikov, despite his morosity, and despite his murder.

Raskolnikov believes that the law is for ordinary people, but some extraordinary people are above the law, and above the mores and conventions of society. These people are justified to break the law – even to kill – to reach their goals. Raskolnikov likes to compare himself to Napoleon, who had no scruples about the millions of deaths for which he was responsible, and who is not considered to be a criminal. Napoleon would certainly have killed the pawnbroker if it had advanced his own goals.

The murder is justified because Raskolnikov believed himself to be one of the extraordinary people, but also because by the murder he rid the world of an evil.

After the murder Raskolnikov is torn between remorse and guilt, and the believe that the murder is justified. One moment he is paranoid, believes everyone suspects him of the murder, and is ready to give himself up, the next moment he is rational, calculating, convinced he will never be caught because of his superiority. At times, he is acting strange and his friends and family think he is losing his sanity. Because of his feelings of guilt he also begins to doubt whether he is indeed extraordinary, but he never gives up this believe.

Two people cross his path that have a profound influence on Raskolnikov (and on the novel). The first is Sonia, a pious, generous and self-sacrificing young woman who works as a prostitute to support her (step-)family. The other person is Svidrigaïlov, a scoundrel who lives for sensual pleasure, and who sacrifices others for his own pleasures – he had no scruples about raping a 15-year-old girl, and did not care that this girl killed herself afterwards. In a way the cold, calculating, criminal personality of Svidrigaïlov, and the generous, self-sacrificing personality of Sonia represent the two opposing sides of Raskolnikov’s split personality.

Raskolnikov is drawn towards Sonia. She is the first one to whom Raskolnikov confesses his crime. Sonia urges him to give himself up, to save his soul and his mental well-being, what he eventually does. When he is convicted to 8 years in a Siberian prison camp, Sonia follows him to Siberia and settles in a neighboring village.

Raskolnikov’s relationship with Svidrigaïlov is complex and enigmatic. He despises Svidrigaïlov, mainly because Svidrigaïlov has in the past tried to elope with Raskolnikov’s sister Dounia, against her will and despite his existing marriage. He considers Svidrigaïlov a scoundrel because of his past crimes. On the other hand he is also drawn towards Svidrigaïlov – he looks for him, visits him, talks with him, and he does not know why he does it. Maybe to convince himself that the murder of the old pawnbroker is not on a par with Svidrigaïlov’s selfish crimes?

A disappointing epilogue describes how Raskolnikov, after some time in a Siberian prison, finally realizes he loves Sonia, repents of his crime, and accepts he is not extraordinary and not above the law: An unconvincing happy ending stuck unto an already finished story.