Are there ever any circumstances under which it’s acceptable — permissible even — to commit a crime ? This is the question that lies at the heart of Crime and Punishment, one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most acclaimed novels.
The criminal in this novel is Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student who lives in the (then) Russian capital of Saint Petersburg. Raskolnikov sets out to kill a pawnbroker with an axe but is disturbed in the act by her sister so feels he has to kill her also. His rationale for his action is ambiguous but the effect on his mental state is dramatic.
Raskolnikov descends into a cycle of anxiety-fuelled periods of delirium alternating with periods in which he is hyperactively lucid, much to the alarm of his closest friend and his mother and sister. His mental anguish is intensified by a psychological cat and mouse game with the magistrate in charge of the investigation, Porfiry Petrovich. Petrovich’s penetrating questions force Raskolnikov to at last give shape to the ideas that led him to kill the women.
Raskolnikov believes in he is one of the extraordinary people identified by Nietzsche in his Superman Theory. Mundane laws to not apply to such “supermen” because their primary objective is the betterment of society through any means necessary. They have the right to commit a crime if it serves a social purpose.
…. if it necessary for one of them, for the fulfilment of his ideas, to march over corpses, or wade through blood, then in my opinion he may in all conscience authorise himself to wade through blood — in proportion however to his idea and the degree of its importance.
Raskolnikov argues that he murders the pawnbrokers to prove that he is himself one of the members of this elite group, a man of genius like Napolean Bonaparte. He can escape justice because he is serving a greater purpose and is acting in pursuit of his great ideas.
What Dostoyevsky shows is that there is one thing Raskolnikov cannot escape: his feelings of torment after the murders. ‘tThe darkness and confusion in his soul’ is more of a self-inflicted punishment that will not diminish unless he can acknowledge and atone for his actions.
On the surface, Crime and Punishment belongs to the crime fiction genre where a crime is committed within the first few pages and the rest of the novel is devoted to the question of whether the police will catch the person responsible and bring him to justice.
But since we already know the identity of the killer the reader’s interest is much more closely directed to the psychological dimensions of crime.
It’s a novel based on a deep and relentless examination of the murderer’s psyche as he tries to reconcile his anguish over the deaths and his fear of arrest with his belief that he was justified in his actions.
Dostoyevsky gives us a double voiced perspective, switching from omniscient narrator to interior monologues so that reading the novel, I felt I was both an observer of the effects of Raskolnikov’s actions but also part of his own consciousness as he borders on derangement.
Crime and Punishment is a novel that grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go at any point. I was reading it while on a long international flight, and for once, I was disgruntled when the plane landed because I just wanted to keep reading!
Dostoyevsky demonstrates a superb grasp of the reality of human nature in its most dire and bleakest form. As depressing as much of it undoubtedly is, the darkness is counterbalanced by the pure goodness that Dostoevsky suggests can be found in the most humble and desperate of circumstances. The self -sacrificing young prostitute, Sonia, embodies hope for Raskolnikov, showing him that there is a chance for his salvation if he can follow her example of a life lived with compassion for others.
The novel ends on a note which indicates the possibility of redemption, forgiveness and regeneration but we never get to discover whether that does comes to pass for Raskolnikov.
This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2013. This is an updated version which includes spelling corrections and formatting changes to improve readability . It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.