Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky — dark side of human nature

Cover of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

27 thoughts on “Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky — dark side of human nature

  • June 23, 2022 at 7:49 pm
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    The only work I’ve read by him is House of the Dead which was so inexorable that despite its relative brevity I felt that I too had done time. This sounds as psychologically compelling as I remember Camus’s L’Étranger to be, which I also just about remember it was so long ago.

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    • June 23, 2022 at 9:41 pm
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      Well I shall certainly give House of the Dead a wide berth because if you found it impossible to read, I know I certainly would

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      • June 23, 2022 at 10:20 pm
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        Sorry I wasn’t clear: I didn’t find it impossible to read, just something that felt immediate, drawing me in, making it clear that this was the sort of thing that really happened – and of course it did, it’s clearly a semi-fictionalised account of an experience he’d been through, a daily, depressing, pointless regimen.

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        • June 24, 2022 at 11:41 pm
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          huh, never heard of that one.. but I did hear that Dostoevsky was sent to Siberian labour camps.. so yea, that makes sense… and also that he was ushered to his own execution before the deed was cancelled. Can you imagine?

  • June 23, 2022 at 5:18 pm
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    I went through a Russian novelist phase in my teens and read this as an impressionable student. The section where Raskolnikov carried out the killings is burned into my memory, amazing writing. Don’t think I’ve read a book since that explored the darker recesses of the soul like that one. ‘The brothers Karamavoz’ is also an incredible read, even though you’d need to set aside a month of your life to read it. From what I remember there is a murder but it’s the endless theological and philosophical discussions that I recall most, that made my head spin, and all of humanity seems to be in there. It meant a lot to me as a student but I’d probably look at it different now. I couldn’t read it again. Enjoyed the review as always and thanks for bringing me back to the Russians again!

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    • June 23, 2022 at 5:49 pm
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      That scene where the murders happening was incredibly powerful – and memorable as you say Adrian. I have “Karamavoz” on my list to read though not sure how I’ll cope with all those theological/philosophical discussions.

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      • June 24, 2022 at 11:31 pm
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        Karamazov is hardly the philosophical tower that people speak of it as. It’s really just poetic storytelling which also contains some gems of philosophy. But the philosophy hardly makes up much of the book.

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  • June 23, 2022 at 4:33 pm
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    Thank you for this interesting and in depth review. I read another review for this book last year and I fancied it then. I think I will now have to read it.

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    • June 23, 2022 at 5:49 pm
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      I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did

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  • June 23, 2022 at 4:30 pm
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    I hadn’t realized there is a connection to Nietzsche in this book. The only person I’ve ever met who read Crime and Punishment and both devoured and analyzed it was a man in prison.

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    • June 23, 2022 at 5:50 pm
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      Oh dear, I do hope that doesn’t mean I’m about to be carted off to prison???

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  • June 23, 2022 at 2:56 pm
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    I read Crime and Punishment long ago and far too young. I gave up and didn’t finish it. After reading this review, I can see I need to revisit it; grim as it is, I’m likely to have a better experience with it. The burden of guilt interfering with the satisfaction of the crime theme reminds me of Zola’s Therese Raquin, which I read a few months ago and enjoyed.

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    • June 23, 2022 at 5:53 pm
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      That’s a fabulous connection to make – the scenes in Therese Racquin where the murderous feel haunted by their crime are superb.

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    • June 24, 2022 at 11:35 pm
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      There are some beautiful scenes in that book – the game between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, as well as Raskolnikov’s sister’s situation, and some side characters, beautiful.
      Yes, the burden of guilt is a good way to say it. The moral weight, the load, is so well articulated in the storytelling, timeless.

      Reply
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  • June 16, 2013 at 8:31 am
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    Thanks Jeffry. So much for the accuracy of the introduction to my edition. However it’s a good lesson for me to check sources myself.

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  • June 9, 2013 at 2:54 am
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    What a wonderful book! When I studied abroad in Russia, I got to visit the apartment building where Raskolnikov axed the old lady, as well as the building where he lived, which even had a commemorative plaque on the front. I loved that he used real places to tell his story.

    I’m also a fan of the way that Dostoevsky handles his female characters. He’s one of the few writers from his time period that treats them as complex characters rather than mindless idiots (*cough* Tolstoy *cough*).

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    • June 9, 2013 at 8:34 am
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      I wasn’t all that enamoured with Sonya but thought the way he portrayed the consumptive Katerina Ivanovna was superb, especially in the scene after her husband’s funeral wake. Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya was a strong character too.
      Lucky you to be able to see places from the novel. I found it interesting how Dostoevsky went against the traditional representation of a Russian city. We always expect these novels to show Russia in deep snow, freezing conditions but in this novel it’s the heat that prevails.

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      • June 9, 2013 at 3:13 pm
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        Petersburg doesn’t really get that much snow because of where it’s geographically located. It’s far more likely to get a lot of cold freezing rain, which somehow feels worse.

        I like how the city itself featured almost as prominently as a character, seeming to guide Rasolnikov’s aimless wanderings.

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        • June 10, 2013 at 8:06 pm
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          Oh I certainly remember how cold it was. I went there with a boyfriend in December 1975. We wore borrowed fur coats and hats but never realised that western made boots and gloves wouldn’t cope with minus 20…

        • June 10, 2013 at 9:48 pm
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          At the same time, I don’t think I could have managed wearing the spiky heels that Russian women do. I wouldn’t have been able to walk without falling down.

    • June 24, 2022 at 11:39 pm
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      hahahaha. now that you say it… I’m starting to see it.
      And interesting, I never realized it was real places…
      Have you read Kierkegaard? He gives Cordelia a pretty good character

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  • June 8, 2013 at 4:06 pm
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    I went through a period when I read a great number of Russian novels but somehow missed out on this one. I have a feeling that I would become extremely annoyed with a young man who feels he needs to take the life of another to prove how superior he is and wouldn’t get halfway through as a result, but maybe some day I should give it a try.

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    • June 9, 2013 at 8:28 am
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      He was certainly an irritating person but I found Dostoevsky’s style compelling. I’ve read a few of the biggie Russians in the past but never anything by him before. Next up when I get around to it will be Brothers Karamazov. Have you read that one?

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      • June 9, 2013 at 8:34 am
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        No, the only book of his I’ve read is ‘The Idiot’ and that after I’d seen a stage adaptation. I did enjoy it thought so perhaps all is not lost for ‘Crime and Punishment’. I actually pinched the title as the heading for the Summer School three years ago which was centred on literary detective fiction but it wasn’t one of the set books. I didn’t think I’d be very popular setting a Russian classic as a summer read.

        Reply

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