I’ve been saving my review of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky for several weeks; a book like this requires some reflection. It was not what I expected. I have read lots of 19th century fiction, most of it English fiction, so I was expecting Dostoevsky to fall in place neatly alongside Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote about crime and criminals in several novels and was said to be a fan of Dostoevsky’s work. I was wrong. Rashkolnikov, the murderous anti-hero of Crime and Punishment bears little resemblance to any of the criminals in Dickens’s novels–the two authors have little in common in their approach to the subject at all.
Even in Charles Dickens’s most intimate story the reader gets the impression that he is in an expansive universe. The richness and the variety of characters imply that there is a colorful world out there if only we can go and find it. I think this is even true in a novel like Little Dorrit much of which is confined to small rooms the Marshalsea prison. Even in prison the characters create a world. I had the opposite sensation with Crime and Punishment. Throughout the novel I felt that the world was collapsing on Rashkolnikov. Although there is a large cast of characters, many colorful enough to be in a Dickens novel, everything seems to close in on Rashkolnikov’s lonely room. To the point that when he left it, he was still in it. He takes his isolation with him when he enters the world, rather than bringing the world with him into prison as the characters in Little Dorrit do.
Rashkolnikov is a young student in St. Petersburg, Russia, just eking out a living barely able to pay for his classes and his own support on the money his family can send him. He reaches a point when he can no longer even do this and is faced with paying the rent. He reasons that his life is worth more than that of the local pawnbroker, that if he were to kill her and to rob her he would be no different really from a Napoleon who did just that on a much grander scale and is hailed as a genius and a hero for doing so. Men of genius are not subject to the law and morality of ordinary men according to Rashkolnikov, so what would be an act of murder for one is not so for the other.
Raskolnikov kills the old woman and her servant only to be tormented afterwards by guilt and by the fear of discovery. He becomes ill as a result. His friends and neighbors along with his mother and sister arrive on the scene, each one voicing their own theory as to why he is ill and how to cure him. They hover over him in his tiny room talking about the flu while he is consumed with guilt and the suspicion that they all know what he did and are mocking him. Once he recovers his health he must deal with a police inspector who has found a witness, a young neighbor girl whom Raskolnikov has fallen in love with in spite of her lower status and suspect reputation. In what many, myself included, find a weak ending, she brings him to redemption.
This all takes place in the space of a few days and it all makes for compelling reading. I don’t know why that surprised me but it did. I was expecting Crime and Punishment to be something of a slog, but I found it difficult to put down right from the start. Parts of it are actually very funny, but what is most interesting is the study of a single criminal mind. I felt like I was reading a case study in a book by Sigmund Freud. Since the main reason I read Crime and Punishment in the first place is that Matt has talked about it so frequently on his blog A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, I decided to ask him about this. His reply follows:
I haven’t stumbled upon any published literature that Freud has written on Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoevsky began to write this novel in 1859, the last of his ten years of exile in Siberia. Living a life of suffering, he created the character of Raskolnikov with the preconceptions of his own harrowing experience. I have read volume after volume of critical essays on where Raskolnikov’s suffering originated, which is, from the frame of the novel itself, in his murder of the pawn-woman. The lectures on the novel in my undergrad class also focused on this topic. But Dostoevsky’s main concentration I believe is why suffering must exist and how one can overcome this suffering.
In part one of the novel, Dostoevsky describes Raskolnikov as “having been in an over strained irritable condition, verging on hypochondria” for some time past. When out in public, he is almost always preoccupied with his own agitated thoughts or muttering to himself in a state of feverish confusion. These irregular characteristics indicate Raskolnikov’s nervous anticipation of the murder that he plans to commit. The guilt that he experiences after carrying out the murder further amplifies his irritable condition, thus plunging him into a period of illness and delirium. A reader would conclude, therefore, that Raskolnikov’s mental state is directly linked to the guilt about the crime.
As a neurotic, Raskolnikov is unable to suppress his instincts as effectively as a regular person. He engages in these palliative measures for the same reasons as everybody else does, yet is unable to achieve the same results due to the abnormal strength of his instincts. When the instincts of regular people come into contact with their palliative measures, they are instantly subdued. But when Raskolnikov’s powerful instincts come into contact with his palliative measures, they combine with the palliative measures, thus turning them into extreme and distorted mental obsessions.
How is it that Raskolnikov’s aggression still exists, when the conditions of civilization are supposed to repress such instincts? Freud maintains that civilization “is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.” In order to answer our question, we must again remind ourselves that Raskolnikov is a neurotic character with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization.
Freudian analysis of Raskolnikov might indicate that complex connections exist between civilization and the human psyche—connections which are impossible to completely sever. The presence of these connections make it impossible for us to try to oppose the structure of civilization without ending up in the same plight as Raskolnikov. Thus, both Freud and Dostoevsky seem to suggest that it is necessary for us to adapt ourselves as best we can to the pre-existing constructs of civilization and learn to accept its less pleasant aspects.
Reference: Freud, Sigmund. “Civilizations and Its Discontents.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.
I find this to be the key point Matt makes: “Raskolnikov is a neurotic character with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization.” This should be a major point of debate: does civilization place a positive limit on more natural instincts towards violence? By the end of Crime and Punishment I suspect Dostoevsky’s answer would be yes, but I’m not sure mine is. While Raskolnikov is punished and does come to repent his actions, Napoleon is still considered a genius and is still praised as a hero. You can visit his tomb in Paris and see the bas relief sculptures that portray him as the great unifier of Europe. I’m left to wonder if Raskolnikov’s great sin is not that he committed murder but that he thought he was the kind of man who could get away with it.
I’d like to thank Matt for his participation in this project. I envy his students. I bet his classes provide lots of food for thought.
Update: This book was eaten by Dakota on July 6, 2009.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009. Dakota ate several more books before she stopped her book eating habits. As many of you know, Dakota, who is much older now, has lymphoma. She has outlasted the doctor’s predicted time left by four weeks now, but she has started to slow down noticeably. As I type this, she is laying on the rug by my side, probably wishing I would get up and fix her breakfast already. That’s just what I’m going to do.