Dostoevsky in "Crime and Punishment"

Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student in St. Petersburg who formulates and executes a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her cash. Raskolnikov argues that with the pawnbroker’s money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, while ridding the world of a worthless parasite. He also commits this murder to test his own hypothesis that some people are naturally capable of such things, and even have the right to do them. Several times throughout the novel, Raskolnikov justifies his actions by connecting himself mentally with Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose.

Is this the type of narrative nowadays called a psycho-thriller? Yes, in a sense it is, being above all, in its author’s own words, the psychological account of a crime. The crime is murder. But in itself this is in no way exceptional, for the very same crime occurs in nearly all of Dostoevsky’s novels. Proust once suggested grouping them together under a single comprehensive title: “The Story of a Crime.”

Where this novel differs, however, from the works following it is in the totality of its concentration on that obsessive theme. Virtually, everything in the story turns on Raskolnikov’s murder of the old pawnbroker and her sister Lizaveta, and it is this concentration which makes the novel so fine an example of artistic economy and structural cohesion. Free of distractions of theme and idea, and with no confusing excess or over-ingenuity in the manipulation of the plot, such as vitiates the design of A Raw Youth and reduces the impact of The Idiot, Crime and Punishment is the one novel of Dostoevsky in which his powerful appeal to our intellectual interests is most directly and naturally linked to the action.               

The superiority of this work in point of structure has been remarked upon, but what has not been sufficiently noted is its extraordinary narrative pace. Consider the movement of Part 1, for instance. In this comparatively short section(coming to eighty-four pages in /Constance Garmett’s translation), we get to know the protagonist fairly well, to know the conditions of crushing poverty and isolation under which he lives and the complex origins of his loathsome scheme; we see him going through a rehearsal-visit to the victims flat; we listen to Marmeladov’s sermon in the pothouse, to the recital of his domestic woes, including the circumstances that forced his daughter Sonya to become a prostitute; we witness the drunken old man’s homecoming and the hysterical violence with which he is received by hi wife; then we read with Raskolnikov the long letter form his mother, learning a good deal about his family situation; we dream with him the frightful dream looking at once to the past and to the future, of the beating to death of the little mare; finally , after several more scenes of the strictest dramatic relevance, we are brought to a close-up of the double murder, probably them the most astonishing description of its kind in fiction, and watch the murderer returning to hid lodgings where, after putting back the axe under the porter’s bench, he climbs the stairs to sink on his bed in blank forgetfulness.                                                                                              

Thus in this first section of seven chapters a huge quantity of experience is qualitatively organized, with the requisite information concerning the hero’s background driven in to place through a consummate use of the novelistic device of foreshortening, and with the swift narrative tempo serving precisely as the prime means of controlling and rendering credible the wild queerness of what has been recounted. For this wild queerness cannot be made to yield to explanation or extrinsic analysis. To gain our consent—to enlist, that is, our poetic faith—the author must either dramatize or perish, and for full success he must proceed with the dramatic representation at a pace producing an effect of virtual instantaneousness. To have secured this effect is a triumph of Dostoevsky’s creative method—a triumph because the instantaneous is a quality of being rather than of mind and not open to question. As the irreducible to the categories of explanation or interpretation.                                               

The artistic economy, force and tempo of ‘Part 1′ are sustained throughout the novel (“The Epilogue,” in which hope and belief play havoc with the imaginative logic of the work, is something else again.). There is no wasted detail in it, none that can be shown to be functionally inoperative in advancing the action and our insight into its human agents. And it is important to observe that the attaining of this fullness and intensity of deliberately attentive to the time-lapse of the action are surprised to learn that its entire span is only two weeks and that of part1 only because we are virtually unaware of it apart from the tension of the rendered experience. Instead of time lapsing there is the concrete flow of duration contracting and expanding with the rhythm of the dramatic movement. Least of all is it a chronological frame that time provides in this novel. As the Russian critic K. Mochulsky has so aptly remarked, its time is purely psychological, a function of human consciousness, in other words the very incarnation of Bergson’s “duree reelle.” And it is only in Bergsonian terms that one can do it justice. Truly, Dostoevsky succeeds here in converting time into a kind of progress of Raskolnikov’s mental state, which is not actually a state but a process of incessant change eating into the future and expanding with the duration at accumulates, like a snowball growing larger as it rolls upon itself, to use Bergson’s original image.            

This effect is partly accomplished by the exclusion from Raskolnikov’s consciousness of everything not directly pertaining to his immediate situation. From beginning to end he is in a state of crisis from which there is no diversion or escape either in memory or fantasy. The import of what he thinks, feels, and remembers is strictly functional to the present. Thus he thinks of his mother, who is involved in the action, with distinct alternations of feelings, while his dead father hardly exists for him. He belongs to the past, and so far as Raskolnikov is concerned the past is empty of affect. The one time he evokes his father’s figure is in the anguished dream of the beating to death of the little mare, and his appearance in that dream is singularly passive, manifestly carrying with it no charge of emotion. This dream, enacting a dreamer actually remembering an episode of his childhood or is he imagining the memory? In any case, though the dream is of the past its meaning is all in the present. The pitiful little mare whipped across the eyes and butchered by Mikolka and crowd of rowdy peasants stands for all such victims of life’s insensate cruelty, in particular such victims as Sonya and Lizaveta whose appeal to Raskolnikov is that of poor gentle things…whose eyes are soft and gentle. Also, the mare stands above all for Raskolnikov himself, and in embracing her bleeding head in a frenzy of compassion it is himself he is embracing, bewailing, consoling.

Yet, for all his living in the present, Raskolnikov wills and acts with his whole past back of him; and it is for a very good reason that we are not permitted to gain a privileged understanding of his past in the sense of entering a series of his mental states anterior to the action. By denying us such intimacy the author effectively prevents us from rationalizing the mystery of the crime and its motive—the mystery which is never really solved but toward the solution of which everything in the novel converges. How the study of Dostoevsky’s manuscripts has shown that he was himself disturbed no end by the indefiniteness and uncertainty of Raskolnikov’s motive, and he wrote a note reminding himself that he must once and for all clear up the uncertainty and isolate the real motive in order to destroy. Fortunately, he was able to forget this injunction as the novel progressed. For his basic idea of his hero’s motivation is such as to identify it with the totality of his consciousness, and to have changed that conception to a more conventional one would have led to the withering of that fine insight; and what that insight comes to, in the last analysis, is that human consciousness is inexhaustible and incalculable. It cannot be condensed into something as limited and specific as a motive. The consciousness is ever obliging in generating a sufficiency of reasons, but it is necessary to distinguish between reasons and motives. Not that motives have no existence; they exist, to be sure, but only on the empirical plane, materializing in the actual practice of living, primarily in the commitment of action. Existentially speaking, the acting man can be efficient and self-assured only insofar as his consciousness is non-reflective. Raskolnikov, however, is above all a man of reflection, and his crime is frequently described in the book as a theoretical one, theoretical not only in the sense of its being inspired by a theory but also in the sense that theory, that is to say abstraction, is of its very essence: no wonder he carries out the murder in the manner of a sleep-walker or of a man falling down a precipice. The textual evidence shows that what his crime mainly lacks is empirical content, and that is what some critics had in mind, I think, in defining it as a pure experiment in self-cognition. Thus it can be said of this murderer that he produces a corpse but moral motive. His consciousness, time and again recoiling upon itself in a sickening manner, consumes motives as fast as it produces them. Crime and Punishment may be characterized as a psycho-thriller with prodigious complications.) It is misleading however, to speak of it as a detective story, as is so often done. It is nothing of the sort, since from the outset we know not only the murderer’s identity but are also made to enter into some of his innermost secrets. True, the story is almost entirely given over to detection—not of the criminal, though, but of his motive. Inevitably it turns out that there is not one but a whole cluster of motives, a veritable embarrass de richesses and if the criminal himself is in his own fashion constrained to take part in the work of detection it is because he is soon lost in the maze of his own motivation. Never  quite certain as to what it was exactly that induced him to commit murder, he must continually spy on himself in a desperate effort to penetrate his own psychology and attain the self-knowledge he needs if he is to assume responsibility for his absurd and hideous act. And this idea of him as the criminal in search of his own motive is precisely what is so new and original in the figure of Raskolnikov.                     

His knowing and not knowing is in a sense the worst of his ordeal. He is aware of several motives that keep eluding him as his thought shifts among them, and there are times when they all seem equally unreal to him. To sustain himself in the terrible isolation of his guilt, he must be in complete possession of a single incontrovertible motive representing his deepest self, his own rock bottom truth. But, he no sooner lays hold of this truth than he catches himself in a state of mind that belies it , as, for example, in the scene when right after burying the loot—a purse and some trinkets of jewelry—he suddenly stops in the street to confound himself.

This is but one of several passages in which the abstraction—so to speak—of the crime, its lack of empirical substance, is brought home to us. There is an intrinsic incongruity between this criminal and his crime which is exhibited by the author with masterful indirection, and nowhere to better effect than when Raskolnikov makes his confession to Sonya. In the course of it, though straining as hard as he can to discover and at long last seize the motive that impelled him, he still cannot stop wavering and giving various and contradictory explanations of his act. He begins by stating that he murdered for plunder, but when Sonya cries saying that he was hungry, then, he, at once, retracts that explanation, muttering:

“No Sonya, no…. I was not so hungry…. I certainly did want to help my mother, but that’s not the real thing either….”

A little later he adds that if he had simply killed the old pawnbroker because of hunger he would be happy now, exclaiming that he really wanted to become a Napoleon and that is why he killed her. Yet still later we hear him say that the argument from Napoleon is all nonsense as he reverts to the explanation from poverty and simple need. Soon enough, however, he strikes again the Napoleonic note, accounting for the murder now as a matter of wanting to have the daring: but for himself alone so as to find out quickly weather he was a louse like everybody else or a man, whether he was a trembling creature or one who has the right to step over barriers. Still another cause, more immediately psychological in bearing, is introduced when he speaks of his airless cupboard of a room, that room where he turned sulky and sat like a spider, where he would not work but simply lay for hours thinking. It is chiefly this perpetual thinking, this desperate resort to sheer deflection, which is the source of the mystifications that torment him. Though it is his consciousness which did him in it is to his empirical self that he absurdly looks for the justification it cannot supply; so that in the end, for all the keenness with which he explicates his act to Sonya, we are still left with a crime of indeterminate origin and meaning.                                            

The indeterminacy is the point. Dostoevsky is the first novelist to have fully accepted and dramatized the principle of uncertainty or indeterminacy in the presentation of character. In terms of novelistic technique this principle manifests itself as a kind of hyperbolic suspense—suspense no longer generated merely by the traditional means and devices of fiction, though these are skillfully brought into play, but as it were by the very structure of human reality. To take this hyperbolic suspense as a literary invention pure and simple is to fail in comprehending it; it originates rather in Dostoevsky’s acute awareness (self-awareness at bottom) of the problematic nature of the modern personality and of its tortuous efforts stem the disintegration threatening it. Thus Raskolnikov, like Stavrogin and other protagonists of Dostoevsky’s is represented throughout under the aspect of modernity (the examining magistrate Porfiry Petrovich sees him very specifically as a modern case) understood as spiritual and mental self-division and self-contradiction. It is in this light that the search for the true cause of the crime becomes ultimately intelligible, the search that gives the novel at once its form and meaning, taking us where no psycho-thriller before or after Crime and Punishment has even taken us, into a realm where only the sharpest psychological perception will see us through and into still another realm where our response to ideas is impetuously solicited: ideas bearing on crime and its relation to psychic illness on the one hand and to power and genius on the other; ideas about two kinds of human beings, ordinary and extraordinary, with the former serving as mere material for the latter who arrogate to themselves the right to overstep the line and remove moral obstacles at will; ideas concerning the supernal value of suffering and the promise of deliverance in Christ.

In the end, Crime and Punishment is a story about the true nature of human beings and vice. In other words, it lays emphasis on salvation through sufferings. Marmeladov was the head of a distressed family; he suffered, and his daughter Sonia had to accept a life of shame to ameliorate the condition of her family. Dostoevsky thought of his own suffering when he wrote about Sonia and Raskolnikov not Siberia alone he had in describable suffering in his personal life as well. To him, suffering was a thing of supreme importance, without which neither happiness nor salvation would be possible. Eventually, of course, it was proved that Raskolnikov’s theory was baseless, and he made ample amends with tears and suffering. But, the murder was already an accomplished fact, and that was a defiance of moral and aesthetic considerations.        

Works Cited:

Bourgeois, Patrick Lyall (1996). “Dostoevsky and Existentialism: An Experiment in Hermeunetics”. In Mc Bride, William Leon. Existentialist Background. Taylor & Francis.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (1956). Crime and Punishment, translated by Constance Garnett. Random House printing.

Frank, Joseph (1994). “The Making of Crime and Punishment”. In Polhemus, Robert M.; Henkle, Roger B.. Critical Reconstructions: The Relationship of Fiction and Life. Stanford University Press.

McDuff, David (2002). “Introduction”. Fyodor M. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Penguin Classics.

Peace, Richard Arthur (2006). Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: A Casebook. Oxford University Press.


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