Crime and Punishment By Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1865-66)
SECOND READING 51:A DISGRUNTLED erstwhile Petersburg university student is starving and too embarrassed to risk an encounter with his long suffering landlady. But no, he has now gone beyond caring. He decides to kill an old pawnbroker, a nasty operator who has contempt for her customers and treats Lisaveta, her poor sister so badly. The pawnbroker’s death will liberate the sister, and this will be a good deed.
Raskolnikov, displaced and alienated – raskolnik means schismatic or dissenter – is indeed divided. His waking hours are passed in furious internal debate, as he searches for his vision of a higher good. Or so he thinks. The reality is less lofty; he not only despatches the old woman, he also kills Lisaveta who unexpectedly arrives to find him at the murder scene.
Metaphysical thriller, profound detective story and a psychological study of tragic pride and epic guilt, Crime and Punishmentis the defining literary achievement of the 19th century. It cast its cohesive presence over all that would follow from Kafka, his admiring successor, and the reluctant Conrad who considered Dostoyevsky “too Russian” yet The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyesbear his influence, to Thomas Mann’s artistic quest and on until the present day.
It was Dostoyevsky who identified and constructed the troubled modern imagination, and who, most compellingly, continues to stalk that imagination. Tolstoy was the historical novelist with a panoramic grasp of society and reason; Dostoyevsky’s “fantastic realism” looked inwards. He was the psychological visionary who understood violent suffering, wrote with a hallucinatory energy and created unforgettable, troubled, at times, deranged characters who express themselves in dazzlingly philosophical exchanges.
Then there are the passages of horrific, hysterical, exasperated comedy. Only the US master, William Gaddis, is quite as screamingly, darkly funny.
Dostoyevsky knew that Western Romanticism became more extreme when adopted by the hyper emotive Russian spirit. His involvement in a secret intellectual circle, influenced by several European radical thinkers, led to his arrest.
A last-minute reprieve spared his life but cost Dostoyevsky four years in a Siberian labour camp and a further five as a soldier on the Mongolian border. Drawn to Balzac and Dickens, he surpassed both. Crime and Punishmentframed by despair and hope was conceived as “the psychological study of a crime.”
Petersburg is the setting, a surreal city which Raskolnikov sees as “the embodiment of some blank and dead spirit”, while another major character, the depraved Svidrigaylov, newly returned after seven years in the country, courtesy of the wealthy wife he killed, considers it home to invariably disturbed citizens. It is a chaotic place of nightmares, extremes and ideas.
Raskolnikov is arrogant, contradictory, relentlessly intellectual and interestingly, unsympathetic. He does not have to deny his crime because he is not a suspect. His conversation is often bewildering as he announces to his loyal friend Razumikhin: “But it’s only illiterate peasants or inexperienced greenhorns who flatly deny everything when questioned by the police. A man who’s had some education and experience of life will always do his best to admit all the external and incontrovertible facts. Except, of course, that he will try to find other reasons for them. . .” Elsewhere he tells himself: “The old woman was only an illness. . . I didn’t kill a human being – I killed a principle!”
By the time his mother and sister, Dunya, arrive he has met Marmeladov, a disgraced alcoholic civil servant whose second wife has in desperation encouraged his daughter Sonia, by his first marriage, to become a prostitute. Sonia, gentle, kind and a devout Christian, is the moral centre of the novel. Dostoyevsky moves his characters through vividly described set pieces, filled with recriminations, tears, illness, family funerals and debates.
Although Raskolnikov largely conducts the investigation as a quasi-philosophical personal exploration, he does have extensive assistance from one of Dostoyevsky’s finest creations, the eccentric examining magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich, given to sudden barks of laughter and a digressively conversational style of interrogation.
Meanwhile Svidrigaylov, bored, cynical, and secretly privy to Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonia, stages a dramatic farewell. Dostoyevsky became increasingly drawn to mysticism yet in Crime and Punishmentwith its theme of redemption through truth he shaped modern literary consciousness.