When I picked up Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I was expecting it to be dense, dull, and depressing – especially since the background materials I read stated that Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment as an explicit critic of certain radical theories that were current in 1860s Russia, including utilitarianism and rationalism.
It’s not a good sign when a novel has a thesis. This is usually an indication you are about to be treated to a bunch of cardboard characters clomping around mouthing platitudes, engaging in fake debates, and delivering essay-length monologues while sitting in a café smoking, humping each other, or bravely defying some oppressive bureaucrat or petty despot.
So I was pleased when I found Crime and Punishment to be a wilder, stranger, more flawed, more chaotic, more puzzling, and ultimately more engaging book than I expected.
Dostoyevsky, by all accounts, meant to deliver a lecture pretending to be a novel. He ended up creating a work of art. Here’s how (with a truck-load of spoilers in the discussion).
Crime and Punishment: A Black Comedy?
The first indication that I was following Dostoyevsky down his own particular rabbit hole, rather than sitting in his classroom dutifully taking notes, was that long passages of Crime and Punishment were both horrible and funny.
An early example is what happens after Raskolnikov, the handsome and arrogant law school drop-out who is the novel’s central character, famously murders an old pawnbroker and her sister. Raskolnikov falls into a fever that seems physical, emotional, and spiritual all at once.
But instead of taking us into Raskolnikov’s apparently tortured mind, Dostoyevsky focuses on his friends, who cheerfully encourage him to get better while chatting about mutual acquaintances or who view him as a fascinating case of morbid psychology or some undefined nervous complaint.
Another example is the character of Porfiry Petrovich, the detective assigned to solve the murders. Porfiry is short and stout, with a soft round face and a figure Dostoyevsky describes as “somewhat womanish” who laughs and titters through nearly every conversation he has.
Yet this comic-figure of a man is also Dostoyevsky’s figure of vengeance. Porfiry is convinced of Raskolnikov’s guilt early in the book, pursues him with relentless guile, and attempts to drive Raskolnikov to confess either to the police or in a suicide note when he concludes there isn’t enough evidence to arrest him.
My final example. After 500 pages of anguish and self-examination, Raskolnikov goes to the police station to confess. Here is the high dramatic moment. Here is the finale of the novel. What happens?
Raskolnikov encounters a pompous, idiot lieutenant who babbles on about nonsense so incessantly that Raskolnikov actually gives up and leaves. A few minutes later, Raskolnikov returns, tries again, and this time manages to get the lieutenant to shut up long enough to confess.
These are odd, distracting, irrelevant choices if you want to advance a narrow moral argument. But they are excellent ones if you want to explore the strangeness, complexity, unpredictability, and absurdity of life. Which is what artists do. And that is what Dostoyevsky did, I think, despite his intentions to the contrary.
Iago, Raskolnikov, Meursault: The Reasons for the Crime Are … What?
For a thesis book to examine whether it is moral to commit murder, it is important for the author to clearly establish the reasons the character committed murder before he can show why those reasons are wrong.
But here’s the problem. Dostoyevsky doesn’t. Instead, he gives us a Chinese menu of possible motives, none of which are particularly convincing even to Raskolnikov himself.
The best example of this is in Chapter IV of Part V when Raskolnikov confesses he murdered the two women to Sonya , the virtuous naïve Christian girl who loves Raskolnikov unconditionally and who also happens to be a prostitute. (I’m not making that up.)
Anyhow, first, Raskolnikov tells Sonya that he murdered the women because he wanted to be like Napoleon, who pursued his grand ambitions without regard for conventional morality. Then he tells Sonya he murdered for money, so he could finish his education and support his family. Then he tells Sonya he murdered the old woman because she was a “louse … a useless, loathsome, harmful creature.” Then he says the reasons he committed the murders are that he is “vain, envious, malicious, base, vindictive and … well, perhaps with a tendency to insanity.” Then he blames the murders on “sulkiness”. Then he serves up a Will to Power argument. Then he agrees with Sonya that the devil made him do it. Then he says he did it for himself. Then he goes over all these reasons all over again and concludes, I’m so unhappy!
As the basis for a thesis, this is a hot mess. As a portrait of humanity it is – well, some of you might think it a hot mess too – but I think it is brilliant. And a century ahead of its time.
It has become fashionable, based on the latest cognitive and behavioral science, to conclude human beings are deeply irrational creatures who use reason not to guide their actions, but too justify them after the fact. It is also an established principal, at least among the modernist writers, that the more closely you examine the human character, the more ambiguous and ungrounded in some final essence the human character seems to become.
I tend to think of this vision of humanity in terms of classic (or Newtonian) mechanics and quantum mechanics. In classical mechanics, matter at a certain size … typically visible to the unaided human eye … behaves in logical, predictable, and consistent fashions. But at the atomic and subatomic level, all hell breaks loose with matter doing seemingly impossible things, like being in two places at once, or being both “up” and “down”, or other weird stuff that gives the average person a headache just contemplating. And yet, the visible logical world is founded on the invisible chaotic one.
This seems to me to be a good description of Raskolnikov. He is a quantum character trying to exist in a classical world. And not succeeding particularly well. And upsetting Dostoyevsky’s program in the process.
Also, all this suggests to me that Raskolnikov committed the murders for nothing or because there was an emptiness at his center that made him so indifferent that no action he took, good or bad, finally had meaning. Which I think is the case with Shakespeare’s Iago and Camus’ Meursault, and so I’ve added Raskolnikov to that group.
Crime, Punishment. No Crime, Punishment. Crime, No Punishment. No Crime, No Punishment.
The final reason for thinking Crime and Punishment isn’t a thesis book focused on Raskolnikov’s murders, despite Dostoyevsky’s stated intentions, is the amount of extraneous, irrelevant, contradictory, and confounding characters and plots he includes.
This sounds like a criticism, but what it really means is that Dostoyevsky did not let his school-teacher impulses get in the way of his inspiration, which seems to want to explore the whole spectrum of crimes and punishments, with or without a causal relation between the two.
It starts with Raskolnikov himself, who despite having committed a pre-meditated murder and a impulsive one (Raskolnikov kills the old woman’s sister when she surprises him during the crime), gets all of 8 years in prison.
Now I am not familiar with standards of punishment in 19th century Russia, but this sounds a little light to my American but none the less opposed to the death penalty ears, and was a bit surprising to Raskolnikov himself.
There are also unpunished criminals in Crime and Punishment. For example, the character of Svidrigaïlov, a depraved landowner who is suspected of several murders and sexual assaults, gets away free from the law (although he does commit suicide in one of the novels most persuasive and harrowing chapters). There is also Luzhin, a sadistic bully who likes to prey on women he perceives to be helpless.
We also find punished innocents. Sonya becomes a prostitute in a desperate attempt to keep her family, especially her younger step-siblings, from starvation. These step-siblings themselves suffer from the drunkenness of their father and the angry despair, then madness, then death by consumption of their mother.
Finally, there are unpunished innocents such as Raskolnikov’s cheerful and loyal friend Razumikhin, who happily marries Raskolnikov’s sister, and the detective Porfiry, who succeeds in helping to drive Raskolnikov’s confession and serving the ends of justice.
Dostoyevsky renders many of these characters with a grotesque, Gogol-esque exuberance that also undermines the thesis aspects of the book. The fact of their existence, rather than what the characters mean or what “morals of the story” Dostoyevsky wants us to take away with us, seem the real point of the novel.
Which perhaps makes Dostoyevsky like Milton in Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” when Blake says
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it
But I think Dostoyevsky is more like the Oracle of The Matrix movies when she talks about a character called the Architect. She says the Architect’s role in the movie is to “balance the equation”. She tells Keanu Reeves her role is to “unbalance it”.
Fyodor set out to be the Architect. He winds up being the Oracle.
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