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Does Crime Pay?
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Member Name: Mauri
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Date: 22/10/01, updated on 13/07/09 (1251 review reads)
Advantages: Gripping story
Raskalnikov a young Russian, a former student at Petersburg University has fallen on bad times, he is desperate and penniless. He is worried about the fate of his widowed mother who lives in the provinces and of his sister a governess in the house of a wealthy landowner who is trying to seduce her. He decided to solve his problems by robbing and killing an old woman moneylender, Aliona Ivanovna. He justifies his actions by arguing that the woman is stupid, greedy and ill, she will be dead soon anyway. He knows she regularly charges exorbitant interest for the money she lends and has ruined the life of her younger sister Lisaveta, who she keeps as an unpaid servant. To his own mind his actions are logical and he argues that once he as taken the money he will be able to secure his mother's future and save his sister from the grip of the lecherous employer. He himself will pay off his debts and then finish his studies and eventually go abroad and devote his life to being a 'honest citizen' doing 'his duty towards humanity' and thus atoning for his crime.
Raskalnikov carries out the brutal crime but events don't quite go as planned and he begins to regret aspects of what he did. Although he is not a suspect in the crime his increasing feelings of guilt lead him to confess his crime to Sonia, a young prostitute he has befriended. She being devoutly religious despite her occupation tries to help him through his torment. Eventually Raskalnikov crosses paths with the man investigating the murder Porfiry Petrovich. A psychological battle of wills begins between the wily Porfiry and the increasingly disturbed Raskalnikov, and through this the author manages to examine the nature of
crime, guilt and redemption.
As a young man Dostoyevski had been in the Russian army but soon left to devote himself to writing. In 1848 he wrote a story 'The Honest Thief' which touched upon some of the themes he was later to develop in Crime and Punishment. After some initial success with writing he was arrested for sedition, for reading out an open letter to a gathering of young Radicals. This crime lead to a death sentence by firing squad, which was only repealed at the last moment. He was sent to prison in Siberia where he spent four years. In his time there the nature of the psychological aspects of crime, guilt and punishment became paramount in his mind and on his release in 1859 he felt that he had now enough experience to write a story dealing with these themes.
Dostoyevski eventually wrote Crime and Punishment in 1865. At this time he was in debt like his central character Raskalnikov. A journal he had recently started 'The Epoch', failed after being closed down by the authorities for apparently supporting the cause of Polish rebels. Dostoyevki's older brother and business manager had also recently died adding to his financial problems. In desperation he signed a contract with a notorious and disreputable publisher handing over all the rights to his published work and agreeing to deliver a new manuscript within a year. Failing to do this would result in the publisher acquiring all rights to any so far unpublished works as well. Dotoyevski was also a compulsive gambler and he soon lost all the money he had received from his publisher thus further adding to his problems. He found himself living in a small hotel room with mounting debts, again not unlike Raskalnikov. It was at this time that he began writing Crime and Punishment. At first he saw the novel as a confession told in the fist person by Raskalnikov. This style he found to be limiting in the telling of the story so he produced a second draft
which incorporated elements of another story he had been writing 'The Drunkards' which introduces the characters of Sonia and her father Marmeladov. The story was at first serialized in the 'Russian Messenger' before being published as the shorter novel we know today.
Crime and punishment can be viewed from many disparate viewpoints. On one level it is a psychological crime drama. The reader is a witness to a brutal crime, we know who the perpetrator is and as the story unfolds we are drawn deeper into his mind. We glimpse the complexity of feelings that his actions have aroused. To give the narrative more interest it includes the character of Porfiry Petrovich, an early form of the classic detective of later fiction. Porfiry possesses great intellect but doesn't reveal this at once. At first he comes across as an amiable character of little consequence that Raskalnikov doesn't consider his equal but as the psychological contest begins we see that Porfiry Petrovich has always had the upper hand.
The character of Porfiry Petrovich might remind modern readers of another fictional detective Columbo! In fact the TV detective was originally based on the 'Crime and Punishment' character.
As a dramatic crime story this novel is an excellent read but Dostoyevski was also writing a much deeper novel addressing the nature of crime and redemption. In doing this he made specific points about the society in which he lived.
In the original draft of 'The Honest Thief' the narrator states 'A criminal as a rule never possesses much willpower, nor can he be said to be always in his right mind. That is why the shameful thought in his mind is quickly converted into a wicked deed. But no sooner has the crime been committed than repentance begins to gnaw at his heart like a serpent, and the man will die not because of the crime he committed, but because he has destroyed what is best in
him and what still entitles him to be called a human being.'
This can be said to encapsulate the essential theme of the story. Initially Raskalnikov subscribes to the 'nihilist' values very much in vogue amongst radicals in Russia at the time. Nihilism denied all traditional values and moral truths; thus violence could be justified as an end to a means. Raskalnikov also believes a that society is made up of 'ordinary' people that are bound by laws and morals and 'extraordinary' people who by their very nature are above the law. He sees himself as one of the extraordinary elite that has the right even to resort to murder in order to further their own existence. In Raskalnikov's mind the death of the old woman is both logical and necessary.
These themes are not new to Dostoyevski, in fact they can be found in earlier Russian works by Pushkin and were later famously developed by Nietzche with his ideas of 'master morality', the 'Superman' and his rejection of Christian morality. Elements of these beliefs can even be said to have influenced 20th century existentialist philosophy. Dostoyevski uses the Raskalnikov character to express these beliefs but only to finally reject them and expose what he saw as their intrinsic flaws.
Dostoyevski rejected western Christianity but was a firm believer in the Russian Orthodox Church as the one true church. He hated socialists and grew to distrust the early radical notions that he briefly in his youth flirted with. Essentially he believed in the healing power of faith and the unbreakable spirit of humanity, both embodied in the character of Sonia.
Dostoyesvki brilliantly manages with 'Crime and Punishment' to constructs and tense drama that is a compelling read while also managing to address various issues that were of concern at the time and still are relevant today. It is an outstanding work of literature and fully deserves its status as a classic.
Summary: Classic psychological murder thriller