LESSON 9 Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Study Notes

Dostoevsky's Life and Career, 1865-1881

In 1865 Dostoevsky's magazine The Epoch failed for lack of subscribers. His brother Mikhail had died in 1864, and Dostoevsky had assumed Mikhail's debts to protect his brother's memory and reputation. Added to his own tangled financial affairs, Mikhail's debts pushed Dostoevsky into financial ruin, and he remained in debt for many years. In February of 1867 Dostoevsky married his second wife, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina. She was nineteen years old, much younger than his forty-six years. Dostoevsky had met her in 1866 when he hired her as a stenographer to take down his novel, The Gambler, from his dictation. Anna Grigorievna was an excellent secretary and a devoted wife to Dostoevsky. She used her practical sense and devotion to wean him away from self- destructive habits (especially his compulsive gambling) and to provide a stable, middle-class life for him, which eventually led to financial security and independence in his later years. She also continued to assist him in his work.

The manner of writing by dictation suited Dostoevsky; his method involved two stages: (1) long planning and thought, the record of which he left in his voluminous notebooks; (2) the dictation of the text to Anna Grigorievna, and her preparation of a written or typed text for his revision. He was extremely meticulous about his craft, and revised his work repeatedly. (The view that is sometimes expressed of a Dostoevsky who wrote hastily and without appropriate consideration is completely without basis in fact.)

However, financial success did not come immediately. The Dostoevskys lived abroad from 1867 to 1871, partly to escape the hounding of creditors. They returned to Russia permanently in 1873 when Dostoevsky took a position as editor of a conservative magazine, The Citizen. As part of his duties as editor, Dostoevsky began to write a regular feature called "Diary of a Writer." It was a series of essays, polemics, articles, and stories in which he expressed the full range of his ideas on various subjects. Here we see a close-up view of Dostoevsky the political and religious conservative. In 1874 he retired as editor of The Citizen and returned to the life of a free-lance, professional writer. While working on other projects, he returned, in 1876-1877, to the format of "The Diary of a Writer," publishing it as a series of separate monthly brochures. He returned to this form once more in 1880 and continued with it until his death. (The contents of the various publications of "The Diary of a Writer" have been translated into English, under that title and in one large volume, edited by Boris Brasol.)

Dostoevsky died on January 28, 1881, in St. Petersburg, not long after the publication of his most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov. At the time of his death he was regarded as one of the two giants of Russian literature (the other was Tolstoy), a position he has not since relinquished.

Dostoevsky's Greatest Works, 1866-1881

The period from 1866-1881 saw the creation of Dostoevsky's greatest works: Crime and Punishment (1866) The Idiot (1868) The Possessed (1872) The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

In The Idiot Dostoevsky attempted to give form to what he called "the idea of the positively beautiful." However, he found that he was unable to present a fully positive character, although he recognized the possibility of the existence of such a figure and found proof of it in the historical existence of Christ. Thus, Prince Myshkin, the hero of The Idiot, is weak- minded, epileptic, and ultimately defeated by the real world, even though he occupies a position of social advantage and has considerable wealth.

Dostoevsky's simmering debate with the radical and revolutionary elements in Russian political life peaked in 1872 with The Possessed (also translated under the title The Devils). Here he depicted revolutionaries, epitomized by Peter Verkhovensky and his followers, as cynical power-mongers on one hand or as long-winded fools and disillusioned dupes on the other. The desire for revolutionary change is portrayed as an example of possession by a "demon"--the materialistic, atheistic, utopian ideology that had been, since the 1840s, the steady diet of progressive Russian intellectuals.

Of all of Dostoevsky's novels, The Brothers Karamazov is the grandest in design. While complete in itself, it is obvious from the text that Dostoevsky planned it as the first in a series. It remains his largest and most profound effort in the portrayal of the human psyche, the interplay of ideas and ideologies, and the competing claims of philosophy and religion. Victor Terras has published an excellent book, The Karamazov Companion, which makes detailed study of this complex work much more feasible than it was previously. Even so, it is a difficult book. For our purposes in this course, we will consider Crime and Punishment instead.

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment was the second of Dostoevsky's most important, mature fictional works. It was first published in the conservative journal The Russian Messenger, appearing in twelve monthly installments in 1866. Dostoevsky left three full notebooks of materials pertinent to Crime and Punishment. These have been published under the title The Notebooks for Crime and Punishment, edited and translated by Edward Wasiolek. Dostoevsky began work on this novel in the summer of 1865. He originally planned to title it The Drunkards, but in the final version, the theme of drunkenness as a social problem, represented by the Marmeladov family, had shrunk to a minor role. In September of 1865 Dostoevsky wrote a letter to M. N. Katkov, the editor of The Russian Messenger, attempting to persuade Katkov to accept the novel and to publish it in his journal. To show Katkov that the new novel was suitable for publication in a conservative journal, Dostoevsky outlined its content and idea as follows:
The idea of the novel cannot, as far as I can see, contradict the tenor of your journal; in fact, the very opposite is true. The novel is a psycho- logical account of a crime. A young man of middle-class origin who is living in dire need is expelled from the university. From superficial and weak thinking, having been influenced by certain "unfinished" ideas in the air, he decides to get himself out of a difficult situation quickly by killing an old woman, a usurer and widow of a government servant. The old woman is crazy, deaf, sick, greedy, and evil. She charges scandalous rates of interest, devours the well-being of others, and, having reduced her younger sister to the state of a servant, oppresses her with work. She is good for nothing. "Why does she live?" "Is she useful to anyone at all?" These and other questions carry the young man's mind astray. He decides to kill and rob her so as to make his mother, who is living in the provinces, happy; to save his sister from the libidinous importunities of the head of the estate where she is serving as a lady's companion; and then to finish his studies, go abroad and be for the rest of his life honest, firm, and unflinching in fulfilling his humanitarian duty toward mankind. This would, according to him, "make up for the crime," if one can call this act a crime, which is committed against an old, deaf, crazy, evil, sick woman, who does not know why she is living and who would perhaps die in a month anyway. Despite the fact that such crimes are usually done with great difficulty because criminals always leave rather obvious clues and leave much to chance, which almost always betrays them, he is able to commit his crime, completely by chance, quickly and successfully. After this, a month passes before events come to a definite climax. There is not, nor can there be, any suspicion of him. After the act the psycho- logical process of the crime unfolds. Questions which he cannot resolve well up in the murderer; feelings he had not foreseen or suspected torment his heart. God's truth and earthly law take their toll, and he feels forced at last to give himself up. He is forced even if it means dying in prison, so that he may once again be part of the people. The feeling of separation and isolation from mankind, nature, and the law of truth take their toll. The criminal decides to accept suffering so as to redeem his deed. But it is difficult for me to explain in full my thinking.
Katkov accepted Crime and Punishment for publication in his journal. It was well received by the reading public and restored Dostoevsky to the position of a leading Russian writer, despite a largely unfavorable reaction from the liberal press (which is proof that the popularity of the novel was very great indeed).

Critical Responses to Crime and Punishment

The liberal and radical critics objected fiercely to Dostoevsky's portrayal of Raskolnikov, the main character of the novel. These critics commonly affirmed that in Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky had affronted all students, and that the character was a madman whom Dostoevsky attempted to portray as typical of the younger generation. D. I. Pisarev (1840-1868), the most individual of the radical critics, took a different approach to the novel in his review of 1867, "The Struggle for Life." Underlying Pisarev's approach to the novel is a candidly expressed lack of concern with two aspects of the work: (1) its aesthetic value and its stature as a work of literature; and (2) its meaning for Dostoevsky; that is, the extent to which it reflects Dostoevsky's own views and what those views are. Pisarev stated that he was seeking in the work only its representation of the phenomena of contemporary social life. For Pisarev, the only measure of the novel's excellence was the accuracy and understanding with which Dostoevsky portrayed the contemporary social reality. Pisarev concluded that Raskolnikov's murdering of the old moneylender was the result of his dire poverty and that, in fact, Raskolnikov's position in society left him no alternative but murder and robbery if he were to keep body and soul together, and eventually realize his tremendous natural abilities. Pisarev interpreted the novel as an exposé of the evil system which forced upon so brilliant a person as Raskolnikov the choice between crime and death by starvation. Pisarev explained that the main theme of the work was poverty and the guiltless evil engendered by poverty. He said that the character of Marmeladov was a portrayal of the ultimate degradation to which the person who will not struggle against poverty would inevitably be led. Taking the novel in this way, Pisarev discounted or dismissed as faults in the novel numerous troublesome details: (1) Raskolnikov's continued wrangling with himself over the motivation of his crime; (2) Raskolnikov's feelings of guilt; (3) the fact that both Raskolnikov and Marmeladov may be said to have chosen their lives of poverty and wretchedness; that, in fact, Marmeladov positively enjoys his humiliation.

In the same year as Pisarev's review, N. N. Strakhov (1828-1895), a conservative bellettrist and friend of Dostoevsky, published an important review of Crime and Punishment. For the most part, Strakhov rejected Pisarev's contention that the theme of environmental determinism was essential to the novel. He tried to approach the novel more from the aesthetic viewpoint, but even so his ideological conservatism is clear in his interpretation of the novel. Strakhov first attempted to defend the novel from the attacks of the majority of the liberal and radical press. He pointed out that Raskolnikov, far from being a grotesque and unfair parody of the youthful materialists and utilitarians of the time, was actually endowed by Dostoevsky with many admirable and flattering characteristics: brilliance of mind, handsomeness of figure and feature (in contrast to the underground man), and strength of will. Strakhov also pointed out that Dostoevsky's attitude toward his hero was unmistakably sympathetic. Strakhov went on to stress the ideological importance of the novel, as though reacting to Pisarev's rejection of ideological issues as important considerations in the work. Strakhov described Crime and Punishment as a case study of the conflict between theory and life. He affirmed that the point of the novel was to show the paleness and unhealthiness of fascination with theory and the inevitability of life's triumph over it (again in contrast to the underground man). Strakhov quite clearly defines what he means by theory in the novel, but nowhere does he explain just what he understands Dostoevsky to mean by "life." Strakhov was apparently unable to summarize just what is meant by "life" and just what the specifics of the contrast between it and theory were.

A most interesting point in Strakhov's review is his treatment of the question of Raskolnikov's motivation for his crime. Strakhov decided there were basically three possible motives for the murder: (1) Raskolnikov's intellectual pride; (2) Raskolnikov's Napoleon complex--that is, his idea of the role of the great man in history; and (3) Raskolnikov's poverty (murder for gain). Strakhov concluded his article with high praise for the psychological portraiture in the novel, especially the rendering of Raskolnikov's thoughts.

A. I. Vvedenskij, writing in the 1890s, criticized both Pisarev and Strakhov for allowing their own political ideas to color too much their approach to the novel. Especially Pisarev, he said, had used Crime and Punishment as no more than an excuse to present his own ideas and criticisms. Vvedenskij thought that Raskolnikov could have made a living as a translator or a tutor (like his friend, Razumihin) had he wished, but he simply chose not to. Vvedenskij pointed out as further corroboration that it was very strange, if Raskolnikov committed his crime for gain, that he immediately hid away the loot and determined not to make any use of it. Vvedenskij said the main theme of Crime and Punishment was the psychological portrait of Raskolnikov. Vvedenskij was one of the first to note the importance of Raskolnikov's dreams, especially the dream about the killing of the overburdened horse in Part I. He used this dream as proof that Dostoevsky traced Raskolnikov's true motivation for the murder to the unhappiness of his childhood. One important trend in the criticism of Crime and Punishment is that which seeks to explain the novel by comparing it with classical Greek tragedy. An early hint of this approach was Vvedensky's comment that Raskolnikov, in committing his crime, is so lucky, encounters so many fortunate coincidences, that one is tempted to think he is assisted by some external force.

D. Merezhkovsky (1865-1941) was one of the first to take up this comment and to identify Vvedensky's "external force" with Fate or Destiny as it appears in Greek tragedy. V. Ivanov (1866-1949) took the notion a step further when he identified Raskolnikov's intellectual pride (as noted by Strakhov) with the hubris of the Greek tragedies. Finally, Konstantin Mochulsky analyzed the structure of the novel in such a way as to reveal that it was essentially a dramatic work and could be broken down into a prologue, five acts, and an epilogue, thus offering a further parallel to classical drama.

Among Soviet critics, Crime and Punishment fared the best of any of Dostoevsky's novels, because it lends itself better than any other to the view that it is an attack on the evils of capitalist society-- poverty, recognition of birth or class rather than ability, and so on. Thus, Soviet criticism relies heavily on Pisarev's approach. However, one exception to the prevailing trend was the early work of Leonid Grossman, who wrote numerous articles and books about Dostoevsky before World War II. His great contribution to the study of the novel was to demonstrate that Raskolnikov is both the thematic and structural center of the novel, the focal point of contending forces. For example, Grossman pointed out that Raskolnikov's character is mirrored on one hand by the figure of Sonya and on the other by Svidrigaylov. He showed that in many respects the three of them could be viewed as a single character.

The following points summarize the major critical approaches to Crime and Punishment: (1) The novel is a political pamphlet, written to attack the progressive ideology of the time.

(2) It is a social document, reflecting the evils of the time, despite Dostoevsky's clearly anti-progressive sentiments.

(3) It is a psychological study, a realistic novel in which Dostoevsky has captured the workings of a specific period of history and a specific type of society on the minds of his characters, especially the character of Raskolnikov.

(4) The novel is not realistic, but symbolic, and portrays the conflict of different ideas on the battlefield of man himself; not historical, individual man, but man in all times and places. The goal is to measure the relative merits of the ideas, rather than to portray their effect upon individual people.
To a certain extent the novel supports all of the above ideas, with the possible exception of the first. The novel does not fully support any of them, however. This does not prove that none of them is true, but only that the novel has, so far, proved richer than the minds of its critics.

Supplemental (Not Required) Literary Text

Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Supplementary Reading

Background Material on the Mature Dostoevsky Ivanov, Freedom and the Tragic Life
Jackson, The Art of Dostoevsky
Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Works
Terras, F. M. Dostoevsky: Life, Work, and Criticism (highly recommended as background reading)
Wasiolek, Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction
Additional Reading on Crime and Punishment Crime and Punishment, Norton Critical Edition, "Background" pp. 467-483
Jackson, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Crime and Punishment
Wellek, Dostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays

For Further Thought

Have a question?

Students who are formally enrolled in Russian 3421 or Russian 5421 at the University of Minnesota are invited to send questions to: