Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment

October 24, 2022

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translated from the Russian by Pevear and Volokhonsky
(Everyman, 1993) [1866]
608 p. Second reading.

I remembered Crime and Punishment as a philosophical novel; it was an exploration of what happens, or could happen, if amoralism, or some species of moral relativism, replaced belief in an objective moral law. This was sort of right, at a high enough level of abstraction, but in fact it’s a lot more complicated, and a lot more messy. Sure, Raskolnikov is a bit of a theorist, and he believes, or says he believes, that there is a class of great men who can commit what are considered crimes and not only get away with it, but actually retain a kind of innocence because the power of their wills overcome those who would condemn them, or because they have no remorse, or because they act without reference to a binding law, or something. But this doesn’t really get formulated, in the pages of the novel, as a philosophical statement about morality. Raskolnikov just admires those great men who act boldly in ways that would land ordinary folk in jail, and thinks he may be “a Napoleon” himself. He finds out that he is not.

It has been oft-remarked that Crime and Punishment is a thoroughly unusual murder mystery, for although there is undoubtedly a murder to solve, the question for us, the readers, is not who but why. And, this being a murder mystery by Dostoyevsky, we never do find out, because nobody knows, not even the murderer! Raskolnikov is frequently asked for the reason, and more frequently asks it of himself, but he fails to find a stable answer. He did it for money. He did it to help his mother and sister. He did it to test whether he was “a Napoleon”. He did it to experience freedom and power. “Freedom and power, and above all, power! Over all trembling creation, the whole ant heap!” There is an element of truth in all these explanations, but as readers we know that there was something else at work too. In the book’s amazing opening act, leading up to the murders, we witness Raskolnikov roaming the city, fixated on his idea, obsessed with it, unable to shake it off and apparently unable to resist it, and all the while coddling his ego, telling himself “that his reason and will would remain unimpaired at the time of carrying out his design,” even as he had already substantially lost control of both.

Though he is less of a master than he thinks he is, this is still his story: his obsession, his theory, his acts, and his descent into the psychological maelstrom. Yet as we read we notice that Dostoyevsky brings in a variety of other characters: his mother and sister, of course, and Sonia, and Svidragailov, and the police detective Porfiry Petrovich. The role of the last is obvious, but as I was reading, and as the straight line between Raskolnikov’s crime and whatever-the-outcome-will-be became tangled in a web of all these other relationships, I began to wonder: what are these other characters here for? Dostoyevsky, after all, is not telling us the true history of Raskolnikov; he doesn’t have to introduce any characters, so why did he put these ones in? How are they serving the story?

I don’t think there’s any one answer to this question. We mustn’t forget that the novel was originally serialized, so it is possible that Dostoyevsky introduced characters without really knowing what purpose they would end up serving! But one idea kept occurring to me as I was reading, and it was this: Raskolnikov has a theory, a mental abstraction, that he toys with, and in his theory he imagines that he could float free of the realm of moral obligation and moral judgement. But the other characters are in the novel to show us, if not him, that this theory is false. At every step, he is entangled in a web of moral relationships with everyone. After spontaneously doing a good deed for Sonia’s family, for instance, he is flooded with a sense of relief and strength:

“Enough,” he pronounced resolutely and triumphantly. “I’ve done with fancies, imaginary terrors and phantoms! Life is real! haven’t I lived just now? My life has not yet died with that old woman! The Kingdom of Heaven to her—and now enough, madam, leave me in peace! Now for the reign of reason and light… and of will, and of strength… and now we will see! We will try our strength!” he added defiantly, as though challenging some power of darkness.

This, of course, is just the opposite side of the coin to the one he has been obsessing over. Does anyone who thinks they can commit a crime without flinching also fantasize about doing a good deed without experiencing any joy? And a little later, when he tells a lie to his mother to avoid having her learn about his crime, he suffers a crushing realization:

… now he would never be able to talk freely about everything, that never again would he be able to talk freely about anything to anyone. The anguish of this thought was such that for a moment he almost forgot himself.

Passages like these, and there are many, show us, I think, that Raskolnikov’s dream of being “a Napoleon” is really superficial. Even if he could (though he can’t) succeed in stripping one act of its moral qualities, doing this comprehensively is a hopeless task. And that hopelessness, paradoxically, is his hope.

***

Because Raskolnikov is not “a Napoleon”, he needs his crime to remain hidden. But because he is a human being, he needs to confess it, somehow. There is one spine-tingling moment in which his friend, Razumikhin, guesses the truth, though no words are exchanged between them:

Raskolnikov stopped once more.

“Once for all, never ask me about anything. I have nothing to tell you. Don’t come to see me. Maybe I’ll come here…. Leave me, but don’t leave them. Do you understand me?”

It was dark in the corridor, they were standing near the lamp. For a minute they were looking at one another in silence. Razumikhin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and intent eyes grew more penetrating every moment, piercing into his soul, into his consciousness. Suddenly Razumikhin started. Something strange, as it were, passed between them…. Some idea, some hint, as it were, slipped, something awful, hideous, and suddenly understood on both sides…. Razumikhin turned pale.

But this doesn’t count as confession, and so we come to the extraordinary scene in which Raskolnikov finally reveals the truth to Sonia. This was for me the most engrossing and powerful scene in the book, a scene replete with long silences, hesitant words, oblique hints and questions, and as gripping as any thriller. As in the case of the crime, he has reached a point where the truth cannot be any longer concealed: “he felt at the very time not only that he could not help telling her, but also that he could not put it off.” (V, 4) Even so, when it comes to it Raskolnikov sits silently, and I think is only finally able to tell her because she first guesses it:

All of a sudden she started as though she had been stabbed, uttered a cry and fell on her knees before him, she did not know why.

“What have you done—what have you done to yourself?” she said in despair, and, jumping up, she flung herself on his neck, threw her arms round him, and held him tightly.

As the conversation spools out, and gathers a certain amount of momentum, he starts to offer her the various justifications that have been swirling through his head for so long, including his “Napoleon” line of thinking:

“I know now, Sonia, that whoever is strong in mind and spirit will have power over them. Anyone who is greatly daring is right in their eyes. He who despises most things will be a lawgiver among them and he who dares most of all will be most in the right! So it has been till now and so it will always be. A man must be blind not to see it!”

But there are people before whom untruths reveal themselves as hollow, and I think Sonia is one of these. To her, Raskolnikov says something that he never says, I believe, to anyone else: that he did something wrong.

“Well … that’s all … Well, of course in killing the old woman I did wrong … Well, that’s enough.”

Not a fulsome recantation, but as close as he gets before suddenly lapsing back into another of his favourite theories:

“I’ve only killed a louse, Sonia, a useless, loathsome, harmful creature.”

This scene is a truly masterful portrait of a soul struggling to free itself from a burden. Sonia is the only person in the world to whom he could entrust this secret, and he tells her not because he wants to make her complicit or because he thinks she will make excuses for him, but because she is trustworthy, and can absorb it, and because he knows she will not excuse him.

**

If there is a question about why Raskolnikov commits the murders, there is also a question about why he eventually turns himself in. It’s complicated. He is suffering, of course, in the aftermath of the crime. He is afraid of the police detectives and has been told that his sentence may be less severe if he comes in voluntarily. The presence of Sonia is somehow relevant; remember he actually leaves the police station without confessing and only returns when he sees her in the street. The police detective Porfiry Petrovich, a few days prior to his confession, has a bracing conversation with Raskolnikov in which he advises him to own his actions for his own good:

“You ought to thank God, perhaps. How do you know? Perhaps God is saving you for something. But keep a good heart and have less fear! Are you afraid of the great expiation before you? No, it would be shameful to be afraid of it. Since you have taken such a step, you must harden your heart. There is justice in it. You must fulfil the demands of justice.

[…]

“I am convinced that you will decide, ‘to take your suffering.’ You don’t believe my words now, but you’ll come to it of yourself. For suffering, Rodion Romanovitch, is a great thing.”

The punishment Raskolnikov faces not as something to be avoided, but something to be accepted and endured, for to evade justice is not tenable — practically, but above all personally. Suffering for his crime will do him good, and is indeed the only path forward. Here, too, Raskolnikov is up against the realities of the moral life, and can only resist them by doing further damage to himself.

***

Raskolnikov confesses, but does he repent? There is a crucial episode near the end of the book that encourages us to believe, I think, that he did. Just before going to the police to turn himself in, he has a strange and profound experience unlike anything else in the novel:

He suddenly recalled Sonia’s words, “Go to the cross-roads, bow down to the people, kiss the earth, for you have sinned against it too, and say aloud to the whole world, ‘I am a murderer.’” He trembled, remembering that. And the hopeless misery and anxiety of all that time, especially of the last hours, had weighed so heavily upon him that he positively clutched at the chance of this new unmixed, complete sensation. It came over him like a fit; it was like a single spark kindled in his soul and spreading fire through him. Everything in him softened at once and the tears started into his eyes. He fell to the earth on the spot….

He knelt down in the middle of the square, bowed down to the earth, and kissed that filthy earth with bliss and rapture. He got up and bowed down a second time.

“He’s boozed,” a youth near him observed.

I don’t know exactly what is going on here, and I don’t think he does either, but this seems like a moment of grace, or of honesty, in which something good touches him, some kind of release from the turmoil and terror that he has been enduring, and it is mysterious. It feels like it could be a moment of repentance.

But hearts can be hardened, of course, and grace, if that is what it was, can be rejected. That Raskolnikov did not, finally, repent we have on the word of two authorities: the narrator, and Raskolnikov himself. The former tells us straight-up, in the epilogue: “He did not repent of his crime,” which seems decisive. And Raskolnikov says, in conversation with Sonia,

“Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he said to himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, of course, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law… and that’s enough. Of course, in that case many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”

It was only in that that he recognised his criminality, only in the fact that he had been unsuccessful and had confessed it.

It seems that in the end, he fell back on his “Napoleon” theory, though he granted that he himself turned out not to be “a Napoleon”.

What, then, does the future hold for him? At the end of the novel he is in a prison camp, and Sonia is there too, having followed him. It is clear that if the future holds anything good for him, it will be because of her, because of her love for him, and his, also, for her. We are given reason to hope, though the way will not be easy.

He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

Porfiry, it seems, was right all along.

***

Well, what can I say? It’s a great novel, one of the greatest, as we all know. It is a relentlessly honest portrayal of a lost soul, wonderfully written. I was commenting to a friend that Dostoyevsky gives the impression, on each page, of being out of control, as if the story has a mind of its own and surges forward without any guidance. We almost never feel the hand at the tiller. Yet on the large scale, over the course of 500 pages, his mastery is complete, at least in this novel. (I’m not so sure about some of the others!)

It may not be the straightforward philosophical novel that I thought I recalled, but it does nonetheless press a philosophical question, or set of questions, about the nature of morality. If a reader holds that the moral order is entirely socially constructed, or relative, or illusory, or some such thing, I find it hard to predict how he will experience the novel, but I expect it would be likely to cause some discomfort. I am aware of at least one person who gave up on moral relativism after reading it.

Most of my knowledge of the Russian classics has been through the translations of Pevear and Volokhonsky. I hope, I really do, that the wildness of their prose reflects something that is really there in the original.

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