Author’s Note: Slight spelling variations of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s name appear depending on the editors/translators of Crime and Punishment.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Russian text, Crime and Punishment, has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. Who does not love interconnected character plots and characters with classic Russian, hard to pronounce, similar names?
Although I love all of those aspects of Crime and Punishment, what I love about this text is the complex plot structure and surviving themes. Although published in 1866, Crime and Punishment’s themes are as contemporary today as they were at the time of the book’s first publishing.
Crime and Punishment tackles subjects such as alienation, poverty and nihilism. However, the theme I hear discussed most often and the theme I view as most prolific in the text is the psychological study of crime and punishment.
Dostoevsky is known for producing great psychological works which are undercut by social, religious and political issues and institutions. Personally, I view Crime and Punishment as a classic black and white Film Noir and Dostoevsky as an Alfred Hitchcock like director. Like any great Film Noir, the viewer is in for a wild psychological and corporeal ride.
The psychological tension in the work arises in two distinct moments. First, fairly quickly into the text, the audience knows Raskolnikov is a desperate, impoverished man who commits two gruesome murders. The audience is also aware of several of the other characters’ downfalls including greed, alcoholism and stalking. However, the reader must wait until the very end of the text before Raskolnikov’s punishment for committing murder is revealed; at roughly 500 pages a reader has quite a long wait. When Raskolnikov’s personality dramatically swings and he carries out his plan to murder pawnbroker Ivanovna and then her sister, who interrupts his plan, the reader acts as a witness to the crime.
Dostoevsky plays with the spacing between the crime and the punishment to create a deeper psychological tension for Raskolnikov and the witness (the reader). Not only is Raskolnikov tortured by the time span, which contributes to his guilt but so is the reader. The time span allows the reader to not only be physically affected but to also be emotionally affected. The time span allows the reader, as a witness to the crime, to be held effectively silent, unable to give testimony while Raskolnikov is with his family and with investigators.
The second moment of psychological tension occurs when Raskolnikov’s mental state further deteriorates and he begins to relive his crime through nightmares, hallucinations and flashbacks. Raskolnikov reliving his crime forces the reader to also relive the crimes over again as well. Crime and Punishment is written as a corporeal novel, where the physicality and bodily nature of the crime and guilt are intensely portrayed and described.
The reader is not simply along for the ride but actively involved in the text, feeling the same emotions and physical pains of Raskolnikov who Dostoevsky has granted access to his inner most psyche. When Raskolnikov falls physically ill with grief and guilt, the reader has intimate knowledge of Raskolnikov’s guilt and physical symptoms. Inside Raskolnikov’s psyche, the reader not only feels his guilt but also feels guilt stemming from having intimate knowledge of the crime, which the reader cannot unburden or do the right thing by testifying to the crime.
While waiting for the actual punishment to be revealed, the reader comes to the realization that justice, according to the law, carries little weight as the real punishment is the mental anguish one experiences. Since Dostoevsky’s writing allows the reader to become so entrenched in Raskolnikov’s mind, a reader also comes to comprehend the mind games the other characters and Raskolnikov play. These consuming mind games are all inevitable punishments already set in place by the complexity of the human mind.
The psychological elements of the text are what make Crime and Punishment an outstanding work and a classic which has stood the test of time. Few works have been able to replicate the way in which Dostoevsky is able to build a psychological profile, while still granting equal attention to setting, motives of the text and poetic flowing lines. I would argue that Dostoevsky’s portrayal of character consciousness is the basis of many of the character representations and interpretations of self-awareness readers have seen since.
A novel with this much intensity and enriching knowledge into the human consciousness is too extraordinary not be read and reread.