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Crime and punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – An Analysis

Updated on March 22, 2016

St.Petersburg during Dostoevsky's era

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Crime and punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the greatest novels ever written. The novel is a psychological drama which addresses many philosophical questions. The Story is so intense and written in such a powerful manner that many readers find its grip on their psyche overwhelming. This story is full of conflicts - both internal and external. At the center is the psychological conflict with which the protagonist Raskolnikov is dealing. Throughout the novel, there is this lingering suspense that whether Raskolnikov will be caught of his crime or will manage to escape, or will he be able to realize that his act was a heinous crime and he will surrender.

The protagonist Raskolnikov is a young university student who lives in a small attic in a rundown apartment in St Petersburg. In his room, there is a narrow bed and very little belongings. His rent also includes maid service. The maid Nastasya is an angelic person who takes great care of Raskolnikov. He avoids running into his landlady because he has not paid up his rent for quite some time and he is up to his neck in debt. Last month Raskolnikov pawned one of his precious belongings to an old woman pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna who is a rich greedy crone. The redemption time of his pawned item has already passed but he is going to pawn his watch gifted by his father. The hoggish crone exploits the wretched circumstances of Raskolnikov and keeps his watch only for a rouble and 15 kopecks after much haggling.

Crime and Punishment is set in the mid-19th century St. Petersburg. The pre-revolutionary era St. Petersburg was a city of contradictions. There are palaces, gardens, and fountains, and there are sludgy alleys, over-crowded streets, and dilapidated apartment buildings. The novel reeks with abject poverty and plight of the poor page after page. Poor families living in single rooms in overpopulated decrepit apartment buildings with dark, narrow and stinky staircases. Drunk men with thick stubbles clad in ragged clothes loitering the streets. Hapless prostitutes with garish makeup satisfying their customers in the dark corners of passageways. Rodyon Romanovich Raskolnikov too is troubled by his poverty but he is different—an educated, remarkably handsome young man with a great intellect.

Raskolnikov takes the money from the pawnbroker and goes to a dingy tavern where he finds a vodka stoned man with greasy tattered clothes. He starts speaking to Raskolnikov and carries on for a long time during which he tells him of his abject poverty, his cantankerous wife, his grown up daughter Sonya who works as a prostitute, and his three little children to feed. Raskolnikov helps Marmeladov to his room where ensues a disgraceful scene in which his wife beats him and curses him and the children are watching all these with eyes wide open and huddling together in fear. While leaving, Raskolnikov puts on the windowsill whatever coins he could find in his pocket that he had gotten from the Rouble he had changed at the pothouse.

Nastasya wakes up Raskolnikov and gives him tea, soup, and a letter from his mother Pulcheria Alexandrovna. The letter is a long one which brings to the fore the miserable circumstances through which his mother and her sister Dunya are going through. It also introduces other major characters: the lecherous rich man Svidrigailov, and the sophisticated opportunist lawyer pyotr petrovitch luzhin. Svidrigailov has lascivious intentions towards Dunya who was working as a governess in his house. Dunya finds herself in befuddled and highly uncomfortable situation but she manages to come out of it. Luzhin comes to know about Dunya, her poverty, her beauty, and the dishonour caused to her because of Svidrigailov. Luzhin is in his forties, younger than svidrigailov but too old for Dunya. He offers Dunya his refuge and dowry in return for accepting his marriage proposal. Dunya accepts it; Pulcheria Alexandrovna writes that Dunya is happy about it. Raskalnikov is enraged; he thinks Dunya is sacrificing her life for his sake and thinks of Luzhin as some deceitful person.

Dostoevsky chooses to tell the story of Raskolnikov’s mother and his sister Dunya through a letter. The author could have dedicated a number of chapters to tell this story but it would have led the reader away from the central conflict and Raskolnikov’s inner mental state. It would have made the novel more dramatic, but that would have caused to wane away the impact on the reader’s psyche. Dostoevsky wants the reader to stick with Raskolnikov’s thought process and vicariously feel the internal turmoil he’s going through. By telling Dunya’s story in few words Doestovsky sets the ground to unleash the sea of upcoming events and launch the plot without losing momentum.

Raskolnikov

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The Crime

Raskolnikov is feeling dejected after reading his mother’s letter. On one hand he is very angry with the tormentors of her sister Dunya and on the other hand is angry with his mother and Dunya, especially Dunya for sacrificing her own life for his welfare.

Uncomfortable with his thoughts, Raskolnikov decides to go outside for a while. He comes to know that tomorrow at 7 PM the old pawnbroker will be alone at home. Later in a tavern, he overhears two young men talking about that pawnbroker. One of them is saying that she is a rich, greedy and ruthless woman. She treats her half sister Lizaveta like a slave and makes her work hard and do drudgery for her. Sometimes she even beats Lizaveta. If someone is late for even a single day in redeeming his pawned item, either she does not return that or charges extra money. That man keeps on his tirade against the pawnbroker and even goes on to suggest that killing her would be a noble act.

Raskolnikov is an educated young man who has a philosophy: great men are born to a smash laws in order to create new ones. So a great man is technically a criminal who violates an established law. If such a man succeeds in establishing new order he is called a revolutionary. Alexander broke laws; Napoleon broke laws; all great men break laws. Raskolnikov is a sensitive, compassionate man who has empathy for the suffering of others. He himself is a poor man but he is always ready to help other hapless people. But there is another dimension to his personality - he thinks himself superior than others. He thinks he does not deserve to be in the condition he is in. This narcissistic element of his personality gives him the conviction to plan the murder of the pawnbroker. He will do a noble act by killing her.

Raskolnikov murders Alyona Ivanovan with an axe, but Lizaveta—who was supposed not to be there—sees it. Raskolnikov and Lizaveta are face to face. Lizaveta is trembling with fear and implores Raskolnikov to spare her. But the murderer, who had no intention of killing her, kills Lizaveta with the same axe. The scene Dostoevsky has written is a long and extremely tense one. Raskolnikov manages to escape from there without being seen by the whitewashers who were working on the lower floor. From here begins the inflation of the overpowering effect of the novel.

The Punishment

The bridge on Neva, which connects the two parts of the city, is a motif that Dostoevsky has used throughout the novel, and it keeps on appearing frequently. The bridge is a symbol – at its one end is the benevolent Rodion, and at the other end the murderer. Raskolnikov is a man of reason and he is not at all convinced that murdering Alyona Ivanovna was a noble act. His mind is torn apart after that horrible incident and it starts taking toll on his mental state. With great difficulty, like a lurching cart moving along through a haze, he recollects his mental faculty and hides the axe and the items he robbed under an inconspicuous and safe place.

From here the plot starts to simmer. Raskolnikov goes in a delirium; his mental state is almost like a schizophrenic. When he wakes up he finds his best friend Razumikhin near him taking care of him. I am not going to tell the story from here, I would like the reader to read this ‘perfect’ novel himself.

All the major characters arrive in St. Petersburg: Raskolnikov’s mother, his sister Dunya, Dunya’s suitor Luzhin, Dunya’s tormentor Svidrigailov. A whirlwind of emotional exchanges take place when the characters encounter each other. The plot becomes complicated and tortuous. The conflict reaches its culmination when Raskolnikov meets Perfory petrovich – who is Razhumikin friend but also happens to be the investigating officer of the double murder case. There are times when it feels as if Raskolnikov is going to confess his crime to Perfory Petrovich, but he manages to hold back. Sometimes it feels like Petrovich knows everything but he is playing the cat and mouse game with Raskolnikov. So, there is not only intense conflict, there is great dramatic irony too.

The second major character—or it would be more accurate to say the heroine—of the novel is Sonechka (Sonya Marmeladov). In this intense and grappling novel, in which the hero commits a crime and is being sought out, a hero who himself is not sure whether he has done something heroic or heinous, Sonya (who sacrifices herself for her family and becomes a prostitute) is the only respite for the reader and the hero. They become coming close to each other and Sonya, who is a religious person and carries a bible with her, becomes the path finder of a lost soul. What happens to Raskolnikov in the end? Whether he manages to getaway or get caught, or is pardoned, is not the central issue; the issue is whether Raskolnikov finds the truth; whether he becomes able to recognize the line that separate the right from the wrong; whether he realizes that morality is not subjective and the men in power cannot define what is morally right or wrong.

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Final Analysis

At the center of the story is the suspense created by Raskolnikov’s inner conflict and the conflict between him and Perfory Petrovich. But the principal aim of the novel is not to resolve this conflict; the conflict must be viewed in context of the novel’s philosophical nature. Not a single character or event in the story is extraneous.

The period in which Crime and Punishment was written, many inchoate ideologies were competing with each other to grow. One important ideology was anarchism, and the other was Nihilism. Raskolnikov is the personification of a nihilist. Dostoevsky created Raskolnikov to illuminate the destructive nature of such an ideal. The moral traits of his character exhibit the dichotomy between a compassionate heart and the egoistic idealism that has become so perverted that it thinks itself above law and morality.

BBC film Crime and Punishment

Do you feel morality is hard-wired inside humans' mind and we don't need ideologies to lead us to truth?

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