Crime and Punishment

Upon re-reading Crime and Punishment I find that the story has lost none of its surprise or suspense. I also appreciate what the editors of the Signet Classics version have done in their preface (far better than most such introductions) by setting Dostoyevsky’s tale firmly within a Christian framework. It’s true that novelists are not a theologians. Dostoyevsky saw the spiritual drama through his own subjective creative lens. Yet in that respect he was no different than the greatest of European poets, Dante Alighieri, and his vision no less remarkable.

According to Leonard J. Stanton and James D. Hardy, Jr. an important premise of the novel is that

Freedom is a test as well as a gift…. Exercised to an extreme, one man’s freedom is the instrument of another’s enslavement or even death.

For Raskolnikov the radical theorist, some men are set part from the mass of humanity: “They call for the destruction of the present in the name of something better…. If for the sake of their idea they need to transgress, even over a corpse, over blood, I believe they may in all conscience grant themselves the inner permission to transgress….” In exposing such claims of “progressivism,” stripped of academic pretense, Dostoyevsky is seen as a prophetic critic of the grim utopian creeds that would decend upon mankind in the following century.

Raskonikov’s conversion story is clearly placed within the tradition of Augustine’s Confessions, in which physical actions are a backdrop to deeper spiritual realities. Yet Crime and Punishment provides a convincingly existential narrative full of the drama, humor and pathos of real life. That is why it preaches without seeming preachy. According to the editors

As the novel unfolds, event by event, interview by interview, dream by dream, character by character, the personality
and attitudes of Raskolnikov emerge with it. Dostoyevsky does not establish his personality all at once…. The reader sees Raskolnikov through events, though time within the novel….

While the student radical turned murderer stands at center stage, the supporting cast is no less impressive. For example, the pathetic but benign Marmeladov and his family elicit Raskolnikov’s good qualities. Marmeladov’s daughter Sonia—as the Magdalene character—proves quietly decisive. At the other end of the spectrum is the smarmy and oleaginous Luzhin who courts Raskolnikov’s sister. He is despicable yet completely shallow even in his villainy. By contrast, Svidrigailov is a more sinister man. This urbane seducer is like a fallen angel who evinces the possibility for good and thus even greater capacity for evil in his capriciousness. Though apparently devoid of conscience, he is really a man haunted by his own iniquity. Finally there is the good natured, oafish Razumikhin whose common sense acts as a foil to Raskolnikov’s perilous daydreaming.

At every turn in the novel one meets people who make Dostoyevksy’s St. Petersburg of the 1850’s a universe of tragedy… and hope.

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