The Genius Of Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Master of Russian Literature Comments On Human Nature
Crime And Punishment is a brilliant book. Not only does it express profound commentary about morality, Russian life, history and psychology, but Dostoevsky’s writing is spectacular (even in translation). Crime And Punishment is one of the most influential books from the 19th century, and those who have read it will understand why.
C & P is a thorough analysis into the human soul and the relationships defining us. Before Dostoevsky wrote Crime & Punishment and other significant works of literature, he suffered exile, imprisonment and a mock execution. To say tragedy, chance, and judgement didn’t mark his life is false. His writing reflects his life experiences.
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”
Crime And Punishment
In this post, you’ll read five arguments about why Crime & Punishment is a work of genius. The first one pertains to psychology, whilst other arguments focus on history, characters and morality. In the last argument, I will address the ending of Crime & Punishment, which divides readers. The only spoilers here are in the conclusive argument. I aim for this post to be useful to those who have read Crime And Punishment, and those thinking about reading it.
An excellent introduction to Dostoevsky is Notes From The Underground. It’s short (less than 50,000 words long) and gives fantastic insight into the many themes Dostoevsky conveys in his work.
Before I discuss Dostoevsky, I will focus on Leo Tolstoy’s novels. What I’ve always admired about Tolstoy is his focus on human relationships and encounters, and his social commentary. Overall, this makes Tolstoy quite the sociologist. However, Dostoevsky differs. He is more psychological and individualistic. Of course, I’m not arguing Tolstoy is incapable of psychological depth, or that Dostoevsky is ignorant of relationships. I am noting the inclinations and strengths of each author.
Regarding Crime And Punishment, one of its towering strengths is its psychology. It’s unmatched in much of literature, as very few authors have the profundity of Dostoevsky. He offers a psychological experience, an entry ticket into the mind of his protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov. Over the course of C & P, we witness Raskolnikov’s mistakes and doomed mentality. However, we understand why he acts the way he does.
Because of this, the psychology in Crime AndPunishment reads tragic. Questioned are asked: Are we doomed to a life of endless misery? Do our psychological limitations doom us? Like the best novelists, Dostoevsky is unafraid to ask his readers difficult and nasty questions.
The characters in Crime & Punishment are realistic and human. It’s not just Rodion Raskolnikov, but the detective Porfiry Petrovitch, the lover Sonia, the impoverished friend Dimitri and more. All are crafted with the great character work one associates with Dostoevsky: understandable motivations, strengths and tragic flaws, unique goals, well-fleshed out backstories and even a sense of dry humour. Dostoevsky is unafraid to ‘break’ his characters and reveal the breakage.
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
Crime And Punishment
Because of this, his readers will understand the great vulnerability haunting each human. After you put down Crime & Punishment, maybe you too will notice the cracks each human possesses.
Morality Of Crime And Punishment
“The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. That is his punishment.”
Crime And Punishment
Morality in fiction is difficult, because authors may take a simplistic, overly moralistic route which cheapens the reader’s experience in learning more about human morality. This is (thankfully) not the situation in Crime & Punishment, where Dostoevsky’s depiction of morality is realistic, and strangely hopeful (see the ending section).
While reading Crime & Punishment, you notice Dostoevsky’s lack of interest in crass character judgements. This is because the characters in C & P are fleshed out well. Dostoevsky analyses the 19th century justice system in Russia, and the common moral principles underpinning society in that time.
Another Dostoevsky novel exploring morality is ‘Demons.’
Dostoevsky gives us insight into 19th century Russia, and what daily life looked like. Through reading Crime & Punishment, one comes to understand how people lived, what their priorities and goals were. Not only does this humanize the past, but reminds us of how similar we are to those who came before us.
Historical insight is also fascinating, and Dostoevsky weaves his details well with characterisation and story. Whenever I read Dostoevsky’s novels, I am fascinated with his melancholic depiction of Russia.
The Ending Of Crime And Punishment
Note: This section contains spoilers
Readers debate the ending of Crime And Punishment. Many dislike it, finding it saccharine and even corny and contrived. I differ. The ending is perfect and fits well in Dostoevsky’s philosophy and storytelling. When Raskolnikov is reunited with Sonja, after years in prison, he is no longer limited by previous self-loathing and hatred. Dostoevsky’s message, according to my reading, is that atonement occurs not through needless guilt, but by making amends with society and taking responsibility.
“I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity.”
Crime And Punishment
This is not an original message. Early in the 21st century, Ian McEwan released Atonement, which grapples with redemption and amends. However, the key difference between Dostoevsky’s mindset and that of many modern authors is how Dostoevsky believed redemption to be possible.
Crime And Punishment’s ending addresses the urgency for amends and reconnecting oneself with society, but it does not position its characters to be hopelessly perusing forgiveness with no end in sight. Believing in redemption is not the same as believing in the usefulness of suffering. Raskolnikov’s crime is terrible, but it’s not weakness for him to grant himself mercy.
Also, the time-skip in Crime And Punishment may explain why some readers find the ending contrived. Imprisonment transforms people, and I’m certain Dostoevsky knew that well. But Raskolnikov entered prison not to break further, but to heal. By not focusing on prison, Dostoevsky focused on the other ways society and individuals inflict ‘punishment’. The result is one of the greatest novels of all time.
What are your thoughts on Crime & Punishment? Comment below, especially with any ideas relevant to history, morality and psychology.