Crime and Punishment
, which echoes the stately marriage of two conceptual abstractions of Pride and Prejudice
, Sense and Sensibility
, War and Peace
, et cetera, is a novel which defies plot summation because it's plot is almost universally known. Man kills pawnbroker, man gets sick, man gets sick again, man repents and is exiled to Siberia. In addition, Dostoevsky is, how shall I say this, not the best prose stylist. He's actually a very poor prose stylist. So why do we read him? Why is Crime and Punishment
so ingrained in our public consciousness? Because for all that we can say about it, it ever and ever has more to say.
The dichotomy of Crime and Punishment is eternal and permeated even the oldest civilizations. Definitions of "crime" have changed and re-changed and changed again to accommodate the changing times and changing temperaments and changing socio-political revolutions and revelations. Likewise how we (as a society, or societies) exact punishment has changed - rarely do we see executions by firing squad, and we bid adieu
to Madame Guillotine
in favor of potassium chloride. But essentially we have remained unchanged as individuals, and our moral perceptions have remained largely consistent - we have a sense of right and wrong, particularly in the obvious case of murder. Our conscience suffers us the crimes we commit, despite our rationalizations and moral evasions, and our guilt exacts its punishment through paranoia and anxiety (which says nothing of our social punishments which are severe).
Raskolnikov (which is apparently from the Russian "raskolnik
," meaning "divided") is our thinking-protagonist, a kind of Hamlet-esque character caught up in his own mind such that he is removed from the physical world and the larger society by the impetus of his own egoism. He of course is not Hamlet, and he doesn't endear to us quite so much, Hamlet despite his capacity to say nearly all there is to say, remains far humbler than Raskolnikov in his own estimation, and has a greater ethical reserve and justification for his murder (at least in-so-far as we believe that Claudius has murdered his father). But this isn't about Hamlet, it's about Raskolinikov, a vain and conflicted young intellectual. His theory is basically that of the Übermensch
, or "superman" - what he lovingly terms "a Napoleon": someone with a fate so great, like Napoleons, that he is not to be restrained by the limits of conventional morality. His namesake's "division," or schism, is the central focus of the novel: which is his philosophy against his morality. Not only is he made to question his act, his murder of the pawnbroker and the ethical transgression of murder, but he must reconcile that with his philosophy, and in particular, whether he really does qualify as a "Napoleon"-type hero beyond reproach.Crime and Punishment
, like all epic Russian tomes, is populated with many characters, who seem to be multitudes in themselves with their many names, patronymics, and sobriquets, and this novel has a memorable cast of characters, which foil and reflect the central character of Raskolinikov. Razumikhin, who foils his gloomy and arrogant friend, Svidrigailov who is removed from the passions of life, genuflecting before the altar of nihilism, the devout and forgiving Sonya, the tenacious and obsessive detective Porfiry, etc. all serve to reveal Raskolnikov, to strip away the remote vagueness which enshrouds him. We are the summation of perspectives, we are the consistent Self only so much as we are the woof-and-warp of inconsistent Others in the minds of our acquaintances, and we are not truly known, fully, by any. From Nabokov's The Eye
, a novel rotted in the question of idenity, we can see this theory manifest:
For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist.
The brilliance and realness of Raskolnikov to us, the readers, is the amalgam of our perceptions of him. He can only resemble us in full when we receive his fullness in grasps, from Dunya, from Razumikin, from Sonya and Luzhin, and from Raskolnikov too. While few can relate to the guilt of double-murder, all can relate to guilt, all can identify it, and so we begin to empathize, if not sympathize, with Raskolnikov the man, while we condemn Raskolinikov the murderer.
Punishment in Crime and Punishment
is not what we expect. The punishment dealt to Raskolnikov for his crimes seems to be more of a release than a punishment. In Siberia, behind bars, he is more free in spirit, more at ease and in better health, than he is when perambulating about Petersburg. The guilt which follows his crime is an infinite punishment, which is vampiric on his health of body and mind. (For an interesting comparison of guilt, I recommend Andrei Bely's Petersburg
, wherein another erudite young Petersburger is racked with guilt, but a guilt that precedes his transgression - an interesting juxtaposition with Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov). Worse than guilt, Raskolnikov suffers a secret guilt, which he cannot bear amidst society which treats him with undeserved and unsolicited kindness and generosity. While alone he can assume himself a superior of mind, a "Napoleonic" figure, among his friends and family he is a pale shadow of morality, a clear inferior of spirit, despite his mental acuity. The character of Svidrigailov is a particularly menacing figure, the closest to what can be called the novel's "villain" - a nihilist whose attempted rape of Dunya, and his history of carnal indulgence casts him as a true horror to morality. But, unlike Raskolnikov, he has completely committed to his evils, he is not burdened with division of spirit, or with internal conflict, for he is wholly consistent. In this sense, he is the greater example of Raskolnikov's own philosophy than himself. Aside from Raskolnikov himself, Svidrigailov is the most enigmatic figure: despite his moral carte blanche
, he is a strangely charitable man. Sonya's refusal of him makes him realize the error of his (and Raskolnikov's) philosophy. While one can evade morality insofar that one remains alone, one can never be happy with that state. Without the love of the pure Dunya, Svidrigailov realizes the emptiness of his life, the outcome of a nihilist philosophy, which can end only as he augurs it:
We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that.