How It Was Written

by Dennis Abrams

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota, a brief introduction on the writing and publishing history of Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment was the second of Dostoevsky’s most important, mature fictional works. It was first published in the conservative journal The Russian Messenger, appearing in twelve monthly installments in 1866. Dostoevsky left three full notebooks of materials pertinent to Crime and Punishment. These have been published under the title The Notebooks for Crime and Punishment, edited and translated by Edward Wasiolek. Dostoevsky began work on this novel in the summer of 1865. He originally planned to title it The Drunkards, but in the final version, the theme of drunkenness as a social problem, represented by the Marmeladov family, had shrunk to a minor role. In September of 1865 Dostoevsky wrote a letter to M. N. Katkov, the editor of The Russian Messenger, attempting to persuade Katkov to accept the novel and to publish it in his journal. To show Katkov that the new novel was suitable for publication in a conservative journal, Dostoevsky outlined its content and idea as follows:

“The idea of the novel cannot, as far as I can see, contradict the tenor of your journal; in fact, the very opposite is true. The novel is a psycho- logical account of a crime. A young man of middle-class origin who is living in dire need is expelled from the university. From superficial and weak thinking, having been influenced by certain “unfinished” ideas in the air, he decides to get himself out of a difficult situation quickly by killing an old woman, a usurer and widow of a government servant. The old woman is crazy, deaf, sick, greedy, and evil. She charges scandalous rates of interest, devours the well-being of others, and, having reduced her younger sister to the state of a servant, oppresses her with work. She is good for nothing. “Why does she live?” “Is she useful to anyone at all?” These and other questions carry the young man’s mind astray. He decides to kill and rob her so as to make his mother, who is living in the provinces, happy; to save his sister from the libidinous importunities of the head of the estate where she is serving as a lady’s companion; and then to finish his studies, go abroad and be for the rest of his life honest, firm, and unflinching in fulfilling his humanitarian duty toward mankind. This would, according to him, “make up for the crime,” if one can call this act a crime, which is committed against an old, deaf, crazy, evil, sick woman, who does not know why she is living and who would perhaps die in a month anyway. Despite the fact that such crimes are usually done with great difficulty because criminals always leave rather obvious clues and leave much to chance, which almost always betrays them, he is able to commit his crime, completely by chance, quickly and successfully. After this, a month passes before events come to a definite climax. There is not, nor can there be, any suspicion of him. After the act the psycho- logical process of the crime unfolds. Questions which he cannot resolve well up in the murderer; feelings he had not foreseen or suspected torment his heart. God’s truth and earthly law take their toll, and he feels forced at last to give himself up. He is forced even if it means dying in prison, so that he may once again be part of the people. The feeling of separation and isolation from mankind, nature, and the law of truth take their toll. The criminal decides to accept suffering so as to redeem his deed. But it is difficult for me to explain in full my thinking.”

Katkov accepted Crime and Punishment for publication in his journal. It was well received by the reading public and restored Dostoevsky to the position of a leading Russian writer, despite a largely unfavorable reaction from the liberal press (which is proof that the popularity of the novel was very great indeed).

Tomorrow’s post — the critical reaction to Crime and Punishment at the time it was written — and we will begin the reading.

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