What Did The Critics Think?

by Dennis Abrams

From critics like Harold Bloom, who says that “Crime and Punishment remains the best of all murder stories, a century and a third after its publication. We have to read it — though it is harrowing — because, like Shakespeare, it alters our consciousness,” to Michael Dirda who said “Crime and Punishment stands as [Dostoevsky’s] most perfect in pacing and structure. There is no more gripping novel in the world,” the contemporary consensus seems clear — Crime and Punishment is a literary achievement of the highest order. (Of course, there are naysayers, perhaps most prominent among them Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote that “My position in regard to Dostoevsky is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me-namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one-with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between,” while saying of C&P in particular that “In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov for some reason or other kills an old female pawnbroker and her sister. Justice in the shape of an inexorable police officer closes slowly in on him until in the end he is driven to a public confession, and through the love of a noble prostitute he is brought to a spiritual regeneration that did not seem as incredibly banal in 1866 when the book was written as it does now when noble prostitutes are apt to be received a little cynically by experienced readers.” But again, Nabokov always enjoyed being contrary.

But an interesting question, at least I think it is, is what did the critics think about the book when it was first published? Again, thanks to the University of Minnesota, a look at its original reception.

The liberal and radical critics objected fiercely to Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Raskolnikov, the main character of the novel. These critics commonly affirmed that in Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky had affronted all students, and that the character was a madman whom Dostoevsky attempted to portray as typical of the younger generation. D. I. Pisarev (1840-1868), the most individual of the radical critics, took a different approach to the novel in his review of 1867, “The Struggle for Life.” Underlying Pisarev’s approach to the novel is a candidly expressed lack of concern with two aspects of the work: (1) its aesthetic value and its stature as a work of literature; and (2) its meaning for Dostoevsky; that is, the extent to which it reflects Dostoevsky’s own views and what those views are. Pisarev stated that he was seeking in the work only its representation of the phenomena of contemporary social life. For Pisarev, the only measure of the novel’s excellence was the accuracy and understanding with which Dostoevsky portrayed the contemporary social reality. Pisarev concluded that Raskolnikov’s murdering of the old moneylender was the result of his dire poverty and that, in fact, Raskolnikov’s position in society left him no alternative but murder and robbery if he were to keep body and soul together, and eventually realize his tremendous natural abilities. Pisarev interpreted the novel as an exposé of the evil system which forced upon so brilliant a person as Raskolnikov the choice between crime and death by starvation. Pisarev explained that the main theme of the work was poverty and the guiltless evil engendered by poverty. He said that the character of Marmeladov was a portrayal of the ultimate degradation to which the person who will not struggle against poverty would inevitably be led. Taking the novel in this way, Pisarev discounted or dismissed as faults in the novel numerous troublesome details: (1) Raskolnikov’s continued wrangling with himself over the motivation of his crime; (2) Raskolnikov’s feelings of guilt; (3) the fact that both Raskolnikov and Marmeladov may be said to have chosen their lives of poverty and wretchedness; that, in fact, Marmeladov positively enjoys his humiliation.

In the same year as Pisarev’s review, N. N. Strakhov (1828-1895), a conservative bellettrist and friend of Dostoevsky, published an important review of Crime and Punishment. For the most part, Strakhov rejected Pisarev’s contention that the theme of environmental determinism was essential to the novel. He tried to approach the novel more from the aesthetic viewpoint, but even so his ideological conservatism is clear in his interpretation of the novel. Strakhov first attempted to defend the novel from the attacks of the majority of the liberal and radical press. He pointed out that Raskolnikov, far from being a grotesque and unfair parody of the youthful materialists and utilitarians of the time, was actually endowed by Dostoevsky with many admirable and flattering characteristics: brilliance of mind, handsomeness of figure and feature (in contrast to the underground man), and strength of will. Strakhov also pointed out that Dostoevsky’s attitude toward his hero was unmistakably sympathetic. Strakhov went on to stress the ideological importance of the novel, as though reacting to Pisarev’s rejection of ideological issues as important considerations in the work. Strakhov described Crime and Punishment as a case study of the conflict between theory and life. He affirmed that the point of the novel was to show the paleness and unhealthiness of fascination with theory and the inevitability of life’s triumph over it (again in contrast to the underground man). Strakhov quite clearly defines what he means by theory in the novel, but nowhere does he explain just what he understands Dostoevsky to mean by “life.” Strakhov was apparently unable to summarize just what is meant by “life” and just what the specifics of the contrast between it and theory were.

A most interesting point in Strakhov’s review is his treatment of the question of Raskolnikov’s motivation for his crime. Strakhov decided there were basically three possible motives for the murder: (1) Raskolnikov’s intellectual pride; (2) Raskolnikov’s Napoleon complex–that is, his idea of the role of the great man in history; and (3) Raskolnikov’s poverty (murder for gain). Strakhov concluded his article with high praise for the psychological portraiture in the novel, especially the rendering of Raskolnikov’s thoughts.

A. I. Vvedenskij, writing in the 1890s, criticized both Pisarev and Strakhov for allowing their own political ideas to color too much their approach to the novel. Especially Pisarev, he said, had used Crime and Punishment as no more than an excuse to present his own ideas and criticisms. Vvedenskij thought that Raskolnikov could have made a living as a translator or a tutor (like his friend, Razumihin) had he wished, but he simply chose not to. Vvedenskij pointed out as further corroboration that it was very strange, if Raskolnikov committed his crime for gain, that he immediately hid away the loot and determined not to make any use of it. Vvedenskij said the main theme of Crime and Punishment was the psychological portrait of Raskolnikov. Vvedenskij was one of the first to note the importance of Raskolnikov’s dreams, especially the dream about the killing of the overburdened horse in Part I. He used this dream as proof that Dostoevsky traced Raskolnikov’s true motivation for the murder to the unhappiness of his childhood. One important trend in the criticism of Crime and Punishment is that which seeks to explain the novel by comparing it with classical Greek tragedy. An early hint of this approach was Vvedensky’s comment that Raskolnikov, in committing his crime, is so lucky, encounters so many fortunate coincidences, that one is tempted to think he is assisted by some external force.

D. Merezhkovsky (1865-1941) was one of the first to take up this comment and to identify Vvedensky’s “external force” with Fate or Destiny as it appears in Greek tragedy. V. Ivanov (1866-1949) took the notion a step further when he identified Raskolnikov’s intellectual pride (as noted by Strakhov) with the hubris of the Greek tragedies. Finally, Konstantin Mochulsky analyzed the structure of the novel in such a way as to reveal that it was essentially a dramatic work and could be broken down into a prologue, five acts, and an epilogue, thus offering a further parallel to classical drama.

Among Soviet critics, Crime and Punishment fared the best of any of Dostoevsky’s novels, because it lends itself better than any other to the view that it is an attack on the evils of capitalist society– poverty, recognition of birth or class rather than ability, and so on. Thus, Soviet criticism relies heavily on Pisarev’s approach. However, one exception to the prevailing trend was the early work of Leonid Grossman, who wrote numerous articles and books about Dostoevsky before World War II. His great contribution to the study of the novel was to demonstrate that Raskolnikov is both the thematic and structural center of the novel, the focal point of contending forces. For example, Grossman pointed out that Raskolnikov’s character is mirrored on one hand by the figure of Sonya and on the other by Svidrigaylov. He showed that in many respects the three of them could be viewed as a single character.

The following points summarize the major critical approaches to Crime and Punishment:
(1) The novel is a political pamphlet, written to attack the progressive ideology of the time.

(2) It is a social document, reflecting the evils of the time, despite Dostoevsky’s clearly anti-progressive sentiments.

(3) It is a psychological study, a realistic novel in which Dostoevsky has captured the workings of a specific period of history and a specific type of society on the minds of his characters, especially the character of Raskolnikov.

(4) The novel is not realistic, but symbolic, and portrays the conflict of different ideas on the battlefield of man himself; not historical, individual man, but man in all times and places. The goal is to measure the relative merits of the ideas, rather than to portray their effect upon individual people.
To a certain extent the novel supports all of the above ideas, with the possible exception of the first. The novel does not fully support any of them, however. This does not prove that none of them is true, but only that the novel has, so far, proved richer than the minds of its critics.

It seems to me that any novel that has “so far, proved richer than the minds of its critics,” is one that worthy of in-depth reading and discussion.

The Weekend’s Reading: Part One, Chapters 1-4

I’ll post again Sunday night/Monday morning. In the meantime, please leave your comments, questions, as well as your opinion as to whether the “assignment” was too little, too much, or just right.

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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