“But for “Crime and Punishment” in particular, we ought to follow D.H. Lawrence’s adage: Trust the tale, and not the teller.”

To sum up, to very different points of view on Crime and Punishment — the first excerpts from the essay “The Art of Crime and Punishment” by Victor Terras:

“Dostoevsky was a master of montage. He skillfully covers the seams that join the several distinct themes, genres, and styles of which the novel is composed. The duel between Raskolnikov’s godless Nietschean humanism and Sonia’s Orthodox faith is high (if you want) religious drama. The sad story of the Marmeladov family is vintage naturalism. The story of Svidrigailov is melodrama, with a touch of Gothic horrors. What else could one call this passage: ‘Never had he seen her so beautiful. The fire that was blazing from h er eyes at the moment when she raised the revolver virtually burnt him as his heart winced in pain.’

Svidrigailov’s story is integrated with that of Mrs. Raskolnikov and her daughter Dunia, though rather carelessly (where are the children Miss Raskolnikov is supposed to teach?). In that story we recognize the British novel about the virtuous but indigent governess and her rakish and/or mysterious employer. The Pecksniffian solicitor Luzhin, to whom Dunia is engaged as the novel starts, adds a Dickensian flavor to the governess’s story. The detective novel enters the plot through the presence of Porfiry Petrovich, a master investigator. The detective is not really needed in the plot, since the perpetrator of the crime is known to begin with and eventually surrenders of his own free will, induced more by Sonia’s pleas than by Porfiry’s promise of a lighter sentence.

Throughout the novel, scraps of Platonic philosophical dialogues, sophisms, and aphorisms appear, almost always topically related to the ideological struggles of the 1860s. Elements of satire appear throughout the text, some with a point (the socialist Lebeziatnikov is presented as a ridiculous character), some quite gratuitous, the all too familiar “Poles of Dostoevsky,’ the Jewish fireman, unsavory German (of course!) landladies, madams, and procuresses.

Like most of Dostoevsky’s novels, Crime and Punishment is a psychological and an ideological novel. The action develops on three levels: that of physical action and spoken discourse, that of the workings of the characters’ minds, and that of the philosophical argument, developed in part explicitly, in part as a subtext.

In spite of various spurious insertions, Crime and Punishment is a roman a these of the dramatic type with a dominant central theme. The theme is an age-old one: ‘What is the greatest good?’ The question si asked in terms of a confrontation, on an existential plane, between Sonia Marmeladov’s unshakable Christine faith and self-effacing humility and the carnal hedonism of Svidrigailov, the Benthamite utilitarian ethics of Luzhin, the socialist positivism of Lebeziatnikov, and, of course, Raskolnikov’s notion that power is the greatest good. At one point the question si reduced simply to Svidrigailov’s amoralism versus Sonia’s submission to God’s law: ‘Here I must go either her way or his.’ Inasmuch as the ideological plane is synchronized with the character traits of its bearer, the confrontation is apparently arranged so as to present the Christian answer in an attractive light while discrediting all opposing views. It must be observed that Dostoevsky has managed to introduce at least one significant encounter between Sonia and all four characters whose views oppose hers.

Sonia has all the Christian virtues. Though she has suffered much injustice, she never claims to be a victim but, on the contrary, calls herself ‘a great sinner,’ reminding herself of an act of unkindness to her stepmother. Her whole being is penetrated by Christian agape. The impression that she is really a saint is supported by the wealth of New Testament symbolism associated with her. It is made explicit in the Epilogue when we learn that the convicts ‘even went to her to be healed.’ Sonia, like other characters in the novel, has literary antecedents of which Dostoevsky was well aware, particularly a saintly prostitute called Fleur-de-Marie in Eugene Sue’s novel Les mysteres de Paris. Even her name is symbolic: Sophia is Divine Wisdom, in both the Orthodox and the romantic tradition.”

On the other hand, Vladimir Nabokov in his lecture on Crime and Punishment from Lectures on Russian Literature will have none of that:

“I must have been twelve when forty-five years ago I read Crime and Punishment for the first time and thought it a wonderfully powerful and exciting book. I read it again at nineteen, during the awful years of civil war in Russia, and thought it long-winded, terribly sentimental, and badly written. I read it at twenty-eight when discussing Dostoevski in one of my own books. I read the thing again when preparing to speak about him in American universities. And only quite recently did I realize what is so wrong about the book.

The flaw, the crack in it, which in my opinion causes the whole edifice to crumble ethically and esthetically may be found in part ten, chapter 4. It is the beginning of the redemption scene when Raskolnikov, the killer, discovers through the girl Sonya the New Testament. She has been reading to him about Jesus and the raising of Lazarus. So far so good. But then comes this singular sentence that for sheer stupidity has hardly the equal in world-famous literature: ‘The candle was flicking out, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had been reading together the eternal book.’ ‘The murder and the harlot’ and ‘the eternal book’ — what a triangle. This is a crucial phrase, of a typical Dostoevskian rhetorical twist. Now what is so dreadfully wrong about it? Why is it so crude and so inartistic?

I suggest that neither a true artist nor a true moralist — neither a good Christian nor a good philosopher — neither a poet nor a sociologist — should have p lace side by side, in one breath, in one gust of false eloquence, a killer together with whom? — a poor streetwalker, bending their completely different heads over that holy book. The Christian God, as understood by those who believe in the Christian God, had pardoned the harlot nineteen centuries ago. The killer, on the other hand, must be first of all examined medically. The two are on completely different levels. The inhuman and idiotic crime of Raskolnikov cannot be even remotely compared to the plight of a girl who impairs human dignity by selling her body. The murderer and the harlot reading the external book — what nonsense. There is no rhetorical link between a filthy murderer, and this unfortunate girl. There is only the conventional link of the Gothic novel and the sentimental novel. It is a shoddy literary trick, not a masterpiece of pathos and piety. Moreover, look at the absence of artistic balance. We have been shown Raskolnikov’s crime in all sordid detail and we also have been given half a dozen different explanations for his exploit. We have never been shown Sonya in the exercise of her trade. The situation is a glorified cliche. The harlot’s sin is taken for granted. Now I submit that the true artist is the person who never takes anything for granted.”

Going back to Victor Terras,

“Raskolnikov is a bundle of contradictions. Razumikhin says of him, ‘Really, it is as though two contradictory characters were taking turns in him.’ The contradictions in Raskolnikov’s mind prior to the crime may be reduced to a conflict between the normal emotions of an intellectually alert by emotionally immature young man (his normal, healthy self is released by the dream which returns him to his childhood) and a paranoid obsession with an idea that leads to a compulsive crime. After he commits the crime, the struggle is between the criminal’s natural desire to evade detection and the growing sense of isolation and alienation that results in a subconscious desire to rejoin the human race by accepting the punishment for his crime. Raskolnikov’s efforts to escape detection are subverted, time and again, by compulsive actions that put him in jeopardy: virtually admitting his guilt to Zametov, returning to the scene of his crime, challenging Porfiry needlessly. All along he puts himself into a position that forces him to playact, something that is in crass conflict with his proud and self-assured nature. At Porfiry’s, he is tricked into declaring not only that he believes in God, a new Jerusalem, and the raising of Lazarus, but also, implicitly, that he is a failed pseudo-Napoleon who ought to and will rightly suffer the full severity of the law.

With Sonia, Raskolnikov can be himself. He develops his gloomy view of life, his denial of God’s existence, and his idea that power is the only good worth pursuing — not as well as he had developed his idea of the exceptional individual and his right to transgress at Porfiry’s, but in a rambling, staccato monologue. He believes that he can overpower Sonia with the force of the ‘facts of life’ that are destroying her and will similarly destroy Polechka, her ten-year-old-stepsister. He is foundering in a sea of bitterness, self-pity, and hurt pride. When he confesses his crime to Sonia in their second meeting, he shows no remorse, only self-hatred and despair.

Sonia is, of course, the winner all the way, even if Raskolnikov refuses to admit defeat until the last page of the Epilogue. Her second dialogue with Raskolnikov is a masterful composition of dissonant tonalities. Raskolnikov is trying to analyze the motive of his crime and passes judgment on himself in terms of a Darwinist anthropology and anticipated Nietzschean ethics. Sonia responds, point after point, in terms of New Testament ethics and the movements of her heart:

‘But I only killed a louse, Sonia, a useless, repulsive, noxious louse!” — ‘So a human being is a louse?’

“I had to find out, find out precisely, if I am a louse, like all, or a man? Find out if I can cross the boundary or not? Find out if I dare reach for it and take it, or not? Find out if I am a trembling creature or have the right…’ ‘To kill! You have the right to kill?’

The point is that neither can convince the other, because Raskolnikov’s heart is not ready to accept Sonia’s truth, and because she loves him and will not give up on him until he is saved.”

Terras goes on to discuss the role of travesty in the narrative:

“Raskolnikov’s quest for the status of an extraordinary man (a Hegelian ‘world-historical personage’), who has the right to break the law and seize power turns into a ludicrous travesty: a future Napoleon climbing under an old woman’s bed to steal her few rubles. Worse yet: Raskolnikov is not even a passable common criminal. He must hear Razumikhin say: ‘He didn’t even know how to rob, the only thing he knew how to do was kill! His first step, I’m’ telling you, his first step, he lost his nerve!’ Later, in prison, Raskolnikov must hear from his fellow convicts that killing with an axe was none of his, a gentleman’s business. Only luck keeps him from being caught in the act. He has every chance to escape justice, but manages to compromise himself enough to attract suspicion. The travesty he makes of a clever criminal is compounded by the fact that he actually evokes Porfiry Petrovich’s pity.”

Terras sums it all up by writing,

“Where, then, is the art of Crime and Punishment? First of all, it rises from the vigor of Dostoevsky’s imagination, which produces an abundance of wonderfully alive scenes, images, characters, and ideas. Second, it comes from the extraordinary power of his language, activated by a great variety of devices. Among these, the most important are a dramatic technique of scenic presnetation, the presence of a dialogic form even in narrative passages, the use of polarized extremes in every aspect of the text, and a playing down of the melodramatic effects of the action by travesty. the result is a virtual (or ‘poetic’) reality that makes all but the most critical readers disregard the conventional literary quality of some of the characters and the rather makeshift plot. In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky had not quite reached the consummate dramatic structure of The Possessed [Demons] nor the superb dialectic skill of The Brothers Karamazov. The devil’s case is not presented nearly as well, but is to Dostoevsky’s credit that he lets his hero hold out, bloodied but unbowed, almost to the end, and that Sonia is, amazingly enough, almost a credible character.”

Back to Nabokov:

“Why did Raskolnikov kill? The motivation is extremely muddled.

Raskolnikov was, if we believe what Dostoevski rather optimistically wants us to believe, a good young man, loyal to his family, on the one hand, and to high ideals on the other, capable of self-sacrifice, kind, generous, and industrious, though very conceited and proud, even to the point of entirely retiring into his inner life without feeling the need of any human heart-to-heart relations. This very good, generous, and proud young man is dismally poor.

Why did Raskolnikov murder the old money-lending woman and her sister?

Apparently to save his family from misery, to spare his sister, who, in order to help him get through college, was about to marry a rich but brutal man.

But he also committed this murder in order to prove to himself that he was not an ordinary man abiding by the moral laws created by others, but capable of making his own law and of bearing the tremendous spiritual load of responsibility, of living down the pangs of conscience and of using this evil means (murder) toward attaining a good purpose (assistance to his own family, his education which will enable him to become a benefactor of the human kind) without any prejudice to his inner balance and virtuous life.

And he also committed this murder because one of Dostoevski’s pet ideas was that the propagation of materialistic ideas is bound to destroy moral standards in the young and is liable to make a murderer even out of a fundamentally good young man who would be easily pushed toward a crime by an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances. Note the curiously fascist ideas developed by Raskolnikov in an ‘article’ he wrote: namely that mankind consists of two parts — the herd and the supermen — and that the majority should be bound by the established moral laws but that the few who are far above the majority ought to be at liberty to make their own law. Thus Raskolnikov first declared that Newton and other great discoverers should not have hesitates to sacrifice scores or hundreds of individual lives had those lives stood in their way toward giving mankind the benefit of the discoveries. Later he somehow forgets these benefactors of humanity to concentrate on an entirely different ideal. All his ambition suddenly centers in Napoleon in whom he sees characteristically the strong man who rules the masses through his daring to ‘pick up’ power which lies there awaiting the one who ‘dares.’ This is a fast transition from an aspiring benefactor of the world toward an aspiring tyrant for the sake of his own power. A transformation which is worth a more detailed psychological analysis than Dostoevski, in his hurry, can afford to make.

The next pit idea of our author happens to be that a crime brings the man who commits it that inner hell which is the inevitable lot of the wicked. This inner solitary suffering, for some reason does not lead to redemption. What does bring redemption is actual suffering openly accepted, suffering in public, the deliberate self-abasement and humiliation before his fellow-humans — this can bring the sufferer the absolution of his crime, redemption, new life, and so on. Such actually is to be the road which Raskolnikov will follow, but whether he will kill again is impossible to say. And finally there is the idea of free will, of a crime just for the sake of performing it.

Did Dostoevski succeed in making it all plausible? I doubt it.

Now, in the first place, Raskolnikov is a neurotic, hence the effect that any philosophy can have upon a neurotic does not help to discredit that philosophy. Dostoevski would have better served his purpose if he could have made of Raskolnikov a sturdy, staid, earnest young man genuinely misled and eventually brought to perdition by a too candid acceptance of materialistic ideas. but Dostoevski of course realized too well that this would never work, that even if that sort of sturdy young man did accept the absurd ideas which turned neurotic Raskolnikov’s head, a healthy human nature would inevitably balk before the perpetration of deliberate murder. For it is no accident that all the criminal heroes of Dostoevski, (Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, Fedka in The Possessed, Rogozhin in The Idiot) are not quite sane.

Feeling the weakness of his position, Dostoevski dragged in every human incentive to push his Raskolnikov to the precipice of that temptation to murder which we must presume was opened to him by the German philosophies he had accepted. The dismal poverty, not only his own but that of his dearly beloved mother and sister, the impending self-sacrifice of his sister, the utter moral debasement of the intended victim — this profusion of accidental causes shows how difficult Dostoevski himself felt it to prove his point. Kropotkin very aptly remarks: ‘Behind Raskolnikov one feels Dostoevski trying to decide whether he himself, or a man like him, might have been brought to perform personally the act as Raskolnikov did… But writers do not murder.

I also entirely subscribe to Kropotkin’s statement that ‘…men like the examining magistrate and Svidrigailov, the embodiment of evil, are purely romantic invention.’ I would go further and add Sonya to the list. Sonya is a good descendant of those romantic heroines who, for no fault of their own, were to live a life outside the bounds established by society and were made by that same society to bear all the burden of shame and suffering attached to such a way of life. These heroines were never extinct in world literature ever since the good Abbe Prevost introduced to his readers the far better written and therefore far more moving Manon Lescaut (1731). In Dostoevski the theme of degradation, humiliation, is with us from the start, and in this sense Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya and the drunken girl glimpsed on the boulevard, and Sonya the virtuous prostitute, are sisters within the Dostoevskian family of hand-wringing characters.

The passionate attachment of Dostoevski to the idea that physical suffering and humiliation improve the moral man may lie in a personal tragedy; he must have felt that in him the freedom-lover, the rebel, the individualist, had suffered a certain loss, and impairing of spontaneity if nothing else, through his sojourn in his Siberian prison; but he stuck doggedly to the idea that he had returned a ‘better man.'”

And finally, this from Harold Bloom:

“There seems to me a real affinity between Raskolnikov and the murderer Macbeth, as there is between Svidrigailov and the Edmund of King Lear, another cold sensualist. Himself born in 1821, Dostoevsky more overtly associates the disturbing Svidrigailov with Lord Byron, made immensely popular in Russia by the national poet Pushkin, who preceded Dostoevsky and Turgenev in their Shakespearean sympathies. Svidrigailov’s criminal lusts, particularly excited by little girls, are a degradation of Edmund’s and Byron’s proclivities. But Raskolnikov, who is alarming enough, is several verges away from becoming a Svidrigailov, just as the murderous yet still sympathetic Macbeth is also a hero-villain, rather than a peer of Iago and Edmund.

Dostoevsky emulates Shakespeare by identifying the reader’s imagination with Raskolnikov, even as Macbeth usurps our imagination. Porfiry, the police inspector who brilliantly tortures Raskolnikov with uncertainty, presents himself as a Christian, but clearly causes distaste in Dostoevsky, who regards Raskolnikov’s nemesis as a Western-influenced ‘mechanist,’ a manipulator of Raskolnikov’s already tormented psychology. Sonya is as spiritually beyond the reader in the transcendental dimension as uncanny Svidrigailov exceeds us in the demonic mode. We have no place to go but Raskolnikov’s consciousness, just as we have to journey with Macbeth into his heart of darkness. We might not murder old women or a fatherly monarch, but since in part we are Raskolnikov and Macbeth, perhaps in certain circumstances we might. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky makes us complicit in his hero-villain’s murders. Macbeth and Crime and Punishment both are authentically frightening tragedies that do not purge us of pity, let alone of fear. Reversing Aristotle’s socio-medical idea of catharsis, in which tragedy frees us of emotions not conducive to the public good, both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky have darker designs upon us.

It is this sharing in Macbeth‘s terrible sublimity that allows Crime and Punishment to transcend depressing us, as we are led through a bad Petersburg summer in which a nightmare phantasmagoria becomes reality. Every wall we look at seems a hideous yellow, and the horror of a modern metropolis is portrayed with an intensity that rivals Baudelaire, or Dickens in his least affable moments. We begin to feel in Raskolnikov’s Petersburg, as in Macbeth’s bewiched Scotland, we too might commit murders.

The question of how to read Crime and Punishment rapidly becomes, what causes Raskolnikov to become a murderer? He is replete with good qualities; his impulses are essentially decent, indeed humane. I marvel at the eminent modern Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, who found Raskolnikov a forerunner of Stalinist commissars, who were better known for oppressing others than for tormenting themselves. Raskolnikov, like his demonic parody Svidrigailov, is a self-punisher, whose masochism is absolutely incompatible with his professed desire to be a Napoleon. In one sense, Raskolnikov kills in order to discover whether he is a potential Napoleon, though he has every reason to believe that he is anything but that. Perhaps deeper is Raskolnikov’s fierce guilt, which precedes his crimes. Whether he is a coarser version of Sonya’s will-to-suffer, I rather doubt. Nor is he a passive double of Svidrigailov, all of whose malevolent sadism is a mask for ‘going to America’ or suicide. It seems impossible to detach Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky, who at twenty-eight endured eight months in solitary confinement for being part of a radical group. Under sentence of death, he and his companions stood before a firing squad, and only then were reprieved. Four years of hard labor in Siberia followed, during which Dostoevsky became a thorough reactionary, a monarchist, and a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Raskolnikov goes to Siberia for seven years, a light sentence for a double murder, but he has confessed his crimes, and the court has found him to have been at least in part insane, particularly when he killed. I don’t see how an open, common reader could ascribe, with any certainty, any motive to Raskolnikov’s transgressions in any ordinary meaning of ‘motive.’ Malignancy, deep rooted in Svidrigailov as in Iago and Edmund, has little place in the psyches of Raskolnikov and Macbeth, which makes their descents even more terrifying. Nor does one progress by looking for Original Sin in Raskolnikov and Macbeth. Both men suffer from powerfully proleptic or prophetic imaginations. Once either perceives a potential action to advance the self, he leaps the gap and experiences the crime as having been done, with all the attendant guilt. With so potent an imagination, and so guilty a consciousness, the actual murder is only a copy or a repetition, a self-wounding that lacerates reality, yet just to complete what in a way has already been done.

Absorbing as Crime and Punishment is, it cannot be absolved of tendentiousness, which is Dostoevsky’s invariable flaw. He is a partisan, whose fierce perspective is always explicit in what h e writes. His design upon us it to raise us, like Lazarus, from our own nihilism or skepticism, and then convert us to Orthodoxy. Writers as eminent as Chekhov and Nabokov have been unable to abide him; to them he was scarcely an artist, but a shrill would-be prophet. I myself, with each rereading, find Crime and Punishment an ordeal, dreadfully powerful but somewhat pernicious, almost as though it were a Macbeth composed by Macbeth himself.”


Three different writers, three very different approaches to Crime and Punishment. It is, I think, quite an experience to read a book that allows for so many different interpretations. For me, my feelings about the book, about Raskolnikov himself, are constantly changing. I read Terras, and find myself nodding in agreement, I read Nabokov and recognize the many…problems with the book, I read Bloom and find myself nodding and saying to myself ‘of course.’ But anyway you look at it, it’s an incredibly rewarding reading experience, and I’m certain that the next time I read it, I’ll be seeing something completely new in it.

So what are your feelings about the book? Can we ascribe motives to Raskolnikov or, as Bloom says, is it impossible? Is the Epilogue believable and if not, does it really matter? Post over the weekend, and share with the group what your thoughts are as we wrap up Crime and Punishment and get ready on Monday to begin exploring The Idiot.

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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3 Responses to “But for “Crime and Punishment” in particular, we ought to follow D.H. Lawrence’s adage: Trust the tale, and not the teller.”

  1. lxp says:

    I highly recommend Nabokov’s series of lectures (originally given at Cornell) on literature. There are two volumes – one on Russian and the other on non-Russian literature – he covers Dickens, Proust (!), Flaubert, etc. etc. All very readable and insightful. I guess I end up agreeing with him as to C&P – I really wanted to like it as much as I did when I first read it at the age of 17 – but I found the book sometimes tedious. Yes, there were frequent vivid images and moments of great drama, but it all boils down to two rather sordid little murders by a unlikeable neurotic.

    Thanks as usual, Dennis. Looking forward to our next book.

    • I agree with you on Nabokov’s lectures, but I can’t quite agree that Raskolnikov is an “unlikable neurotic.” As Bloom points out, Raskolnikov hurts us because we cannot cut loose from him.” For me though, Svidrigailov is the book’s most astonishing character. Bloom writes, “But it is Svidrigailov, not Raskolnikov, who runs away from Dostoevsky’s ferocious ideology, and indeed runs out of the book. A reader may well want to murmur to herself: ‘Svidrigailov lives,’ though we probably won’t scrawl that on subway walls…When I think of Crime and Punishment Svidrigailov comes into my mind, and I shudder at his explanation as he pulls the trigger to commit suicide: ‘Going to America.’ This is the post-nihilist (mere nihilist will not suffice) who tells Raskolnikov that Eternity exists; it is like a filthy bathhouse in the Russian countryside, crawling with spiders. Poor Raskolnikov, confronted with the real thing in Svidrigailov, the Way Down and Out incarnate, can be forgiven when he yearns for a vision more comforting, whether he believes in it or not.”

  2. Eddie Chism says:

    I posted (late) on a couple of previous posts on my reactions upon rereading the book after nearly 20 years. My change in opinion is similar to lxp’s as posted above. But I’m really looking forward to reading the other 3 novels for the first time ever!

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