LESSON 9 Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Dostoevsky's Life and Career, 1865-1881
In 1865 Dostoevsky's magazine The Epoch failed for lack of subscribers.
His brother Mikhail had died in 1864, and Dostoevsky had assumed Mikhail's
debts to protect his brother's memory and reputation. Added to his own tangled
financial affairs, Mikhail's debts pushed Dostoevsky into financial ruin,
and he remained in debt for many years. In February of 1867 Dostoevsky married
his second wife, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina. She was nineteen years old,
much younger than his forty-six years. Dostoevsky had met her in 1866 when
he hired her as a stenographer to take down his novel, The Gambler,
from his dictation. Anna Grigorievna was an excellent secretary and a devoted
wife to Dostoevsky. She used her practical sense and devotion to wean him
away from self- destructive habits (especially his compulsive gambling)
and to provide a stable, middle-class life for him, which eventually led
to financial security and independence in his later years. She also continued
to assist him in his work.
The manner of writing by dictation suited Dostoevsky; his method involved
two stages: (1) long planning and thought, the record of which he left in
his voluminous notebooks; (2) the dictation of the text to Anna Grigorievna,
and her preparation of a written or typed text for his revision. He was
extremely meticulous about his craft, and revised his work repeatedly. (The
view that is sometimes expressed of a Dostoevsky who wrote hastily and without
appropriate consideration is completely without basis in fact.)
However, financial success did not come immediately. The Dostoevskys lived
abroad from 1867 to 1871, partly to escape the hounding of creditors. They
returned to Russia permanently in 1873 when Dostoevsky took a position as
editor of a conservative magazine, The Citizen. As part of his duties
as editor, Dostoevsky began to write a regular feature called "Diary
of a Writer." It was a series of essays, polemics, articles, and stories
in which he expressed the full range of his ideas on various subjects. Here
we see a close-up view of Dostoevsky the political and religious conservative.
In 1874 he retired as editor of The Citizen and returned to the life
of a free-lance, professional writer. While working on other projects, he
returned, in 1876-1877, to the format of "The Diary of a Writer,"
publishing it as a series of separate monthly brochures. He returned to
this form once more in 1880 and continued with it until his death. (The
contents of the various publications of "The Diary of a Writer"
have been translated into English, under that title and in one large volume,
edited by Boris Brasol.)
Dostoevsky died on January 28, 1881, in St. Petersburg, not long after the
publication of his most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov. At
the time of his death he was regarded as one of the two giants of Russian
literature (the other was Tolstoy), a position
he has not since relinquished.
Dostoevsky's Greatest Works, 1866-1881
The period from 1866-1881 saw the creation of Dostoevsky's greatest works:
Crime and Punishment (1866) The Idiot (1868) The Possessed
(1872) The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
In The Idiot Dostoevsky attempted to give form to what he called
"the idea of the positively beautiful." However, he found that
he was unable to present a fully positive character, although he recognized
the possibility of the existence of such a figure and found proof of it
in the historical existence of Christ. Thus, Prince Myshkin, the hero of
The Idiot, is weak- minded, epileptic, and ultimately defeated by
the real world, even though he occupies a position of social advantage and
has considerable wealth.
Dostoevsky's simmering debate with the radical and revolutionary elements
in Russian political life peaked in 1872 with The Possessed (also
translated under the title The Devils). Here he depicted revolutionaries,
epitomized by Peter Verkhovensky and his followers, as cynical power-mongers
on one hand or as long-winded fools and disillusioned dupes on the other.
The desire for revolutionary change is portrayed as an example of possession
by a "demon"--the materialistic, atheistic, utopian ideology that
had been, since the 1840s, the steady diet of progressive Russian intellectuals.
Of all of Dostoevsky's novels, The Brothers Karamazov is the grandest
in design. While complete in itself, it is obvious from the text that Dostoevsky
planned it as the first in a series. It remains his largest and most profound
effort in the portrayal of the human psyche, the interplay of ideas and
ideologies, and the competing claims of philosophy and religion. Victor
Terras has published an excellent book, The Karamazov Companion,
which makes detailed study of this complex work much more feasible than
it was previously. Even so, it is a difficult book. For our purposes in
this course, we will consider Crime and Punishment instead.
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:
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).
Critical Responses to Crime and Punishment
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
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
The following points summarize the major critical approaches to Crime and
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.
Supplemental (Not Required) Literary Text
Background Material on the Mature Dostoevsky
Additional Reading on Crime and Punishment
For Further Thought
- Be able to discuss in detail Raskolnikov's motive for the crime he commits.
- Compare and contrast the characters of the underground man (Notes
from Underground) and Raskolnikov.
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